The memory of General Charles de Gaulle has largely faded away, like a fleeting dream, from the soul of the French nation. Nonetheless, his example serves as a testament to those men and women in uniform of the endless grace that flows from the Catholic faith, and which is required to continue the eternal struggle between good and evil.
When one reflects over the great military leaders that have gone before us, a few universally recognized names come to mind: Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, and George Washington. These men are not known only for their sheer brilliance in the realm of strategy and conquest, but for the lasting impact each had in shaping the modern world and our Republic. The most evident is the Napoleonic Code, the French civil code established in 1804 under Napoleon, which influenced the legal reforms and development of Latin America and the Middle East. But what name does one recall when asked of a military commander who was convincingly and unashamedly Roman Catholic? There is but a single individual, famously known for his uncompromising principles in the face of insurmountable odds, General Charles de Gaulle.
General de Gaulle’s spiritual and intellectual formation in the Catholic faith stemmed wholly from his pious parents. His father, Henri de Gaulle, was educated by the Jesuits and later taught at the same institution until a government decree in 1880 forced the religious order from France. The Republic’s anti-clericalism did not dissuade Henri from providing a distinctly Catholic education to his son, Charles. De Gaulle would study at the Ecole Saint Thomas d’Aquin, run by the Christian Brothers, for his primary education, and later at a Jesuit college. In his War Memoirs, de Gaulle wrote of his father’s influence in his life: “My father, a man of thought, culture, tradition, was imbued with a sense of the dignity of France. He made me discover its History.”
De Gaulle’s Catholic identity was visible at the age of sixteen when as a volunteer stretcher-bearer at Lourdes, he witnessed a miracle and undoubtedly believed it to be the case. He later wrote to his mother after the experience: “Yesterday afternoon, I saw a young Italian girl, paralysed and suffering from TB, cured during the procession.”
When studying at the Jesuit College of Antoing in Belgium, de Gaulle continued practicing his faith religiously as detailed in a letter to his father: “I generally attend the curate’s Mass at 7.00. On Sunday, High Mass at 8.30; Vespers at 1.30, Benediction at 8.00.” He surpassed the normal religious duties of a university student as he was one of the few pupils to join the Congregation of the Holy Virgin, a religious association dedicated to prayer and spiritual meditation. His personal devotion to the Virgin Mary as “Our Lady of France” is detailed in his Memoirs:
Nothing matters to us and nothing preoccupies us more than to serve her. Our duty to her is as simple and elementary as the duty of a son to an oppressed mother. We have nothing other to ask from her except perhaps that on the day of victory, she opens maternally her arms to us so that we can cry with joy and that on the day when death comes to claim us she enfolds us gently in her good and holy earth.
This explicitly Catholic formation instilled in him the moral courage and fortitude to avoid a pact with the devil—done opposite by his counterpart Marshal Petain with the establishment of Vichy France. When nearly the entire French Parliament and widely-respected Parisian intellectuals, including French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, opposed the unwinnable concept of the Free French forces with its remote establishment in London, de Gaulle stood his ground and even more so redoubled his conviction in the greatest political and moral cause of 21st century France.
His distinct leadership style, which many of his personal aides described as melancholic and solemn-like, emanated largely from his matured perception of the sacrificial nature of the leadership approach exemplified by our Lord Jesus Christ at the Garden of Gethsemane. This is best depicted in his 1920s book the Le fil de l’épee (The Edge of the Sword): “The leader deprives himself of the sweetness that comes from relaxation, familiarity and friendship. He dedicates himself to that solitude that is the sad fate of superior beings . . . That state of satisfaction, of inner peace, of calculated joy that people agree to call happiness is incompatible with leadership.”
While serving as battalion tank commander in Abbeville in the early months of the Second World War, de Gaulle responded to the assigned chaplain’s comment on his reserved disposition: “One does not speak in an operating theatre or piloting a ship . . . What have I to say, as leader, putting my men and my tanks into battle, requires calm and reflection. As you know better than me, what would even the word of God be . . . without solitude, silence and reflection? All those who have done something valuable and durable have done so alone and in silence.”
Those familiar with de Gaulle noticed similar patterns of his Christ-like embodiment, including Mary Borden, husband of General Spears, British Liaison Officer to the Free French forces: “He felt the dishonour of his country as few men can feel anything, as Christ according to the Christian faith took on himself the sins of the world.” As Christ placed the salvation of all mankind—the past, present, and future—on his shoulders with his ultimate sacrifice on the cross, so did de Gaulle in his own way to save the dignity and honor of his beloved France.
Though much perceived as an intellectual titan and shatterproof figure on the world stage, General de Gaulle was not immune—as you and I—from the fallen nature of the human race. After the disastrous defeat at the port of Dakar, where Free French forces were unsuccessful at overthrowing the pro-German Vichy French administration, which consequently could have undermined the credibility of de Gaulle and disbanded his forces, he confessed to one of his ministers that he had contemplated suicide. Reflecting over his wartime past in the 1960s, he expressed, “You know, once at Dakar, when I was sitting on the deckchair, the sky was blue, the sea was blue, the heat was unbearable, reflected by the awning over the bridge, and all was lost. I can tell you that at the moment, I thought about suicide.”
Educated in the Catholic faith, he had full knowledge of what the Church professed on the unjust nature of this profoundly self-centered action. But yet, due to adverse military conditions and brief moments of grave despair, de Gaulle succumbed to a moral and spiritual abyss. He never related to anyone—as far as the historian knows—what persuaded him to forgo the final act; but perhaps, in his greatest hour of trial, it was a simple meditation of our Lord crucified on the cross, betrayed by his followers and wrongly condemned to death, that gave meaning to his unbearable suffering.
Apart from his political legacy with the establishment of the French Fifth Republic, the memory of General de Gaulle, as first and foremost a sinner in need of a savior, has largely faded away like a fleeting dream from the soul of the French nation. One can attribute a whole host of reasons how the war was won and France rescued; but I am sure that for de Gaulle, it was his cornerstone faith in our Lord’s death and resurrection that destined France to triumph over evil. His example serves as a testament to those men and women in uniform of the endless grace that flows from the Catholic faith, and which is required to continue the eternal struggle between good and evil; but above all, he reveals the glory that France can achieve if she reclaims her divine title as the eldest daughter of Holy Mother Church.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
The featured image is a photo of General Charles de Gaulle (c. 1942) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.