General Maxime Weygand, 1867-1965: Fortune and Misfortune

General Maxime Weygand, 1867-1965: Fortune and Misfortune

by Anthony Clayton


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The career of the French general Maxime Weygand offers a fascinating glimpse into the perils and politics of military leadership and loyalty in the interwar years and after France's defeat in 1940. Of obscure birth, Weygand had an outstanding career during WWI as chief of staff for Marshal Foch and served France after the war in Poland and Syria before returning home. Alarmed by Nazi Germany's rearmament, Weygand locked horns with a political leadership skeptical of the growing military threat, leading to accusations that his desire for a strong army was anti-democratic. With German invaders again threatening Paris, Weygand argued for armistice rather than face certain military defeat. No friend of the newly-installed Vichy government, Weygand was soon shuffled off to North Africa, where he plotted the army's return to the Allied cause. After the German entry into Unoccupied France, Weygand was imprisoned. Released at war's end, he was rearrested on the orders of Charles de Gaulle and afterwards fought to restore his name. In this concise biography, Anthony Clayton traces the vertiginous changes in fortune of a soldier whose loyalty to France and to the French army was unwavering.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253015822
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 03/06/2015
Pages: 176
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Anthony Clayton is a retired official of the British Colonial Government of Kenya, former Senior Lecturer at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, and former Associate Lecturer at the University of Surrey. He is author of 16 books, including Paths of Glory: The French Army, 1914–1918; The British Officer: Leaders of the Army from 1660s to the Present; Defeat: When Nations Lose a War; and Warfare in Woods and Forests (IUP, 2012).

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General Maxime Weygand 1867â"1965

Fortune and Misfortune

By Anthony Clayton

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2015 Anthony Clayton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01585-3


Birth and Early Years


Few general officers commanding a nation's army have had no certain knowledge of the identity or even the nationality of either of their parents or of the place of their birth. The baby later known to the world as Maxime Weygand was registered as having been born on January 21, 1867. A certificate of birth dated the 23rd records the birth as having taken place at Brussels and notes the infant's name only as Maxime. The birth certificate does not record the names of the parents and gives the place of birth as a room above a storehouse, 39 Boulevard de Waterloo, Brussels. Both the date and the place of birth are open to question. The doctor had a questionable record, and the witnesses were illiterate. Post-1945 inquiries only indicated that neither the storekeeper nor the owner of the property knew anything of the infant's parentage, and no trace remained of the two witnesses.

Weygand's biographer, Bernard Destremau, offers five possible pairs of candidates and examines the case for each in some detail. The first pairing, Leopold II, king of the Belgians, and either the wife of Count Zichy, an Austrian diplomat, or an anonymous Mexican woman, raises serious doubts. Although generous with his favors, Leopold had at the time other interests, and as an adult Weygand bore no resemblance whatsoever to Leopold in either appearance or character. The argument that Leopold was the father, was, however, later to prove popular in France and was believed by many French officers of Roman Catholic and closet royalist beliefs. The second possibility, a liaison between Charlotte, the wife of Archduke Maximilian of Austria, at the time briefly emperor of Mexico, and a Belgian colonel named van der Smissen, at the time serving in Mexico, is even less probable inasmuch as concealment of an empress's pregnancy would have been almost impossible. Least probable of all is a liaison between Weygand's boyhood tutor, a Belgian of Spanish origin named David Cohen, and a French woman originally of Belgian nationality, Thérèse Denimal. Their claim attracts interest in Belgium but lacks credibility. Hardly more probable is a relationship between, again, Charlotte, empress of Mexico, and a Mexican, either a medical friend or a Colonel Lopez; again such a relationship would have been difficult to hide. Most likely, but not certain, is that the infant was the product of life in the louche, Vienna-style imperial court at Chapultepec in Mexico, of an affaire between Maximilian himself and a strikingly beautiful Mexican dancer known variously as Guadelupe Martinez, Lupe, or La Belle Indienne. According to this argument the baby was born either in Mexico or elsewhere and was carried by Guadelupe in the early stages of her pregnancy when she may have been a maid of honor for the Empress Charlotte. By this theory the Brussels birth documents were prepared by a compliant doctor, following the pleadings of Charlotte, who had not been able to produce a child herself, to her brother King Leopold—Maximilian's father Francis-Joseph, the emperor of Austria, being unwilling to help. Whatever the truth, Guadelupe conveniently disappeared or was paid off soon after the birth.

