The General: Charles De Gaulle and the France He Savedby Jonathan Fenby
No leader of modern times was more uniquely patriotic than Charles de Gaulle. As founder and first president of the Fifth Republic, General de Gaulle saw himself as “carrying France on [his] shoulders.”
In his twenties, he fought for France in the trenches and at the epic battle of Verdun. In the 1930s, he waged a lonely battle to enable France
No leader of modern times was more uniquely patriotic than Charles de Gaulle. As founder and first president of the Fifth Republic, General de Gaulle saw himself as “carrying France on [his] shoulders.”
In his twenties, he fought for France in the trenches and at the epic battle of Verdun. In the 1930s, he waged a lonely battle to enable France to better resist Hitler’s Germany. Thereafter, he twice rescued the nation from defeat and decline by extraordinary displays of leadership, political acumen, daring, and bluff, heading off civil war and leaving a heritage adopted by his successors of right and left.
Le Général, as he became known from 1940 on, appeared as if he was carved from a single monumental block, but was in fact extremely complex, a man with deep personal feelings and recurrent mood swings, devoted to his family and often seeking reassurance from those around him. This is a magisterial, sweeping biography of one of the great leaders of the twentieth century and of the country with which he so identified himself. Written with terrific verve, narrative skill, and rigorous detail, the first major work on de Gaulle in fifteen years brings alive as never before the private man as well as the public leader through exhaustive research and analysis.
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The General: Charles De Gaulle and the France He Saved
By Jonathan Fenby
Skyhorse PublishingCopyright © 2012 Jonathan Fenby
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEDGE OF THE ABYSS
On 1 June 1940, as the German army and air force swept across France, an unusually tall one-star general went to see the Prime Minister of France. The politician Paul Reynaud, an elfin-faced conservative who had been in office for ten weeks, offered him a choice: he could take command of France's tank forces or join the government as Deputy Defence Minister – Reynaud held the senior defence post. Charles de Gaulle took the second option. A historic career was launched that would parallel France's fortunes for good and ill over three decades.
As the two men talked, their country was undergoing its greatest humiliation of the twentieth century. Three weeks earlier, the German army had circumvented its main defences on the heavily fortified Maginot Line, and used the deadly combination of tanks and dive-bombers to pulverise French forces, which retreated in disarray or found themselves surrounded by the advancing enemy. The rout was all the more humiliating because France's tank force was 30 per cent larger than Germany's and included the heaviest and most powerful fighting vehicle in the world, the Char B1. In the air, the Allies again had 30 per cent superiority in numbers, and the United States had just delivered five hundred American planes, including high-quality fighters. But the Luftwaffe was as dominant as the tanks on the ground. The failure lay with the men in charge and the defensive mentality which had held sway since 1918.
Millions of civilians fled from the battle areas in the intense summer heat; they were compared by the pilot and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry to a great anthill kicked over by a boot. Law and order broke down along roads lined with abandoned cars and lorries that had run out of petrol. The population of the city of Lille fell from 200,000 to 20,000. In the eastern city of Troyes, only thirty people were left. The crowd waiting to board trains leaving Paris stretched for a kilometre.
Officials at the Foreign Ministry carted out wheelbarrows piled with documents to burn them on the lawn. Visiting Paris for a meeting of the Allied war council, Winston Churchill found 'utter dejection' on every face. When the British Prime Minister asked where France's strategic reserve was, the commander-in-chief, Maurice Gamelin, replied against the evidence that there was none, bewailing France's 'inferiority of numbers, inferiority of equipment, inferiority of methods'.
Reynaud, who barely had a parliamentary majority, sought to buttress morale by appointing the First World War hero Marshal Philippe Pétain as the number two in the government and replacing Gamelin with another figure from the last great Franco-German conflict, Maxime Weygand. Both choices were unfortunate. Pétain's defence of the fortress of Verdun in 1916 had made him into a figure revered by the French, but he thought the new war was lost and that France should sue for peace. The Marshal was eighty-four; a British general described him as looking 'senile, uninspiring and defeatist'. De Gaulle quoted the observation of the eighteenth-century writer Chateaubriand that 'old age is a wreck'. The prim, touchy Weygand wailed that he had no troops and could not hold the line. Asked why he had appointed the two old men, Reynaud replied, 'Better to have them inside than outside.'
