Charles de Gaulle is probably the most well-known French personality of the 20th century.
Born in Lille, northern France (November 22, 1890), he died of natural causes at his home in the village of Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises in the Haute-Marne. He and his wife Yvonne had three children. The background to his life is complex and dramatic.
A bit about Charles de Gaulle
De Gaulle’s father was a mathematics and philosophy teacher and a veteran of the Franco Prussian war. He ensured that his son Charles was thoroughly educated in French history and indoctrinated him with a fierce national patronage. The history of the family dated back to Agincourt, so you could say that patriotism was ingrained in the ancestral genes.
Charles de Gaulle chose military service and joined the exclusive army academy of Saint-Cyr in 1909. He was a tall man with an imposing personality and his nick name was ‘Big Asparagus’. After graduating, he reported to Marshall Petain whom he greatly admired, though later came to detest.
Charles fought bravely in both World Wars gaining slow but steady promotion through the ranks. He was taken prisoner five times and attempted five escapes. He was badly injured in the French battle of Verdun during the Great War and was left for dead in a cart, then imprisoned by the Germans until the end of the war.
During the Second World War, Charles de Gaulle came to despise Marshall Petain. Petain capitulated parts of France to the German state whilst De Gaulle unswervingly maintained his desire for a free French nation. Fearing capture, he escaped to London and remained there as a guest of Winston Churchill until 1944 operating as the leader of the Free French Army or Resistance from afar. He used the BBC to broadcast encouragement and leadership and adopted the French Cross of Lorraine as his symbol.
La Boisserie, Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises
In 1934, Charles de Gaulle bought a modest house in the village of Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises. He returned to it after the Second World War had ended, to live there with his wife and daughter. The house was originally called The Brasserie due to its association with brewing. Charles changed the name to La Boisserie, a title he apparently made up. Today it is kept perfectly preserved as a monument to de Gaulle and to French nationalism. The grounds stretch over two and a half hectares. They are secluded, green, peaceful and elegant. The house today remains exactly as he left it. The contents have little financial value but they are very much the artefacts of his distinguished life.
President of France
After the liberation of Paris in 1944, De Gaulle was elected Premier but he resigned after a year or so due to his sharp objection to state governance by the political party system. He returned to Colombey with his family to write his memoirs, becoming a respected writer during his lifetime. He sustained his independent and nationalistic stature and wrote criticising French military evolution and stance. Such free thinking caused much anger amongst state authorities.
Charles de Gaulle was re-called by the people of France in 1958 and elected President. During the next few years he defied senior military figures and granted independence to the protected state of Algeria. This caused intense anger and hatred within some senior circles. A few high ranking military people formed a terrorist organisation called the OAS. They wanted to assassinate Charles de Gaulle as punishment for what they saw as abandonment. There were eight carefully planned attempts on his life by the OAS. They all failed – due largely to luck.
In 1969, Charles De Gaulle stepped down. A national referendum went against him concerning reform of the Senate. He returned once more to his home at Colombey.
Charles de Gaulle Memorial
In 1972, after De Gaulle’s death, a hugely impressive statue of the Cross of Lorraine was erected on a hill on the edge of the village of Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises. The symbol and Charles de Gaulle were synonymous. The monument is 150 feet high and weighs 1500 tons. It can be seen from miles around, identifying the village perched high on the isolated hill top. It is a symbol for French freedom, French aspiration and the very tall Charles de Gaulle himself. The outstretched arms of the cross seem to embrace the nation.
Visitors can climb the hill and see it themselves. It is accompanied by a modern museum portraying the life of Charles de Gaulle and France over the last century. The exhibition includes two of De Gaulle’s cars, both elderly Citroens and still operating perfectly.
Charles de Gaulle died at La Boisserie just before his 80th birthday on November 9th, 1970. He was at his desk apparently writing his memoirs and got up to look out the window. He suffered a massive heart attack. It gives you goose bumps to view his desk as it was. He is buried with his wife Yvonne and daughter Anne in the Churchyard at Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises. It is a humble resting place, just as he requested.
Read more about the Charles de Gaulle Memorial Centre – a fascinating and innovative museum.
Bob Lyons is an ex pilot turned travel writer.