There are strong arguments to support this last scenario, however elaborate. Weygand himself was short in stature, five feet seven inches in height, and his rounded facial appearance and sallow complexion suggest a non-European or partly European parentage. Later Weygand was often called "le petit général jaune" by French officers. The name of the baby, Maxime, may also provide a clue. Francis-Joseph was on good terms with his Belgian brother-in-law. Some secret arrangement for irregular payments for the boy's upbringing and later military career undoubtedly existed. The secrecies were perpetuated by the assassination of Maximilian at the hands of Mexican rebels and the disappearance of Guadelupe, neither possible parent remaining to tell a tale. The suicide of Francis Joseph's heir, Rudolf, with his mistress at Mayerling in 1889 opened a fear in Francis-Joseph that an illegitimate Mexican might lay claim to the Habsburg throne, an additional reason for economy with the truth. On his deathbed Weygand repeated earlier statements that he did not know who his parents were or his place of birth. It is, however, not unreasonable to suggest that as he grew older he might have been increasingly aware of the moneys made available for, and later paid directly, to him, and drawn conclusions, but if so he then decided it best for all concerned to keep them to himself. The truth will never be known, but much later in his life, in 1940, these doubts were to make some decision-making embarrassing for him, though it is very doubtful if they were ever a factor with respect to any specific issue. These doubts surrounding his parentage did undoubtedly contribute to his later views on strict order, fixed procedures, and government legitimacy. These views found reinforcement in his firm belief in the truths and hierarchies of the Roman Catholic faith. Nevertheless, this attempt to build an orderly structure on the uncertain foundation of his birth could not protect him from the deprecations of his critics, particularly after the fall of France, who dismissed him because "of course, he was not born a Frenchman."

Details of the little boy's life and upbringing are few and confusing. Known simply as Maxime, he was taken to France, initially to Marseille, soon after his birth. Those immediately in charge of him were anxious to be free of him and assumed fewer questions were likely to be asked in France than in Belgium or Austria. At Marseilles, Maxime was placed in the care of Madame Saget, a nurse. The future general recalled being addressed as Maxime Saget. Madame Saget was very strict; the boy had corporal punishment rather than affection. In 1874, in order to meet French legal requirements, the seven-year-old boy was placed in the care of a Marseille leather merchant, David Cohen, who served as Maxime's tutor, and his partner Thérèse Denimal. To improve their own and the boy's social status they altered their names. Cohen, a Belgian born in Italy, claimed Spanish nationality and took the name de Leon; his partner rose to the minor nobility by simply changing Denimal to de Nimal. Her name was given to the boy and he remained Maxime de Nimal until he was commissioned into the French Army in 1888. The pair enrolled Maxime in a school at Cannes, and then another at Asniéres, where it seems he was mocked for having no parents. At the same time it was noted that he was a very bright pupil. While David and Thérèse looked after the boy's scholastic development, theirs was a relationship lacking in affection. Maxime had yet to find a family.

It is not known whether any provision had been made for Maxime's financial support. No details survive; only surmise is possible. The probability remains that money came from Belgium, from either the government, the royal household, or a charity with royal patronage, but if this support existed at all it must have been very modest since it is clear that the boy's daily life was one of near-poverty. It is possible that Maxime's fees for schools, lycée, and later Saint-Cyr were paid by others, and he may have received money for his marriage. All that can be said with certainty is that some moneys arrived sometimes.

In 1875, when he was ten, it was decided that the boy should go to a boarding school in Paris. He was first sent to a suburban school in Vanves and then in 1881 to the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, at the time one of the finest schools in France. While at Vanves he read Corneille's classic play Le Cid and was impressed with its patriotic nationalist soldier hero. Despite the fact that the school was ostensibly secular, and the climate of the time anticlerical, Maxime was baptized. The conversion was the work of a priest, Abbé de Bonfils, who acted as the school chaplain, an appointment still at the time permitted. De Bonfils noted both Maxime's ability and his loneliness, and the jibes he suffered about having no parents, which were particularly acute on days when parents arrived to take their boys out. The abbé carefully built up the boy's self-confidence, and he also counseled the young de Nimal to curb his exceedingly violent temper. With this he achieved only partial success; Maxime's temper remained explosive all his life.

