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Charles de Gaulle

(1890 - 1970)

Charles de Gualle was a French general and stateman who led the Free French Forces during World War II. He later founded the French Fifth Republic in 1958 and served as its first president from 1959 to 1969.

de Gaulle (born November 22, 1890; died November 9, 1970) was born in the industrial region of Lille in the Nord region of France, the third of five children. He was raised in a family of devout Roman Catholics who were patriotic and traditionalist, but also quite progressive.

At age 11, de Gaulle's family moved to Paris where he was later educated at the College Stanislas and also briefly in Belgium where he pursued his interest in reading and studying history. As he grew older, de Gaulle settled on a military career, intent on avenging the French defeat to the Germans of 1870.

de Gaulle spent six months as an ordinary soldier before being promoted to corporal and then again to sergeant. He then spent four years studying and training at the elite military academy, Saint-Cyr, where he acquired the nicknames of "the great asparagus" and "Cyrano". At the academy de Gaulle received praise for his conduct, manners, intelligence, character, military spirit and resistance to fatigue.

Graduating in 1912 in 13th place out of 210 cadets, his report noted that he was a highly gifted cadet who should go on to make an excellent officer. Preferring to serve in France rather than far away in North Africa or Indochina, de Gaulle joined the 33rd infantry regiment of the French Army commanded by Colonel Philippe Pétain, whose career de Gaulle would follow for the following 20 years.

Promoted to platoon commander during World War I, de Gaulle took part in fierce fighting to check the German advance at Dinat, however he was wounded early on in battle. After returning from the hospital, de Gaulle was promoted again to company commander after so many men from his unit were killed. De Gaulle's unit gained recognition for repeatedly crawling out into no-mans-land to listen to the conversations of the enemy in their trenches - the information he brought back was so valuable that in January 1915 he received a citation for his bravery. After a more serious wound which incapacitated him for four months, he was promoted to captain in September 1915.

At the Battle of Verdun in March 1916, while leading a charge to try to break out of a position which had become surrounded by the enemy, de Gaulle received a bayonet wound to the leg and, passing out from the effects of poison gas, was captured at Douaumont. Initially giving him up for dead, Pétain, who was later to achieve great acclaim for his role in the battle, wrote in the regimental journal that de Gaulle had been "an outstanding officer in all respects". On December 1, 1918, three weeks after the armistice, he returned to his father's house in France to be reunited with his three brothers, who had all survived the war.

While a prisoner of war, de Gaulle wrote his first book, co-written by Matthieu Butler, L'Ennemi et le vrai ennemi (The Enemy and the True Enemy), analysing the issues and divisions within the German Empire and its forces; the book was published in 1924. Another important book was Vers l'armée de métier (1932), in which he made suggestions for creating a better army, was largely ignored by French military officials, but not by the Germans. According to some reports, the German military followed some of de Gaulle's recommendations in World War II. He and his mentor, Petain, had a falling 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 Armored 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, Reynaud was replaced by Pétain. 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.

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 de Gaulle was purposely left out 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 Nations Security Council. 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 retired from politics in 1953.

The French government, known as the Fourth Republic, began to crumble in the late 1950s, and de Gaulle once again returned to public service to help his country. 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.

De Gaulle was not afraid to make controversial decisions. After coping with uprisings in Algeria for years, he helped the French colony achieve independence in 1962. This move was not widely popular at the time. De Gaulle supported the idea of a united Europe, but he wanted Europe to be free from the superpowers' influences. He fought to keep Britain out of the European Economic Community because of its close ties to the United States. In 1966, de Gaulle also pulled his country's forces out of the North American Treaty Organization, acting again on his concerns with the United States. To some, de Gaulle came off as anti-American. Though he may have been, to some extent, his actions seemed to truly reflected his deep nationalistic views.

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, but left power soon after, 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 Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises. He had little time to enjoy the quiet life of this village, as he died of a heart attack on November 9, 1970. French President George Pompidou, who had worked closely with de Gaulle before succeeding him, delivered the terrible news to the public, saying "General de Gaulle is dead.

France is a widow." 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.

Other world leaders offered up words of praise for de Gaulle.Queen Elizabeth II said that his "courage and tenacity in the allied cause during the dark years of the Second World War will never be forgotten." Two American presidents, Lyndon B. Johnson and Harry S. Truman, sent their condolences to the people of France, as well as to Soviet Premier Aleksei Kosygin. President Richard Nixon was among the foreign dignitaries who attended a special service for de Gaulle, held shortly after his death, at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

Sources: Wikipedia; Photo courtesy of United States Library of Congress, no copyright required.