All About Charles de Gaulle


 

If you know anything about history, you’re sure to have heard of Charles de Gaulle before. Actually, if you’ve ever flown into the main Paris airport, you’ve also heard of him! Is Paris-Charles De Gaulle ringing any bells?!

De Gaulle was a World War II war hero that would eventually go on to be president of France for 10 years. In between, he fled to England, he wrote military novels and helped lead France to victory against the Germans.

So, you’ve heard the name, but do you know about the man behind it? If not, you’ve come to the right place! Keep reading to learn all about Charles de Gaulle.

Early life

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Charles de Gaulle in 1915 – WikiCommons

Charles de Gaulle was born in 1890 in Lille, France. The de Gaulle family was very Catholic, and his ancestors were French nobility. His father was a professor and a historian, and encouraged de Gaulle to study history himself. When de Gaulle was a child, he loved reading, especially about history, poetry and philosophy.

Although he had an interest in reading and writing, de Gaulle didn’t begin to excel in school until he was in his mid to late teens. He wanted to earn a place to train as an army officer in the military academy called Saint-Cyr.

In 1909, de Gaulle was given a chance and was accepted at Saint-Cyr. In order to become an officer, de Gaulle was required to serve at least one year in the ranks. De Gaulle enlisted in the 33rd Infantry Regiment of the French Army, a prestigious regiment known for it’s participation in battles such as Austerlitz, Wagram and Borodino.

De Gaulle graduated from Saint-Cyr in 1912 and he was ranked 13th in his class. After graduation, he joined the 33rd Regiment again, and actually served under Philippe Pétain, the infamous Marshal of France during World War II.

World War I

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Charles de Gaulle during World War II by the Office of War Information, Overseas Picture Division – WikiCommons

Before I move onto de Gaulle’s involvement in World War II, I have to mention a few things about what he was up to during the First World War.

When the war broke out in France in 1914, de Gaulle’s Regiment was sent to Dinant to fight against the Germans there. De Gaulle was wounded fairly early on, just two weeks after arriving to the battlefield.

In 1916, at the Battle of Verdun, de Gaulle was injured once more and was captured by the German army. He was a prisoner for 36 months. While he was imprisoned de Gaulle began writing. While in captivity, he wrote the book, Discorde chez l’ennemi (The Enemy’s House Divided in English), which spoke on problems and divisions within the German military.

Although de Gaulle attempted to escape from prison, he was unsuccessful and remained in German captivity until the end of the war.

Between World War I and World War II, De Gaulle continued to work on his writing. He published The Enemy’s House Divided in 1924, and in 1932 he published Vers l’armée de métier (Toward a Professional Army in English), in which he spoke on what he thought could be done to have a better army. He also published La France et son armée (France and Her Army in English) in 1938, a book which caused a falling out between de Gaulle and Pétain. This was just the beginning of the rocky relationship between the two military men.

World War II

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Winston Churchill and General Charles de Gaulle walk down the Avenue des Champs-Elysee duirng the French Armistice Day parade in Paris, 11 November 1944 by Major Horton – WikiCommons

When the war began in France in 1939, de Gaulle was serving as the leader of a tank brigade. Soon after, in May 1940, de Gaulle was promoted to the the brigadier general. De  Gaulle continued to work his way up, and was eventually appointed as the undersecretary for defense and war for the French leader Paul Reynaud. Reynaud was soon replaced by Pétain, who would be known as the leader of the Vichy government.

The Vichy government was the government that was in charge of the free section of France during World War II. They would eventually be known as Nazi collaborators. De Gaulle was so against this, that he fled to England in order to lead the Free French movement from there. He was supported by the British prime minister, Winston Churchill.

De Gaulle is perhaps most famous for the speech that the BBC broadcasted across the channel to his fellow French citizens. In the speech, de Gaulle urges his compatriots to continue to resist Nazi German occupation. De Gaulle also organized troops coming in from the French colonies to fight side by side with the allied troops.

At the end of the war, de Gaulle was appointed president of France’s temporary government. But, de Gaulle didn’t stay in this position for long before resigning. This wouldn’t stop him from becoming president in 1959!

Presidency

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Charles de Gaulle in 1960 by Egon Steiner – WikiCommons

The French government has gone through many changes ever since the French Revolution. After the end of World War II, the Fourth Republic was running things, but it began to lose it’s steam in the late 1950s. Enter: the Fifth Republic. De Gaulle helped establish this new government, so it made sense for him to become it’s first president!

In 1959, de Gaulle was sworn into office. De Gaulle’s main goals were to maintain France’s independence and improve the country’s economy. Forever a military man at heart, de Gaulle also urged France to move forward with a nuclear weapons program.

In 1962, de Gaulle helped Algeria become independent. This was met with mixed feelings from the French people. De Gaulle also wanted to make sure that France remained separated from the world’s superpowers at the time, the United States and the Soviet Union, and fought hard to ensure that Europe itself was not influenced by these superpowers. He even pulled France out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for fear of American involvement in Europe.

De Gaulle was president during the student and factory worker riots of May 1968, during which time he nearly witnessed his government overturned by the protestors. De Gaulle endured, and attempted to unite France and the French, but he was met with resistance and resigned from the presidency in 1969.

Later life and legacy

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President Kennedy and President De Gaulle at Elysee Palace, Paris. Image courtesy of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, Boston – WikiCommons

After his presidency, de Gaulle settled into his country home in Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises. Unfortunately he was not able to enjoy his retirement for long, as he died on a heart attack in 1970. His stressful life had finally caught up to him.

French President at the time, Georges Pompidou said after his death, “General de Gaulle is dead. France is a widow.” This speaks to the love and support de Gaulle has garnered throughout his remarkable life. There was even a special service held for de Gaulle at the Notre-Dame in Paris to honor him.

“General de Gaulle is dead. France is a widow.” – President Georges Pompidou

Hundreds of thousands of French people attended the service, with people crowding in the streets in order to be close to the cathedral. Special trains were also put in place to carry those coming from outside the Île-de-France region into the city!

Today, in de Gaulle’s Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises home (called La Boisserie) there is the official Charles de Gaulle Museum.

Conclusion

There you have it, the man, the myth, the legend of Charles de Gaulle! I hope that I have managed to briefly tell you all about Charles de Gaulle. Did you know much about him before reading? Do you know more now? I hope so!

If you want to learn more about some interesting French figures in history, I definitely recommend you check out one of our walking tours in Paris! You’ll learn so much with our awesome local guides – I’m sure of it! Click here to learn more.

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