De Gaulle's Bum Rap

Reading through Peter Stuart's opinion column on Charles de Gaulle's famous speech, there appears to be several points in his theory with which I disagree. First, neither the US nor UK looked down on France for her capitulation to Germany in 1940. France lost more men on the Maginot Line than the US lost during the entire war, in both Pacific and European theatres. 40 000 more, to be more precise. My professional opinion is that Nazi victory in the conventional phase of the war was inevitable, since the Germans had every imaginable tactical advantage over France: twice the population, more sophisticated technology, superior tactics, particularly in the domain of close air support and mechanized mobility, in short, like John Keegan's assessment of Prussia before it, Germany had become an army pretending to be a country. France had taken every possible measure to fortify her border with Germany with the Maginot Line, but could not fortify the Belgian border, since they were allies, and instead relied on Belgium's declaration of neutrality being respected. Nobody, French nor British, expected the Germans to crash through the Ardennes forest, and the decision to do so was not without a great risk; in so doing, they had overstretched their logistical line, and risked being cut off from fuel, which would have ground the mechanized blitzkreig to a halt. The British debated counter-attacking from Belgium to achieve that effect, but ultimately decided against it because the march would leave their men too tired to be of any use, and they were instead evacuated to Dunkirk. Britain, in my professional opinion, would have faced the same bleak fate had it not been for her geographic isolation as an island and the economic support of the US in the form of a multi-billion dollar loan that took until 2004 to pay back. Britain's island status made her a much more complicated case. The Battle of Britain, which Mr. Stuart incorrectly calls the Battle of the Blitz, was the bombing campaign that was to precede Operation Sea Lion, Hitler's plan to invade the UK. However, the logistical and tactical complexities of amphibious operations, and the need to have significant manpower available to keep the French insurgency from turning back into open warfare left the Germans with no viable way to execute Operation Sea Lion, and Hitler consequently postponed it indefinitely. My professional opinion is that France's capitulation was not to spare Paris being bombed, but simply because she had neither the manpower nor the means to compete in open warfare with the Nazi war machine, and what she did have had been destroyed. At that point, any effort made, no matter how valiant, is futile. For the French to continue fighting, they had to change tactics and adopt an insurgency model, which they did. If anybody understood that, it was the the British, and Churchill in particular. Winston Churchill was responsible for the creation of Special Operations Executive, the British Security Co-ordination, the SAS, Royal Marines Commandos and Parachute Regiment whose role was specifically unconventional or insurgency warfare (lessons taught by the Boers, from whose language the word "commando" comes), which in addition to keeping German manpower occupied with maintenance of control over rebellious populations, also gave British operators a training network overseas (Special Training School 103 - Camp X in Oshawa, ON and BSC headquarters, Rockefeller Centre, New York City) in case Britain had to take the same approach. It also gave British operators the chance to gain experience in sabotage, assassination (intelligence suppression and elimination tactics) communications and recruiting. One is led to suspect that this was Churchill's contingency plan, given his stubborn personality and his knowledge of how Britain's position was precarious. To me, the proposition that anyone in the British government looked down their noses at France is extremely difficult to believe, given their own lot at that point.

Second, de Gaulle was not snubbed by the Americans with regards to his place in the order of precedence upon re-entry of Free French forces to Paris. He wanted to retake the French capital, and Eisenhower modified his plan accordingly (Eisenhower wanted to make a push for Berlin before the Soviets got there), sending de Gaulle the 4th US Infantry Division to support the 2nd French Armoured Division in that task. In addition to that, the Americans quietly cleared the eastern part of the city while de Gaulle triumphantly delivered his speech from City Hall. They also maintained a low profile for de Gaulle's victory parade down the Champs-Elysees, only surfacing for a joint Franco-American parade three days later.

Third, contrary to Mr. Stuart's claim that Allied forces had penetrated deep into Germany while de Gaulle lived out the rest of the war in Britain, he marched into Paris on the 25th of August, paraded down the Champs-Elysees the next day, and upon entry into the Place de la Concorde, narrowly avoided being hit by a German sniper's bullet. Allied forces had not even come close to invading Germany at that point, and would not until the Siegfried Line was permanently breached seven months later by Bradley's 12th US Army Group.

Mr. Stuart then goes on to assert that de Gaulle led a liberation movement for his own country, in which he did none of the actual fighting, preferring to let his countrymen die alongside Canadians, whom he then slighted, and colonial troops, whose role was then overlooked. I have several problems with this proposition. First, while de Gaulle was not a direct participant in active combat operations, neither was Churchill nor Roosevelt. Presidents do not fight. Even for military officers above the rank of captain, presence in active operations is rare (and often unwanted by their subordinates). The profession of arms is one in which 40 is retirement age because its physically and psychologically demanding nature requires the energy of youth. At 64, de Gaulle was better off leaving the fire and manoeuvre to younger men. However, that did not stop him from being actively involved in the planning of SOE operations in Vichy and Occupied France (Petain's Vichy regime only ruled the southern part of the country; the north was a controlled directly by a German military council), nor did it stop him from being present the day the French insurgency erupted into open revolt and was met by Free French forces, with de Gaulle in front of them. Canada's role in the Liberation of France was also quite marginal, since Canada's 1st Army, following the D-Day landings, moved along the Channel into the Scheldt River estuary and cleared Antwerp, South Beveland, Leopold Canal, the Breskens Pocket and Walcharen Island before continuing along the North Sea into Holland. Canadians did very little fighting in France itself after the initial landings. Finally, colonial troops were overlooked by everybody. It was not until 1997 that Gurkhas who had completed their four year term of service with the British Army were allowed to settle in the UK, and the British government to this day refuses to grant citizenship to those who served before then, which means that fully a quarter of those who had served and currently reside in the UK are not allowed to stay, nor are currently-serving Gurkhas entitled to the same pay and pension as everyone else. French treatment of colonial troops was far from being out of the ordinary for the era.

De Gaulle seems to have had a sort of messianic self-image in which he saw himself as the liberator of peoples oppressed, and he felt this was his destiny. This is evidenced by his anti-colonial approach in Algeria and later in central Africa. However, by the 1960s, with most of France's colonial possessions gone, de Gaulle had apparently lost his raison d'etre and gone looking for a proverbial underdog to defend, which, given his affinity for independence movements, drew him to the Sovereignist movement in Quebec. His Vive le Quebec Libre therefore might well have been little more than an attempt on the part of a man who had fought all his life to cling to the only thing he knew in a changing world; a man who had lived his entire life for a mission, and was now without one. His remarks were inappropriate for a diplomat of his standing, even hypocritical, considering his crackdown on Breton independence, but the defamation of his character that Mr. Stuart penned is not, in my opinion, merited or necessary, and his thinly-veiled insult of the French during WWII is based on a complete ignorance of military realities.