Lessons in Leadership from
By Michael E. Haskew
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2011 Michael E. Haskew
All rights reserved.
Child of Flanders
From his earliest recollection to his dying day, Charles André Joseph Marie de Gaulle believed himself to be a man of destiny, and that destiny was—without question—intertwined with the past, present, and future of France. He was born on November 22, 1890 in the ancient city of Lille, a center of manufacturing and textile production in French Flanders near the border with Belgium.
He was the third child of Henri and Jeanne Marie de Gaulle, and the family was devoutly Catholic. Just a year before his birth, engineer Gustave Eiffel had completed has famous tower, which welcomed people to the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris. Although Charles had been born during the "Belle Epoque" (Beautiful Period), a period of tremendous flowering of art, literature, music, and philosophy, an undercurrent of shame resulting from a humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War two decades earlier roiled within the subconscious of the French people.
The Prussian armies of Kaiser Wilhelm I and Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had dictated the terms of the surrender and the Treaty of Frankfurt in 1871, and the blow to French prestige had been severe. A veteran of that war who had been wounded during the siege of Paris, Henri de Gaulle longed for the day when the humiliating defeat of France would be put right and the amputated provinces of Alsace and Lorraine returned to the French fold. In addition to establishing German sovereignty in the two disputed provinces, the treaty had required their residents to declare French allegiance and vacate the territory or remain there and become German citizens. It further compelled the French government to recognize Wilhelm I of Prussia as emperor of the unified Germany, stipulated that France pay a war indemnity of 5 billion francs, and provided for the German military occupation of some French territory until the indemnity was paid.
Science and technology flourished during the Belle Epoque, and the period was defined by political stability among the nations of Europe as disputes were often settled through diplomatic means rather than armed conflict. Nevertheless, a rigorous class distinction had emerged, nationalistic rivalry and a burgeoning arms race threatened a lasting peace, and robust imperialism all but guaranteed that the great powers would challenge one another around the globe during the years to come. By 1914, old Europe would cease to exist. As Charles de Gaulle entered the world, the continent was at a crossroads.
Young Charles was often headstrong and petulant, teasing and annoying his brothers and sisters, acknowledging the authority of his father as necessary, but ignoring the direction of his mother. He was sometimes prone to tantrums, flailing his arms and crying loudly when he did not get his way. When the children played games, Charles exerted a force of personality such that even older boys took notice and followed his lead. Charles delighted in rounding up those who lived nearby and dividing them for competition, always assuming a principal role.
Even as a child, the majesty and splendor of a culturally preeminent France were never far from the mind of Charles de Gaulle. Once, with toy soldiers arrayed across the floor, his brother, Xavier, had declared his wish to be king of France rather than emperor of Germany. Charles retorted, "Never! France is mine." On another occasion, his younger brother, Pierre, cried out that Charles had hit him. The response had seemed quite appropriate to Charles when Pierre, whose role was that of a spy during a military game, had turned over a secret message to the enemy rather than devouring it.
Although he sometimes tried the patience of his parents and siblings, the bonds of family and true affection among them were genuine and lasting, and Charles remained close to his mother and father throughout their lives. While Xavier rose to the office of consul general in Geneva, Switzerland, Pierre accompanied Charles during the turbulent years of World War II and later served in several government offices. Another brother, Jacques, may well have been the favorite of Charles, but a promising career in engineering was cut short by severe illness that left Jacques paralyzed and unable to speak. An older sister, Marie-Agnes, joined the Resistance during World War II. She was imprisoned by the Nazis and liberated by Allied troops in 1945, penned a personal memoir, and lived into the 1980s.
Despite his intense self-will, Charles's parents were influential in one aspect of the child's life above all. They instilled in him a reverence for his Catholic faith and a passion for his native country, immersing the boy in stories of the history of the French nation. Indeed, the de Gaulle family name had been associated with epic battles of the past, most notably Agincourt in 1415. Prior to that, a French nobleman named de Gaulle was said to have repulsed an English army that had invaded the country. Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that Charles de Gaulle would decide to pursue a career in the military, his self-will notwithstanding.
"My father," Charles wrote, "was a thoughtful, cultivated, traditional man, imbued with a feeling of the dignity of France. He made me aware of her history. My mother had an uncompromising passion for her country, equal to her religious piety."
