Charles de Gaulle rose from French soldier in World War I to exiled leader and, eventually, president of the Fifth Republic, a position he held until 1969. 

Charles de Gaulle Early Life

He was born on 22 November, 1890, into a patriotic and devoutly Catholic family. His father, Henri de Gaulle, was a professor of history and literature at a Jesuit college who eventually founded his own school.

As part of the French nobility, the de Gaulle family had lost most of its land in the French Revolution, which it opposed.

De Gaulle was not an outstanding pupil until his mid-teens, but from July 1906 he worked harder at school as he focused on winning a place to train as an army officer at the military academy, Saint-Cyr.

He enrolled at the country’s top military academy, Saint-Cyr, in 1909.

Charles de Gaulle Military Career

In 1912, he completed his studies and joined an infantry regiment that was commanded by Colonel Philippe Pétain, serving as a lieutenant. During World War I, de Gaulle distinguished himself on the battlefield. 

He was wounded twice early on, and received a medal for his service. Promoted to captain, de Gaulle fought in one of the war’s most deadly confrontations—the Battle of Verdun—in 1916. 

During the fight, he was injured and, subsequently, taken prisoner. After several failed escape attempts, de Gaulle was freed at the end of the war.

A bright and skilled soldier, de Gaulle enrolled in a special training program at the École Supérieure de Guerre after the war. 

Charles de Gaulle
Charles de Gaulle

Charles de Gaulle married Yvonne Vendroux on 7 April 1921 in Église Notre-Dame de Calais. They had three children: Philippe (born 1921), Élisabeth (1924–2013), who married General Alain de Boissieu, and Anne (1928–1948).

He later worked with Pétain and served on France’s Supreme War Council. Gaining some international experience, de Gaulle spent time in Germany and the Middle East. 

After spending twelve years as a captain, a normal period, de Gaulle was promoted to commandant (major) on 25 September 1927.

Charles de Gaulle During WW2

In 1934 de Gaulle wrote Vers l’Armée de Métier (Toward a Professional Army). He proposed mechanization of the infantry, with stress on an élite force of 100,000 men and 3,000 tanks.

This critical work was largely ignored by French military officials, but not by the Germans. The German military followed some of de Gaulle’s recommendations in World War II. 

De Gaulle’s superiors disapproved of his views about tanks. Army passed him over for promotion to full colonel in 1936, supposedly because his service record was not good enough.

He and his mentor, Petain, had a fall out over another book, a military history piece entitled La France et son armée (1938). 

At the time fighting broke out between Germany and France, de Gaulle was leading a tank brigade. He was temporarily appointed the brigadier general of the 4th Armoured Division in May of 1940. 

Continuing to rise up professionally, de Gaulle became the undersecretary for defense and war for French leader Paul Reynaud that June. A short while later, Pétain replaced Reynaud. 

Pétain’s new government, sometimes called the Vichy government, worked out a deal with Germany to avoid further bloodshed. The Vichy regime became infamous for collaborating with the Nazis. 

Charles de Gaulle Exile

A dedicated nationalist, de Gaulle did not accept France’s surrender to Germany in 1940. He instead fled to England, where he became a leader of the Free French movement, with the support of British prime minister Winston Churchill. 

From London, de Gaulle broadcast a message across the English Channel to his countrymen, calling for them to resist the German occupation. 

He also organized soldiers from French colonies to fight alongside the allied troops. De Gaulle sometimes irritated other allied leaders with his demands and perceived arrogance. 

American President Franklin D. Roosevelt reportedly could not stand him. In fact, at the war’s end, allied leadership purposely left out de Gaulle of the Yalta Conference, as Germany negotiated its surrender. 

He did, however, secure his nation an occupation zone in Germany and a seat on the United Nation’s Security Council. 

Charles de Gaulle Head of Government

De Gaulle enjoyed wide support at home and, in 1945, became president of France’s provisional government. In a dispute over greater power for the country’s executive branch, de Gaulle resigned this post. 

For several years, de Gaulle led his own political movement, “Rally for the French People,” which did not gain much momentum. 

He them retired from politics in 1953. But the French government, known as the Fourth Republic, began to crumble in the late 1950s. Soon  de Gaulle once again returned to public service to help his country. 

Charles de Gaulle President of France

He helped form the country’s next government, becoming its president in January 1959. Establishing France’s Fifth Republic, de Gaulle dedicated himself to improving the country’s economic situation and maintaining its independence. 

He sought to keep France separate from the two superpowers—the United States and the Soviet Union. To show France’s military relevance, de Gaulle successfully campaigned for the country to press on with its nuclear weapons program. 

Sometimes inflexible and intractable, de Gaulle nearly saw his government toppled by student and worker protests in 1968. 

He managed to restore order to the country. Soonhe left power following a battle over political and economic reforms. 

In April 1969, de Gaulle resigned from the presidency. After his resignation, de Gaulle retired to his home in Colombeyles-Deux-Eglises.

Charles de Gaulle Death

 But he had little time to enjoy the quiet life of this village, as he died of a heart attack on November 9, 1970. 

France mourned the loss of its famous statesman and military leader; the country had lost one of its greatest heroes—a hero who had seen his people through war, and proved to be instrumental in his country’s recovery.

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