“Let us be firm, pure and faithful; at the end of our sorrow, there is the greatest glory of the world that man never gave up”.
“Soyons fermes, purs et fidèles, au bout de nos peines, il y a la plus grande gloire du monde, celle des hommes qui n’ont pas cédé.”Général De Gaulle
To commemorate the 80th anniversary of the call to resistance of 18th June 1940 launched by General De Gaulle from London on the BBC, the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, is awarding the Legion of honour to the city of London on 18th June 2020. This is to acknowledge the distinguished services the city rendered to France during the second world war through the support it provided to France Libre (Free France) and the Général De Gaulle.
Well before the Battle of Britain, the Battle of France took place in May 1940.
On 10th May 1940, after nine months of what the French will coin the “drôle de guerre” or “strange war”, the Germans starts their offensive in the west. The Netherlands and Belgium fall quickly, with the Belgian army capitulating on 28th May. Then the panzer divisions make a spectacular breakthrough in the Ardennes, this causes a massive exodus of civilian populations from the North.
Clashes erupt among the civil and military leaders in France. There are now two distinct conflicting camps: those who support the continued fight and those who support an armistice with Germany.
Following the German attack, Paul Reynaud, who is then head of the French government, names the Maréchal Pétain vice premier, and asks him to form a new ministry on 16th June.
For the French, Maréchal Petain, who is at the time 84 years old, is seen as a national hero for his victory at the Battle of Verdun in World War I. There is a sense of general elation within the population and renewed hope that France will be saved at last and will vanquish its enemy.
On 17th June, everyone in France is awaiting Petain’s speech with trepidation as if waiting for a miracle which will end the nightmare.
Maréchal Petain addresses the nation in a quavering voice:
“It is with a heavy heart that I’m telling you today that we must stop the fight.”
Seeing the French army defeated, the “hero of Verdun” asks for an armistice.
Général De Gaulle’s RESPONSE
At the time, the relatively unknown Général de Gaulle is listening intently.
When Nazi Germany invaded France, Charles de Gaulle repeatedly illustrated himself, as head of his tank division. Notably, he managed to stop the Germans in Abbeville (27-30th May, 1940). He is appointed general on 1st June 1940. De Gaulle, who is 49 years old, becomes a few days later Under-Secretary of State for National Defense and War, in the government of Paul Reynaud.
On 16th June, De Gaulle learns of the resignation of the President of the Council, his replacement by Maréchal Pétain and the request for an armistice.
De Gaulle leaves immediately for London on 17th June with the sole purpose of continuing the fight. For him, Churchill is a natural ally, one who will never surrender.
In London, assembled around Churchill are all those who want to resist Hitler: the Czechs, Polish, Norwegian, Dutch, Belgian and, naturally, the French.
18th JUNE 1940
On 18th June, Churchill consults the members of the war cabinet who accept that de Gaulle speak on the BBC airwaves. Churchill sees de Gaulle as the man of destiny.
On the same day that Churchill delivers his ‘Finest Hour’ speech, De Gaulle’s voice crosses the seas and oceans and addresses several thousands of French people who listen to him, by chance, and discover this unknown general.
To this day, ‘L’appel’ of 18th June 1940 is considered the founding text of the French Resistance, of which it remains the symbol.
“Whatever happens, the flame of French resistance must not and will not be extinguished!”
“Quoiqu’il arrive, la flamme de la resistance francaise ne doit pas s’eteindre et ne s’eteindra pas!”(extract from l’Appel by Général De Gaulle, 18th June 1940).
On 21st June, the French delegation, which is tasked with negotiating the armistice with the Germans, is taken, under German supervision, to an unknown destination. It turns out that Hitler has chosen General Foch’s old sleeper-wagon where the German generals were themselves forced to sign the armistice on 11th November 1918. The armistice between France and Germany is officially signed, dividing the country into two zones, the German occupied zone in the north, and the Vichy regime zone in the south.
Until then, Churchill had hoped that Pétain would resist the German pressure. But in fact, Pétain gave in and only saved appearances. The armistice of 22nd June gives Churchill renewed respect for what de Gaulle wants to do.
On 22nd June, all ties are severed between de Gaulle and the French government. He is threatened with arrest and treason and sentenced to death in absentia. His appeal is broadcast once again and his voice has much more clout than it had on 18th June. This time, he is heard by many more people.
“Honour, common sense and the higher interest of the country, our homeland, command to all the free French to continue the combat wherever they are and in whatever way they can.”
“L’honneur, le bon sens, l’intérêt superieur du pays, la Patrie, commandent à tous les Français libres de continuer le combat là où ils seront et comme ils pourront.”
De Gaulle’s appeal gave birth to the French resistance movement and Free France, a military and political organisation whose goal was to continue the war alongside the Allies, despite the Armistice signed by the Maréchal Petain government with Germany.
In his speeches, which are models of clarity and precision, De Gaulle proclaimed, on the wireless and in public, the reasons which decided him to pursue the struggle. This brought to his side thousands upon thousands of volunteers burning with the same fervour.
From a military perspective, the Free French Forces were initially formed from a few thousand volunteers, and their numbers in 1943 did not exceed 60,000.
Between 1940 and 1945, the Free French Forces fighting on land, on the sea, and in the air distinguished themselves on several continents, maintaining France’s presence in the World war.
TO ALL FRENCH MEN AND WOMEN
France has lost a battle!
But France has not lost the war!
A makeshift Government may have capitulated, giving way to panic, forgetting honour, delivering their country into slavery. Yet nothing is lost!
Nothing is lost because this war is a world war. In the free universe, immense forces have not yet been brought into play. Some day these forces will crush the enemy. On that day, France must be present at the victory. She will then regain her liberty and her greatness.
That is my goal – my only goal!
That is why I ask all Frenchmen, wherever they may be, to unite with me in action, in sacrifice and in hope.
Our country is in danger of death.
Let us fight to save it.
LONG LIVE FRANCE !
General De Gaulle.