Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Maxime Weygand: A Biography of the French General in Two World Wars

By Barnett Singer
McFarland & Co., 2008
James E. O'Donnell, Reviewer

General Ferdinand Foch, Supreme Allied Commander, with his Chief of Staff General Maxime Weygand at Sarcus,
17 May 1918

Maxime Weygand was not only a pivotal figure for France in World War II but also an influential participant in World War I and the interwar years. This is the reason that Barnett Singer, a Canadian professor of history, decided to write about the general, who lived for almost a century (1867–1965) during one of the most dramatic periods in French history. Interestingly, Weygand was not even a Frenchman but the product of an illegitimate liaison between a Belgian officer and an Austrian noblewoman. He attended military academy in France, however, and was adopted as a compatriot due to his often demonstrated ability in the military profession.

Singer's book is almost unique in that only one other book in English about Weygand, written by Philip Bankwitz, an Englishman, has been published (in 1967). However, that book is not a biography but concentrates on Weygand's relations with French politics of the 1930s during the buildup to the Second World War. Singer covers Weygand's entire life, which was filled with a variety of periods of personal growth and trial, from the idyllic peacetime before World War I to the carnage of the Western Front, to the challenging interwar years, and finally as a general forced to fight a war with an unprepared army and its aftermath, the often vilified Vichy collaborationist regime of 1940.

Weygand owed his rise to prominence to his relationship with Marshal Ferdinand Foch in World War I. As his chief of staff, Weygand was the man who made policy and strategy happen, resulting in an Allied victory. His presence at Foch's side at the Armistice signing at Compiègne is a strong indicator of his value to the Generalissimo. During the interwar years, Weygand was also a prolific writer on a variety of topics, including military manuals, politics, and grand strategy. He proved himself an able administrator time and again in a variety of assignments before World War II.

The coming of the next war found him as commander-in-chief of the French Army before and during the armistice negotiations with Nazi Germany, acquitting himself well and keeping France's interests in the forefront. As the first governor-general of Vichy French North Africa, he walked the tightrope between collaboration and outright resistance to German demands. Not surprisingly, he was cashiered and kept under house arrest by Germany for the rest of the war in late 1941. Had he been available, the Allies would have no doubt used him to head up the conversion of North Africa to Free France after the Torch invasion of November, 1942 (instead of General Giraud).

As a by-the-way, the famous "letters of transit" referred to in the iconic film Casablanca were declared to have been "signed by General Weygand." The movie dialogue was changed later to "General de Gaulle" as a wartime propaganda measure but obviously nonsensical since de Gaulle would have been arrested on sight in Vichy North Africa and he had no authority whatsoever. Singer concludes his book with Weygand's difficulties after the liberation as a collaborationist during Vichy and his eventual exoneration and veneration as a patriot operating effectively in a period of French history that is still misunderstood today.

James E. O'Donnell

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting. I have always maintained that behind the great figureheads is a staff that does all the work. I look forward to reading this. Cheers