Early Military Career
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.
A bright and skilled soldier, de Gaulle enrolled in a special training program at the École Supérieure de Guerre after the war. He later worked with Pétain and served on France's Supreme War Council. Gaining some international experience, de Gaulle spent time in Germany and the Middle East.
Also an insightful writer, de Gaulle explored a number of military issues in his books. He published his examination of Germany, La Discorde chez l'ennemi, in 1924. Another important book was Vers l'armée de métier (1932), in which he made suggestions for creating a better army. This critical work 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).
World War IIAt 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 Nation's 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.