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General Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970)

  • Category(s): Modern Historical Essays
  • Created on : 13 November 2013
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  • Author: Richard Michael Lamb


A Frenchman of true Gallic temperament and tenor. He will never be forgotten for his service to la Republique Francaise.

1. Introduction

In essence de Gaulle was a soldier turned politician. He was brought up a conservative Catholic in North Eastern France and remained of that religion all his long life, dying aged nearly 80 years. He was very nearly killed in action at Verdun, World War I and was made a POW. Many of his fellow officers were killed in combat in that War and he was grievously wounded twice over. He had passed through St Cyr, the French staff college for officers, 13th out of 210 cadets. He was of the highest calibre and the old school: an officer who never flinched all his long life. He was always known as General de Gaulle, even after he left the Army and became President of the French Fifth Republic 1959-1969. He came under small arms fire as he liberated Paris on 26 August 1944 from Vichy Regime Supporters and Fifth Columnists. He had not the slightest concern for his own personal safety and was truly inspiring by that example to those around him. Again in August 1962 he and his wife narrowly escaped death, when disaffected French white settlers from Algeria machine gunned their vehicle in France. General Gaulle was over 70 years old then. He went on to serve another seven years as President of France through the severe student unrest of 1968, in Paris.

2. What was his contribution to modern France?

Not so much in the military field, but as the leader who navigated France through the terrible French resistance - inspired post war reprisals, the trials of collaborators and certain commutations of their death sentences (1554 Capital sentences passed post war of which only 800 were carried out). De Gaulle adopted the same policy his mentor, General Petain did in 1917, when the French Army mutinied: “be firm and stern with one hand and gentle with the other”. It worked for General Philippe Petain dealing with the mutiny, as it did for France and de Gaulle in 1945-46. General de Gaulle bequeathed a legacy of France capable of being ruled by the 4th Republic, 1946-1959, yet France called upon him again as the safe pair of hands from 1959- 1969 when his Presidential period of office secured democracy and freedom for his country. Without doubt he was popular with the ordinary and moderate French, who invariably backed him, their General.

3. What were his faults?

A certain tactlessness and bumptiousness that belied his deeply held beliefs. It was his driving Conservative Catholicism that made him refuse Roosevelt’s lead in the 1939-45 war and go out on his own against Vichy France, before it was fashionable to do so. He could be very stubborn in defence of France. When he said friends were not important to La France he meant it. To him France was his patrie not his religion. Without France and the French his religion would have no meaning. Like certain devout European Catholics of that time he was not too overt nor did he boast about his Catholicism. Moreover he was no Priest or theologian. Yet he entered the Catholic Notre Dame Cathedral on the very day he liberated Paris on 26 August 1944 and came under fire from the last enemy pockets of opposition. He also visited the Vatican very shortly before liberating Paris. His Frenchness was his Achilles heel as he continued to beat the drum too loudly and incessantly e.g. “Vive le Quebec Libre” and Non to British EEC membership when Macmillan sought entry. He was not frightened of upsetting people – a sign of deep religious conviction. His Catholic religion came out in his deep sense of service to his country. He was a true French patriot but no monarchist. A republican par excellence.

4. His relations to World leaders

Probably far better than we are lead to believe. His bad reputation for lack of diplomacy was based on comment by those who could not see behind the curtain. The fact is he earned the respect of Adenauer (German Chancellor), Franklin D. Roosevelt (U.S President), Dwight Eisenhower (U.S. General and U.S. President), Harold Macmillan (British Prime Minister), Churchill (British War leader) and U.S President Lynden B. Johnson, to name several. He was able to achieve this respect the hard way, by tough talking from the heart. Above all he did not lack sincerity and that quality wins more friends than any other (despite de Gaulle’s self-effacing protestation France had interests not friends).

5. Conclusion

A Frenchman of austerity, true backbone and moral fibre. A great example to the 20th Century and later generations, of the original 19th Century Catholicism of France. He was a statesman above all else and was not afraid to speak up for France when all around him were doubting him. He stands head and shoulders above all other European leaders of his time as the architect of post war Western Europe, not only in the EEC but as a powerful opponent in his way of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact in the Cold War. He is seen by his detractors as pompous and conceited: the General Charles de Gaulle of France. They could not be more wrong – he always placed himself at the service of his nation, as he did repeatedly on Le Champs d’Honneur in both World Wars. You do not find men like de Gaulle twice. It is not once in a lifetime but once in a blue moon and this time it will be the red white and blue of Le Tricoleur of La France.