“Trench-warfare has a serious drawback,” Lieutenant Charles de Gaulle wrote after the first few weeks of stalemate had changed the complexion of the war. “It exaggerates the feeling in everyone — if I leave the enemy alone he will not bother me. One is very weak against this notion in wartime. It is lamentable.” So aggressive that he clashed with his superiors, de Gaulle was also rapidly promoted, becoming a captain over a year ago, but he has also been wounded twice, once by a bullet in the leg and again by a shell splinter in the hand.
Today, he commands the 10th Company of the 33rd Infantry Regiment on the right flank of a very active battlefield. Germans have been attacking in strength behind huge artillery bombardments for the last ten days, capturing the Douaumont fortress a week ago, on the same day that de Gaulle arrived to the fight. The Germans are pressing hard in the center of the line trying to reach the village of Douaumont, which lies directly under the German guns at the fort, and de Gaulle is responsible for the defensive perimeter below the town church. The regimental journal records that today,
At about one fifteen in the afternoon, after a bombardment that had already cut the line to pieces, the Germans launched their advance to encircle the 3rd Battalion. It was the 12th company on the left of the 10th, that bore the brunt of their attack. The first who were seen were Germans rushing down from the fort wearing French Helmets. Major Cordonnier, who was behind the center of the 11th company cried, “Do not fire: they are French!” and almost at once fell wounded or killed by a bullet in the throat, while Sergeant Major Barco shouted, “Fire away; they are Germans,” shooting furiously himself. Soon the Germans were in the rear of the 1oth company.
Gas shells are mixed into the heavy barrage, turning the battlefield a choking hell. When it finally begins, the assault focuses on the French flanks rather than the center, where so much blood has been spilled to no end in the last few days, supposing they are less-defended. they are right, but they have not reckoned with Charles de Gaulle.
Numbering 119 out of 221, he was almost not admitted to the French military academy of Saint-Cyr, but since then de Gaulle has proven a natural soldier. Required to serve in the ranks for a year, he chose the 33rd IR because of its gloried history, but chafed at the enlisted life, especially when it came to the tactics and training doctrine of the prewar French Army. Nevertheless, he was promoted to corporal before his year was done, then attended the academy, rising to 19th place in his class and graduating the same year that the war began. Descended from aristocrats, de Gaulle might have chosen the cavalry branch, but preferred the infantry; upon returning to the 33rd, he had the fortune to serve under General Pétain, allowing him a glimpse into the ongoing doctrinal debate of French military theorists.
The leading French generals of the day are ardent followers of attaque à outrance (literally, ‘attack to excess’), a doctrine which emphasizes speed and mass over preparation or fire, de Gaulle is influenced by the controversial Pétain, who believes that infantry should not be wasted in columns but shepherded by artillery fire. “One must, in all places and at all times have one single idea, that of advancing,” de Gaulle has complained of the reigning orthodoxy. In his mind, victory in the Great War demands more creativity than cries of ‘forward!’
But yelling ‘forward!’ is what de Gaulle does now. Out of ammunition, with the close-packed German wave descending on his position, he orders his men to fix bayonets and leave their trenches to charge the enemy, meeting them in hand-to-hand combat. The 10th Company is destroyed. Surrounded, overpowered, stabbed in the thigh, lungs burning from the gas, de Gaulle is captured alive, but he will not make an easy prisoner, attempting several times to escape his confinement in a POW camp. The future leader of France in her darkest hours, he has already covered himself in glory.
Acknowledgement: I am deeply indebted to our regular reader Daniel Barnett for his notes on de Gaulle’s biography which made this post possible.