In the all-time ranking of historic speeches, London wartime speeches feature prominently, and Charles de Gaulle’s first calls for resistance are certainly high up on the list. His address to the French nation right after his arrival in Great Britain, and his strong appeal to continue resistance, are known well beyond France. The myth is still strong: This is where de Gaulle declared his leadership of the Free French in London, where he captured the fighting spirit of the resistance against Nazi Germany and Vichy France, laying a fundament for eventual allied victory. The sentiment of the speech, the date of the 18 of June and the name of de Gaulle are so closely linked, that the French leader has subsequently been dubbed “l’homme du 18 juin” (the man of 18 June):
However, the first thing to note about the Appeal of 18 June is that when talking about it we usually refer to the Appeal of 22 June. While de Gaulle did first address the French people right after his arrival in London on June 18th, no recording of the broadcast exists, only manuscripts, notes, and posters printed with its text. Because of its spontaneity, it is also highly likely that the first broadcast only reached a very small audience. The speech we now usually associate with the Appeal of 18 June was actually recorded on 22 June and archived by the B.B.C. as “General Charles de Gaulle: Call to Resistance, 22.6.1940”.
Today, 77 years after its original broadcasting, it is time to have a closer look: What exactly did he say and what did it mean?
In the following paragraphs, I will analyse parts of his speech. I will be quoting the translation available on the BBC website, but for a better impression, I highly recommend listening to de Gaulles speech in the original French available in the INA online collections.
As is well known, de Gaulle openly distanced himself in his speech from Pétain’s acceptance of armistice, calling it “capitulation” and “surrender” and challenges the government’s right to accept it. Doing so, he employs a strategy of different arguments, which he sums up as “honour, common sense, and the interests of the country”:
- the moral argument: honour and duty
- the rational argument: military and financial strength
- the strategic argument: future planning and France’s role in Europe
- 1) Honour and Duty:
“It may therefore be said that this armistice would not only be a capitulation, but that it would also reduce the country to slavery.[…] As long as the allies continue the war, her government has no right to surrender to the enemy.” De Gaulle refers to the other governments-in-exile present in London continuing to represent their country, as an example: “The Polish, Norwegian, Belgian, Netherlands, and Luxemburg governments, though driven from their territories, have thus interpreted their duty.”
While, of course, he had every right to criticise the armistice as an individual refugee, he clearly did not intent to speak as a civilian, but with a political agenda and the idea to address the French people as leader figure. With his discourse, he places himself and the Free France he aims to represent amongst a broader community: The community of European governments-in-exile who had fled to London during May 1940 and now represented the joint Allied war effort – at this point, Soviet Russia still fought alongside Nazi Germany, and the USA were more than reluctant to get involved in yet another messy European war. De Gaulle defines it as a French duty not to collaborate with Germany, but to continue fighting with the Allies. His position, however, is very different from those of the other European powers, and I will discuss his “bluff” below in more detail.
- 2) Military and financial strength
“But we still have a vast empire, our fleet is intact, and we possess large sums in gold. We still have allies, who possess immense resources and who dominate the seas. We still have the gigantic potentialities of American industry. The same war conditions which caused us to be beaten by 5,000 planes and 6,000 tanks can tomorrow bring victory by means of 20,000 tanks and 20,000 planes.” With these words, de Gaulle seems to be addressing the Allied Forces just as much as his compatriots at home: The goal is to convey that France is not lost, that it is strong and battle-ready. The French should be reminded that they are neither helpless nor alone, the Allies should be reminded that France is not a welfare case, but continues to be a strong ally. The motivation behind this is obvious: French soldiers are more likely to join and risk their lives, the allies more likely to provide political recognition and military support, if both believe that this is not a lost cause but a promising venture. Again, de Gaulle is mainly bluffing. The military equipment he is referring to belongs to Vichy France, still the only France recognised by International Law. While later on, de Gaulle manages to mobilise soldiers amongst the French in Great Britain, and gain influence over French troops, in particular in Northern Africa, he had no control over any kind of military or financial resources at the time of his appeal. Additionally, contrary to his allusions, the US had not yet started supporting the allied struggle.
