On the evening of November 9, 1970, 50 years ago last week, at his home and refuge of nearly four decades, La Boisserie in the commune of Colombey-les-Deux-Églises in the Haute-Marne, after a day at work on the second volume of his memoirs, and tea with his wife, Charles de Gaulle sat down to play patience. Just before 7pm he cried out in pain and slumped on the table. Yvonne de Gaulle called the doctor and curé, who administered the Last Rites. It was an aneurysm. At 7.25pm the saviour of modern France was dead. The General’s confidant and successor, Georges Pompidou, declared the next day, “France is a widow.”
In 1952 the last great Frenchman had laid out the plans for his obsequies with precision and an almost perverse humility and restraint. His requiem Mass would be held at his local church with only his family, a few members of the local community and some Companions of the Liberation present. There would be no homily. He would be buried beside his adored younger daughter, Anne, with room left for his widow. His tombstone would say nothing but Charles de Gaulle (1890 – 1970).
His most recent, and perhaps his best biographer, Julian Jackson, Professor of History at Queen Mary, University of London, observes in A Certain Idea of France (2018), de Gaulle was riddled with “extraordinary contradictions”. The Times Literary Supplement’s Sudhir Hazareesingh summed him up, “He veered between buoyant optimism and crippling melancholy, calculating rationalism and ethereal mysticism, selfless abnegation and narcissistic egotism, shameless opportunism and obdurate inflexibility. Fittingly, his surname was derived from the Flemish word for ‘wall'”.
He has been compared to Charlemagne, Joan of Arc, Richelieu, Henri IV, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Chateaubriand and Clémenceau. His minister for culture, André Malraux, once asked to whom he would compare himself. His reply? “My only rival is Tintin! We are the small who refuse to allow ourselves to be cheated by the big. Only, no one notices the similarity because of my size.” (He was 6ft 4inches, when the average height in France was 5ft 3inches.)
Charles André Joseph Marie de Gaulle was born on November 22, 1890, at his maternal grandparents’ house in Lille. He was, however Petit Lillois de Paris – a Parisian from a distinguished family who had been born in Lille; not a provincial boy from Lille who found himself transported to Paris. He was the third of five children of Henri de Gaulle, who taught at a Jesuit school, and Jeanne Maillot, a member of the pious industrial bourgeoisie of Calais. The de Gaulles were austere traditional Catholics and minor aristocrats — an ancestor had fought at Agincourt. Charles’s great-grandfather had been arrested during the Revolution and was spared the guillotine only by the fall of Robespierre. The family were monarchists under the skin, considering it a tragedy that the Comte de Chambord should have refused to accept the throne in 1873 if it meant also accepting the tricolor.
There was no question that he would be educated as a Catholic and after his school was closed he was sent to the Jesuits in Belgium. At school he was called Asparagus – his height and short-sightedness deflected by a chilly reserve. He brother, Xavier, suggested he had been dropped into an icebox at birth yet his vision and ambition knew no bounds.
Graduating from St Cyr Military Academy in 1912, de Gaulle had chosen to serve in the 33rd Infantry stationed at Arras, under, then-colonel Philippe Pétain’s command. Come the First World War, he was in Verdun where the first bombardment wiped out the whole of Captain de Gaulle’s company (he was the youngest French Captain in the Great War). He was thought to have been killed too. Pétain issued a citation: “Captain de Gaulle had ‘led his men in a furious assault and fierce hand-to-hand fighting, the only solution he considered compatible with his sentiment of military honour. Fell in the fray. A peerless officer in all respects.”
In fact, he spent the rest of the war in German camps, escaping five times, only to be recaptured after every break because of his height. He greeted the Armistice “with the indescribable regret at not having played a greater role.”
After the war he joined the French Military Mission to Poland; returned to lecture in military history at St Cyr; he attended the Ecole de Guerre; was a ghostwriter for Petain (until he realised he was not the only one); and then postings to Treves and Beirut. A position on the Secretariat of the Supreme War Council followed; and then, in 1937, having been promoted to colonel, command of a tank regiment. By 1938 he had published four books — on war, leadership and the army. The last of them, La France et son armée, contained a eulogy of the revolutionary Hoche, which, Professor Jackson noted, prompted a sad rebuke from his father.
When war broke out, he was already critical of what he saw as the passivity of the French High Command. After the Germans attacked in May 1940, he was given command of a new armoured division, which, among so much defeat, distinguished itself. On June 5, five days after being promoted to Brigadier-General, he was appointed Under-Secretary of State for National Defence, his first political office, in the government of Paul Reynaud.
The troops of General von Küchler’s XVIIth army entered Paris on June 14, 1940, at 5.30 am. Two divisions advanced on the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower. By midday, the German high command had taken up residence in the Hôtel de Crillon on the Place de la Concorde. As Ferdinand Mount put it,
There had been no battle, or even the slightest sign of resistance. It was not as if the French had collapsed at the first puff of smoke. In six weeks, they had already had nearly a hundred thousand men killed and lost half their tanks, a worse kill rate than at Verdun. Nobody had fought with greater élan than de Gaulle and his tanks in their three sorties, which failed only because of the odds against them.
