When people hear that I am reading about Le Grand Charles most have a dismissive reaction as if to say ‘That fool!’ or worse. I get no such reaction to reading about Adolf Hitler or Erwin Rommel.
Does the memory of his veto of the United Kingdom’s bid to join the fledgling European Union still rankle? Does his icy reception of President Kennedy in Paris still itch? Does his determination to make France independent by (1) withdrawing from a NATO commanded by Americans and (2) developing nuclear weapons make him a villain?
That seems to be the superficial reaction. I say ‘superficial’ because I doubt any of these reactors know much of French history or his biography. This book offers a lot of both. As a foretaste of what follows, here are a few reasons by de Gaulle had no faith in the Anglos.
1.The British tried repeatedly to oust Free France from Syria and Lebanon when the Vichy Administration there collapsed.
2.The British colluded with the Americans for two years to displace de Gaulle with another, more pliable figure head. As to pliable see (5) and (6) below.
3.Whenever de Gaulle’s insistence that France was an Ally became too annoying the British would literally turn off his telephones, deny his vehicles petrol coupons, and end take-off and landing rights for the aircraft he used for transport in England and North Africa.
4.The Roosevelt Administration continued diplomatic relations with Vichy regime well into 1944, while that regime was busy deporting Jews to Germany.
5.Free France was excluded from all the planning of D-Day and the invasion of France in June 1944. ALL.
6.The American plan was to occupy France as though a belligerent and install military governors.
The list could go on but that is enough to indicate the sore points. To see some of the context read on.
When he decided to be a soldier, Charles de Gaulle grew up. His earlier dalliances with poetry and the life of letters fell away. His adolescent indolence and insouciance stopped from one day to the next. His indifferent school work suddenly became excellent. He is another example of Prince Hal or Achilles, a man born to the sword. Once committed to the Army, De Gaulle never looked back. He entered St. Cyr by examination and worked his way up from 150 in a class of 200 to 12. No one doubted that in another term he would be first. When he graduated he chose the infantry, unlike his peers who preferred engineering, artillery, or cavalry, each more glamourous than les poilus.
At 24 World War I started and de Gaulle was a captain at the front, shot in his first engagement. When his unit was transferred to the defence of Joan of Arc’s birthplace, sacred Verdun, he rejoined it there and served under the command of General Phillipe Pétain who praised young captain de Gaulle in dispatches. De Gaulle was bayoneted and captured, spending nearly three years as a POW in Germany. He had studied German since high school and he studied it again to aid his numerous, unsuccessful escape attempts.
In the long months of captivity he studied Germany and Germans in every way he could. He read the newspapers, spoke to and listened to the guards and the civilians who worked around the jail. He drew two conclusions from this study: (1) a civilian government mobilizes a country better than a military government because it is responsive to citizens and (2) Germans are resilient despite back government.
For the moment stress the first, the primacy of civilian government. There is no doubt that de Gaulle, despite everything said about him by his many enemies, was a child of the French Republic and viewed it as the best form of government. He was never tempted by dictatorship of any kind under any name.
Wherever he went Charles de Gaulle had a mind of his own which he spoke. This characteristic slowed his progress up the army hierarchy but it also won him the support of Marechel Phillipe Pétain, such is the irony of history. Though he and Pétain were never close, Pétain made use of de Gaulle’s talents and protected him from some of the enemies de Gaulle made all too easily.
Prior to World War I the major debate in the French army was between the advocates of fortifications and those of firepower. Pétain took the side of fortifications and he found vindication in the killing fields of World War I. Firepower was so great it could not be overcome. Sheltering on the defensive in forts was the only solution. Out of this seed grew the Maginot Line.
De Gaulle drew a different conclusion, though he agreed that firepower was irresistible, his conclusion was maneuver, mobility, and movement. Hence his interest, even while a POW, in tanks.
After World War I the debate become more abstract. The received opinion in France was that war had to be managed through a series of doctrines that computed firepower, ratios, bullets per man,feet of cement walls, angles of fire, lines of wire, kilograms of steel in fortifications, ever more technical, mathematical, and abstract. A Cartesianism gone mad that René Descartes would not have recognised. Everything must be planned and calculated far in advance, then the army ants move like clockwork according to the plan, directed from afar by telephone and radio, observed from above by airplanes.
