Charles de Gaulle fought with great distinction during the First World War, and was thrice wounded. At the Battle of Verdun he served under Philippe Pétain, whom he greatly admired and who was to become his mentor. During the battle, on 2 March 1916, de Gaulle was taken prisoner by the Germans. He tried unsuccessfully to escape five times and was only released following the armistice in November 1918.
Following the Great War, de Gaulle served in Poland, Germany and the Middle East. He became convinced that future wars should rely on tanks and aircraft, thus avoiding the static stalemate of the previous war. The same conclusion had been reached in Germany but while, from 1939 the Germans acted on it, the French did not, putting far too much faith in the Maginot Line, France’s fortified line of defence along the Franco-German border built during the 1930s. Indeed, de Gaulle’s belief in mobile warfare, which he espoused in a number of books, won him many enemies within the French high command, not least from his old friend, Pétain, and may have been the cause for the lack of further promotion within the army.
Leader of all free Frenchmen
With the German invasion of France in 1940, de Gaulle, in command of a tank division, put up a gallant defence but, outnumbered, finally succumbed. France’s French prime minister, Paul Reynard, appointed de Gaulle to the ministry of war, thus de Gaulle’s military career abruptly gave way to politics.
Having served for just ten days in Reynard’s government, de Gaulle fled to England shortly before his country’s surrender to Germany. On his arrival in London, Winston Churchill recognised him as the ‘leader of all free Frenchmen, wherever they may be’.
On 17 June, Reynard was replaced by the 84-year-old Phillippe Pétain. Pétain immediately sought an armistice with the Germans, labelled de Gaulle a traitor, had him stripped of his rank and ordered him executed in absentia.
On 18 June, in a broadcast from London, de Gaulle extolled his countrymen to continue the fight, asserting that France was not alone. In what became known as the Appeal of 18 June, he declared, ‘The flame of the French resistance must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished.’ De Gaulle returned the following day and this unknown Frenchman with his patriotic-sounding name boldly announced, ‘I, General de Gaulle, a French soldier and military leader, realise that I now speak for France’. His words soon spread and became the battle cry of the Free French movement.
He became the self-appointed leader of the ‘Free French’. In May 1943, de Gaulle moved to Algiers, a French colony, and there established the French Committee for National Liberation, with himself as its president. A year later, the ever-confident de Gaulle renamed the FCNL the Provisional Government of the French Republic.
Man of destiny
Winston Churchill considered de Gaulle as a ‘man of destiny’ but their relationship was never an easy one. De Gaulle’s relationship with US president, Franklin D Roosevelt, was even worse. He was furious that de Gaulle should take it upon himself to assume the role of president of a provisional government, and refused to acknowledge de Gaulle’s self-appointed political title.
Roosevelt had instructed Churchill to exclude de Gaulle from having any input into the planned Allied invasion of France. On the eve of the invasion in June 1944, however, Churchill decided that de Gaulle had to be informed. On 4 June, de Gaulle was in Algiers and Churchill sent a plane to bring him back to London. At first, de Gaulle refused to return until, with a bit of arm-twisting, he was persuaded. De Gaulle had been angered by Roosevelt’s insistence that come liberation, he planned to install, not a provisional government headed by de Gaulle, but a provisional Allied military government. When Churchill urged de Gaulle to seek a rapprochement with Roosevelt, de Gaulle responded angrily, ‘Why should I lodge my candidacy for power in France with Roosevelt? The French government already exists.’
De Gaulle’s fear was that if he didn’t act fast enough, the French communists, who had also been active within the resistance, would seize power come liberation.
De Gaulle was asked to broadcast a message to the Free French. But on reading Dwight Eisenhower’s speech, due to be delivered before his, de Gaulle was furious that the American had made no mention of him or the Free French. Finally, however, de Gaulle made his speech.
De Gaulle wanted to return to France at the first possible opportunity. Churchill refused permission until a week after D-Day. On 14 June, almost four years to the day since leaving, de Gaulle stepped foot on French soil, and, visiting the recently-liberated town of Bayeux, was greeted with much enthusiasm.
Two months later, on 25 August, Paris was liberated. The following day, de Gaulle made his triumphant return. In his speech, he proclaimed, ‘Paris outraged, Paris broken, Paris martyred, but Paris liberated! By herself, liberated by her people, with the help of the whole of France!’ His administration was officially recognised by the Allies but de Gaulle was deeply offended that France was still not considered one of the Great Powers or invited to the ‘Big Three’ conferences with Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at Yalta and Potsdam.
On 15 August 1945, Pétain (pictured) was tried for his collaboration with the Nazis and found guilty. The 89-year-old Marshal was sentenced to death by firing squad. De Gaulle however stepped in and taking into account Pétain’s age and his First World War record, commuted Pétain’s death sentence to life imprisonment. (Pétain was imprisoned, in relative luxury, on the island of Île d’Yeu, on the Atlantic coast of France. Increasingly frail, he needed constant care. He died on 23 July 1951, aged 95.)
On 10 September 1944, the Provisional Government of the French Republic was formed. At its head as prime minister – Charles de Gaulle. A year later, on 13 November 1945, following elections, de Gaulle was confirmed in his post as provisional head. However, he didn’t last long. Disillusioned with coalition politics, de Gaulle resigned in January 1946.
France is a widow
In 1947, he formed his own party, the right-wing Rally of the French People (RFP) but, failing to gain support, de Gaulle resigned in 1951. The party disbanded in 1953.
Returning to politics in 1958, after seven years of retirement, de Gaulle was again elected president. This time, he remained in power for ten years during which time he granted independence to all thirteen of France’s colonies, most notably Algeria following the seven-year Algerian War; survived several assassination attempts; advanced France’s atomic capabilities; and negotiated France’s inclusion into the European Economic Community, and its removal from NATO. He survived the political turmoil caused by the student riots during 1968, and resigned in April 1969.
He didn’t have long to enjoy his second retirement. Charles de Gaulle died of a heart attack on 9 November 1970, two weeks short of his 80th birthday. Upon his death, Georges Pompidou, the president, announced his predecessor’s death with the words, ‘General de Gaulle is dead. France is a widow.’
D-Day: History In An Hour published by William Collins, part of HarperCollins, is due 24 April 2014.