When General Charles de Gaulle first stepped up to a microphone provided by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in London and began to speak, the time was 10:00 pm on June 18, 1940. In reality, it was midnight for the French nation. The armed forces of Adolf Hitler’s Germany had overrun the country in a mere six weeks. De Gaulle, a fervent French nationalist and defender of France’s status as a major imperial power, faced a situation of total humiliation in the wake of the Third Reich’s triumph over his homeland. Now in exile in Britain he summoned the courage, the confidence, and the defiance that earned him adulation and ire worldwide throughout his long life. France, he insisted in his radio address, would fight on.
By the standards of the time, de Gaulle was not a young man. Neither was he that well-known inside France. Five months from his 50th birthday, he had lived through and seen, however, some of the most significant events of twentieth-century French and European history.
Born in Lille in November 1890, the son of a teacher, Charles de Gaulle grew up in a very conservative and very Catholic family. As a young man, he became attracted to military life. He attended Saint-Cyr, the French national military academy established by Napoleon Bonaparte in the early nineteenth century. His officer training (at the time Saint-Cyr emphasized preparation for positions in the infantry and cavalry) occurred as tensions between France, a republic since 1870, and Imperial Germany steadily increased. In 1913, de Gaulle, a second lieutenant, joined a regiment commanded by Colonel Philippe Pétain. Their careers and lives would be entangled for decades in ways neither of them could have ever imagined.
Early in World War I, de Gaulle was promoted to captain and received the Croix de Guerre. In 1916 he saw action at Verdun, a battle that came to epitomize the slaughter and carnage of the First World War. It was in the “meat-grinder” of Verdun, where the French suffered more than 500,000 casualties, that Pétain distinguished himself. Wounded three times, de Gaulle was taken prisoner and spent the remainder of the war in German POW camps. Unreconciled to his new status as a prisoner of war, de Gaulle attempted to escape, unsuccessfully, five times.
Following Germany’s defeat and his release, de Gaulle’s talents were recognized by the French military establishment. He taught in the early 1920s at Saint-Cyr, and then studied strategy and tactics at France’s prestigious École Supérieure de Guerre. During the mid-1920s, de Gaulle worked for Pétain, who mentored him. Particularly eye-opening for him was an assignment for two years (1927-29) to the French occupation force in the Rhineland, a region where the French had fostered separatist sentiment. De Gaulle had already authored a work on relations between military and civilian authorities in Germany. As the Great Depression devastated the Weimar Republic and Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party quickly garnered support, de Gaulle watched German affairs with apprehension. Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor in January 1933 realized his worst fears.
By this point, as France also struggled with the economic downturn, de Gaulle had earned a reputation as a most capable—and controversial—military theoretician. He penned a book on leadership and posed a strong alternative to the exclusive focus in France on defense and dependence on the newly constructed Maginot Line, the series of fortifications on the Franco-German border. In his 1934 book Vers l’armée de métier usually translated as The Army of the Future (Robert Doughty rightly contended that Towards a Professional Army was a better rendering), then Lieutenant Colonel de Gaulle defended a conception of mobile, mechanized warfare. His plan called for the transformation of the French army into a force of professional soldiers, challenging the existing reliance on draftees and the republican vision of the army as a body constituted by citizen-soldiers. A separate, elite armored force, comprised of six divisions totaling 100,000 men (with supporting air, reconnaissance, signal, and engineer units) within the army, would allow for bolder offensive operations against enemies.
As has been noted many times in the scholarship on him, de Gaulle’s book preceded Heinz Guderian’s better-known 1937 monograph on tank warfare. Inside French military and political circles, The Army of the Future won de Gaulle few friends, though. Robert Doughty and Ernest May emphasized how both advocates for the continued use of the horse and defenders of the citizen army opposed him. France would remain committed to the Maginot Line and a policy and mindset focused on defensive operations.
The unpopularity of de Gaulle’s position did not deter him. He held tenaciously to these views as France experienced years of deep crisis in the 1930s. With unemployment rising and the country experiencing waves of immigration from Eastern Europe, a right-wing coup attempt in Paris in February 1934 thankfully failed. Two years later, the election of moderate socialist Léon Blum and the Popular Front government was accompanied by a wave of militant strikes that seemed to augur proletarian revolution in France. Blum siphoned away much of this militancy through a series of reforms that undoubtedly improved the circumstances of workers (40-hour work week, collective bargaining, paid vacations, nationalization of some industries and the Bank of France) at the expense of employers. Throughout de Gaulle remained resolutely republican, if a conservative republican.
It cannot be ignored that de Gaulle, like Winston Churchill, insisted on preserving his country’s overseas empire. Yet in the late 1930s and early 1940s, he still stood to the left of many in France’s capitalist class, for whom antisocialism and antisemitism had pushed them, astonishingly, to view Hitler as preferable to Blum (Blum was the first Jewish premier in French history). Coupled with the appeasement policy towards the Nazi regime pursued by France and Britain into 1939, de Gaulle had good reason to worry about the course his country had charted during this time.
When France and Britain finally decided that armed conflict was unavoidable and declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939, two days after Hitler’s invasion of Poland, de Gaulle assumed command of a tank brigade in the French Fifth Army. His unit participated in the largely forgotten Saar Offensive, where the French army achieved some modest gains in the western German region of the Saarland, before a German counteroffensive drove them out. For the next several months, he observed a stunningly long period of inaction, as French forces waited behind the Maginot Line.
De Gaulle’s deepest anxieties came true on May 10, 1940, as the German military launched the long-expected invasion of France and the Low Countries. The breakthrough the Germans accomplished via the Ardennes shocked French and British leadership. Appointed brigadier-general, de Gaulle led the 4th Armored Division. In late May and early June, his division gave a good account of itself against the Germans at Abbeville, near the mouth of the Somme River in northern France. Around him, though, things fell apart with horrid rapidity.
On June 6, 1940, De Gaulle was promoted to undersecretary of state for defense in Paul Reynaud’s government. In his new post, he engaged in frequent exchanges with the British government, now led by Winston Churchill. During these dark days, he witnessed the collapse of Third Republic France, the only France he had ever known. German soldiers entered Paris in triumph on June 14, something they had never done in World War I. It was time to evacuate.
Brigadier-General de Gaulle’s very arrival in England was dramatic. On June 16, Reynaud stepped down, succeeded by de Gaulle’s aged former mentor, Marshal Pétain. The next day, de Gaulle boarded a British aircraft in Bordeaux, the port city in the southwest of France where the French government had fled as the Germans approached Paris. With his aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Geoffroy de Courcel, and British liaison officer Edward Spears, he made it safely to London. That very day, though, Pétain requested armistice terms from the Germans. The old marshal would soon head, along with Pierre Laval, a government in Vichy that defined collaborationism for generations to come.
Offered the opportunity to speak via the British Broadcasting Corporation, de Gaulle understood the gravity of the moment. So, on the night of June 18, a Tuesday, he issued a passionate appeal to the populace of France. His remarks revealed the level of confidence he had in himself. Attributing his country’s defeat to the sophistication of German technology and tactics and the weakness of France’s leadership, de Gaulle refused to abandon hope. “Nothing is lost for France,” he declared. The French people could look to their empire and to the backing of Great Britain. “For France is not alone! She is not alone!” He enjoined members of the French military, enlisted men and officers, and individuals with engineering backgrounds or with experience in armaments production to aid him. Technology, the address accented, was not the patrimony of Nazi Germany but could nourish the revival of France’s fortunes in this world war. “Whatever happens,” de Gaulle asserted, “the flame of French resistance must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished.”
Though the address later acquired an almost legendary status—no small thanks to de Gaulle’s penchant for self-mythologization, hardly anyone in France heard it. In fact, only a small number of people in France really knew who Charles de Gaulle was. Furthermore, much to de Gaulle’s chagrin, British engineers chose not to record the speech!
After grasping the salience of his remarks, the BBC arranged for de Gaulle to give them again on the 22nd. This time, the broadcast was recorded and reached many more people inside occupied France. The timing could not have been graver, since on that same day, the French government signed the armistice at Compiégne and more than 1.5 million French servicemembers officially became German prisoners of war.
In the address of June 22, de Gaulle did not merely repeat his statements from four days earlier. The newly signed armistice “would result not only in capitulation but also in slavery.” Reaching new heights with his rhetoric, he invoked three essential aspects of struggle: common sense, honor, and the “higher interest of the French nation.” Any decent person possessing these must commit to maintaining the fight against Hitler, a fight that de Gaulle characterized here with insouciance, as one between freedom and slavery. While mentioning his British hosts and reminding listeners of the resources available in France’s colonial holdings, he spoke as well of the possibilities of American economic assistance. The industrial colossus that was the United States certainly fit into his vision of the role technology would play in vanquishing the Nazis.
More than in the June 18 speech, de Gaulle foregrounded his own person in this appeal. Placing himself at the center, he once more invited members of France’s armed forces, the aforementioned engineers and armaments workers, and any others “who want to remain free” to join him in England in “this national task.” The address closed with the powerful “Long live a free and independent France!”
This was one of the decisive episodes early in the Second World War. No matter one’s opinion of de Gaulle—his conservatism, nationalism, and imperialism—or his arrogance, he made a crucial stand. In his memoirs, de Gaulle remembered that “not a single public figure raised his voice to condemn the armistice.” After his speeches, he indeed appeared to be a man without a country, standing alone. Most of the French Empire initially professed loyalty to Pétain. For those who wished to do so, joining de Gaulle, in the United Kingdom was no minor task. Vichy or German authorities would do everything they could to prevent it. Moreover, many men and women felt a sense of shame in leaving France at such a moment.
Robert Paxton, the great historian of France during World War II, pointed out, “many on the Left found de Gaulle’s following far too clerical, military, and nationalist for comfort. Warm relations between de Gaulle and the internal Left resistance were a good two years in the future.” It would take a figure like Jean Moulin to undertake the enormously difficult but vital mission of securing support from French socialists, communists, and trade unionists, a task made much easier by Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.
Developments beyond de Gaulle’s control also hindered his early efforts at creating a Free French alternative. The Royal Navy’s attack on the French naval force at Mers-el-Kebir in northwest Algeria on July 3, 1940, ostensibly to prevent it falling into German hands, resulted in the deaths of 1,300 French sailors and engendered much bitterness against Winston Churchill—and anyone touting support from Britain. A military court in France subsequently sentenced de Gaulle to death for treason and ordered the confiscation of his property.
Undaunted, de Gaulle persevered in building a Free French movement. Churchill promised sustained British aid in early August. When de Gaulle’s supporters seized control of French Equatorial Africa in the late summer and early fall of 1940, he seemed vindicated in his conviction that hope was not exhausted. This was the first of many episodes pitting Free French against Vichy French in what took on the character of a civil war across France’s far-flung empire. De Gaulle’s June 1940 addresses, while a centerpiece of later mythologizing, did embolden those inside and outside France, including not a few with radically different and more progressive politics than his, to rededicate themselves to combating a Nazi enemy that looked invincible that summer.
Doughty, Robert. “De Gaulle’s Concept of a Mobile, Professional Army: Genesis of French Defeat?” Parameters 4, no. 1 (1974), doi:10.55540/0031-1723.1064.
Gildea, Robert. Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2015.
May, Ernest. Strange Victory: Hitler’s Conquest of France. New York: Hill and Wang, 2000.
Neiberg, Michael. When France Fell: The Vichy Crisis and the Fate of the Anglo-American Alliance. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2021.
Paxton, Robert. Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order 1940-1944. New York: Columbia University Press, 1972.
Jason Dawsey, PhD
Jason Dawsey, PhD, is a Research Historian at the Jenny Craig Institute for the Study of War and Democracy.