De Gaulle's Victory Over Waterloo

Charles de Gaulle delivered his first speech from London on the anniversary of Waterloo.

Jonathan Fenby | Published in 10 Aug 2015

'In God's hands': Charles de Gaulle delivers a speech from London in 1940.Much has been made, especially (and predictably) in the British press, of French reluctance to mark the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. In France, however, the date – June 18th – is remembered for a very different event involving a very different and ultimately more successful military leader and politician.  

Charles de Gaulle had arrived in London on June 17th, 1940 with Edward Spears, Churchill’s personal liaison officer with the French. The general flew from Bordeaux, where Phillipe Pétain, hero of the First World War battle of Verdun, had just become head of a government that would surrender to the advancing Germans and preside over four years of collaboration. De Gaulle would have none of this. He was convinced that Hitler would eventually be defeated and that France must not give up. ‘Honour, common sense and the superior interests of the nation demanded that the combat should continue’, he said.    

He would be proved right at the Liberation four years later, but his flight to London was a huge gamble. He had become deputy defence minister at the beginning of June, at the age of 49, after leading his tank units in battle; but he had no legitimacy. Churchill, whom he had met at the Anglo-French conference earlier in the month, welcomed him and offered him the services of the BBC to broadcast his message of resistance. But the General wondered, as he put it to his son later, if he was doing something mad ‘throwing myself into the water without knowing where the other bank is … I put myself in God’s hands’. 

His revolt against the Pétain administration, which had been approved by parliament, was all the more striking because de Gaulle came from a reactionary, royalist family and, as a professional soldier, placed a high premium on discipline. He had, however, shown his rebellious streak in the 1930s by championing offensive tank warfare against the defensive mindset of France’s high command championed by Pétain and epitomised by the Maginot Line, which the all-conquering Wehrmacht simply avoided.  

As a German prisoner in the First World War (he was captured at Verdun), de Gaulle had written in his notebook about what made great leaders, a theme he developed in lectures at the French military academy in the 1920s. He argued that they moved beyond set hierarchies and regulations, ready to take the risks involved. They were predestined for greatness, tough individuals who lacked ‘surface seduction’ and were rarely loved but who were ready to seize their opportunity when it arose. His words went down badly with the conservative military establishment, but there was little doubt as to de Gaulle joining their ranks when that time came and it did so in the middle of June 1940.

Taking up Churchill’s offer, he arranged to broadcast on the BBC on June 18th, but the War Cabinet, meeting that morning in the absence of the prime minister, vetoed the idea since it still hoped to nurture a relationship with the Pétain government. Spears went to Churchill to protest and was told that, if he could get a majority of the Cabinet to change their minds, he could go ahead. Spears lobbied successfully and de Gaulle spoke to France, declaring: ’Has the last word been said? Must hope disappear? Is defeat final? No!’ France could count on Britain’s backing and ‘the immense industry of the United States’, he added. He invited all French troops and civilians on British territory to join him. ‘Whatever happens, the flame of French resistance must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished,’ he concluded. (He did not utter the famous phrase about France having lost a battle, but not the war, which was reportedly conjured up by the British Information Minister, Duff Cooper, and which was subsequently slotted into the text of the call to resistance.)

Initial reaction was halting. The British had initially hoped for a more prominent French politician to rally to their cause. The French ambassador, Charles Corbin, went to South America. Other leading French figures then in London, such as the future ‘Father of Europe’ Jean Monnet and the writer André Maurois, headed for the United States. Few of the French troops who had crossed the Channel signed up initially with the new movement, the Free French, who installed a cask of wine at their headquarters.

Yet a dedicated core of early Gaullists kept the flame of resistance alive. Despite their recurrent and often violent rows, Churchill maintained his fundamental support and the Treasury offered finance (which was ultimately repaid). The ranks of the Free French grew bit by bit and the internal resistance movements in France came to recognise the general as their standard bearer. In August 1944, although French units were not included in the D-Day landings, de Gaulle marched down the Champs-Élysées in triumph at the Liberation. The Man of June 18th, 1940 had seized his hour on the anniversary of Waterloo and proved himself to be, unlike Napoleon, his country’s saviour.

Jonathan Fenby is author of The General: Charles de Gaulle and the France He Saved (Simon & Schuster, 2010). His History of Modern France was published in July 2015.