De Gaulle rejected this approach period, and said so in the first opportunity when he, then a junior officer, addressed a seminar of very senior officers who had all supped on doctrine. Rather he argued that it was circumstance, the unanticipated opportunities, that led to victory. These are first and best perceived at the lowest level of command, the sergeant, not in a manual of doctrine or at the end of a telephone wire in Paris. He advocated an army based on sergeants! At this rank the French Army should recruit educated and stable men, retain them with good pay and conditions, and train them (map reading, codes, signals) so that they could recognize opportunities and take initiatives. Hardly what the demigods of the École de Guerre saw as their mission. That Moltke the Elder, Napoléon, and Caesar could be quoted in support of this thesis helped not at all. Off de Gaulle went to distant posts in Poland, Germany, and Syria. Had World War II not intervened he would no doubt have been assigned to the French Antarctic Territory.
To make matter worse, de Gaulle wrote and published one book after another, each contrary to doctrine. By the way in this writing he earned a reputation as a stylist of the first order. To read 'Le fil de l’épée' (1927) is to see why. It is spare, terse, laconic, and elegant. It emphasised the human element in combat not the technical; it stressed the concrete not the abstract. It argued that the soldier wins the battle at the edge of a sword, not the general at the end of a telephone line. The general trains and motivates the soldier, and directs operations in broad.
Not only was de Gaulle a democrat of the French Republic, he was never anti-Semitic, not even in the casual way that was common in those days. There are many examples of this kind of anti-semitism that mar Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels of this time. Some of de Gaulle's mentors in the army were Jews, and he always remembered them. Moreover, Léon Blum from his prison cell in Vichy declared de Gaulle to be the leader of France.
Then the war came, and de Gaulle was plucked from a desk and assigned to a field command of light tanks. Within days of arriving, he launched a reconnaissance in force and engaged the Germans with some success and took several hundred supermen prisoners. This is one of the few initiatives shown by any French officer during the Phony War (September 1939-May 1940). His superiors chided him for riling the Germans and relieved him of command! Gallic logic.
Then in May, German General Heinz Guderian struck with Erwin Rommel in the lead, proving that the Ardenne Forest was not impassable, which had been the assumption of the French General Staff, proving that massed tanks can destroy an enemy contrary to the doctrine of static defence.
De Gaulle, promoted to brigadier general, was assigned to command a makeshift brigade of French tanks. With this scratch force he launched the only French counter-offensive of the war to cut Guederian’s communication slowing the German advance. Like Churchill and Hitler, de Gaulle had been under fire in World War I, and, unlike them, he had also been under fire in World War II, several times at the edge of the sword.
By this time the chain of command was disintegrating. Premier Paul Reynaud asked him to join the government to balance the defeatist that surrounded him, e.g., Pétain, who had been advocating an armistice for days. Reynaud sent de Gaulle to London to motivate the English into making a still greater commitment to France.
Between 1932-1939 there were fourteen (14) minister of defence. Each busy undoing the work of his predecessor as the government lurched from one crisis to another.
That old chestnut that people unite against a common enemy is belied in this story.
Even as the Germans were flanking Paris in June 1940, Generals Maxim Weygand and Maurice Gameilin were undermining each other and writing letters to prove that the defeat had nothing to do with them. In one very embarrassing episode Weygand prowled the halls of the Ministry of War trying to get cabinet ministers and generals to sign a petition exonerating him of any responsibility. Comic opera, but for the gunfire.
Churchill was tempted to do more in France but he was surrounded by officers who told him France was lost and it was necessary to preserve British forces for the coming battle of Britain.
Then in a master stroke that has since faded from history, Churchill offered to unify France and Britain as a single nation, with a single government, and to defer to Reynaud as head of that government, if only the French would fight on in France or take the government into exile to London. Reynaud was ready to accept the offer of union but his cabinet, by this time meeting in the Bordeaux town hall, was defeated, and rejected the offer in a few minutes. Better to make peace with the Germans than to enter into a covenant with perfidious Albion!
