De Gaulle, a great Frenchman

De Gaulle, a great Frenchman



Charles A.J.M. de Gaulle was born in Lille in 1890. An average schoolboy (apart from his great height), he graduated from the Military Academy at St. Cyr in 1909, and was gazetted lieutenant in the 33rd Infanty Regiment under the command of Pétain (of whom he was an admirer).

In 1916 he was a captain in the French army fighting at Verdun; he was taken prisoner, but released quickly because by 1919 he was serving in the military mission in Poland. After two years of administrative work he was taken on as a lecturer at the French Staff College, where he was a clear and popular speaker with highly developed theories on the offensive use of tanks and aircraft, two potentially important weapons first seen in action in the First War.

By May 1940 De Gaulle was commanding an armoured division and (for the first time) in politics; he held a comparatively unimportant junior post in Reynaud’s government, but soon got himself to England when his former hero Marshal Pétain led France into defeatism and shame and eventually into Vichy. Some historians claim De Gaulle blamed Pétain for the extraordinary surrender to Nazi Germany after a relatively brief but uninspired fight. The famous ‘impregnable’ Maginot Line, for example, had simply been circumvented by von Rundsted.

The official French Government under German occupation was declared legal on 10 July, 1940. The French surrender had been offered after rather less than 3 months. But De Gaulle (and thousands of other Frenchmen) had walked, bicycled, driven, flown, hitchhiked or sailed to England, where they intended to continue the fight. He became the popular (with Frenchmen) leader of ‘The Free French’.

Britain offered De Gaulle a home, finance, support, radio time, and a state of constant bickering with Winstion Churchill and, across the Atlantic, President Roosevelt. He resolutely made himself as difficult as possible, in the name of France. He jealously guarded his ideas of how Free France should conduct its war against Hitler, and the prestige of France herself – though this was difficult because most Allies believed France had given up without firing a shot. For the French in occupied France, however, he became a figure of legend: the abnormally tall, commanding figure would drive the Nazis off French soil.

He became Head of the French committee of National Liberation in Algiers in June, 1943, and was present in the second wave of the Allied invading armies in June, 1944. Despite Churchill’s doubts, it was General de Gaulle who entered liberated Paris in pure triumph in August. There  was very little his allies could do to prevent his being recognised as head of the Administration of the Government of France in October, 1944. He became (provisional) President of the French Republic in November, 1945. He was fifty-five years old.

One of Churchill’s (and others’) worries about Charles de Gaulle was that if he ever became President of France he would try his hardest to make the presidency as similar as possible to that of the United States – with equal powers, prestige and influence, though there seemed very little reason why. When this attempt was inevitably made, France suddenly lost its love for its hero  and his presidential proposals were rejected by the French constituent assembly in 1946. He instantly resigned and went off in a huff to live quietly at his home in Colombey-les-deux-Églises. European politicians in general may have heaved a sigh of relief, but their joy was eclipsed when in May 1958 de Gaulle made a terrific political come-back, becoming President of the Fifth Republic.

In this position he was able to thwart Britain’s attempts to join what was then The Common Market, thus balancing the account with the country that he always claimed had treated him badly. He conceded independence to Algeria and the former French African colonies, and dominated the emerging European Economic Community. He developed the French nuclear deterrent, and withdrew French support from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). But his position was seriously questioned in 1968, when the Parisian students rebelled, unhappy with the contrast between the high expenditure on defence compared with the social services and education, neither of which could be said to have much interested the General.

The students were, surprisingly, supported in their strike actions by workers in heavy and light industry, and the resulting strike became the most sustained in French history. De Gaulle had no option but to reform the social services and make economic concession to the workers. Never had the country been so near to converting directly to Communism. In 1969, the resolute old Frenchman, exhausted by internal argument, external pressures, and an adverse national referendum, resigned. He died at eighty years old in 1970.

By | 2012-02-29T09:39:40+00:00 February 29th, 2012|English History, French History, German History, US History, World History|6 Comments

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.


