The major leaders in World War II have come down to us as either saints or scoundrels. An exception is the man who led France from exile during World War II, Charles de Gaulle, who is now the subject of a succinct biography by World War II historian Michael Haskew.
De Gaulle was born in 1890 to a middle-class family in Lille, near the Belgian border. He entered the French army as a cadet in 1909, but made few friends. Mr. Haskew writes, de Gaulle “preferred his own company, remaining aloof from classmates as he did from most others in his lifetime.”
De Gaulle’s service in World War I would be eclipsed by his actions two decades later, but was remarkable in its own right. He saw severe action as a company commander. He was wounded three times, the last time in March 1916, when he was taken prisoner. His repeated attempts to escape from German prisons failed, a fact that, given the high mortality rate for company-grade officers, may have saved de Gaulle for posterity.
He remained in the army after the war and gained some recognition as a writer on military affairs. In two books, he urged the creation of an army that was mobile and well endowed with armor. His writings had little effect on the French military hierarchy, whose thinking was entirely defensive, but made their author controversial. Field Marshal Philip Petain, de Gaulle’s mentor, complained that his protege had failed to credit Petain’s own writings. One officer volunteered that de Gaulle stood out less because of his great height than because his ego “shone like a beacon from afar.”
The outbreak of World War II found de Gaulle in command of an armored division, which he led with some success in the otherwise-disastrous campaign that led to France’s defeat in May 1940. On June 15, he escaped to Britain on a French destroyer, where he found an ally in Winston Churchill. Although de Gaulle had no political standing - the legal government of France was now led by Marshal Petain - Churchill gave de Gaulle access to BBC radio, through which he promised France to carry on the fight.
“Mr. Churchill received me in Downing Street,” de Gaulle later wrote. “It was my first contact with him. The impression he gave me confirmed my conviction that Great Britain, led by such a fighter, certainly would not flinch.”
France’s fight, of course, was to be led by de Gaulle. In one broadcast, he made a “solemn declaration” that the war must go on. “It is the bounden duty of all Frenchmen who still bear arms to continue the struggle. For them to lay down their arms, to evacuate any position of military importance, or to agree to hand over any part of French territory … would be a crime against our country.”
De Gaulle sought the status of a full partner with Britain against Germany, but the numbers were against him. There were only about 20,000 French troops in Britain, and the commander of one division, refusing to accept de Gaulle’s authority, took his command to North Africa. Among France’s colonial possessions, only those in Equatorial Africa - far removed from Europe - were loyal to de Gaulle.
Churchill’s goodwill faded in the face of de Gaulle’s insistence on being treated as a full partner. When Churchill reluctantly decided that the French fleet in Algeria must be attacked if necessary to keep it out of German hands, de Gaulle was kept out of the loop and was furious. He was not informed of the plans for the Allied landings in North Africa in 1943 and in one outburst, expressed the hope that Vichy forces would drive the Americans into the sea.
By 1944, however, enough soldiers had rallied to the Free French that they contributed several divisions to the Allied armies in Europe. De Gaulle had outmaneuvered his political rivals and after Germany’s defeat, Britain and the United States grudgingly accepted de Gaulle’s party as the provisional government of France. De Gaulle was elected president but resigned in January 1946, dismayed by the chaos of French politics.
He was not yet done. After a decade in retirement he was again elected president, and played a key role in France’s controversial withdrawal from Algeria in 1958. Mr. Haskew calls his subject “the embodiment of the French national spirit,” one who “governed in the interest of France, refusing to see his nation relegated to the role of a bit player on the world stage.”
An insufferable ally in wartime, de Gaulle nevertheless proved himself the most prominent Frenchman of the 20th century.
John M. Taylor’s books include a biography of his father, “An American Soldier: The Wars of General Maxwell Taylor” (Presidio, 2001).