Becoming a Roman Catholic with the Church's order, discipline, and certainties of faith gave the boy for the first time some sense of direction and belonging, over and above the chaos of his life to that time. All his life Weygand remained a strict, devout Catholic, his beliefs frequently arousing controversy.

Life at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand was a Spartan regime of petty authority, cold water and rooms, and unappetizing food. While local Paris boys enjoyed treats, the young de Nimal in his early teenage years was left lonely and miserable. In March 1883 a revolt of the pupils broke out. Maxime was one of the instigators; in his case the revolt was an expression of the pent-up repression that he had suffered in his early years, fueled by his explosive temper. Rioting spread to his dormitory, where de Nimal organized a defense with bedsteads and paillasses. The police were needed to restore order. De Nimal was unceremoniously expelled and banned from admission to any other school in Paris. The experience chastened the boy. Recalling Abbé de Bonfil's teaching, he accepted his expulsion as a lesson learned for life and realized his need for an earthly guiding authority as well as an inner spiritual one.

After some special pleading, the young de Nimal was accepted as a pupil at a lycée of indifferent quality in Toulon. There he attempted to rebuild his fortunes, working extremely hard. He was moved to a much better lycée in Aix en Provence, where he passed the first part of his baccalauréat. He passed the second part in Paris, following this success with a science course at the Lycée Henri IV. Learning from his Louis-le-Grand experience, he had become a more moderate young man, and for the first time in his life he began to make friends. At the time he considered joining the French Navy and went to sea on board a training ship. Unfortunately, his unruly habits and disdain for discipline reappeared, and the navy said that they did not want him. The army was suggested as an alternative.

Maxime had earlier been attracted to the army; the national school syllabus spoke of the need to recover Alsace and Lorraine, and extolled military virtues. He immediately began preparing for his entry to the Saint-Cyr military cadet academy. As a Belgian he could have entered Saint-Cyr without taking the stiff French entrance examinations. His ambition was to be a French officer, so much to his credit he set himself to the task of preparation in the same way as French candidates. David Cohen indicated willingness to pay fees, though one may suspect with continued covert assistance from Belgium as Cohen's business interests were not very successful. A local Marseille politician, Maurice Rouvier, smoothed the way with other formalities, particularly those of parentage and a necessary authorization from the minister for war that had to be arranged. Later when de Nimal had been accepted, the touchy subject of uniform arose. The Saint-Cyr authorities at first denied him the French uniform, eventually conceding the uniform but without rank badges, a slight that Maxime resented.

He passed the entrance examination 58th (later amended to 20th) out of 394 applicants. He performed well at Saint-Cyr, passing out among the top ten. The mentally and physically challenging routine suited him well; he later described it as a "sort of deliverance." At Saint-Cyr he also distinguished himself in fencing and more importantly as an outstanding horseman. These accomplishments gave him a social pass to a circle of future cavalry officers from "established families," and led him on to his first posting after graduation. Still known as de Nimal, he was accepted for a further young officers' course at the cavalry school at Saumur. There he passed 9th out of a group of 78 young officers, but then to his fury he was told that as a foreigner he could serve only in the Foreign Legion. Cohen and the Aix-en-Provence politician Rouvier again came to the rescue, finding a man, Rouvier's accountant, prepared to consider adopting Sous-Lieutenant Maxime de Nimal as his son. This kindly man was FrancisJoseph Weygand, a widower with a small daughter, at the time living in Arras but also a former citizen of Strasbourg in German-occupied Alsace, which raised further nationality complications. Eventually, after much hesitation and some transactions with Cohen, Weygand agreed. And on October 18, 1888 the young cavalry subaltern Maxime de Nimal Weygand was posted to the 4e Régiment de Dragons at Chambéry.

This remarkable ascent from unwanted illegitimate orphan to officer in a smart cavalry regiment provided Weygand with the second of his essential character-forming beliefs—the importance of order, authority and hierarchy, patriotism and discipline. These beliefs as he understood them, together with his Catholic faith, were to remain the lodestars that he followed with fervor for the rest of his life and that governed his actions at all times.

