The turmoil of World War II made heroes and household names of many in the military, most of whom were already in positions of military power and whose decisions and actions shaped their countries’ military policies and directions. Charles de Gaulle, however, held a position of relative obscurity within his military. That is, until the Germans invaded his homeland in May of 1940.
In his youth, de Gaulle was interested, above all else, in the fate of France, whether as a subject of history or as it affected his stake in public life. Born in Lille in 1890 and growing up in Paris, he was the son of a traditionalist father and a mother who, in his memoirs, de Gaulle described as having ‘uncompromising passion for her country, equal to her religious piety.’ He joined the army in 1909 and, as then required, served in the ranks for one year. In 1910 he entered the military academy at Saint-Cyr. His first assignment to the 33rd Infantry Regiment brought him in contact with a Colonel Henri Pétain. Pétain would later rise to the rank of marshal of the army and become the savior of France at Verdun during World War I. De Gaulle credited Pétain with teaching him the art of command. During World War I de Gaulle learned firsthand the harsh reality of combat. He was wounded three times and spent the last 32 months of the war as a prisoner.
Between the wars, de Gaulle participated in a brief campaign in Poland and served as a history instructor at Saint-Cyr. It was here that he gained a reputation as a military writer and tactical theorist. In one of his published works, The Army of the Future, he set forth his theory on the need for a mechanized army and the future of tank warfare. Although many of his theories were ridiculed by the older military establishment, he was eventually detailed to the Secretariat Général de la Défence Nationale, the military advisory staff of the French premier. That assignment gave de Gaulle an insight into the workings of his government and cultivated his cynicism for France’s political system. It was here also that he began to formulate what would later become his political doctrine.
France was no different from the other participants in the Great War in her desire to prevent any such event from happening again. The killing fields had bled her of her youth and vitality. The depression of the 1930s had affected her people as it had the rest of the world. The strong leadership required to aid in recovery did not exist. In fact, under her parliamentary system, France had 14 governments formed between 1932 and 1937. Social welfare became the priority of her people and government. During those same years, across the demilitarized zone of the Rhine, her neighbor again began to rise to dominance. Adolf Hitler had brought Germany out of the Depression with a strong economic program and had secretly begun the rearming of her military.
France was not oblivious to her neighbor’s recovery but felt the Treaty of Versailles would contain Germany’s energies. Preoccupied with her social woes, France did little to modernize or expand her army. To appease military alarmists, a series of fortifications called the Maginot Line was built at a great cost as insurance against aggression from the east. De Gaulle, witnessing the modernization of the German military, became a vocal advocate of developing motorized armored divisions. He argued that for a fraction of what the Maginot Line was costing, France could equip and field several armored divisions. His appeals fell, for the most part, on deaf ears. He did find an open mind in Paul Reynaud, a member of the Chamber of Deputies. Reynaud also saw the need for modernizing the French forces but was unable to persuade other members of the government to support his views. By the time Reynaud succeeded Edouard Daladier as head of state in March of 1940, it was too late to prevent the coming tragedy.
Thus, in May 1940, when the German juggernaut turned west and rumbled toward France, the French military found itself totally unprepared. The Maginot Line was bypassed, leaving France’s vaunted line of defense totally useless. Too late to be effective, de Gaulle was given command of the 4th Armored Division on May 11 and was told by the commander of the northeast front, General Alphonse Georges, ‘Here is your chance to act.’ Despite the fact that the division was newly formed and inexperienced, de Gaulle mounted a counterattack, only to be quickly brushed aside by the German advance. Regrouping two days later, he attempted to renew his attack and actually penetrated the German line, but was ordered to desist as his division was needed elsewhere. Reynaud rewarded his efforts by appointing de Gaulle undersecretary for war.
In his new capacity, de Gaulle was confronted with the desperation and indecision of the French leaders. Reynaud dispatched de Gaulle to England with a plea to send more British forces and aircraft. However, Prime Minister Winston Churchill was already resigned to the fact that France would fall. He assured de Gaulle he would do what he could but explained that Britain was ill-prepared for war and could not send more assistance to the French at the expense of his own country’s defense.
