After the Duke and Duchess were married on 3 June 1937, they settled first in a hotel in Paris. Both initially assumed that they would be allowed to live in England and were reluctant to settle permanently in France. Wallis wrote to her aunt, “I don’t think we will be settled anywhere until the English atmosphere is cleared, but the terror of the Duke’s return remains – everyone is so afraid that it would upset the King’s so-called popularity. If that is so well-established as they all say, what is there to worry about?”1 It soon became clear that they would not be welcomed home any time soon.
They considered moving to the United States but did not do so for tax reasons – France would become their home. Wallis began searching for a home to rent. She would have preferred to live in the city itself, but the Duke wanted a country house so that he could garden. She eventually settled on a house in Versailles called the Château de la Maye, which had a large private garden, and they signed a six-month lease. Nevertheless, the Duke continued to long for England. In early 1938, Wallis learned that Villa La Croë was available for rent, and they quickly signed a ten-year lease. It would soon become their favourite home. Furnishings from England were shipped over to France to fill their new home. The lease on the home in Versailles was not renewed, and they began to search for a Paris base. They eventually leased 24 Boulevard Suchet – a large four-story townhouse – near the Bois de Boulogne.
As the Windsors tried to find their footing in a new world, international tensions rose to a boiling point. On 1 September 1939, Poland was attacked by the Nazis. The Duke sent a pleading cable to Hitler that he should not embark on a war. Hitler replied that he had no desire for war, but if it came to it, it would not be his fault.2 Two days later, the United Kingdom declared war on Germany. The Duke immediately offered his assistance and received word that King George VI wanted him and Wallis to return to London as soon as possible and that he would have a choice of two different posts: regional commissioner of Wales or a post with the British Military Mission attached to the French General Headquarters in Vincennes. However, he soon also learned that they would not be allowed to stay in a royal residence while in England, and the Duke promptly refused the offer.
A close friend later chastised the Duke, “You only think of yourselves. You don’t realize that there is at this moment a war going on, that women and children are being bombed and killed while you talk of your PRIDE.”3 The Duke and Duchess quickly began packing up their belongings, and they were soon on their way to Vichy, where they awaited further instructions. On 12 September, they arrived in Cherbourg, where the HMS Kelly waited to take them across the channel (Wallis hated flying). It had been almost three years since they had been in England.
As Queen Elizabeth wondered what to do about “Mrs. S,” Winston Churchill had the thankless task of arranging something for the returning Duke and Duchess. He arranged for a naval guard of honour at Portsmouth, and as they descended the gangway, they were saluted by the Royal Marine Band. However, they did not even have a place to stay, and they spent the first night with Sir William James, commander in chief at Portsmouth. They then stayed over at the Metcalfes – Fruity Metcalfe was a friend and the Duke’s former equerry – but requests for accommodation were denied by the Palace, and a car for their use was also out of the question. Lady Alexandra Metcalfe wrote, “I do think the family might have done something. He might not even exist…”4
The Duke went to meet his brother on the 14th, and the Duke told his brother he wanted to take the job in Wales. However, King George VI had heard of the extensive press coverage of the Duke’s return and took the choice away from him. France would be his job, but the Duke had to learn this from someone else. It was yet another humiliation, and the Duke would meet with no other member of the Royal Family – they all stayed away. By the end of September, the Duke and Duchess were on their way back to France. Wallis returned to Paris while David reported to his job at Vincennes.
During those first seven months of the war, there was little military action in France. The Duke toured the French defenses and made reports, which were forwarded to London. However, the information was largely ignored simply because it came from the Duke. It has been alleged that the Duke leaked information to the Germans, specifically by Count Julius von Zech-Burkersroda, who reported in a memo to Berlin that the Duke was unhappy in his role and talked about the defence plans in an indiscrete manner. Perhaps he spoke without thought, and this was heard by the wrong people, but there does not seem to be any hard evidence that he deliberately leaked information.5
While the Duke was in Vincennes, Wallis also did war work. She became the honorary president of the French relief organisation Colis de Trianon, which distributed kits of clothing and necessities to the front. Wallis learned to knit, and she often donated money as well. She also donated money to a soup kitchen in Montmartre. In addition, she volunteered for the Section Sanitaire of the French Red Cross and often drove to the front with boxes of bandages and cigarettes. She quickly became a favourite among the French soldiers.
Then came the spring of 1940. On 10 May, Luxembourg and the Netherlands were invaded, and the Nazis quickly moved west, and the front was breached. The Duke suddenly appeared in their Paris home on 15 May, telling Wallis that they needed to leave immediately. Wallis initially refused as she did not want to be seen as a coward. However, he convinced her to leave, and they left Paris the following day for a hotel in Blois. The Duke sent Wallis to Biarritz before returning to his post. Just a few days later, he called her to say that they had to leave France altogether. The Duke left behind his friend Metcalfe, whose son later commented, “The Duke had buggered off to get the Duchess, without bothering to inform him he was even leaving. My father was terribly upset and betrayed, but the Duke didn’t give a shit about anyone but the Duchess.”6 However, the Duke did not desert his post, and he had been given permission by his superior officer to leave.
The Duke and Duchess arrived at La Croë on 29 May, and by the second week of June, they could hear the sounds of gunfire from Genoa. The British Consul urged the Duke and Duchess to accompany him to Spain, and on 19 June (Wallis’ birthday), a procession of four cars departed from La Croë. They passed many refugees on the route, and they were in continued danger as neither possessed diplomatic papers. Rosa Wood, who was with them, later wrote, “I thought of Wallis and how so many people believed she cared only for clothes and jewels, and how they always pictured her against backgrounds of castles, with maids, couturiers, and hairdressers. I saw her in mud and dirt, sleeping cars, eating sardines out of tins, I saw when we were held up for hours before we could go south, when we had to sit all night long in the lobbies of little hotels. I saw her when we had no place to wash, much do any of the things women like to do to make themselves look nicer. I saw her awaken at four o’clock in the morning and come out in the drizzle and help the Duke and my husband arrange things on the lorry, when we didn’t where we were going and whether we were walking into traps or whether we would be bombed. Never once did I see her cross or hear her complain or even falter except at the sight at the sufferings of others.”7
They were initially refused entry into Spain, and the Spanish ambassador had to intervene before they were finally granted asylum. They were safe at last.