Addressing the House of Commons on the morning of June 18, 1940, Winston Churchill observed that the battlefield situation in France was calamitous. "Our army and 120 thousand French troops were indeed rescued by the British Navy from Dunkirk but only with the loss of their cannon, vehicles and modern equipment." Now was not the time, he insisted, for recriminations or excuses. The important thing now was to understand that the war continued and that it was winnable.
It was not just a matter of death-is-better-than-tyranny, though, Churchill said, in response to appeasers of all times, that was a valid argument. "But I can assure [Members of Parliament] that our professional advisers of the three Services unitedly advise that we should carry on the war," and he reported warm support from the overseas Dominions, "these great communities far beyond the oceans who have been built up on our laws and on our civilization…[and who] declare themselves ready to share our fortunes and to persevere to the end."
After all, it was not unreasonable in the middle of that grim June to think of throwing in the towel. The Germans had cleverly drawn the Allies into Belgium and Holland, then turned around them by attacking through the Ardennes. By early June the French army had lost close to a hundred thousand men, Verdun-level casualties. The clash of Teutonic and Slav armies a year later would be less deadly.
Churchill was concerned that it be clear that the British Expeditionary Force had not abandoned the field at Dunkirk, but had retreated across the Chanel to fight another day. French political and military leaders who wanted to continue the war chose to understand this; those with defeatist inclinations chose to see yet another example of Albion's perfidy.
There was no perfidy. Churchill had visited his allies on May 16 and had learned to his dismay their forces were spent. There were no reserves. The French army had fought ferociously, but it had been out-generaled. Churchill and his French counterpart, Paul Reynaud, hastily hatched a plan for joint Anglo-French citizenship, which, above and beyond treaty obligations, would create a legal basis for keeping France in the war, but it fell through. The two prime ministers understood that in fact there were reserves -- in Britain itself, of course, and in their countries' respective empires and, eventually, America.
People could be forgiven for not taking the long view during those terrible days. Civilians fleeing southward from the battle zones were attacked by Stuka dive bombers. The government abandoned Paris and regrouped in Bordeaux -- fittingly, a city of ancient English ties. But Reynaud and his loyalists no longer had the votes. Reynaud resigned on June 16, and a new government was immediately formed by one of his ministers, the hero of Verdun, Marshal Philippe Pétain.
Pétain was known as a defeatist. On June 17 in Bordeaux, the issue was not whether you were pro-German, pro-Nazi, or anything of the sort, but whether you thought defeat was inevitable or, on the contrary, victory was possible in the longer term. The old marshal (he was 84) went on radio and said, "We have fulfilled our obligations to our allies. With bitter heart, I request that you [French troops] cesser le combat, stop fighting." He announced he would make contact with the enemy in view of negotiating an armistice. (It was signed on the 22nd.)
Another minister in Reynaud's government, however, was a 49-year old brigadier who had been brought in to the cabinet after leading a spectacularly successful tank counter-attack at Montcornet in the Picardie. He shared Churchill's determination to continue the resistance. It was essential that legitimate French authority say so. It was therefore as government minister and general officer that, completely by surprise, he jumped aboard the twin-engine plane that was about to take off with General Edward Spears (Churchill's liaison to the French government) when the latter, on the 17th, took off from Bordeaux.
Spears had boarded the plane thinking he would bring the prime minister the bad news of total French abandonment; instead, he brought back a flicker of hope that at least a part of France, infinitesimal at first, to be sure, would stay in the fight.
The hope was named Charles de Gaulle. World War I hero, one-time junior staff officer to the old marshal who now viewed him as a traitor (he was condemned to death in absentia a few weeks later), he was an austere and frugal Catholic, raised by a royalist family but imbued with a sense of duty to the republican state whose only purpose was to serve the nation. To de Gaulle, a government that reneged on treaty obligations and its highest purpose of defending the national territory could not be legitimate.
This was, admittedly, a questionable view point legally, but politically de Gaulle had grasped the same key issue as Churchill (who also had his defeatists to contend with), namely, the war was global and ideological, one might almost say religious, in that compromise was unthinkable. The European powers were not fighting over territory but over the premises of civilization.
Arriving in London with Spears, de Gaulle immediately requested an audience with Churchill, who did not hesitate to grant the general's request to broadcast a speech over the BBC. In the coming onslaught, he placed his confidence in the Royal Air Force, but he was happy for moral support as well.
He received it, gratefully, from Poles, Czechs, Norwegians, and others who came to London, formed governments-in-exile, joined British units, and he thanked them. His interest in the French was, of course, somewhat different. France represented a huge part of the balance of forces. Its fall was a catastrophe, and Churchill was concerned to keep the French Empire's resources out of German hands, notably the human resources which, eventually, formed the bulk of what came to be called Fighting France. (The French divisions in the African and Italian theaters, as well as in the 1944 campaign in France, were largely composed of colonial troops.)
