The Coldest Winter

ON A FROZEN NEW YEAR’S MORNING, a train left the Gare de Lyon in Paris for Marseilles. Among the passengers entrusted by the German occupiers with an Ausweis to cross the line into the Vichy zone was Charles Bedaux. Having left Fern at home with their guests in the Château de Candé, he planned to take a short flight from Marseilles to Algiers and drive over the Atlas Mountains to Kenadsa on Sahara’s northern fringe. His rendezvous with General Maxime Weygand, military governor general of French North Africa, had the stated purpose of discussing coal production. But Bedaux had a secret agenda: to relay German Ambassador Otto Abetz’s offer to place Weygand at the head of a pro-German government in Paris.

The train moved slowly south amid the heavy snows of a treacherous French winter, until it stopped suddenly in bleak countryside north of the Provençal town of Avignon. Thick, packed snow blocked the line. With the train immobilized, Charles Bedaux could not remain passive. He trudged through snow drifts to a farmhouse, telephoned for horse-drawn wagons, and hired men to find provisions for the passengers and the train staff. The delivery of food and other supplies continued for eight days, with Bedaux arranging logistics as he had on the trail in British Columbia. ‘Charles was amused by this little adventure, ’ his brother Gaston remembered. When the snow was cleared from the line, the train reversed north to Lyons. Bedaux flew to Marseilles, but technical problems delayed his flight to Algiers another day. Bedaux reached Algiers by chartered plane on 10 January 1941. General Weygand, who had already left Kenadsa, sent a message asking Bedaux to visit him in Rabat, capital of Morocco.

General Maxime Weygand had been a hero of the Great War and was one of the officers with Maréchal Ferdinand Foch in the train at Compiègne when France and Germany signed the Armistice Agreement of 1918. Twenty-two years later, as the French and British armies were retreating from the German front, Prime Minister Paul Reynaud recalled Weygand to replace General Gamelin as commander of the French armed forces. Weygand, after declaring Paris an ‘open city’ in June 1940, joined the defeatist camp in Reynaud’s cabinet, along with Maréchal Pétain, in seeking an immediate armistice with Germany. Pétain made him minister of national defence in his July 1940 cabinet. In September, he was reassigned to North Africa as Vichy’s delegate general and armed forces commander. Pétain’s instructions were to keep the region out of the hands of the British, the Germans and General Charles de Gaulle. In the meantime, all three courted Weygand. De Gaulle asked him to attack the Italians in Libya from French bases in Tunisia while the British launched an offensive in the east from Egypt. Expelling Italy from Libya would remove the Axis from North Africa, thus securing the entire southern Mediterranean for the Allies. Weygand refused.

When Bedaux met Weygand in Rabat, he delivered Abetz’s proposal. Would the general preside over a new French government in Paris? ‘I consider this a great compliment,’ Weygand told Bedaux, ‘but the Germans cannot fool me with great compliments. I have one superior. I could not ask for a better one: Maréchal Pétain. I will ask for his orders.’ Weygand informed Pétain at once. Charles Bedaux’s role as messenger did not endear him to Pétain, who may already have suspected his friendships with Pierre Laval and Fernand de Brinon.

Robert Murphy, in North Africa ostensibly to assess the area’s humanitarian needs, cabled Secretary of State Cordell Hull, ‘Weygand and his associates are laying the foundation for substantial military action against Germany and Italy.’ Perhaps Weygand’s dislike of the Germans swept Murphy along, but the general did nothing to challenge the German military. Murphy, meanwhile, reached a humanitarian accord with Weygand that released frozen French funds in the United States for France to purchase civilian provisions for North Africa. The Murphy–Weygand agreement allowed the United States to install American vice-consuls in French North Africa, who would certify that no American aid went to Germany and, secretly, send military intelligence to Washington. ‘To demonstrate his confidence in the United States Government,’ Murphy wrote, ‘General Weygand made an unprecedented concession: our consular staffs, including the twelve new “vice-consuls,” would be permitted to use secret codes and to employ couriers carrying locked pouches, a privilege usually restricted to diplomatic missions and not extended in wartime to consular offices in French North Africa.’