When Churchill recalled that in 1918 Clemenceau had said, ‘I will fight in front of Paris, in Paris and behind Paris,’ Pétain replied that in 1918 he had had sixty divisions to spare. Now there were none. ‘To make Paris into a city of ruins will not affect the issue.’….. Had it not been for Pétain and Weygand, de Gaulle might have had to pick his way through the rubble when he walked down the Champs Elysées on Liberation Day. Like Churchill, he would have preferred it that way.
On June 17, the day after Pétain replaced Reynaud, de Gaulle left for London “alone ….. and stripped of everything, like a man on the beach proposing to swim across the ocean.” In fact, he was accompanied by his aide-de-camp, Geoffroy Chodron de Courcel, and Churchill’s representative, General Edward Spears. He landed at Heston soon after midday, as Pétain was announcing the formation of the collaborationist government. He carried with him a pair of trousers, four shirts and a photograph of his family.
On June 18, Charles-sans-terre, with nothing but his uniform and his voice, broadcast from London. “L’Appel du 18 Juin” (‘France has lost a battle, she has not lost the war’) was also the anniversary of the Waterloo.
Reminding his people,
For France is not alone! She is not alone! She is not alone! She has a vast Empire behind her. She can align with the British Empire that holds the sea and continues the fight. She can, like England, use without limit the immense industry of the United States…….
He ended with,
I, General de Gaulle, currently in London, invite the officers and the French soldiers who are located in British territory or who might end up here, with their weapons or without their weapons, I invite the engineers and the specialised workers of the armament industries who are located in British territory or who might end up here, to put themselves in contact with me.
Whatever happens, the flame of the French resistance must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished…
Of the 50,000 members of the French military In Britain that day, 1000 would join him – the vast majority opted to be repatriated. Of the 1600 men in the White City camp, for example, only 152 signed up with de Gaulle. After the armistice in Syria, only 5500 of the Vichy troops rallied to the Free French; the other 30,000 chose to return to France.
In London he persisted with a combination of tactical skill, ruthlessness, obstinacy and sheer, grinding willpower. One of the many obstacles, he had to overcome was his lack of familiarity with English. He cited Charles V: “One speaks French to men, Italian to women, German to horses, Spanish to God but whoever heard of one speaking English?” He had none of the expansive charm of a Franklin Roosevelt nor the sweeping oratorical power of a Winston Churchill. He also had to deal with divisions among his own supporters in London, and slights from the Americans. Roosevelt dismissed him as “the head of some French Committee”.
His English hosts, too, were at best ambivalent. The waspish diplomat, Sir Alexander Cadogan, describes his guest as having “a head like a pineapple and hips like a woman”. Churchill wrote that the Cross of Lorraine was the heaviest cross he had had to bear. “He’s selfish, he’s arrogant, he thinks he’s the centre of the Universe . . . he’s a great man!” As the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik put it, “His behavior was maddeningly adolescent, but he chose it for the same reason that an adolescent chooses his—as the one way, in a position of actual dependency, to declare one’s autonomy. Slamming the door of your bedroom is sometimes the only power you have when you are living in someone else’s house.”
One of de Gaulle’s most precious assets was his family. In 1921, he had married Yvonne Vendroux, a good-looking, strong-willed, deeply private and deeply Catholic daughter of a prosperous Calais biscuit-maker, from a family not unlike his mother’s. Her unpretentious nature and horror of adultery and divorce unfairly attracted the tag “Tante Yvonne” from some of Paris’s mondaine quartiers. She famously said, “The presidency is temporary, the family is forever”. She detested living in the Élysée and drew comfort and solace from the garden at La Boisserie, their home from 1934.
They had three children — Philippe (who became an Admiral and will be 99 in December); Élisabeth (1924-2013; who married Alain de Boissieu, later a general); and the beloved Anne (at left with her father in early Thirties) who was born in 1928, with Down’s Syndrome. Papa was one of the few words she could pronounce and he was the only one who could make her laugh. He and Yvonne were devoted to her and fiercely protective. In 1945, Yvonne established an Anne de Gaulle Foundation for children with disabilities in a château bought for the purpose. De Gaulle’s early biographer, Jean Lacouture, reported that one of the General’s doctors said he heard his patient say: “Without Anne, perhaps I should not have done all that I have done. She gave me so much heart and spirit.”
Anne died in 1948, aged 20, of pneumonia, in her father’s arms. After her body had been lowered into the earth, de Gaulle remained by the grave with Yvonne. Then he put his hand on his wife’s arm and, as they turned to leave, murmured to her: “She’s like others now.”
Come D-Day, de Gaulle was magnificent:
The supreme battle has begun … It is of course the Battle of France, and the battle for France … For the sons of France, wherever they may be, whoever they may be, the simple and sacred duty is to fight the enemy by all the means available … Behind the heavy clouds of our blood and our tears, the sunshine of our grandeur is re-emerging.