Another profound influence on the young man was his namesake, an elder Charles de Gaulle who was his uncle. The author of a book, The Celts in the XIXth Century, he had proposed the union of the Welsh, Scots, Irish, and Breton peoples. The uncle had also penned a pamphlet titled The Awakening of the Race. A passage from the short work stirred the martial and nationalistic fervor in young Charles. "In a camp, surprised by an enemy attack under cover of night," it read, "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."
Henri de Gaulle was an educator, and around the turn of the century he received an appointment as headmaster of the Jesuit College of the Immaculate Conception in Paris, moving the family to the capital city. When the French government enforced a separation of church and state in the country and closed the Jesuit schools, Henri founded his own modest school on the Rue de Postes and remained in Paris. Afternoons and weekends were spent at the tomb of Napoleon in L'Hotel des Invalides or admiring the Arc de Triomphe. There were also stimulating conversations around the dinner table, with his father and mother always teaching, questioning, and inviting the children to debate. Disagreements were often analyzed, distilled to their basic components, and then resolved as the result of thoughtful exercise.
Charles followed the path of Catholic education, receiving formal instruction from the Christian Brothers, the Jesuits at schools in Paris and then later at the College du Sacré-Coeur in Antoing, Belgium, and the College Stanislas in Paris. His early academic career was unremarkable. However, he loved philosophy, history, and literature, relying on a towering intellect and an exceptional memory to maintain an overall standing that was better than average. Such performance may be attributed to his continuing sense of superiority to both peers and instructors, while his prodigious memory allowed for passing grades in subjects of less interest to him. His affinity for the history of France led to his deep study of the nation's military past. He committed to memory the actions that occurred during most, if not all, of the country's great battles, including the strategic implications of the battles, troop movements, and individual unit orders.
Introduced to the Classics at an early age, Charles was familiar with Socrates and Plato. He explored the philosophical realm, and tried his hand at creative writing. When he was 14 years old, he penned a rhyming one-act play titled Une Mauvaise Rencontre, or A Bad Encounter. The writer describes the misfortune of a traveler who is accosted by a highwayman disguised as an unfortunate vagrant who proceeds to appropriate various articles of clothing from the wary victim, including his hat, shoes, and money bag, through a discourse in which the traveler is made to assume in the beginning that he is being generous. However, the vignette takes a pronounced turn.
The highwayman pleads, "Won't you save a soul before it is seized with the blind desire to kill a fellow man?" When the traveler hesitates, the highwayman offers one more compelling reason to comply. "Look here," he says, "I have two pistols cocked!"
The young man's wit shines through in the short production, while also presenting a glimpse of that pragmatic perspective that guided Charles de Gaulle throughout his life. De Gaulle, a calculating and astute soldier and statesman, was never to be taken at face value. When the highwayman implores his victim to relent, the exchange reveals a tactic he later employed in dealing with heads of state, effectively urging them to accede to his demands. Otherwise, he would be forced to take some action that would be distasteful to all concerned.
The family enjoyed the morality play very much, and shortly thereafter someone forwarded the manuscript to a literary competition, where it was judged worthy of a prize. Charles was required to choose between having his work published or receiving a cash prize of 25 francs. De Gaulle chose to have the story appear in print, a more lasting reward than the fleeting gratification of a small sum of money.
Perhaps a more telling illustration of the vision that began to manifest itself in the youthful Charles was a work of fiction which he conceived the following year while attending the College of the Immaculate Conception in Paris. Conjuring up images of a future Europe embroiled in war, the 15-year-old wrote:
In 1930 Europe, angered by the government's ill will and insolence, declared war on France. Three German armies crossed the Vosges. The command of the strongest army was entrusted to General von Manteuffel. The Field Marshal Prince Frederick Charles took the head of the second. In France everything was very rapidly organized.
General de Gaulle was placed at the head of 200,000 men and 518 guns; General de Boisdeffre commanded an army of 150,000 men and 510 guns. On 10 February the armies took the field. De Gaulle quickly fixed upon his plan: he was first to save Nancy, then join hands with Boisdeffre and crush the Germans before they could unite, which would certainly have been disastrous for us.
