General Maxime Weygand, 1867-1965
Fortune and Misfortune
Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 2015, 176 pages
Book Review published on: March 10, 2017
As we enter the centennial years of World War I, a flood of authors has published works to remind students and historians alike of the triumph and tragedy that came with the birth of modern warfare. In General Maxime Weygand, 1867–1965, author Anthony Clayton describes the life of Weygand in a concise biography. Although Weygand’s life was full of controversy, Clayton argues against those who considered him a treasonous military failure with factual support. He illustrates the personal life and struggles of a commander who had the best interests of French national honor and its soldiers at the forefront of the decisions he made. Clayton describes Weygand’s life through a unique lens of context as his father served jointly with him in Warsaw, Poland, in 1920 and built a lasting friendship.
The author depicts the challenges of Weygand’s life from the very beginning. Without any proof of his birth parents, Weygand’s lineage is shrouded in mystery; growing up with a deep desire to serve in the French army, he became a cavalry officer in 1888 but was harshly discriminated against for his devout Catholic beliefs. Despite these challenges, Weygand’s character helped him persevere through periods of slow promotion. Clayton frames this as a defining part of Weygand’s personality that became paramount later in his career. While his biography of Weygand is not entirely comprehensive, he highlights the critical aspects of his life that support his argument that Weygand was targeted and called a traitor to France unnecessarily.
Clayton summarizes Weygand’s career by highlighting his success as chief of staff to French general, Ferdinand Foch. Clayton describes the loyalty and respect Weygand displayed as essential in coordinating French and British operations when stress and political tension threatened to fracture their alliance. Following his service in World War I, the interwar period was full of turbulent politics and little development of the French Army. It deeply frustrated Weygand as he realized that the French Army was deteriorating. When the German offensive began in 1940, France had called on Weygand, one of their most experienced commanders, expecting him to bring capability of Joffre and leadership of Foch to France at a trying time.
As a critical point of Weygand’s career, Clayton focuses on the struggles he balanced with an ill-prepared army against a government unwilling to listen and support the commander. After the establishment of Vichy France, Clayton describes Weygand, the minister of defense, as trying to fulfill a role where he could maintain the national honor of France and make decisions in the best interest of the French people. Not conceding to those members of the Vichy government who collaborated with Germany, Weygand made choices that he believed would allow France to reenter the war against Germany, but was distrusted by the Germans left France for North Africa.
Clayton closes his biography in the final years of Weygand’s life. Weygand was imprisoned for attempts against the security of the state in 1945 and acquitted in 1948. Despite his age and charges against him, he remained active in French national affairs and published many works to defend his name. When he died in 1965, he did not receive any recognition or honors from the French government. Clayton makes a clear warning to historians not to charge and blame generals for decisions they make in war. Historians have a responsibility to understand the context and circumstances of events in history and are duty bound to explain it to the public. In doing so, they will help to preserve the truth and understanding of military decisions, not reinforce the placement of blame on individuals for failure.
Book Review written by: Maj. Joseph J. DiDomenico, U.S. Army, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas