Charles André Joseph Marie de Gaulle

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Charles André Joseph Marie de Gaulle was born on November 22nd 1890, the son of a philosophy and literature professor, famed French leader Charles de Gaulle was born in 1890, into a patriotic and devoutly Catholic family. De Gaulle was a well-educated and well-read child. Early on, he dreamed of being a military leader. He enrolled at the country’s top military academy, Saint-Cyr, in 1909. 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. 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; De Gaulle’s time as a commander in World War II would later influence his political career, providing him with a tenacious drive.

He was the leader of Free France (1940–44) and the head of the Provisional Government of the French Republic (1944–46). In 1958, he founded the Fifth Republic and was elected as the 18th President of France, a position he held until his resignation in 1969. He was the dominant figure of France during the Cold War era and his memory continues to influence French politics.

charles-andre-joseph-marie-de-gaulleBorn in Lille, he graduated from Saint-Cyr in 1912. He was a decorated officer of the First World War, wounded several times and later taken prisoner at Verdun. He tried to escape with a fellow prisoner, but failed several times. After the war ended, he was released. During the interwar period he advocated mobile armored divisions. At the beginning of the Second World War, he led an armored division which counterattacked the invading German army, before being appointed to the French Government as Under-Secretary for War. Refusing to accept his government’s armistice with Nazi Germany in 1940, de Gaulle exhorted the French population to resist occupation and to continue the fight against Axis powers in his Appeal of 18 June. He led a government in exile and the Free French Forces against the Axis. Despite frosty relations with Britain and especially the United States, he emerged as the undisputed leader of the French resistance. He became Head of the Provisional Government of the French Republic in June 1944, the interim government of France following its Liberation. As early as 1944, de Gaulle introduced a dirigist economic policy, which included substantial state-directed control over a capitalist economy. It contributed to thirty years of unprecedented growth.

On 9 November 1970, two weeks short of what would have been his 80th birthday, Charles de Gaulle died suddenly, despite enjoying very robust health his entire life (except for a prostate operation a few years earlier). He had been watching the evening news on television and playing Solitaire around 7:40 pm when he suddenly pointed to his neck and said, “I feel a pain right here”, and then collapsed. His wife called the doctor and the local priest, but by the time they arrived he had died from a ruptured blood vessel. His wife asked that she be allowed to inform her family before the news was released. She was able to contact her daughter in Paris quickly, but their son, who was in the navy, was difficult to track down, so President Georges Pompidou was not informed until 4 am the next morning and announced the general’s death on television some 18 hours after the event. He simply said, “Le général de Gaulle est mort; la France est veuve.” (“General de Gaulle is dead. France is a widow.”)

De Gaulle had made arrangements that insisted his funeral be held at Colombey, and that no presidents or ministers attend his funeral—only his Compagnons de la Libération. Despite his wishes, such were the number of foreign dignitaries who wanted to honor de Gaulle that Pompidou was forced to arrange a separate memorial service at the Notre-Dame Cathedral, to be held at the same time as his actual funeral. The only notable absentee was Canadian PM Pierre Trudeau, possibly because he was still angry over de Gaulle’s cry of “Vive le Quebec libre” during his 1967 visit.

The funeral on 12 November 1970 was the biggest such event in French history, with hundreds of thousands of French people—many carrying blankets and picnic baskets—and thousands of cars parked in the roads and fields along the routes to the two venues. Special trains were laid on to bring extra mourners to the region and the crowd was packed so tightly that those who fainted had to be passed overhead toward first-aid stations at the rear. The General was conveyed to the church on an armored reconnaissance vehicle and carried to his grave, next to his daughter Anne, by eight young men of Colombey. As he was lowered into the ground, the bells of all the churches in France tolled, starting from Notre Dame and spreading out from there.

Madame de Gaulle asked the undertaker to provide the same type of simple oak casket that he used for everyone else, but because of the General’s extreme height, the coffin cost $9 more than usual. He specified that his tombstone bear the simple inscription of his name and his years of birth and death. Therefore, it simply states, “Charles de Gaulle, 1890–1970”.At the service, President Pompidou said, “de Gaulle gave France her governing institutions, her independence and her place in the world.” André Malraux, the writer and intellectual who served as his Minister of Culture, called him “a man of the day before yesterday and the day after tomorrow. “DE Gaulle’s family turned the La Boisserie residence into a foundation. It currently houses the Charles de Gaulle Museum.

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