The army that Weygand was j oining was not a happy one. It was poorly paid and underresourced. Its defeat, despite some epic encounters, in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71) had left an atmosphere of sullen revanchism. Many of its officers were from the traditional "establishment," overtly or covertly monarchist, disliking or despising the noisy anticlerical politics active in the newly formed Third Republic. The sudden exposure in 1889 of the populist pro-Republic General Georges Boulanger as a man of straw, capable only of indecision, flight, and suicide, further damaged the army's image. Worse was to follow.

In 1894 the long-running and bitterly divisive Dreyfus case opened with espionage charges against Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a general staff officer of Jewish origin. On forged evidence Dreyfus was convicted, disgraced, and imprisoned. There followed over the next years mounting political and often press criticism that, together with the work of an honest staff officer within the army, led to a national quest for justice. The conservative army officers reacted strongly, arguing that the criticism was the work of Jews, Freemasons, and the Germans and a slur on the honor of the army. The honest officer was dismissed. But in time public pressure and further investigation exposed the false nature of the evidence upon which the conviction was based, the later distortions and deliberate manufacture of false evidence used to justify them, and the identity of the real offender. The whole scandal became public knowledge, and after long and severe prison sentences Dreyfus was finally restored to his rank in 1906. The traditional leadership of the army emerged as decoupled from the state, anti-Semitic, and a danger to the Republic. The entire incident is perhaps best seen as another opening up of the divisive fault lines in French national life caused by the abuses of the ancien regime and the violence and excesses of the Revolution.

One of the consequences of the Dreyfus case was the anti-Catholic policy of the 1902 Emile Combes government, which aimed at ensuring that all senior civil and military appointments were filled by true secular Republicans. The policy would prove to be even more divisive, both within the army and for the army as a state institution. Combes's war minister, Republican General Louis André, ordered officers to teach Republican values and assist in the closure of certain anti-Dreyfusard religious institutions. Officers who could combine Republician with anti-Dreyfusard conservative views were selected for accelerated promotion; those of known Catholic views passed over, among them Weygand's future chief, Ferdinand Foch. Republican officers were used to spy on their Catholic contemporaries, opening files and fiches, and recording their habits, such as eating only fish on Fridays. Aumôniers, chaplains, were phased out. The line infantry and cavalry, which contained majorities of traditionally minded French officers, especially suffered. Logistics officers with anti-Catholic views received preference.

The Combes government fell in 1906, but much damage had been done, and the deployment of troops to contain industrial unrest in 1905, 1907, and 1911 did nothing to improve matters. The apparent growing menace of the German Empire in some measure served to concentrate minds and overcome differences, but there were still numerous voices on the political left calling for a nonprofessional national guard citizen army, arguing that liberté, égalité, fraternité had been replaced with infanterie, artillerie, cavalerie, all dominated by a reactionary officer caste.


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Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments
1. Birth and Early Years, 1867-1914
2. Chief of Staff, 1914-1918
3. Versailles, Warsaw, Syria, 1919-1924
4. Defense Policy in a Fractured France, 1925-1939
5. Commander-in-Chief, May-June 1940
6. Minister for National Defense, June-September 1940
7. A General Out of Step: North Africa, 1940-1941
8. Final Misfortunes and Final Years, 1941-1965
Select Bibliography

What People are Saying About This

Dennis Showalter

Clayton's concise biography of this controversial figure successfully demonstrates that Weygand was a loyal and consistent supporter of the Republican system, not the closeted Rightist of many general works. . . . Weygand's career reflects a fundamental fault line of mutual suspicion between right and left dating to the French Revolution. . . . Clayton understands the dynamics of the 20th-century French army as well as any scholar writing in English.

Dennis Showalter]]>

Clayton's concise biography of this controversial figure successfully demonstrates that Weygand was a loyal and consistent supporter of the Republican system, not the closeted Rightist of many general works. . . . Weygand's career reflects a fundamental fault line of mutual suspicion between right and left dating to the French Revolution. . . . Clayton understands the dynamics of the 20th-century French army as well as any scholar writing in English.

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