De Gaulle's first posting was with Colonel Henri P. Pétain's 33rd Infantry Regiment. During World War I, de Gaulle was promoted to captain, and he demonstrated a high degree of leadership and courage. Wounded twice, he was captured by the Germans at Verdun in March 1916 after being wounded a third time. Later he received the Legion of Honor for this action. Despite five escape attempts, he remained a prisoner of war until the end of the war.
After the war, de Gaulle returned to teach history at Saint-Cyr, and in 1920 he was part of the French military mission to Poland. He returned to France to study and teach at the École de Guerre. De Gaulle then served as an aide to French army commander Marshal Pétain, but the two had a falling-out, apparently because Pétain wanted de Gaulle to ghostwrite his memoirs. De Gaulle also became an important proponent of the new theories of high-speed warfare centered on tanks. In his 1934 book Vers l'armée de métier (published in English as The Army of the Future), de Gaulle proposed formation of six completely mechanized and motorized divisions with their own organic artillery and air support. Another book, Le fil de l'epée ( The Edge of the Sword) revealed much about de Gaulle's concept of leadership and his belief that a true leader should follow his conscience regardless of the circumstances.
Promoted to major and then to lieutenant colonel, de Gaulle served in the Rhineland occupation forces, in the Middle East, and on the National Defense Council. Although he was advanced to colonel in 1937 and had important political friends such as future premiere Paul Reynaud, de Gaulle's views placed him very much on the outside of the military establishment.
When World War II began, de Gaulle commanded a tank brigade. His warnings about the German use of tanks in Poland fell on deaf ears in the French High Command. De Gaulle commanded the 4th French Tank Division in the 1940 Battle for France. Although the division was still in formation, he secured one of the few French successes of that campaign. Promoted to brigadier general on 1 June 1940, five days later de Gaulle was appointed undersecretary of defense in the Reynaud government. De Gaulle urged Reynaud to fight on, even in a redoubt in the Brittany Peninsula or removing the armed forces to North Africa. De Gaulle's resolve won the admiration of British Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill.
De Gaulle and Jean Monnet visited London and suggested to Churchill a plan for an indissoluble Anglo-French union that the French government had rejected. Returning to Bordeaux from the mission to London, de Gaulle learned that the defeatists had won and France would sue for peace. On 17 June, he departed France on a British aircraft bound for England. The next day, this youngest general in the French army appealed to his countrymen over the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) to continue the fight against Germany. From this point forward, de Gaulle was the most prominent figure in the French Resistance. With Churchill's support and because no prominent French politicians had escaped abroad, de Gaulle then set up a French government-in-exile in London and began organizing armed forces to fight for the liberation of his country. The Pétain government at Vichy declared de Gaulle a traitor and condemned him to death in absentia.
Initially, de Gaulle's position was at best tenuous. Most French citizens did not recognize his legitimacy, and relations with the British and Americans were at times difficult. De Gaulle insisted on being treated as head of state of a major power, whereas American leaders, especially President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and even Churchill persisted in treating him as an auxiliary and often did not consult with him at all on major decisions.
The British attack on the French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir further undermined de Gaulle's credibility. Relations with the United States were not helped by a Free French effort to secure Saint-Pierre and Miquelon off Canada. The United States recognized the Vichy government and continued to pursue a two-France policy even after the United States entered the war in December 1941.
Over time, de Gaulle solidified his position as leader of the Resistance in France. Bitter over British moves in Syria and Lebanon and not informed in advance of the U.S.-British invasion of French North Africa, de Gaulle established his headquarters in Algiers in 1943, where he beat back a British-French effort to replace him with General Henri Giraud. His agent, Jean Moulin, secured the fusion of Resistance groups within France. The French Resistance rendered invaluable service to the British and Americans in the June 1944 Normandy Invasion, and French forces actually liberated Paris that August.
De Gaulle then returned to Paris and established a provisional government there. Full U.S. diplomatic recognition came only with the creation of the new government. De Gaulle secured for France an occupation zone in Germany and a key role in postwar Europe. But with the return of peace the former political parties reappeared, and hopes for a fresh beginning faded. De Gaulle's calls for a new constitutional arrangement with a strong presidency were rejected, and he resigned in January 1946 to write his memoirs.
A revolt among European settlers and the French Army in Algeria, who feared a sellout there to the Algerian nationalists, brought de Gaulle back to power in 1958. A new constitution tailor-made for de Gaulle established the Fifth Republic. De Gaulle's preservation of democracy was his greatest service to his country, but he also brought an end to the Algerian War, and he worked out a close entente with Konrad Adenauer's Federal Republic of Germany. De Gaulle was also controversial, removing France from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's military command, creating an independent nuclear strike force, encouraging Quebec to secede from Canada, and lecturing the United States on a wide variety of issues. He remained president until 1969, when he again resigned to write a new set of memoirs. Unarguably France's greatest twentieth-century statesman, Charles de Gaulle died at his estate of Colombey-les-Deux-Églises on 9 November 1970. Thomas Lansford and Spencer C. Tucker
Berthon, Simon. Allies at War: The Bitter Rivalry among Churchill, Roosevelt, and de Gaulle. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2001.; Cook, Don. Charles de Gaulle, a Biography. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1983.; De Gaulle, Charles. The Complete War Memories of Charles de Gaulle. Trans. Jonathan Griffin and Richard Howard. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1969.; Kersaudy, François. Churchill and De Gaulle. New York: Atheneum, 1982.; Lacouture, Jean. De Gaulle. The Rebel, 1890–1944. Trans. Patrick O'Brian. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990.; Ledwidge, Bernard. De Gaulle. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1982.
Thomas Lansford and Spencer C. Tucker