Churchill wrote to Roosevelt the next day, the speech was “remarkable, as he has not a single soldier in the great battle now developing.”
On June 3, 1944, de Gaulle became Chairman of the provisional government of the French Republic. And finally, on August 25, 1944, he arrived in Paris. The next day the general strode — alone (his fellow resistors were asked to keep a few feet behind) — down the Champs Elysees in triumph, from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde, and then went to hear Mass in Notre Dame. All France then sang a Magnificat. De Gaulle even managed to arrange the French to witness the German surrender the following May (“The French are here, too?” one of the German generals reportedly quipped.)
In January, 1946, finding factionalism and parliamentary manoeuvring distasteful, he retired. This would be the first of several retreats and returns. Throughout the early and mid-Fifties he would return to the hustings. He also completed the first volume of his memoirs with its famous opening sentence: “All my life I have had a certain idea of France.”
As a nationalist uprising in Algeria in 1954 escalated into a full-scale war, he sat at Colombey playing patience and listening to the clack of Yvonne’s knitting needles. By June 1958, a group of right-wing French military men, alarmed at events in Algérie francaise, organised a series of coups. De Gaulle was asked by the French President to lead a government of “national union” for six months. It was said that the pieds noirs, the huge community of French nationals in Algeria, had been sold-out. According to Professor Jackson, De Gaulle’s triumph was to make the French “believe that he had controlled the process; and to create a compelling narrative that explained France’s disengagement from Algeria and turned it into a victory rather than a defeat.”
Elected president in December 1958, he declared the Fifth Republic a month later. Over the next decade (he described his term to his son as “a kind of popular monarchy”) De Gaulle rebuilt France and made it modern, pushing through an extraordinary number of reforms — monetary, administrative and institutional — justifiably compared with those of the Consulate of Napoleon. He also established a Franco-German axis as a foundation for (continental) European unity, he recognized communist China, criticised America’s war in Vietnam, and twice vetoed British membership of Europe. He also condemned Israel’s seizure of Arab territories during the Six Day War in 1967. And there was his explosive call to the people of Montreal in July 1967, Vive le Québec,” he concluded, and – after a long pause – “libre.”
That mix of austerity and hauteur never deserted him. While in the Élysée, he insisted on paying the family telephone and electricity bills. When the government offered to award him a medal for his patriotic services, he retorted “one does not decorate France”.
The year 1968 was one of tumult all over the world. No less than en France. By May, the student rebellion that began in the streets of Paris had spread to the factories outside it. What was described as “an anti-materialist revolt with a largely incoherent practical politics” – it sounds rather like the gilets jaunes – proved so deep an impatience with Gaullism that it transformed France within a week. May 29, 1968, was one of the most extraordinary day of his public life. De Gaulle left for Baden-Baden, where he met General Jacques Hassu (Did Hassu say, “Give me two divisions and tomorrow, you can take your breakfast on the boulevard Saint Germain”?) Was this his flight to Varennes? He then retreated, once again, to Colombey, and seemed on the brink of resignation. Instead, he returned to Paris and led an immense counter-demonstration. It was thought as many as a million supporters poured into the Champs Elysée.
In the elections held in June 1969, the Gaullist party gained an outright parliamentary majority. Still, having lost an insignificant referendum on regional reform, an exhausted de Gaulle resigned a year later.
His tragedy was, according to Anthony Hartley, author of Gaullism: the Rise and Fall of a Political Movement (1972), that the president as arbiter led inexorably into becoming the president as party-boss, and in the process saw his own popularity decline as that of the party increased. He was endlessly disappointed in his countrymen, dismissing them as sheep (veaux).
Back at la Boisserie in Colombey, he looked to his legacy as he embarked on the second volume of his memoirs, Endeavour. It was said that he planned to end his memoirs with an imagined dialogue between himself and Napoleon. As Patrice Gueniffey observes in Napoleon and de Gaulle: Heroes and History (2020), the important difference between the two men lay in their relationship to France, “If Napoleon was the least French of Frenchmen, de Gaulle was …. the most French of Frenchmen.”
He had once told a press conference, in his Sphinx-like way, “Reassure yourselves. I shall not fail to die.” And so, thirteen days before his eightieth birthday, he did.
On November 12, as his simple ceremony took place at Notre Dame-de-Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, 3,000 mourners (including eighty heads of state) gathered in and around Notre Dame de Paris. There, at 11am, the choir broke into the chorale from Bach’s Matthew Passion. In accordance with the General’s wishes, Cardinal Marty, Archbishop of Paris, delivered no sermon. Instead, after reading the lesson from St. John’s second epistle to Timothy, he asked the congregation to meditate in silence on the search for “justice and peace in the world.” Bells began to toll from the Notre Dame de Paris to Notre Dame-de-Colombey-les-Deux-Églises and churches throughout the Republic. The climax came with the singing of the De Profundis and the Magnificat, recalling that day in 1944 when toute la France joined in reciting it to celebrate their liberation, paying homage to both their God — and their saviour.
Mark McGinness, an Australian living in the United Arab Emirates, is a frequent contributor