Maxime Weygand

Maxime Weygand

Maxime Weygand was born in Brussels, Belgium, on 21st January, 1867. The illegitimate son of a Polish woman he was brought up on the estate of Empress Charlotte and educated in Paris before being sent to St Cyr (1886-88).

Weygand joined the French Army and after reaching the rank of colonel was appointed chief of staff to Marshal Ferdinand Foch. During the First World War he was promoted to brigadier general (1916) and lieutenant general (1918).

In July 1920, Weygand was sent to Poland to help Marshal Josef Pilsudski. Leading an army of 600 French officers, Weygand defeated the Red Army in Warsaw on 24th August.

In 1923 Weygand was appointed as high commissioner in Syria and held the post until becoming Chief of General Staff in 1930. The following year Weygand was replaced by General Maurice Gamelin and he moved to head of the French Army.

Weygand was forced to retire from the army in 1935 when he reached the age of sixty-eight. He continued to be involved in right-wing and was a harsh critic of the Leon Blum and his Popular Front government.

On the outbreak of the Second World War Gamelin recalled Weygand to head the Eastern Mediterranean Theatre of Operations. While in this post Weygand made plans for an Allied second front in the Balkans.

Although Weygand was now seventy-three years old, prime minister Paul Reynaud appointed him as Allied commander in chief on 17th May 1940. He devised what became known as the Weygand Plan. This involved General Gaston Billotte and the 1st French Army Group attacking the German Army at Cambrai while General John Gort and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF)attempted to link up around Bapaume.

When the Germans continued to advance Weyland regrouped his forces south of the Somme. He held his position until 5th June when his troops were forced to withdraw towards the port of Dunkirk.

On 13th June Weygand recommended that the French government sought an armistice with Germany. He served briefly as minister of defence under Henri-Philippe Petain. After clashing with Pierre Laval he was sent to Algeria as commander in chief of land and air forces in the African colonies.

The Germans were suspicious of Weygand and forced Petain to recall the general to France in November 1941. He retired and in January 1942 rejected approaches by the Allies to join the war against Nazi Germany.

When the Allies invaded Algeria and Morocco on 8th November, Petain recalled Weygand who advised him to declare war on Germany. This resulted in Weygand being arrested by the Schutz Staffeinel (SS) and was imprisoned until being liberated on 5th May 1945.

After the war Weygand was charged with collaborating with Nazi Germany. Although found guilty he was granted leniency and was released on 9th May 1946. Maxime Weygand died in Paris in 1965.

Primary Sources

(1) Anthony Eden, Memoirs: The Reckoning (1965)

Paul Reynaud received us, firm and courteous despite the strain. We soon got down to discussion across the dining-room table; Petain, Reynaud, Weygand facing Churchill, Dill and me, with interpreters. General Georges joined us later. We talked for almost three hours, the discussion hardly advancing matters. The speakers were polite and correct, but although at that time the Maginot Line had not been attacked, it was soon evident that our French hosts had no hope.

Early in our talks, Weygand described the military situation, explaining how he had attempted to block a number of gaps in the line. He believed he had succeeded and, for the moment, the line held, but he had no more reserves. Somebody asked what would happen if another breach were made. 'No further military action will then be possible,' Weygand replied. Reynaud at once intervened sharply: 'That would be a political decision, Monsieur Ie General.' Weygand bowed and said: 'Certainly.' Georges told us that the French had altogether only some one hundred and ninety-five fighter aircraft left on the northern front.

Despite all the difficulties, our dinner, though simple, was admirably cooked and served. Reynaud presided, with Churchill on his right, Weygand sat opposite and I on his right. As we were taking our places, a tall and somewhat angular figure in uniform walked by on my side of the table. This was General Charles de Gaulle, Under-Secretary for Defence, whom I had met only once before. Weygand invited him pleasantly to take a place on his left. De Gaulle replied, curtly as I thought, that he had instructions to sit next to the British Prime Minister. Weygand flushed up, but made no comment, and so the meal began.

I had Marshal Petain on my other side. Conversation was not easy. His refrain was the destruction of France and the daily devastation of her cities, of which he mentioned several by name. I was sympathetic, but added that there were even worse fates than the destruction of cities. Petain rejoined that it was all very well for Britain to say that, we did not have the war in our country. When I said that we might have, I received an incredulous grunt in reply.

With General Weygand my talk was perfectly friendly and consisted mainly of a discussion about our available forces in Britain and what we were doing to speed their training. I had little cheer to give him. Weygand was something of an enigma. He had a famous reputation, crowned by his victory with Pilsudski over the Bolshevik forces in 1920. I had met him on several occasions, most recently early that year in the Middle East, and always found him friendly, quick and receptive, a modest man carrying his fame without affectation or conceit. He worked well with General Wavell, for the two men understood each other. I was glad when I heard that he had been called back to France to take over the supreme command. He achieved little, but probably no man could. At this stage, though always correct and courteous, he gave the impression of resigned fatalism. He was certainly not a man to fight the last desperate comer.

(2) William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1959)

The only hope of the Allies to extricate themselves from this disastrous encirclement was for the armies in Belgium to immediately turn southwest, disengage themselves from the German Sixth Army attacking them there, fight their way across the German armoured wedge that stretched across northern France to the sea and join up with fresh French forces pushing northward from the Somme. This was in fact what General Gamelin ordered on the morning of May 19, but he was replaced that evening by General Maxime Weygand, who immediately cancelled the order. Weygand, who had a formidable military reputation gained in the First World War, wanted to confer first with the Allied commanders in Belgium before deciding what to do. As a result, three days were lost before Weygand came up with precisely the same plan as his predecessor.

The delay proved costly. There were still forty French, British and Belgian battle-tested divisions in the north, and had they struck south across the thin armoured German line on May 19 as Gamelin ordered, they might have succeeded in breaking through. By the time they moved, communications between the various national commands had become chaotic and the several Allied armies, hard pressed as they were, began to act at cross-purposes. At any rate, the Weygand plan existed only in the General's mind; no French troops ever moved up from the Somme.

(3) Adolf Hitler, letter to Benito Mussolini (31st December 1940)

The French Government have dismissed Laval. The official reasons which have been communicated to me are false. I do not doubt for a moment that the real reason is that General Weygand is making demands from North Africa which amount to blackmail, and that the Vichy Government is not in a position to react without risking the loss of North Africa. I also consider it probable that there exists at Vichy itself a whole clique which approves of Weygand policy, at least tacitly. I do not think that Petain personally is disloyal. But one never knows. All this demands constant vigilance and a

careful watching of events.

(4) Winston Churchill, memo to Foreign Office (12th February, 1941)

We have made Weygand great offers, to which we have had no reply. It is clear that he will be actuated only by forces set in motion by pressure of Nazis on Vichy. Our attitude at the present time should not be one of appeal to him. Until he has answered through some channel or other the telegram I sent him he ought not to be given supplies. Not one scrap of nobility or courage has been shown by these people so far, and they had better go on short commons till they come to their senses.