Churchill immediately understood de Gaulle was in effect the best bet to lead the pro-British side in what was already a French civil war. He saw this far better than others, including some of his generals and the American leadership, who could only see the French nationalist. De Gaulle was a patriot, not an Anglophobe. Traditionalist as he was, he understood England (not Great Britain, England) and France were "hereditary enemies" in terms of their interests in Europe. A man of the French north, he also understood how closely they were linked, and how vital to both were their shared political principles.
It is 70 years since June 18, 1940, and the French are commemorating it because they love commemorations and to take their minds off the present, which is of course one reason, and not a very good one, for loving commemorations. The other reason, better, is that as Faulkner said, the past is not even past. He said it with a double-edge, but you cannot help but notice the French feel they are losing control of their individual and collective destinies. Maybe they would like someone to send them a broadcast from London and restore their faith in themselves and their country.
Of course, the Gaullist heritage remains controversial. Yes, he flew to London 70 years ago carrying the flame of French resistance, stood with Churchill. In June '67, it is difficult not to feel he put the onus on Israel for defending itself against invasion and mass murder. Did he really feel there was still a chance for negotiation, or was he thinking in terms of France's supposed interests in the so-called Arab world? It is a question historians and memoirists still debate. Dominique de Villepin, French foreign minister in 2003, thought himself in the Gaullist tradition in trying to stop the Bush war policy. Nicolas Sarkozy too thought himself in the Gaullist tradition in giving the U.S. qualified support. He remembered that during the Cuban missile crisis, de Gaulle was the first foreign leader to call John Kennedy and say he was with him.
In France, de Gaulle is broadly revered. Some still think he was overly nationalistic and authoritarian. Others view him as the gravedigger of empire, betrayer of French Algeria. But whether you look at how France was or is governed, or what it could or did do with its overseas possessions, you rarely see reasonable alternatives to the policies he proposed, accepting all the muddle and muck of liberal democracies. Eric Zemmour, a popular, provocative, and politically incorrect commentator on this and that, reminds his readers that de Gaulle did not want to keep the empire because it would mean giving citizenship to Muslims and he did not want them in the National Assembly, or anywhere else nearby. "Have you seen them? With their turbans and djellabas (pantaloons)? French are French, Arabs are Arabs. Oil and vinegar!" Zemmour is regularly called a fascist and a racist, but he (too) claims Gaullism in his heritage. His opponents refer to "diverse France" -- la France de la diversité -- when they mean the populations in the zones to the north of Paris where kids are named Mohamed and Fatima instead of Pierre and Geneviève.
The current president of France, when he is not being silly, is at least arguably the general's best student, in his intense promotion of a pre-eminent role for France on the world stage. He has not said anything about turbans, but he is on record as opposing burkas. The truth is that no one, neither vain politicians nor blowhard political commentators, knows what to do. So they invoke de Gaulle.
De Gaulle was no racist, certainly not an anti-Semite; he thought Israel would be secure if only the great powers understood the need for a coherent "Arab [meaning Middle Eastern] policy." It may be a mirage. He never said he was infallible, though he tended to take a dim view of many people's opinions. Like Churchill, he could have said, "Trust the people," after losing an election; actually, he chose to say nothing at all, never gave interviews after leaving office.
At any rate, when de Gaulle arrived, Churchill was getting ready for the worst, and it was not without reason that in his May and June speeches, he alluded to the rallying cries ("Be ye men of valor") of English fighting men. He and his guest perhaps remembered another June 18, when on the Flemish plain, near a suburb of Brussels called Waterloo, Napoleon gambled shock against time, and hoped he would overrun the Duke of Wellington's troops before the arrival of the big Prussian battalions. Now, time again was the factor, though on a different scale. Two weeks earlier, Churchill already had stated that the fight would continue "until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and liberation of the old."
De Gaulle emphasized the same themes when he went on the air at 8 PM. Like Churchill, he made no excuses for tactical shortcomings, though his position required that he affix the blame on leadership that had forfeited its legitimacy. One tactical failure did not a war lose, he said: "Nothing is lost for France. For France is not alone! Its Empire is behind it and the British Empire rules the seas. Like England, France can draw upon the immense industrial resources of the United States."
Thus Churchill and de Gaulle, romantic nationalists though they were, were hard-nosed military accountants as well, and they insisted on counting guns and planes and men, at least in part so no one would have the excuse of saying everyone agreed it was hopeless. To be sure, while Churchill's speeches were widely heard and his stunning phrases were already entering the common language of the English-speaking peoples, de Gaulle was under no illusion that his broadcast of June 18 would have a large audience. It was reprinted in the big southern daily, La Depeche de Toulouse, which was still free, and mentioned in a few other papers, and it was circulated as a tract and a wall poster. He was speaking for the record and to show that the leadership in France was misinterpreting events.
Their faith in their own nations, in their civilization, and in their countrymen was unbreakable. Still they knew, as Churchill would say in another context, it was a closely run thing. Freedom always is. "The flame of French resistance must not die out, and never will," de Gaulle concluded. ("Quoi qu'il arrive, la flamme de la résistance française ne doit pas s'éteindre et ne s'éteindra pas.") Churchill had provided a translation earlier in the day: "Let us brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour.'"
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