In Algiers, Murphy saw Bedaux several times, and in February they called together on Weygand. Bedaux’s presence may not have been an asset. Weygand called Bedaux a bandit, because his bill to the French government for installing the Bedaux system at Kenadsa was exorbitant. Bedaux kept Murphy informed of his work at the coal mines, but it seems he did not tell him of Abetz’s proposal to Weygand. Murphy referred to it neither in his messages to the State Department nor in his memoirs, Diplomat among Warriors. When Bedaux told Abetz that Weygand had declined his proposal to replace Pétain, Germany ordered Pétain to dismiss Weygand. If he did not, the Germans would occupy the Unoccupied Zone. Weygand’s loyalty to Pétain earned him dismissal by Pétain. He retired to his farm in the south of France. Soon afterwards, the Germans arrested him.

Bedaux returned to Paris to brief Dr Franz Medicus on Kenadsa. Medicus agreed to push the military to release more heavy machines to augment the mines’ coal production. It was as much in Germany’s interest as France’s to produce coal for the trains of French North Africa. With Medicus’s support, the Germans handed over more than $200,000 worth of compressors, diggers and other equipment. Bedaux needed thousands of workers to build a new rail line and mine the extra coal, and the Nazis helped with that as well. To supplement Berber and African labourers in the Sahara, the Germans sent Polish and Czech prisoners of war. From Spanish Sahara, Franco contributed Loyalist prisoners who had fought against him in the Civil War. Bedaux was about to go beyond speeding up low-paid workers in American factories to using slave labour in one of the hottest terrains on earth.

In January 1941, Sylvia Beach received news of the man to whom she had given attention and love for most of her adult life, James Joyce. With his wife and son, he had finally crossed the Swiss border and settled in Zurich on 17 December 1940. Although safe after six months’ waiting to exit France, Joyce was consumed with worry. He had left his daughter in a French asylum, and he was short of money. The hostile critical reception of his recently published book, Finnegans Wake, preoccupied him. His health, never robust, deteriorated. After emergency surgery for an ulcer and peritonitis on 13 January, the author of Ulysses died. To Sylvia, the loss combined with the death of her father in California two months earlier to send her into depression. Her dearest friends, Adrienne Monnier and Françoise Bernheim, offered some consolation. But the deaths of those she loved outside France hurt more than anything in her own precarious existence in occupied Paris. It was a cruel winter.

Although some Americans were leaving France in early 1941, René de Chambrun was returning. He had completed his second and final wartime journey to the land of his parents’ birth. But his mission was only half accomplished. On his first visit, he had persuaded Franklin Roosevelt to send arms to Britain. On his second, however, cousin Franklin rebuffed his request for American government food shipments to hungry French and refugees in the Vichy zone. René left New York dejected and, after a rough thirteen-day sea crossing, arrived in Lisbon. On 6 February, Josée was waiting for him just over the Spanish border in Toulouse. They spent the night together before flying to the Laval chateau at Châteldon. Josée noted in her diary that René brought her presents from America: ‘Bunny gave me a lovely little dress, a sweater, a magnificent golden cigarette case and some cigarettes.’ Two days later, the couple went to Paris to see Clara and Aldebert. The next few days’ lunches and dinners were spent in the new Paris with German Ambassador Otto Abetz and his French wife, embassy counsellor Ernst Achenbach and his American bride, German consul-general Rudolph Schleier, Luftwaffe General Hanesse and famed French actress Arletty. For a soldier who resisted the German invasion and a lobbyist who opposed the Germans in the United States, René adapted quickly to the new order that his father-in-law and wife were introducing him to.

The American Hospital’s board of governors’ meeting in Aldebert de Chambrun’s offices on the Champs-Elysées on 13 February 1941 officially appointed Dr Sumner Jackson Médecin Chef (Chief Physician) ad interim to replace Dr Edmund Gros, who was too ill to return to Paris from the United States. At the time, the hospital was caring for seventy French soldiers, twenty-five British patients and sixty ‘needy French children’. Dr Jackson and Aldebert de Chambrun worked together to keep a patient in every bed so that the Germans would have no excuse to take over the institution. A month later, Edward B. Close reported to the board: ‘Another hospital year, and probably the most difficult in the history of The American Hospital of Paris, has again come to an end.’ He stated that the number of patient days over the previous year came to 38,952 for wounded French soldiers and 14,103 for civilians. He added, ‘I report with great pleasure that we were able, during the year, to care for all American citizens who applied for treatment in our Out-Patient Department or for admission, and that those, who were not able to pay, were treated absolutely free.’

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