Charles de Gaulle Biography

Born: November 23, 1890
Lille, France
Died: November 9, 1970
Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, France

French premier, general, and president

The French general and statesman Charles de Gaulle led the Free French forces in their resistance of Germany during World War II (1939–45). A talented writer and spirited public speaker, he served as president of France from 1958 to 1969.

Early life and inspirations

Charles André Joseph Marie de Gaulle was born on November 23, 1890, in the northern industrial city of Lille, France. His father, Henri, was a teacher of philosophy and mathematics and a veteran of the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71), in which Prussia (today known as Germany) humiliatingly defeated the French. This loss colored the life of de Gaulle's father, a patriot who vowed he would live to avenge the defeat and win back the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. His attitude deeply influenced the lives of his sons, whom he groomed to aid in France's restoration to the greatest European power.

From his earliest years, both his father and mother immersed de Gaulle in French history. For many centuries de Gaulle's ancestors had played a role in French history, almost always as patriots defending France from invaders. In the fourteenth century, a Chevalier de Gaulle defeated an invading English army in defense of the city of Vire. Jean de Gaulle is cited in the Battle of Agincourt (1415).

Perhaps the major influence on de Gaulle's formation came from his uncle, also named Charles de Gaulle, who wrote a book about the Celts, the ancient people of western Europe. The book called for union of the Breton, Scots, Irish, and Welsh peoples. The young de Gaulle wrote in his copybook a sentence from his uncle's book, which proved to be a prediction of his future life: "In a camp, surprised by enemy attack under cover of night, where each man is fighting alone, in dark confusion, no one asks for the grade or rank of the man who lifts up the standard and makes the first call to rally for resistance."

Military career

De Gaulle's career as defender of France began in the summer of 1909, when he was admitted to the elite military academy of Saint-Cyr. Among his classmates was the future marshal of France, Alphonse Juin (1888–1967), who later recalled de Gaulle's nicknames in school—"The Grand Constable" and "The Big Asparagus" (because of his height).

After graduation, in October 1912, Second Lieutenant de Gaulle reported to Henri Philippe Pétain, who first became his idol and later his most hated enemy. (In World War I [1914–18] Pétain was the hero of Verdun. During World War II [1941–45] he surrendered to German leader Adolf Hitler [1889–1945] and collaborated with the Germans while de Gaulle was leading the French forces of liberation.)

Charles de Gaulle. Reproduced by permission of AP/Wide World Photos.
Charles de Gaulle.
Reproduced by permission of
AP/Wide World Photos

De Gaulle led a frontline company as captain in World War I and was cited three times for valor, or courage. Severely wounded, he was left for dead on the battlefield of Verdun and was later imprisoned by the Germans when he revived in a graveyard cart. After he had escaped and been recaptured several times, the Germans put him in a maximum security prison-fortress.

Between wars

After the war de Gaulle went to general-staff school, where he damaged his career by constantly criticizing his superiors. He criticized the concept of trench warfare and wrote a series of essays calling for a strategy of movement with armored tanks and planes. His superiors ignored his works. The Germans, however, did read him and adapted his theories to develop their triumphant strategy of blitzkrieg, or lightning war, with which they defeated the French in 1940.

When France fell, de Gaulle, then an unknown brigadier general (a military officer above a colonel), refused to surrender. He fled to London, convinced that the British would never surrender and that American power, once committed, would win the war. On June 18, 1940, on British Broadcasting Company (BBC), he insisted that France had only lost a battle, not the war, and called upon patriotic Frenchmen to resist the Germans. This inspiring broadcast won him worldwide honor.

Early political activity

When the Germans were driven back at Normandy in 1944, de Gaulle had no rivals for leadership in France. Therefore, in the fall of that year, all of the members of the French Parliament agreed in their vote and elected him premier. De Gaulle had fiercely opposed the German enemy, and now he vigorously defended France against the influence of his powerful allies Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) of Russia, Winston Churchill (1874–1965) of Great Britain, and Franklin Roosevelt (1882–1945) of the United States. De Gaulle once stated that he never feared Hitler, who he knew was doomed to defeat. He did, however, fear that his allies would dominate France and Europe in the postwar period.

By the fall of 1945, only a year after assuming power, de Gaulle was at odds with all of the political leaders of France. He saw himself as the unique savior of France, the only champion of French honor, grandeur, and independence. He despised all politicians as corrupt and only out for their self-interests. The politicians then banded against him. In January 1946, disgusted by politics, he resigned and retreated into a silence to ponder the future of France.

In 1947 de Gaulle reemerged as leader of the opposition. He headed what he termed "The Rally of the French People," which he insisted was not a political party but a national movement. The Rally became the largest single political force in France but never achieved majority status. Although de Gaulle continued to disagree with the political system, he refused to lead a coup d'etat, or a sudden overthrow of the government. He retired again in 1955.

Years as president

In May 1958, a combination of French colonials and militarists seized power in Algeria and threatened to invade France. The weakened Fourth Republic collapsed, and the victorious rebels called de Gaulle back to power as president of the Fifth Republic of France. From June 1958 to April 1969 he reigned as the dominant force in France.

As president de Gaulle fought every plan to involve France deeply in alliances. He opposed the formation of a United States of Europe and British entry into the Common Market. He stopped paying part of France's dues to the United Nations, forced the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) headquarters to leave France, and pulled French forces out of the Atlantic Alliance integrated armies.

De Gaulle had an early success in stimulating (to make excitable) pride in Frenchmen and in increasing French gold reserves and strengthening the economy. By the end of his reign, however, France was almost friendless, and his economic gains had been all but wiped out by the student and workers protest movement in spring 1968.

De Gaulle ruled supreme for eleven years, but his firm hand began to anger many citizens. In April 1969 the French voted against his program for reorganizing the Senate and the regions of France. Immediately afterwards de Gaulle resigned and remained silent on political issues. Charles de Gaulle died at Colombey-les-Deux-Églises on November 9, 1970.

For More Information

Gaulle, Charles de. The Complete War Memoirs of Charles de Gaulle. New York: Da Capo Press, 1984. Reprint, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1998.

Whitelaw, Nancy. A Biography of General Charles de Gaulle: "I Am France." New York: Dillon Press, 1991.

Williams, Charles. The Last Great Frenchman. New York: J. Wiley & Sons, 1993.

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