The Premier, who had opposed the appeasement of Germany before the war, insisted in speeches and radio addresses that France would continue to resist the Nazi advance; but his words rang increasingly hollow, and he was under personal pressure from his mistress who urged him to seek an armistice. His appeals for reinforcements and Royal Air Force planes received no response from Churchill as he prepared for the battle to defend Britain. On 26 May, the British began to evacuate their expeditionary force from Dunkirk. Pétain told the American ambassador that Britain would allow the French to go on fighting to the last drop of their blood and would then sign a treaty with Hitler.
To balance the two defeatist generals, Reynaud promoted a tough-minded politician, Georges Mandel, to be Interior Minister. Mandel, who carried the historic heritage of having worked with 'the Tiger', Georges Clemenceau, in the victory of 1918, stands out in photographs of the government as a solid presence in a three-piece chalk-striped suit and stiff, starched collar. He believed in fighting on, if necessary from France's territories in North Africa, but he had plenty of enemies and bore the burden of being Jewish in a country where anti-Semitism was rife.
Among the few who thought like Mandel was forty-nine-year-old Charles de Gaulle. Standing six foot three inches tall with long arms, he was physically awkward and rarely at ease. He had a little moustache, big ears and a face that bore a resemblance to that of an elephant. His handshake was surprisingly limp – 'a velvet claw', one man who met him in 1940 recalled. The son of reactionary, devoutly Catholic parents, he had been a career soldier since becoming a military cadet in 1908. As a young officer, he fought in the trenches of the Western Front in the First World War, leading infantry charges with his drawn sword. Wounded three times, he was given up for dead at Verdun before being taken captive by the Germans. After acting as an adviser to the Poles in their campaign against the Soviet army in 1919–20, he became a protégé of Pétain, though they subsequently fell out, for personal reasons and because of de Gaulle's championing of armoured warfare. Great men, he had decided early on, were those ready to grab the opportunity offered by events. June 1940 was to be that moment for de Gaulle.
After commanding a tank division in two battles against the advancing Germans, he was promoted to the rank of acting brigadier general. 'Nothing counts more than this. France must be saved,' he wrote to his wife, Yvonne, from the front. In a radio broadcast, he foresaw a conflict of global dimensions from which France could emerge on the victorious side. 'We are on the edge of the abyss and you carry France on your back,' he told Reynaud on 3 June, adding that the Prime Minister had erred in appointing 'yesterday's men [who] fear me because they know I am right and have the dynamism to force their hands'. Should he become Reynaud's chief of staff? he asked. No, he replied to the offer the Prime Minister had not made, 'I intend to act with you, but by myself.'
II The last quarter of an hour
4 June 1940. As the evacuation of 200,000 British and 140,000 French from Dunkirk ended, Churchill made his speech to the House of Commons vowing to fight on the beaches and in the fields, and never to surrender. In Paris, Reynaud flirted with the idea of moving the government to a safe haven in Brittany. It was not a very sound notion since the defence of the peninsula would have required twenty divisions, which France could not muster. Still, an order was issued for work to start on setting up the communications network for an eventual transfer.
5 June. German planes bombed the outskirts of Paris. Reynaud announced de Gaulle's appointment, but also named an appeaser, Paul Baudouin, as his number two at the Foreign Ministry. Though he had greeted de Gaulle as 'a daring and energetic leader' on the battlefield, Weygand called the new Deputy Defence Minister 'a child' while the navy chief, François Darlan, said he was mad. Pétain told Churchill's envoy to France, General Sir Edward Spears: 'His vanity leads him to think the art of war has no secrets for him ... Not only is he vain, he is ungrateful. He has few friends in the army. No wonder, for he gives the impression of looking down on everybody.' Baudouin and the head of the Prime Minister's military staff, Colonel Villelume, detected 'boundless ambition' in the general. 'But what more can he want?' Reynaud asked them. 'Your place,' they answered.
6 June. Wearing his general's uniform, the new junior minister lunched with officers of his armoured Fourth Division in northern France where they had fought the Germans outside the town of Abbeville. On the battlefield, he had been a domineering, distant presence, but now he shook each officer's hand, and told them: 'I am proud of you. You know how to do your duty.'