  1. nakedtruth April 11, 2012 at 7:57 pm - Reply

    ‘An average schoolboy’, at the age of fifteen, de gaulle said he was going to be president of his country and help france regain its full prestige, what an ‘average’ prophecy for an ‘average’ schoolboy…

    ‘of whom he was an admirer [petain]’, one may notice the irony; of course petain at that time was the victorious marshall at verdun, where more than two million french and german soldiers died; every english american italian portuguese belgian and french admired the figure of petain until 1942, when Vichy fell into collaboration.

    ‘Some historians claim’, how about you cite sources once in a while; sorry for being rude but history is at stake here!

  2. nakedtruth April 11, 2012 at 7:58 pm - Reply

    ‘De Gaulle blamed Pétain for the extraordinary surrender to Nazi Germany after a relatively brief but uninspired fight.’, it wasnt petain’s decision, he could have said no, but the cease-fire didnt come from him at first; second, the surrender is not more extraordinary than that of the netherlands and of belgium, and after all, even if the fight was brief there was heavy casulties on both sides, some french victories including the battle of the alps, where the italians never crossed the alps even as the french where outnumbered 3 to 1.

    ‘walked, bicycled, driven, flown, hitchhiked or sailed to England’…most stayed in france to fight with the resistance, some went to french north africa, others went to london months or years laters, with priceless intelligence on the ennemy’s positions.

    ‘He became the popular (with Frenchmen)’…are you trying to say the chinese didn’t support him? you know most of the time popularity is only measured nationally, i dont understand your point…

  3. nakedtruth April 11, 2012 at 8:01 pm - Reply

    -britain supported financially, but de gaulle made it a point of honor that france would pay all the money back, which they did, less than six years later.

    -‘most Allies believed France had given up without firing a shot’, you should really pay attention to what you write: more than 100,000 french and british soldiers died under the luftwaffe fire in dunkirk in 39, hopefully this battle isnt unknown to anyone checking their facts.

    -‘the second wave of the Allied invading armies ‘, second wave? check your facts, the french had tens of thousands on the beach of normandy and two hundred thousand landed in the mediterranean battle that closely followed with marshal lattre de tassigny; dont forget the french permitted the allied forces’ advance in monte-cassino, way before the normandy landing…

  4. nakedtruth April 11, 2012 at 8:08 pm - Reply

    -the two next paragraphs are quite incorrect as well on the reasons why de gaulle left power;
    -‘the contrast between the high expenditure on defense compared with the social services and education, neither of which could be said to have much interested the General.’ may 68 is more the equivalent of the hippy years than anything else, nothing to do with defense or the economy but rather the youth tired of an old power in such an extravagant time. For the story, during the events, de gaulle disappeared and flew over to Baden at the French military camp in Germany and as he came back, 2 million Parisians started a protest for his support. You should finally read about the social and educational reforms de gaulle introduced in 45-46 before writing such an inaccurate statement.

  5. nakedtruth April 11, 2012 at 10:39 pm - Reply

    and communism was more present and more feared in 1936 during the ‘front populaire’ than during the short week riot from the students and workers; today when people think red-scare they think mccarthysm, or more naive, Mitterrand’s election in 1981 (first socialist president of the fifth rep’ and de gaulle’s opponent since the 1961 election-on could go back to vichy where the socialist earned the famous ‘francisque’…), so no communist threat in 68, de gaulle bluffed in order to appear like the man in the situation, with a tight grip on the events.

  6. Dean Swift April 17, 2012 at 12:11 pm - Reply

    NakedTruth: Apparently you think I should be more careful about what I write. But you should also. When I wrote ‘Most allies thought’ etc. that is exactly what I meant. Do you dispute that most allies thought the French had given up without firing a shot? No, you tell me what I know already, viz. ‘100,000 French and British soldiers’ etc. The Luftwaffe, my pompous friend, was the German airforce, and the killing was handled by the army. Don’t lecture me. Set up your own site and lecture someone else. And please do not patronise me either. Best wishes, Dean.

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