Arriving back in France, de Gaulle found the government packing up and preparing to flee Paris in the face of the German advance. The general staff was leaning toward Marshal Pétain’s call to capitulate. De Gaulle attempted to persuade Reynaud to relieve General Maxime Weygand, the French supreme commander, in favor of a commander who was more determined to fight. Reynaud finally consented, but a few hours later de Gaulle discovered that Reynaud had changed his mind and that he, too, was now leaning toward an armistice.
Churchill made a quick visit, and during subsequent meetings between the two governments he displayed sympathy but made no commitments. Government and military meetings held after Churchill’s departure convinced de Gaulle that the French leaders were going to capitulate. De Gaulle himself grudgingly recognized the futility of saving metropolitan France and began to advocate moving to the French colonies of North Africa or consolidating in the Breton region to carry on the fight. Premier Reynaud again sent de Gaulle to England in an effort to procure transportation for the evacuation. He carried with him the message that if France were unable to hold onto the continent of Europe, she would continue the fight in North Africa. The British reception, while courteous, was negative and left de Gaulle with an empty feeling that France’s allies were deserting her. De Gaulle also realized there was not going to be any ‘Breton Redoubt’ or stand in Africa. Upon his return, a tired but determined de Gaulle formally informed Reynaud of his decision to leave for Britain to carry on the fight. Reynaud gave de Gaulle 100,000 francs from secret funds, the purpose of which is not recorded. The next day de Gaulle departed for England, ‘carrying, in this small airplane,’ Churchill wrote, ‘the honor of France.’
Many critics of de Gaulle claimed he was a traitor. The Vichy government even condemned him to death in absentia. De Gaulle considered all who served the Vichy government to be the true traitors. His arrogance was legendary among the Allies, and he claimed to all who would listen that he was the only true French government. President Franklin D. Roosevelt often remarked, ‘Sometimes he thinks he’s Joan of Arc and sometimes he thinks he’s Clemenceau.’
Churchill tolerated and soothed his ego while de Gaulle was a guest of the British government. De Gaulle was tolerated partly because he was the only Frenchman at the time who would have even a remote chance of influencing the French partisans when their assistance would be needed and partly because the British government sympathized with his plight.
In his memoirs De Gaulle painted a picture of a French population betrayed by her leaders and begging for his leadership. In reality, many patriotic Frenchmen did not have the opportunities he enjoyed. He was given use of the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) for his Fighting France propaganda broadcasts to the mainland, as well as Allied assistance in providing transportation and equipment for his followers. In the beginning, the majority of French patriotic groups and partisans did not support de Gaulle despite his early claims.
De Gaulle demanded the Allies treat him and his followers as full partners, to include weapons and command of troops. His pique at being left out of the Allied invasion of French North Africa and subsequent invitation to assist General Henri Giraud in forming a committee to oversee the French colonies led to a rebuke by Churchill. Upon arriving in Algiers, de Gaulle was insulted by the security measures that were taken, including sequestering him in a requisitioned villa surrounded by barbed wire. He let his dissatisfaction be known to Churchill, who burst out, ‘This is an occupied country!’
He reluctantly joined Giraud in forming a governing committee under the guidelines set forth by the Allies. De Gaulle despised Giraud and his people for their previous allegiance to the Vichy government and quickly phased them out of the committee, gaining complete control for himself. He informed the Allies that the North African colonies were sovereign French and that they were welcome as long as they continued to support him and his mission to free France. In reality, de Gaulle had little to back up such a claim. He controlled no military. The French military units still obeyed Giraud and fought alongside the Allies throughout the African campaign. The Allies also provided the food and material required to sustain the colonies. Churchill wrote: ‘I resented his arrogant demeanor. Here he was, a refugee, an exile from his own country under sentence of death, in a position entirely dependent on the goodwill of the British government, and also now of the United States. The Germans had conquered his country. He had no real foothold anywhere. Never mind; he defied all.’