Like many others who emerge as leaders, the deeper the crisis became, the more disastrous the situation, the calmer, cooler de Gaulle became. At the last joint meeting of the Anglo-French War Council, Churchill described de Gaulle as imperturbable, relaxed, and yet alert and — most of all -- with a plan….! The plan was a far-fetched (a redoubt across the Breton peninsula, but he was the only Frenchman at the table with positive action in mind, indeed, the only one to make eye contact with the English. The others stared down at the table top in silence. Beaten men, they were defeated. When Churchill passed de Gaulle leaving the room he paused and said to him ‘Vous êtes la France.’ Little did either of them know what was to come.
Though commissioned to ask what terms the Germans would offer, Prime Minister Pétain instead declared a unilateral ceasefire in his second day in office, and capitulated to the Germans with no effort to negotiate or permit the government to choose exile as the Dutch, Danes, and Norwegians had done in preceding weeks. Some say that Pétain's actions were thus illegitimate.
In London two days after the capitulation de Gaulle went to the microphone in defiance of the obvious facts that France was lost; in defiance of the government of Pétain; in defiance of a great deal of public opinion in France that the war was over, and thank God for that! In defiance of the French community in London which wanted nothing so much as a low profile.
'France has lost a battle; the war goes on!'
There is much more to tell but it is best read. Instead of going into those details, let us take a look at the man himself. He married Yvonne, he said, because she had the best mind. He read most of his manuscripts to her, when possible, and accepted her judgement on style. His daughter Ann was born mongoloid and thereafter much of the family life revolved around her. There was never any question that she, Ann, would be secreted away in an institution though that was the common practice at the time. To the extent possible Ann would have an ordinary life with her siblings. His sons all carried arms in the Free French military.
Anne de Gaulle, 'Maintenant elle est comme les autres.'
Second only to Yvonne was lifelong influence of his father and then his brothers. They were a close knit clan and stayed that way. The adverse publicity that Charles brought to the name of de Gaulle was worn as a badge of honour. By 1944 the Vichy Regime had rounded up all of his relatives and they were deported to German slave camps. That included his elder sister, cousins, nieces and nephews, and few of them survived the ordeal. Is it any wonder that later he refused any truck with the Vichy Regime, despite the insistence of President Franklin Roosevelt. Non!
De Gaulle, the rebel, has an impressive CV.
1.In 1912 a very junior lieutenant de Gaulle advocated mobility in a unit commanded by Pétain that singular proponent of fortifications.
2. In 1917 Captain de Gaulle lectured senior field officers on the stupidity of ‘attack at all costs’ against machine guns which many of them had ordered.
3.In 1924 Captain de Gaulle published articles in both popular and technical journals arguing that circumstance determines success, contrary to the French Army credo of doctrine. He is sent to Poland as an observer.
4.In 1927 he lectured future generals on the importance of sergeants in combat, not High Command.
5. In 1928 Captain de Gaulle refused to comply with General Pétain’s demands for intellectual flexibility. He is posted to Syria.
6.In 1934 Captain de Gaulle published a book opposing the doctrines of High Command predicting that the next war will be won by massed tanks supported by aircraft which will punch through any defensive (Maginot) line.
7.In 1937 he published yet another book disputing the doctrines of high command against the express wishes of Pétain.
8.In 1940 de Gaulle mailed a tract denouncing the conduct of the war to 80 superior officers.
9.Against orders to do nothing, Colonel De Gaulle launched his tank regiment on a reconnaissance in force against the German, netting 500 prisoners, and proving that French tanks can best Panzers.
10. On his own initiative in 1940 General de Gaulle launched the only counter-attack the French Army offered, briefly cutting Guderian’s line of communication.
11. In1940 in London General de Gaulle re-directed a French shipload of military equipment diverted to England.
Philippe Pétain rescinded de Gaulle’s promotion to General, put him on the army’s inactive list, retired him from the army, stopped his army pension, declared him a traitor, withdrew his citizenship, and launched legal proceedings in abstentia against him in both compliant civil and military courts where he was sentenced to death. Lest that all seem comic opera it is sad to say that others likewise tried in astentia did fall into the hands of Vichy authorities and were executed. Italy, Portugal, Spain, and even in one case the United States surrendered individuals to Vichy arrests. Likewise those who fled to French colonies (from Algeria to Madagascar) were sometimes arrested and returned to Vichy where they were murdered. Shades of 'Casablanca.'
