General Charles de Gaulle monument

Charles De Gaulle – A Military And Political Life

The amazing life story of a French historical icon as French President Emmanuel Macron visits London

General Charles de Gaulle monument

Eighty years ago today, a defiant leader broadcast a message over BBC airwaves urging his country to fight on against the Nazis.

He acknowledged that the Battle of France was lost, and yet he pointed to a still-existing overseas empire and naval fleet, allies who dominated the seas and the potential for industrial re-invigoration via the US.

This man was not Winston Churchill, though he knew him.

Rather, it was Charles de Gaulle, wartime leader of the Free French and a man whose biography was as interwoven with France’s 20th Century history as Churchill’s was with Britain’s.

Unfittingly, his actual June 18 1940 speech was not widely heard or recorded (it did end up in some newspapers in France). Instead, a variant broadcast again on the BBC four days later, on June 22, is what is generally referenced.

The major events of de Gaulle’s life, on the other hand, certainly are widely recorded, and well known.

As French President Emmanuel Macron visits London today, Thursday, for a ceremony to mark the 80th anniversary of General de Gaulle’s call for wartime resistance, it is to de Gualle's background that we look to discover the experiences that made the man.

Born on November 22, 1890, into an upper-middle class Catholic family in Lille, de Gaulle was one of five children. Their father was a professor and encouraged Charles and his siblings to engage in  philosophical and historical debates. 

His mother, meanwhile, fuelled his military interests by relating her sadness at the defeat of France during the Franco-Prussian War. He would go on to emerge from the École spéciale militaire de Saint-Cyr  (‘Special Military School of Saint-Cyr’, or just Saint-Cyr) in 1912, ranking an impressive 13th amongst his graduating class. De Gaulle’s extreme height of 6’5”, along with his high forehead and nose, is said to  explain the nickname he acquired while he was there: the great asparagus. 

He next sought out a position under Colonel Philippe Petain, commanding officer of 33 Regiment. De Gaulle had heard and been inspired by Petain’s lectures on the importance of intelligently applied firepower to the winning of wars (i.e. rather than reliance on elan, or ‘offensive spirit’.)

During the First World War, both men were sucked into one of the conflict’s greatest battles, Verdun. Made overall commander, Petain would rally the French against the enormous German offensive, and as an officer positioned at Fort Douaumont, an epicentre for a lot of the campaign’s action, de Gaulle was wounded and captured.

Between the wars, de Gaulle, like Petain before him, became a lecturer, at Saint-Cyr, and later at École de Guerre - the staff college. He received a mere satisfactory grade while attending the latter as a student. His instructor, Colonel Moyrand, deemed him eminently intelligent, but also arrogant. 

It was the crossing of paths again with Petain that helped de Gaulle - his old commanding officer arranged for an increase in his grade so that he could serve on his staff, and later for de Gaulle to lecture at the college.

The two men had a falling out over de Gaulle’s ghost writing of a book for Petain, a military history called ‘Le Soldat’, for which de Gaulle wanted more credit. This, however, was nothing compared to what came in 1940.

During the Battle of France, in which de Gaulle was promoted to the rank of acting brigadier general, he went back and forth between France and Britain vainly trying to salvage the situation. Petain would end up shaking Hitler’s hand, signing an armistice with the Nazis and heading the collaborative Vichy Regime.

General de Gaulle and his old commander were now on opposing sides. Though when de Gaulle was later condemned to death in absentia by the Vichy government, Petain intended that the sentence would not actually be carried out.

While the period heading into late June 1940 has been dubbed our ‘darkest hour’, matters were obviously far worse for France. Wikipedia says of de Gaulle’s situation:

“At this time de Gaulle's followers consisted of a secretary of limited competence, three colonels, a dozen captains, a famous law professor … and three battalions of legionnaires who had agreed to stay in Britain and fight for him. For a time the New Hebrides were the only French colony to back de Gaulle.” 

Churchill and de Gaulle came to the agreement that Britain would fund de Gaulle’s Free French forces and that France would pay Britain back when the war was over.  

liberation of Cherbourg battle of Normandy
De Gaulle speaking to residents of Cherbourg in August 1944 – it was liberated in June that year (image: US National Archives)

De Gaulle’s shadow French government, at first run with General Henri Giraud as well, was initially based in Britain but moved to Algiers, the capital of French Algeria, in 1943.

When D-Day came in June 6, 1944, a pre-recorded speech by de Gaulle was broadcast that morning. He said:

"The battle has begun and France will fight it with fury. For the sons of France, wherever and whoever they may be, there is a simple and sacred duty to fight with all the means at their disposal."

With the liberation of Paris, de Gaulle became head of the new French provisional government there from September 9 until his resignation in January 1946.

liberation of paris
General Charles de Gaulle, just visible in the centre, at the head of a victory parade in Paris in 1944 (image: US National Archives)

The Fourth French Republic came into effect after the war, replacing the Third Republic that had fallen following the defeat of France in 1940. De Gaulle, though, spoke out and campaigned against its constitution, believing that it gave too little power to the office of the presidency to be truly effective.

In 1958 he got to reform the constitution as Prime Minister, before becoming President of the Fifth Republic at the end of the year.

De Gaulle assumed the presidency at a time of huge political crisis. The country was in the midst of dealing with an insurrection in Algiers. The war of independence that would rage there until 1962 ended because de Gaulle chose to negotiate a French withdrawal with the rebel leaders.

This triggered at backlash from a minority faction of French military leaders in Algiers who formed a terrorist organisation, the OAS (Secret Army Organization.) They carried out bombings and assassinations, including attempts on the life of de Gaulle himself. (This forms the basis for the plot of the novel ‘The Day of the Jackal’, which is about a fictional English assassin hired by the OAS to kill de Gaulle).

The bulk of the French population, however, supported de Gaulle, allowing him to end the war in Algeria and see off the OAS. He likewise proposed the withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam.

Much of the focus of his presidency after Algeria was on major reforms: to the French economy, and to the country’s position on the world stage. His aim was to give France more independence internationally,  and under him the country became a nuclear power.

After retiring from public life, de Gaulle died on November 9, 1970, just shy of his 80th birthday.

He had arranged for no government ministers or presidents to attend his funeral, though so many wished to honour him that a separate service was set up at Notre-Dame Cathedral. It was attended by a number  of world leaders, including US president Richard Nixon and British Prime Minister Edward Heath.

It was the largest event of its kind in French history. 

statue general Charles de Gaulle
A monument to de Gaulle in Paris (image: Shutterstock/Nikonaft ID: 110377844)