Charles André Joseph-Marie de Gaulle was born in 1890. His family was privileged and conservative, as can be denoted by the de in his name; also devoutly Roman Catholic. He was naturally educated at a Jesuit school and went straight to the French military academy at St-Cyr. As a junior officer he fought with distinction and valour in the Great War.
Probably because of his superior attitude, never popular with senior officers, he was still a colonel in 1940 when he was already fifty years old. He wrote a number of important treatises on military and historical subjects, and was a great admirer of the tank as a promising method of waging war.
Suddenly he was promoted to be a temporary general of a Brigade (June, 1940) and only four days later he was in the fading government of France as Under-Secretary at the Ministry of National Defence. The Armistice offered by France to Nazi Germany astonished and infuriated him and he got to England as quickly as he could, where he was seen askance by British leaders, though he was permitted to make impassioned speeches by radio to the French nation, begging them to fight even if the Armed Forces would not.
Next de Gaulle declared himself the ‘Leader of the Free French’ (as an unwilling and unwanted guest of the British) and began a series of major rows with President Roosevelt in the USA, trying to make America see France as a co-belligerent and ally rather than a defeated power. By 1944 the USA had been in the Second War for three years and Brigadier de Gaulle was Head of the Provisional Government, based in war-torn London. Churchill, who was trying to fight the War on several fronts at once, did not take kindly to the enormously tall French martinet, but promised to help him get France back with the French.
When Paris under the Germans fell after the Invasion, de Gaulle made sure he was the leader who entered Paris first, while his North American, British and Commonwealth colleagues stood by with a fixed smile. With the Germans finally defeated, he organised the election of an assembly to draw up a new constitution, but then resigned because everything, he said, was too slow. It was 1946. He stayed away from politics until 1958, when the Algerian crisis led inevitably to his recall to power as the last Prime Minister of the 4th Republic.
He then set about drafting a new constitution for a 5th Republic, including all those amendments he had demanded in 1946. A Referendum supported him and he became the 5th’s first President in 1959, a position he held for ten years. He fought off attempted coups and several assassination attempts, and negotiated Algerian independence (1962). The French colonies were also liberated from French dominance.
He then showed his gratefulness to Britain for having provided a home, an income and a staff during most of the Second World War by denying Britain a place in the proposed European Community, to ensure France had a (or the) leading role. Not content with this, he signed an historic reconciliation treaty with Germany in the same year, 1963. Britain, unsurprisingly, felt left out as it was obvious France and Germany were going to be the dominant partners in the Union. De Gaulle then went on to make himself even more unpopular with the United States by removing France from her military obligations under NATO; at the same time he developed his own nuclear deterrent (1965).
The British and the Americans thought he was a bit of a Gallic joke but he was very popular with the French (those who did not wish to kill him because of Algeria). In 1968 the students organised massive riots across France and there had to be elections, in which de Gaulle won a surprising majority but lost a Referendum on constitutional reform. He immediately resigned, as he always did when he could not get his own way, and retired to sulk in his manor at Colombey Les Deux Èglises (1969).
He died in 1970 at the age of eighty. He was a great leader, a skilled orator and honourable to himself, but he never mastered the art of making himself agreeable to those he must work with.