- 3) Future planning and France’s role in Europe
De Gaulle stresses the framework beyond the Franco-German conflict:” This is a world war. No one can foresee whether the neutral countries of today will not be at war tomorrow, or whether Germany’s allies will always remain her allies. If the powers of freedom ultimately triumph over those of servitude, what will be the fate of a France which has submitted to the enemy?”. Again, this part of the speech addresses the French as well as the Allies: Yes, de Gaulle and his project of Free France might seem utopian and almost ludicrous with regard to the current situation, but who knows what the future will hold? De Gaulle plays it as a central argument that alliances can change overnight (and history proved him more than right on this) and that you need to seize all opportunuties you can get to fight this battle. To the French, he paints a picture of eventual ramifications of collaboration: Firmly believing (or at least bluffing to believe) in allied victory, he makes allusions to consequences of discontinued resistance with regard to France’s standing in Europe and the world.
De Gaulle’s Call to Arms
The intent of this broadcast is twofold: In his words, de Gaulle wants to mobilize French soldiers (and others) to continue the fight at the side of the allies and to join him in London, bringing along as much military equipment as they can lay hands on. At the same time, his appeal is a claim to power in London and in the allied hierarchy. His appeal is highly personalised: “I, General de Gaulle, am undertaking this national task here in England. I call upon all French servicemen of the land, sea, and air forces; I call upon French engineers and skilled armaments workers who are on British soil, or have the means of getting here, to come and join me. I call upon the leaders, together with all soldiers, sailors, and airmen of the French land, sea, and air forces, wherever they may now be, to get in touch with me. I call upon all Frenchmen who want to remain free to listen to my voice and follow me.” As we know now, he should eventually be quite successful with this attempt. De Gaulle managed to gather between 2.000-3.000 men in London by August 1940. More men should follow his command in the Northern African theatres of war. Even though, de Gaulle always remained a highly disputed figure, even amongst the French in London. Looking back, the success of his appeal is striking: When calling on Frenchmen to follow him, he was in no position whatsoever to demand this. He himself had just been whisked off by a British plane, arriving the in London only the previous day. No government, national committee or anything along these lines had yet been set up. Considering France committed to armistice, and thus continued existing as a theoretically free country in the form of Vichy France, there could not be a government-in-exile as in the case of the other defeated and occupied European countries. In this light, de Gaulle’s appeal to leave France to follow him to London and join the allied fight was a call to join a one-man-show. Even worse, technically and legally, lacking any kind of status for extra-Vichy forces, this amounted to desertion. Eventually, de Gaulles managed to gather French politicians and military leaders like René Cassin and Georges Thierry d’Argenlieu in London and by the Churchill-de Gaulle accords of 7 August 1940, he was recognised by the British as the leader of France Libre (Free France), and the latter recognised as a military and political partner of the Allies.
While the cooperation between France and his fellow Allies (and certainly on a personal level between de Gaulle and his fellow leaders) did not remain conflict-free during the war, de Gaulle’s bluff with the appeal of 18/22 june certainly payed off. His speech continued to be a symbol for his success, even though it was in no way predictable. In 2005, the appeal of 18 June was added to the UNESCO Memory of the World Register after being nominated in a joint effort by France and Britain via INA and BBC, arguing that it is proof that “ Radio was no longer just a means of entertainment or propaganda available to the powers that be; it also now provided the technical means to enable an isolated individual to launch a huge resistance movement from outside his own country, to urge his fellow citizens to oppose foreign rule and subservience and to fight for the restoration of freedoms.” The “isolated individual” had played his cards right. As de Gaulle said to conclude his broadcast: “Long live free France in honour and independence!”
Nicholas Atkin, The Forgotten French: Exiles in the British Isles, 1940-44. MUP: Manchester 2003.
Jean-Louis Crémieux-Brilhac, La France Libre: De l’appel du 18 juin à la Libération.Gallimard: Paris 1996.