MHQ Dossier: Charles de Gaulle

Charles de Gaulle salutes the Allied colors during a Bastille Day review in Algiers, July 1943. (National Archives)
Charles de Gaulle salutes the Allied colors during a Bastille Day review in Algiers, July 1943. (National Archives)

From the Dossier

Charles de Gaulle: French general, statesman, and hero. Field officer in World War I and briefly in World War II.

Dutiful son of France
De Gaulle announced he would become a soldier on his 10th birthday after seeing L’Aiglon (The Eaglet), a play about the life of Napoleon II.

‘Big Charles’
While at the Saint-Cyr military academy, he earned the nicknames “Big Charles” (he was 6 foot 5), “The Cock,” and “Cyrano,” a nod to his prominent nose.

Premonition of death
On his first day in combat, on August 15, 1914, at Dinant in Belgium, de Gaulle was shot in the leg and crawled from the field. Nine years earlier, when he was 15, he had dreamed that Germany and France would go to war in 1914 and that he would be killed on August 15.

Near-fatal wound
Later in World War I, in 1916 near Verdun, de Gaulle was bayoneted in the thigh. Unconscious and covered in blood, he was presumed dead. His commanding officer asked that the young captain be cited posthumously for his valor, and told de Gaulle’s father that his son “had done his duty to the end.”

Tank trouble
In the 1930s, de Gaulle—still a little-known lieutenant colonel—alienated veteran officers by pushing the army to focus on tank warfare, which the leadership thought impractical. Given command of a tank regiment in 1937, he was told: “You’ve given us enough trouble with your paper tanks. Now let’s see what you make of the metal sort.”

Ego at war
Though hailed for his fight against the German invasion, the general did not exactly inspire his men. One of them wrote: “De Gaulle exercised an independent, exclusive, authoritarian, and egocentric command…in all circumstances his judgment was the best if not the only valid one.”

 

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