His name is synonymous, for many, with that of France. Not only does he share it with the largest international airport in the country, but he is remembered as one of the great French leaders, whose impact spanned the 20th century.
What do we know about Charles de Gaulle?
1. He spent most of the First World War as a prisoner of war
Having already been wounded twice, de Gaulle was injured whilst fighting at Verdun, he was captured by the German Army on 2 March 1916. For the next 32 months he was shifted between German prisoner of war camps.
De Gaulle was imprisoned in Osnabrück, Neisse, Szczuczyn, Rosenberg, Passau and Magdeburg. Eventually he was moved to the fortress at Ingolstadt, which was designated as a reprisal camp for officers deemed to warrant extra punishment. De Gaulle was moved there because of his repeated bids to escape; he attempted this five times during his incarceration.
Whilst a prisoner of war, De Gaulle read German newspapers to keep up with the war and spent time with journalist Rémy Roure and future Red Army commander, Mikhail Tukhachevsky, expanding and discussing his military theories.
2. He received Poland’s highest military honour
Between 1919 and 1921, Charles de Gaulle served in Poland under the command of Maxime Weygand. They fought to repel the Red Army from the newly independent state.
De Gaulle was awarded the Virtuti Militari for his operational command.
3. He was a mediocre student
After fighting in Poland, De Gaulle returned to teach at the military academy where he had studied to be an army officer, École Spéciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr.
He had obtained a middling class ranking when he passed through the school himself, but had gained experience in public speaking whilst in prisoner of war camps.
Then, despite again finishing in an undistinguished position in his class at École de Guerre, one of his instructors commented on de Gaulle’s ‘excessive self-assurance, his harshness towards other people’s opinions and his attitude of a king in exile.’
4. He was married in 1921
Whilst teaching at Saint-Cyr, de Gaulle invited 21-year-old Yvonne Vendroux to a military ball. He married her in Calais on 6 April, aged 31. Their eldest son, Philippe, was born the same year, and went on to join the French Navy.
The couple also had two daughters, Élisabeth and Anne, born in 1924 and 1928 respectively. Anne was born with Down’s syndrome and died of pneumonia aged 20. She inspired her parents to establish La Fondation Anne de Gaulle, an organisation which supports people with disabilities.
5. His tactical ideas were unpopular with French leadership in the interwar years
Whilst he had once been the protege of Philippe Pétain, who was involved in his promotion to Captain during the First World War, their theories of war differed.
Pétain generally argued against costly offensive warfare, maintaining static theories. De Gaulle, however, favoured a professional army, mechanisation and easy mobilisation.
6. He was Under-Secretary of State for War for 10 days during the Second World War
After successfully commanding the Fifth Army’s tank force in Alsace, and then the 200 tanks of the Fourth Armoured Division, de Gaulle was appointed to serve under Paul Reynaud on 6 June 1940.
Reynaud resigned on 16 June, and his government was replaced by that of Pétain, who favoured an armistice with Germany.
7. He spent the majority of the Second World War away from France
Once Pétain had come to power, de Gaulle went to Britain where he broadcast his first call for support to continue the fight against Germany on 18 June 1940. From here he began to unite resistance movements and form Free France and the Free French Forces, saying that ‘Whatever happens, the flame of French resistance must not and shall not die.’
De Gaulle moved to Algeria in May 1943 and established the French Committee of National Liberation. A year later, this became the Provisional Government of the Free French Republic in a move that was condemned by both Roosevelt and Churchill but acknowledged by Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland and Yugoslavia.
He finally returned to France in August 1944, when he was permitted by the UK and the USA to engage in the liberation.
8. He was sentenced to death in absentia by a French military court
His sentence for treason was increased from 4 years to death on 2 August 1940. His crime was in openly opposing Pétain’s Vichy government, which was in collaboration with the Nazis.
9. He was elected President of the Republic on 21 December 1958
Having resigned from the provisional presidency in 1946, citing his desire to maintain his legend, de Gaulle returned to leadership when called for to resolve the crisis in Algeria. He was elected with 78% of the electoral college, but the topic of Algeria was to take up much of his first three years as President.
In line with his policy of national independence, de Gaulle sought to exit unilateral agreements with multiple other nations. He instead opted towards agreements made with one other nation state.
On 7 March 1966, the French withdrew from the integrated military command of NATO. France remained in the overall alliance.
10. He survived several assassination attempts
On 22 August 1962, Charles and Yvonne were subject to an organized machine gun ambush on their limousine. They were being targeted by the Organisation Armée Secrète, a right-wing organisation formed in an attempt to prevent Algerian independence, which de Gaulle had found to be the only option.
Charles de Gaulle died of natural causes on 9 November 1970. President Georges Pompidou announced this with the statement ‘General de Gaulle is dead. France is a widow.’