Returning to his ministry in Paris, an eighteenth-century stone hôtel particulier on the rue Saint-Dominique on the Left Bank of the Seine, he plotted the course of the war on a large wall map. He later recalled to a subordinate that, when he arrived, the waiting room was crammed with senior officers. They were not there to plan resistance, he added, 'all of them had come to ask me for a promotion or a decoration'. The press greeted his appointment with enthusiasm, and, to make himself better known, he summoned photographers, leading Reynaud's chief of staff, Dominique Leca, to note that he was acting 'like a star'. De Gaulle realised France would need 'a resurrection myth' if it was to recover from defeat, and was starting to create it round himself, Leca added.
8 June. In his memoirs, de Gaulle records a conversation with Weygand, whose contents the other man subsequently denied. De Gaulle's account has the commander-in-chief saying the Germans would advance to the rivers Seine and Marne, after which 'it will be over'.
'Over?' the junior general replied. 'What about the empire?'
'The empire?' Weygand answered with a despairing smile. 'That's child's talk. As for the rest of the world, when I have been beaten here, England will not wait eight days to negotiate with the Reich.' Looking de Gaulle in the eye, he added: 'Ah! If only I was sure that the Germans would leave me sufficient forces to maintain order.' Weygand wrote later that, if his smile had been despairing, it had been because de Gaulle was talking about other things instead of concentrating on the immediate situation.
9 June. In his order of the day to the army Weygand declared that the 'last quarter of an hour' had come. 'Stand fast,' he advised. Reynaud instructed that a 180-kilometre line running across the frontier of Brittany should be fortified, as if there was time for that.
One of de Gaulle's responsibilities was military liaison with the British and he paid his first visit to London on 9 June to try to convince Churchill to commit more forces to the defence of France. Explaining why this was impossible, the Prime Minister launched into a virtuoso display of rhetoric delivered half in English and half in his idiosyncratic French as he strode up and down. Though de Gaulle got nowhere, the visit was important for his future. He was able to speak on behalf of his country, and made a favourable impression on his hosts as cool and collected.
On the return journey, the pilot wanted to land at Caen to avoid flying at night to Paris, where conditions might be perilous. But his passenger insisted on getting back to the capital as soon as possible. The plane put down at Le Bourget airport near Paris by the light of two flares beside the runway; the pilot was reported to have mopped sweat from his brow as the aircraft came to a halt.
At 10 p.m., the government decided to leave for the Loire Valley the following day, declaring Paris an open city. De Gaulle argued in vain that some of the administration should stay behind. The situation was like a house of cards, he thought. If everybody left, things would fall apart. His own wife and three children had moved to Brittany, where they rented two storeys in a villa in the coastal town of Carantec.
10 June. 'A day of extreme anguish,' de Gaulle recalled. Italy declared war on France. Weygand handed Reynaud a note saying that the battle in metropolitan France was lost. When de Gaulle objected, the commanderin-chief asked him if he had something to propose. 'The government does not have propositions to make but orders to give' came the reply. 'I count on it to give them.'
That night, Reynaud was driven south from Paris, accompanied by de Gaulle. During the three-hour journey, the general urged the Prime Minister to replace Weygand with a commander from the front in eastern France, General Hutzinger. He was a strange choice, having been defeated by the German advance after dismissing a warning about the inadequate defences and the penetrability of the Ardennes hills through which the Panzers had burst. Still, de Gaulle argued that he had a broader view of the war than Weygand. Whether that was true or not, he would be less of an obstacle to the deputy minister.
Reynaud's car took back roads to avoid the crush of refugees on the main route. The Third Republic, established after the last defeat by the Germans in 1870, was in flight, incapable of defending the nation. Its leaders and their regime had been discredited, and they were unable to tell the truth – the official radio announced that the Prime Minister was going to join the armies but he headed in the opposite direction for the Orléans region, where Weygand had established his headquarters in the redbrick château of Briare.
Pétain joined the exodus in a Cadillac, followed by his personal doctor in a Chrysler. When the Marshal arrived at Briare at 2 a.m. no bed was available and he was driven on for two hours to the town of Gien, where he slept in a house attached to the station on a bed abandoned by a railway inspector.
