greatest day in French history is not Bastille Day (July 14), which
turned out to be only an important point in a failed revolution
that degenerated into dictatorship and imperialism. Rather, the
greatest day came the day after the most shameful moment in the
history of France, as the greatest man in French history stepped
forward, and saved the honor of his nation.
In the spring of 1940, Hitler's army burst through the Ardennes
Forest, bypassing the French defensive Maginot Line. In late May
and early June, the remnants of the British Expeditionary Force
rushed to evacuate the continent, escaping from Dunkirk on British
civilian fishing boats and other rescue craft. Germans tanks and
bombers drove into Paris on June 14. The battle for France was clearly
lost, and the French government, which had fled to Bordeaux, argued
about whether to continue the war from the French colonies in North
On June 16, 1940, the democratic government of Premier Paul Reynaud
collapsed, because Reynaud refused to support an armistice with
Germany. On June 17, the Vice-Premier Marshal Philippe Petain, a
hero of World War I, formed a new government, which offered to conditional
surrender to the Nazis. Five days later, an armistice was signed
at Rethondes, the same site where Germany and France had signed
the armistice ending World War I.
Overwhelmingly ratified by the French legislature, the surrender
allowed the Germans to occupy all of Atlantic and northern France.
A neutral French government, under a Petain dictatorship, would
be allowed to exist in south-central and southeastern France, comprising
40% of France. This government, with a capital at Vichy, could retain
control of the powerful French fleet, and of the French overseas
colonies. Petain's government promptly abolished the French Third
Republic, setting up a fascist dictatorship in the rump state that
was the only remnant of the nation which had once been the leader
of the free world and Western civilization.
But even as Petain and his cowardly majority were bringing France
to its lowest point, the little-known Brigadier General Charles
de Gaulle had arrived in London and was meeting with Winston Churchill.
Would the British attempt to deal with Petain's government, or would
they back de Gaulle's dream of forming a resistance?
On June 18, De Gaulle prepared to speak to the French people, via
BBC radio, from London. The British Cabinet attempted to block the
speech, but was over-ruled by Churchill. In France, De Gaulle's
"Appeal of June 18" could be heard nationwide, at 7:00 p.m. To this
day, it remains the most famous speech in French history:
leaders who, for many years, were at the head of French armies,
have formed a government. This government, alleging our armies to
be undone, agreed with the enemy to stop fighting.
Of course, we were subdued by the mechanical, ground and air forces
of the enemy. Infinitely more than their number, it was the tanks,
the airplanes, the tactics of the Germans which made us retreat.
It was the tanks, the airplanes, the tactics of the Germans that
surprised our leaders to the point to bring them there where they
But has the last word been said? Must hope disappear? Is defeat
Believe me, I speak to you with full knowledge of the facts and
tell you that nothing is lost for France. The same means that
overcame us can bring us to a day of victory. For France is not
alone! She is not alone! She is not alone! She has a vast Empire
behind her. She can align with the British Empire that holds the
sea and continues the fight. She can, like England, use without
limit the immense industry of United States.
This war is not limited to the unfortunate territory of our country.
This war is not finished by the battle of France. This war is
a world-wide war. All the faults, all the delays, all the suffering,
do not prevent there to be, in the world, all the necessary means
to one day crush our enemies. Vanquished today by mechanical force,
we will be able to overcome in the future by a superior mechanical
The destiny of the world is here. I, General of Gaulle, currently
in London, invite the officers and the French soldiers who are
located in British territory or who would come there, with their
weapons or without their weapons, I invite the engineers and the
special workers of armament industries who are located in British
territory or who would come there, to put themselves in contact
Whatever happens, the flame of the French resistance not must
not be extinguished and will not be extinguished. Tomorrow, as
today, I will speak on Radio London.
The next morning, Wednesday, French people living in London, including
many young girls, began streaming to de Gaulle's office to volunteer
to do whatever they could for the cause. De Gaulle's wife, along
with their three children and governess, arrived in England, having
escaped on the last boat leaving Brest. In France, General Weygand
had issued an order for de Gaulle's arrest, the moment the speech
had been broadcast. Yet several newspapers in France dared to print
the text of de Gaulle's speech. In northern France, already under
German control, young men began to slip away to England in fishing
boats, or whatever else they could put to sea, in order to join
the Free French.
Most French people, of course, passively acquiesced to the German
military government or to the Vichy government. But de Gaulle's
speech laid the foundation for the minority who would resist--who
would join the Free French overseas, or who in metropolitan France
would fight a guerilla war that would help, after four and a half
brutal years, drive the Nazis out. Posters of de Gaulle's words
sprang up all over France, and although the authorities ripped them
down quickly, they could never extinguish the flame of resistance
which de Gaulle had lit.
De Gaulle began
to form the Free French army. In May-June 1942 at Bir-Hakeim,
Libya, the Italian army and Rommel's Afrika Korps were held off
for several weeks by an outnumbered Anglo-French army which inflicted
heavy casualties on the Axis.
It was the first time since Petain's surrender that the French had
met the Germans and Italians in armed combat. On June 18, 1942,
exactly one year after the Appeal of June 18, de Gaulle broadcast
Nation has tremendous pride learning what its soldiers at Bir-Hakeim
have done. Brave and pure children of France have written with their
blood one of the most beautiful pages of glory!
At the greatest architectural site in France the Eiffel Tower
the subway station is named "Bir-Hakeim." Much more so than
the French victories in Napoleonic or monarchical wars, the French
soldiers at Bir-Hakeim fought for the highest principles of freedom
The Charles de Gaulle Foundation's website includes a
special section commemorating the 61st anniversary of the Appeal,
and if you read French, the site is well worth visiting.