Somewhat prophetic, already visionary, the young man had captured the essence of the first 50 years of twentieth-century Europe—wars and rumors of wars. De Gaulle had traveled extensively in Germany and wrote that Europe was in the midst of sweeping change. He sensed a tide of unrest and even hostility toward his country and noted that such an ill wind might well precede armed conflict of epic proportion. Years later, he wrote in his War Memoirs,
When I was an adolescent, what happened to France interested me beyond anything else, whether it was a matter of history or the struggle of public life. I therefore watched the drama that was, without a pause, being acted in the forum, with pleasure but also with severity. All the more so since at the beginning of the century there appeared the premonitory symptoms of the war. I must admit that in my first youth I imagined this unknown adventure without horror and glorified it in advance. In short, I did not doubt that France would go through enormous trials, that the whole point of life consisted of one day rendering her some conspicuous service, and that I should have the opportunity of doing so.
After two months of study in Belgium, he wrote to his father,
I have had a great misfortune this week. In mathematics examination we had on the twentieth, I was twelfth. Then, since luck is not with me this month I have just been marked second in physics and chemistry. I still read a great deal of history and natural history, and above all a great deal of German. They read us an account of the latest fighting on the Algerian frontier. Lieutenant de SaintHilaire of the Tirailleurs, who was killed in action, is the cousin of one of the boys here and it seems that he was an old boy of the rue des Postes.
De Gaulle was struck by the death of a French officer defending the reaches of the empire, the soldier not only related to a current schoolmate but who had attended a school where Henri had taught. Truly, de Gaulle had already come to the realization that the foundation of France, its seat of power, lay in the twin pillars of the Catholic Church and the army. He had devoted his life to the military, and from his earliest days the influence of the church was ever present within him. Each of these was a stabilizing and lasting institution within the country, and the church was the instrument of Almighty God, who without doubt guided the destiny of France and his own as well.
By the time Charles had reached his teens, a sense of purpose had begun to solidify within him. His professors had seen glimpses of brilliance but warned that the young student might squander his gifts with the passage of time rather than seize the opportunity which lay before him. They need not have worried.
As other world leaders were to discover in the years to come, when Charles de Gaulle became fixed upon a course of action to achieve a desired outcome, he applied intellect and energy. The cost must be borne in the process. An innate belief in himself and a sense of destiny that later manifested as something altogether similar to the Divine Right of Kings laid bare an aloof and cold exterior, a dour countenance which neither suffered fools nor warmly hailed a close friend. Perhaps in solitude he found strength and cultivated the resolution to pursue his own ambitions and those of France without faltering.
He once wrote that his life had been consumed since adolescence with the realization that "the interest in life consisted in one day rendering France some signal service and that I would have occasion to do so."
While he might well have followed his father and become a teacher, or even decided to follow his religious upbringing and enter the priesthood, neither seems to have rivaled the call of the military for Charles. A note of irony must be acknowledged in the young man's career decision. Despite the fact that a regimented life and the necessity of taking orders from others would seem the antithesis of his natural inclination, there was also a great appeal in the perceived order of things that the army could provide. There would no doubt be opportunity to command and to display personal bravery, while there could be no nobler undertaking than that of a defender of France. He was, after all, a leader.
Once he had decided to apply for admission to the prestigious military academy at St. Cyr, Charles threw himself into his studies with renewed vigor. Founded by Napoleon Bonaparte, St. Cyr had been a training ground for many French officers who had fought in the emperor's wars of conquest on the continent of Europe. Steeped in tradition, the academy was a bastion of the old school, whose primary doctrine of military conduct was to maintain the offensive at all costs.
Realizing that his prowess in French history and a keen knowledge of the military operations of the nation's great soldiers were not enough, de Gaulle pursued high marks in mathematics, science, and other disciplines that were prerequisites to success in the entrance examination. In the autumn of 1908, he entered the College Stanislas intent upon mastering mathematics and science in order to ensure his acceptance to St. Cyr.
Early in his first term, it appeared that Charles might once again prove only mediocre in his studies, finishing eighteenth in a class of 29 students. However, by the spring he steadily climbed to a rank of second.
In the late summer of 1909, Charles went to the seaside town of Wimereux to rest after two years of intense study. However, there was no rest to be had. The results of his entrance examination to St. Cyr would be available any day.
Finally, on September 30, the young man received word that he had been accepted. Of 800 hopefuls, 221 had been considered worthy for admission on the strength of the challenging test. De Gaulle stood 119th among them. While it may not have been an auspicious beginning, the die had been cast. Interestingly, a new regulation had recently been passed by the French military establishment. All officer candidates were required to spend a year in the rank and file of the army—in order to learn how to be led prior to leading soldiers themselves. (Continues...)
Excerpted from De Gaulle by Michael E. Haskew. Copyright © 2011 Michael E. Haskew. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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