On 29th July 1916 Norwich welcomed two French delegates to the city; Lieutenant Georges Weill and Private Cabannes. Their visit was part of a tour of Britain to see munition factories and other industries related to the war effort and to promote Anglo-French relations. It followed on from a visit to France the previous year by four British MPs from the Labour Party.
Weill was a lieutenant with the 81st French Infantry Division. A native of Alsace-Lorraine, he had been elected a member of the German Reichstag. When war broke out he joined the French army which resulted in a court martial in his absence at Strasbourg where he was sentenced to death. Living with this death sentence Weill served the French army as an interpreter and had a key role in interrogating German prisoners after the Battle of the Somme.
Cabannes was a private in the French artillery. Before the war he had been the organizing secretary of the French United Socialists.
The first report on their arrival in Britain appeared in the Daily Mirror on 26th July 1916. There was a civic reception to welcome them at the Westminster Palace Hotel where many prominent trade unionists were present.
Weill and Cabannes arrived at City Station Norwich on Saturday 29th July 1916 following their visit to Sheffield. The Eastern Evening News reported that during their tour they had been received “with an almost affectionate interest”. The train from Sheffield arrived late by which time “the platforms were thronged and everybody who possessed a little French seemed to be giving it an airing”. The reception committee included members of the Norwich French Circle. After introductions the delegates were taken by a circuitous route to the Maid’s Head Hotel, this route being chosen because “of the most unfavourable impression which a stranger arriving by the City Station receives”. After dinner in the hotel, Weill and Cabannes met the Lord Mayor, Mr E B Southwell.
The plan for the next day was to continue the delegates’ tours of various factories contributing to the war effort. However, after all of their visits of such places in other cities, they welcomed the suggestion of spending a quiet day in the country. They were driven to Wroxham, had lunch on a boat with various civil dignitaries and cruised along the river to St Benet’s Abbey.
On Monday 31st August they reverted to their planned visits and had lunch with the Lord Mayor. In the evening they attended a public gathering at St Andrew’s Hall in Norwich. The gathering was presided over by the Lord Mayor and attended by the City Council.
The Mercury (5th August 1916) reported that:
“Dr Bunnett played on the organ until the company assembled. The orchestra was occupied by a choir of girls chosen from about a dozen of the elementary schools, who were gaily decorated with the red, white and blue, the French colours.”
On entering the hall the audience stood and clapped and cheered. The choir, resplendent in their French colours, sang part of the Marseillaise.
The Eastern Evening News (1st August 1916) reported on the evening and the speeches made. The Lord Mayor spoke first and talked of the united battle to defeat the enemy. He spoke of the resourcefulness of French and British women when they had “picked up the tools dropped by their husbands and brothers when the call to arms sounded through the land”.
Weill’s speech followed. He began by thanking the city for its “enthusiastic, graceful and touching welcome. . . . . . nowhere did greater joy and personal pleasure seem to be manifested at the presence of the delegates than in Norwich”. Weill spoke of Alsace and Lorraine and their desire to be free from German rule “as they had a right to claim emancipation from a tyrant who had conquered them by brute force and their restoration to their mother country, France”. He stressed the need for victory; “The murder of Miss Cavell and of the Captain of the Brussels had shown how little the Germans understood the rights of humanity and the rights of citizenship”. From his work as an interpreter working with German prisoners he went on to say “there is every reason to believe that there is a glimmering of light dawning on the mind of the German soldier”.
The following day letters were exchanged between the delegates and Norwich Education Committee, each expressing their mutual thanks with the Frenchmens’ letter directed to the children who sang at the concert.
In their letter they talk of the children singing their national anthem with ardour and strength and how delicate and artistic it was for them to be dressed in the colours of the French flag.
The Education Committee’s letter thanks the delegates, on behalf of the children, for the opportunity given to them to hear of the heroic exploits of the French soldiers. It went on to say that Norwich school children had also contributed to the war effort through various schemes and events and that, in future years, it was hoped they would remember with affection the efforts of the French soldiers in the terrible war.
Weill and Cabanne completed a comprehensive tour of Britain. Their tour included visits to Cardiff, Newcastle, Bristol, Derby, Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield and newspapers around the country reported on the success of the visits.
The Daily Mail (Thursday 27th July 1916) reported on their visit to Birmingham. It had included tours of munitions factories and other public buildings. At an evening meeting held under the auspices of the Parliamentary Munitions Committee the committee spoke of the magnitude of France’s contribution to defeating the Germans. With reference to Georges Weill the article went on to say:
“Georges Weill (is) one of the many Lorrainers who are still faithful to their old motherland, France. Lieutenant Weill is a journalist by profession and has represented Metz in the Reichstag since 1912: he is a fine figure, red-haired and moustached, in his new uniform of horizon blue, which matches the clear colour of his eyes. On his head there is a high price, for he has been sentenced to death by a German court-martial, held at Strasburg, because he enlisted in the French army on the outbreak of war”
During his speech Weill described the prisoners as thoroughly dejected who recognized that Germany had no hope of victory.
While Weill was the main speaker at the various civic events one newspaper did comment on a speech made by Cabannes. The Lanarkshire Daily Record and Mail (29th July 1916) informed readers that Weill and Cabannes were to visit the following week. The articles reported that Weill had characterized the German Socialists as sheep and stated that Alsace was part of France not Germany. It went on to say that:
“Private Cabannes, a typical ‘pioupiou’, short but sturdy, of the 101st Regiment of French artillery, was not less communicative. “Day by day”, he said, “as your army advances, the bonds of understanding are drawn closer; and where there was once distrust there is now complete confidence”.
Weill and Cabannes returned to France after a successful visit. Weill remained in politics for the rest of his life and died in Paris in 1970. Cabanne’s fate is unknown.
Compiled by Daryl Long, NRO Research Blogger.