As to anti-semitism, consider this. When De Gaulle secured control over Algeria and Tunisia in 1943, his critics, including that completely cock-eyed American ambassador Robert Murphy, said de Gaulle was stirring up the Arabs. What de Gaulle did to stir up Arabs was stop the deportation of Jews from Algeria to Germany, which the Vichy governor François Darlan had been doing assiduously while Murphy looked on.
De Gaulle was long suspect to both British and American authorities because the Free French he assembled included communists, socialists, nationalists, royalists, reactionaries, regionalists, fierce individualists, and every other political stripe. All he asked was that they fight the common enemy under the tricolor.
From that radio broadcast on 18 June to July 1944, de Gaulle went from the most junior general in the French army to the head of the provisional government of France. It was a long, hard road with many setbacks, a lot of mistakes, and much opposition, but in its course he brought France back to life. In November 1944 there were 350,000 Free French troops in Western Europe. General Alphonse Juin's First French Army played a decisive role in Italy. General Phillipe LeClerc’s army liberated the south of France. Earlier in Africa Generals Jean Lattre de Tassigny and Pierre Koenig held the flank for the British at El Alamein. All of this started with that one man with an idea at a microphone. Though it was a capital offence to listen to his broadcasts in Occupied and Vichy France, Vichy authorities estimated his audience at three million (3,000,000)! What did John Stuart Mill say about one man with an idea? In this case de Gaulle's idea was France.
By the way, I note once again with interest that de Gaulle never promoted himself, unlike all those tyrants that his enemies likened him to. He retained his rank as a brigadier general. Every other general outranked him, including those who served at his command in the Fighting Free French. Even from the first days in London at least two full generals and an admiral of the fleet put themselves at his command. They recognised leadership beyond rank.
Despite the efforts of Ambassador Murphy, acting for Roosevelt, to undermine and displace de Gaulle he continued and in a coup de main in 1943 the Resistance in its many forms joined together briefly to recognise General de Gaulle as the voice of fighting France. The many European governments-in-exile in France recognised de Gaulle's committee as the sovereign of France, too, though it took the Anglo-Saxons powers much longer to do that thus sewing the seeds for future resentments.
Even in early 1944 Ambassador Murphy was still plotting some kind of transfer of allegiance of the remnant of Vichy to the Allies bypassing de Gaulle completely and recognising Pétain as the sovereign! The same Pétain whose primer minister Pierre Laval was an ardent Nazi. A plot that de Gaulle scuttled but which he never forgot. Put the shoe on the other foot: What if de Gaulle had endorsed Thomas Dewey against FDR in 1944?
Finally, D-Day and the invasion of France was planned without any participation from the Free French, and the plan was to occupy France and install military governors. Believe it or not. This was an insult de Gaulle never forgot. This is a story in itself. Within days of 6 June, de Gaulle with a small entourage marched onto a British ship, unauthorised, bound for the Normandy beaches, went ashore, and installed the first Free French prefects in the smoking ruins of town halls. As he strode down roads and streets that had just been fought over, he was mobbed by the locals. They had no doubt who their leader was.
As to the book itself, the judgements are few but very finely drawn. The prose is elegant, though there are too many distracting translator’s notes asterisked into the text * and ** and *** and, on one page, ****. Readers should note that the French grammar is preserved in a literal translation that often throws an English reader used to word-order grammar. There are also many cryptic references to figures and events in French history that escaped me.
Lacouture is a journalist of the old school, one who values truth, seeks several sources for confirmation, interviewed everyone he could and who prefers understanding to glib judgements, and leaves conclusions to the reader, altogether a now vanished breed. He would never get a job at the ABC.
I read the two volumes of this biography in the 1990s when Kate gave it to me, and this is a second reading. I will read the second volume soon.