Charles de Gaulle’s embarrassing tête-a-tête

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At the start of the Second World War, Philippe Pétain was one of France’s most revered military heroes. By the end of the conflict, he was widely reviled as traitor to the nation.

The Lion of Verdun’s reputation was destroyed when he agreed to collaborate with the Nazi invaders. The transformation was so complete that it would shock anyone who knew him in the First World War. Well, to be more accurate, it would shock any former comrade who hadn’t kept pace with news from France.

And this was the backdrop to a rather surprising encounter between Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French, and John Pershing, a retired US Army general. 


Black Jack Pershing

General John Jospeh Pershing was the great commander of the American forces in the Great War.

He led the US efforts on the western front alongside Marshal Pétain, the Commander-in-Chief of the French Army, and Field Marshal Haig, the Commander of the British Expeditionary Force. All three served under Generalissimo Foch, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces.

Black Jack Pershing was so highly regarded that, in 1919, he was promoted to the rank of General of the Armies.

General John Pershing As Chief of Staff Credit - courtesy of the United States Army

This was no small achievement. It was the highest rank that had ever been bestowed on a living commander.

Even the revered George Washington had to wait until 1976 and America’s bicentenary celebrations before he reached this level, albeit a posthumous promotion.

At the same time as Pershing was winning in the west, Charles de Gaulle finished the First World War as a captain.

This was a world away from the great heroes who made up the top brass of allied commanders.

It was therefore understandable that, when visiting Washington D.C. in 1944, de Gaulle was keen to meet the great American warrior.

A stunned silence

At the time, General Pershing was 83. He lived in the Walter Reed Army Medical Centre in the north of the nation’s capital.

At this point in time, he had only four years left to live. The great commander had entered his dotage and his memory was not quite what it had once been.

De Gaulle arrived at the hospital on 7 July 1944. He wore the military dress of a French general.

Something, perhaps the green army uniform, the distinctive peaked kepi hat or the sound of French voices, stirred memories lodged deeply in Pershing’s brain. He greeted de Gaulle with an excited question:

‘Ah! How is my old friend, Marshal Pétain?’

The question was met with a brief, stunned silence.

Do you want the honest answer?

The honest answer would have been that Pétain was barely holding onto power in the collaborationist regime of Vichy France.

Barely three months later he would be relocated by his Nazi masters to Sigmaringen in south west Germany to lead a ‘French’ government in exile.

A year later from Pershing’s innocuous inquiry and Pétain would be on trial for treason and fighting for his life.

It was a remarkable reversal of fortunes for the two men.

On 2 August 1940 de Gaulle had been sentenced in absentia to death for treason to the Vichy Republic.

Just a little over five years later, and Pétain faced the same penalty. Convicted to die by a majority of one, the ‘saviour of France’ was himself saved by de Gaulle’s presidential decree, living his remaining six years in prison.

A gentleman’s response

So, heading back to the summer of 1944 and the Walter Reed Army Medical Centre. What did de Gaulle say in response? Did he shatter the peace of an admired veteran? Or did he tell a white lie? In the end, neither was necessary.

De Gaulle was enough of a gentleman to appreciate that the ancient warrior did not need to be troubled with such disconcerting news.

His reply was the honest, if somewhat evasive:

‘La dernière fois que je l’ai vu, il se portait bien’.

His words were translated for General Pershing:

‘The last time I saw him he was doing well’.

The Marshal of France’s accurate prophecy

Ferdinand Foch was undoubtably the military colossus of the western front in the First World War.

He rose through the ranks of command in the French Army, becoming first Chief of the General Staff and then Supreme Commander of the Allied Armies with the title of Généralissime, or Generalissimo.

Ceremony of promotion to marechal of General Ferdinand Foch in 23 od October of 1918, when he receives the Marshal of France distiction 1 January 1919 - Illustrated Michelin Guides to the Battlefields

Together with General Haig he planned the Great Offensive of September 1918 which triggered the collapse and defeat of Germany.

A grateful nation made him Marshal of France, and he strode towards the 1919 Paris Peace Conference with demands to render Germany incapable of posing a future threat to France.
He presented a memorandum to the Allied plenipotentiaries which demanded that Germany be denied territorial sovereignty over the left bank of the Rhine and that German power be so permanently weakened so as to render her incapable of military action against her neighbours.

‘he labelled the resulting peace a “a capitulation, a treason” ‘

What eventually emerged as the Treaty of Versailles would fall far short of his demands, so much so that he labelled the resulting peace a “a capitulation, a treason”.

His disappointment and disgust produced one of the most memorable and ultimately prophetic quotes. As the peace treaty was signed on 28 June 1919 in the glittering surrounds of the Palace of Versaille’s Hall of Mirrors, Foch was heard to remark:

“Ce n’est pas une paix, c’est un armistice de vingt ans.”

“This is not peace, it is an armistice for 20 years.”

The Second World War would, indeed, break out just over 20 years later. Foch was only out by a few months. The Marshal of France would not live to see the fulfilment of his prophecy. He died in March 1929 aged 77.

Further reading.

Churchill: A Biography





The General: Charles de Gaulle and the France He Saved