11 June. Meeting de Gaulle, Pétain remarked: 'You are a general now. I don't congratulate you on that. What's the meaning of rank during a defeat?' In Paris, Senator Jacques Bardoux, a stalwart of the regime whose father had been a founder of the Third Republic, went to the Interior Ministry. The gates were shut. When Bardoux asked to see Mandel, the guard replied: 'He left during the night.' 'And the President of the Republic?' 'Oh, that one left forty-eight hours ago.' 'That's sickening,' Bardoux said. 'Couldn't agree more,' the guard answered.
Churchill arrived in Orléans in a lobster-pink aeroplane for a Franco-British summit at which Pétain lamented that France was being smashed to pieces, with one-third of its 105 divisions lost. 'I am helpless,' Weygand said. 'Now is the decisive moment.'
No, Churchill replied. The decisive moment would come when Hitler hurled the Luftwaffe against Britain. 'If we can keep command of the air over our own island – that is all I ask – we will win it all back for you,' he added.
His normally sallow skin still glowing from hours spent on the field of combat, de Gaulle made a striking contrast to the other French ministers whom Spears likened to 'prisoners hauled up from some deep dungeon to hear an inevitable verdict'. Oliver Harvey, from the British embassy, described the general as 'the only calm and intelligent soldier left'. He was, Spears wrote, 'straight, direct, even rather brutal ... a strange-looking man, enormously tall; sitting at the table, he dominated everybody else by his height ... His heavily-hooded eyes were very shrewd. When about to speak he oscillated his head slightly, like a pendulum, while searching for words.' Spears understood why, as a young soldier, de Gaulle had gained the nickname 'the Constable'.
The junior minister's increasing prominence was signalled by a request from Churchill that he should sit at his right at dinner, to the annoyance of Weygand. The fare was soup, an omelette and a light wine followed by coffee. De Gaulle lit one cigarette from another as he preached resistance, and suggested that the French and British tank forces should be amalgamated. On his return to London, Churchill told colleagues he thought a great deal of the general.
12 June. Staying in a neo-Gothic château at Azay-sur-Cher where he slept in a four-poster bed with pink curtains, de Gaulle worked on plans to move troops across the Mediterranean, and got Reynaud to agree to set up resistance centres in the Auvergne and Brittany. He made a quick trip to western France where he learned that building the necessary defences would take three months, clearly an impossible delay when the Wehrmacht's tanks were speeding across northern France. So North Africa was the only possibility for continued resistance.
'I will never sign an armistice,' he told his aide and friend, Jean Auburtin. 'It would be against French honour and interests.' When Auburtin evoked the horrors of an occupation of metropolitan France, de Gaulle replied, 'Very nasty things will happen, but would an armistice change anything? We would have against us not only Germany and Italy, but perhaps also America and Britain, and one day Russia and Japan.'
Excerpted from The General: Charles De Gaulle and the France He Saved by Jonathan Fenby Copyright © 2012 by Jonathan Fenby. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Jonathan Fenby is a former editor of the Observer and the South
China Morning Post, and is a former bureau chief in France for the
Economist and Reuters. He is the author of ten books, including the acclaimed biography Chiang Kai-Shek: China’s Generalissimo and the Nation He Lost and The Sinking of the Lancastria, which tells the story of the greatest disaster in British naval history. He was made a commander of the British Empire and a knight of the French
Order of Merit for services to journalism. He lives in London.
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I am an avid reader of all things to do with WW2, but until this book I never really knew much about DeGualle. The author does a fantastic job of presenting this sometimes enigmatic figure and making him and his talents and foibles very human and understandable. Until this book DeGualle had always been presented as a figure who just sort of popped up out of the ground in 1940 and was a thorn in the side of the Allied high command for the rest of the war. He was in fact anything but. Yes he had a personal agenda, but at the heart of this agenda was a deep love for France and a belief in its greatness. This love and belief carried on after the war through his time as President. One aside that I will offer is that with the amount of bickering among the Allies that this book mentions it is a wonder that they were able to focus on the defeat of Germany at all and almost a miracle they did so. This is a long book, but well worth the effort.