De Gaulle believed that if he had been included in the planning of the invasion of North Africa less bloodshed would have resulted. He was not included in the invasion scheme because the Americans were counting on the French Africans’ support and weak opposition from the Vichy government. De Gaulle was considered a traitor by both groups, and French cooperation was not possible with his involvement. De Gaulle did little to endear himself to these groups. He shed French blood in his disastrous attempt to take the port of Dakar in October 1940, accusing the Vichy government of ‘misusing the courage and discipline of those who were in subjection to them.’ In his attempt to get out from under the thumb of the Allies and establish Free French territory, de Gaulle mounted a series of small campaigns to liberate French Equatoria, causing many casualties with very little strategic results. His decision to fight his own countrymen instead of the Germans did little to dispel the Vichy claim that de Gaulle was a traitor. It was not until the Vichy government began outright collaboration with its German masters that his countrymen began to look to de Gaulle for leadership.
Throughout the war, de Gaulle made demands of the Allies in the name of France, most of which were ignored. When it became evident that the liberation of Paris was possible, de Gaulle informed General Dwight D. Eisenhower that if Eisenhower failed to order the taking of Paris, de Gaulle would order French General Philippe LeClerc and the 2nd French Armored Division, attached to American General Courtney Hodges’ command at Argentan, to take Paris. Eisenhower’s plan was to bypass Paris in favor of a move eastward, and he refused to detach LeClerc to de Gaulle. Only after learning that the Germans occupying Paris had orders to destroy the city did Eisenhower issue the order for LeClerc to proceed to Paris in the interest of preventing a political crisis. In late afternoon on August 25, 1944, General Charles de Gaulle arrived in Paris to the cheers of thousands. Only one thing marred his triumphant return. The surrender document, which was to be signed by the defeated German general and LeClerc, had been altered to include the signatures of the French resistance leaders as well as one notable Communist leader. De Gaulle was enraged and chastised LeClerc for allowing it to happen. Forget the fact the Communists and resistance fighters had carried on the war at home while de Gaulle consolidated his power elsewhere; de Gaulle was not going to share in the power he so greatly cherished.
Although a French general, de Gaulle was never given command of an Allied army, French or otherwise. His early reputation as a tactician and theorist was never put to the test on any large scale. He built a power base for the eventual establishment of a French government and tried to procure for France the status of a full-fledged equal among the victorious Allies right up to the end of the war. His treatment by the Allies, especially the snubbing by the United States, embittered de Gaulle. Although France shared in the occupation of a divided Germany, de Gaulle was not invited to the Big Three conferences at Potsdam and Yalta. His desire for France to return to its former glory and power became an obsession.
In 1944, de Gaulle’s provisional government took over liberated France. Ineffectual, its primary accomplishment was the building of morale. He resigned in 1946 over a dispute as to what the composition of the new government should be. De Gaulle wanted a strong presidency not answerable to the elected general assembly. A push for a stronger general assembly won out. He attempted a comeback in 1947 but was never able to achieve the majority he needed, and after a six-year struggle he retired. In 1958, with widening economic problems and a bitter dispute over Algerian independence, France once again called on de Gaulle to lead. Appointed as the premier, he was given great authority, and history has credited him with improving the economy and solving the Algerian crisis. In reality, de Gaulle’s eye was fixed on foreign affairs. The economic revival was actually the result of the efforts of the previous ruling party and the overall strengthening of European economies. His vision of France returning as a world power never came to fruition. One by one, the African colonies he fought so hard to keep during the war sought and obtained independence. De Gaulle’s attempt to hold onto a crumbling empire led France into a long and costly conflict in Southeast Asia, a conflict his country could ill afford.
Snubbed by the other European nations in his campaign to place France as the leader of the European community, de Gaulle steered France toward independence from its neighbors in the 1960s. He resigned in 1969 after a referendum designed to give him greater constitutional power was defeated. He died the following year.
This article was written by Patrick Johnson and originally appeared in the November1993 issue of World War II magazine. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!