Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970) was the leader of the Free French forces during World War Two and President of the Fifth Republic between 1958-1969. His political manifesto ‘Gaullism’ – ‘the politics of grandeur’ – shaped French post-war nationalism and steered his country to the centre of European power. Born into a devout catholic family of historians, de Gaulle was educated in Paris at the prestigious Roman Catholic College Stanislas and would from an early age believe it was his destiny to achieve greatness.
De Gaulle entered the Saint Cyr military academy in 1908 and was commissioned into the French army in 1911. Like Winston Churchill, he was a vocal critic of his government for failing to acknowledge the threat of German armament and the lack of preparation for war in France. De Gaulle joined the 33rd Infantry regiment commanded by Colonel Phlippe Pétain and was mentioned in dispatches for his bravery in the early years of the Great War. As he predicted the French troops’ bayonet charges resulted in pointless sacrifice in the face of German artillery fire.
In 1916 de Gaulle led a charge at the Battle of Verdun that left him stabbed, stunned by shellfire and rendered unconscious from the effects of poison gas. He was captured and would spend more than two and a half years as a prisoner of war. Because of his shrewd analysis of dispatches reported in German papers (he was fluent) de Gaulle earned the nickname ‘the Constable’. While in captivity, de Gaulle wrote Towards a Professional Army. The book was largely ignored in France but was read by Adolf Hitler.
Between the wars de Gaulle served in Poland and in occupied Germany. On the outbreak of World War Two, de Gaulle fought with a tank regiment and was promoted to Brigadier General. Prime Minister Paul Reynaud made him Under Secretary of State for National Defence and War. His duties included liaising with British forces and this paved the way to greatness.
In 1940 Philippe Pétain became prime minister. De Gaulle lobbied his old colonel to retreat to France’s North African colonies and direct defences from there. Pétain supported armistice with Nazi Germany. For De Gaulle this was a betrayal of France. On the 17th of June 1940 he and a group of senior French officers flew to Britain. On the 18th British Prime Minister Winston Churchill authorised de Gaulle to deliver a radio address on the BBC from Savoy Hill rallying occupied France to the cause of resistance and liberation.
De Gaulle and his generals established their HQ in Carlton House Terrace though The French House pub on Soho’s Dean Street was their de facto home in exile and, allegedly, where de Gaulle drafted his ‘France has lost the battle. But France will win the war’ address. General de Gaulle first appears in the Henry Poole & Co ledgers shortly after his flight to London. From London de Gaulle directed the French Resistance movement and in 1941 he was named President of the Free French National Council.
The tension between De Gaulle’s fierce national pride and his nomad status as a self-appointed leader in exile caused malcontent with his fellow allied leaders. Writing in retrospect Churchill said ‘he felt it was essential to his position before the French people that he should maintain a proud and haughty demeanour towards “perfidious Albion” although in exile, dependent upon our protection and dwelling in our midst. He had to be rude to the British to prove to French eyes that he was not a British puppet. He certainly carried out this policy with perseverance’.
De Gaulle himself declared ‘France has no friends, only interests’. When he planned to fly to Scotland to inspect the Free French navy, de Gaulle’s Wellington Bomber was found to have been sabotaged by an acid attack in an attempt to assassinate him. It was one of many attempts on his life that de Gaulle would brave before the end of the war. Though France and Britain were united against Nazi Germany, de Gaulle recognised that the ‘special relationship’ between the UK and US would always take precedence.
Though de Gaulle called Churchill a gangster, the British PM recognised that General de Gaulle was ‘the man of destiny’ and ‘the spirit of the (French) army’. In 1944 de Gaulle met President Roosevelt in Washington. He received a 17-gun salute (for a military leader) rather than the 21-gun salute for a head of state. The visit was said to be ‘devoid of trust on both sides’ and did not advance de Gaulle’s cause as a global statesman. But head of state he would soon be.
When Paris was liberated in August 1944 de Gaulle led Free French troops into the capital. Hitler had instructed his general Dietrich von Choltitz to raze Paris to the ground. The order was ignored. In his speech to the people of Paris from the Hotel de Ville de Gaulle eulogised ‘Paris outraged, Paris broken, Paris martyred, but Paris liberated’. De Gaulle was lauded for his bravery having been shot at without flinching on his laudatory tour of Paris.
The France de Gaulle inherited was on its knees. The country’s transport system was shattered, industries sabotaged and the populace engaged in the witch hunt for collaborators. In Paris alone 4500 people were executed for treason though de Galle was an advocate for leniency commuting many death sentences to imprisonment. On the world stage British Ambassador Alfred ‘Duff’ Cooper judged that de Gaulle ‘was looking for trouble and insults where there were none’. That said France was not invited to the Yalta Conference in February 1945 when Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill met and de Gaulle saw this as a personal as well as national insult.
France was castigated by the powers for its aggression in Syria leading Churchill to call de Gaulle ‘one of the greatest dangers to European peace’. Having led a provisional government immediately after the war, de Gaulle did form a Fourth Republic administration in 1946 but was ousted within two months. Like Churchill who was defeated by the British electorate in 1945, de Gaulle appeared to be a throwback to hard, pugnacious times that the French would probably like to forget.
General de Gaulle’s wilderness years between 1946 and 1958 were spent writing his mighty war memoirs. In his time away from power France’s government collapsed twenty-four times and the country descended into colonial wars with Morocco, Tunisia, Indochine and Algeria. It was the Algerian crisis in 1958 that caused the Fourth Republic to collapse opening the door for De Gaulle’s political comeback. Elected President of the Fifth Republic, de Gaulle had the mandate to forge strong links with Germany, form the EEC and fulfil his prophecy that ‘Europe will decide the destiny of the world’.
De Gaulle’s administration was characterised by a bullish French economy, a robust independent foreign policy, a strong EEC and a nuclear weapons program. He withdrew France from NATO, twice vetoed the UK’s entry to the EEC and oversaw the dismantling of France’s colonies. In April 1969 de Gaulle called a referendum fully expecting the fickle French electorate to support him. He lost and Georges Pompidou became President. General de Gaulle died two weeks’ short of his 80th birthday at his country estate La Boisserie. On de Gaulle’s death his successor Pompidou declared ‘France is a widow’.