London Letter

Charles de Gaulle in war and peace

BEVERLEY BAXTER May 21 1960
London Letter

Charles de Gaulle in war and peace

BEVERLEY BAXTER May 21 1960

Charles de Gaulle in war and peace

London Letter

BEVERLEY BAXTER

Truly in the whirligig of time fate plays many tricks. If you doubt this, let me recall that day in the Hitler war when France had fallen and it was clear that Britain and the Dominions would face the con centrated fury of triumphant Ger many alone. With the incorrigible humor of the cockney, Britain ral lied behind the popular slogan "Boys! We're in the Final!" But it was like whistling against a gale. Rather than play any part in the surrender to Germany, General de Gaulle escaped to England. There was little excitement about his ar

rival in Iondon, even though we acclaimed him for what he was -an austere patriot to whom France meant more than life or death. One night in the war, at a iate hour, I was visiting a friend at Claridge's Hotel. When we said good night I walked along the cor ridor and suddenly, on a sofa in a dark corner, I saw de Gaulle. With such French as was within my range I paused to express my sym pathy for him and for the true France which he represented. But he stared into space as if he

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London Letter

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The Parisians danced, wept, and spilled the blood of traitors

in another world and another time.

His country, which he loved above everything, was in the hands of the hated Germans. The Quislings, the faint-hearted. the broken-spirited politicians and the opportunists had failed their country. The French generals predicted that “now the Germans will wring England's neck like a chicken's.” It was unlikely that Hitler’s high spirits were seriously damped by the parliamentary retort of Winston Churchill: “Some chicken! Some neck!”

I wondered at the time whether General de Gaulle really believed that Germany could yet be defeated, and I also wondered if he would realise the unconquerable spirit of the British family of nations in that ironic comment on the chicken and its neck.

With a desire to be of such small comfort on that occasion as my presence might give I sat down in the corner with de Gaulle but his eyes were not for me nor for anyone else. He was gazing into the future, the dark and hopeless future. France had fallen. Long, endless nights had come upon his beloved country.

Yet this man of vaulting courage and strength of character was to live to see the day when he would enter Paris at the head of an army which freed France from the occupying Germans.

Here is Churchill's description of that terrible, shameful yet grimly joyous moment of victory:

“Paris was given over to a rapturous demonstration. German prisoners were spat at. collaborators were dragged through the streets and the Liberation troops were feted.”

On this scene of long delayed triumph there arrived General de Gaulle. At 5 p.m. he reached the Rue St. Dominique and set up his headquarters in the Ministry of War. Two hours later at the Hotel de Ville he appeared on the balcony for the first time as leader of Free France.

The whole of Paris, except for the traitors and the weak-hearted who had refused to help in the Resistance, went mad with joy. The Parisians danced and wept even though there were dreadful, personal settlements as the people whipped and murdered the traitors wffio had aided the Germans during the occupation.

The next day de Gaulle made his formal entry on foot down the Champs Elysée to the Place de la Concorde, and then, heading a file of cars, he went to Notre

Dame cathedral and on his knees gave humble thanks to God.

A few days ago, with an April sun giving warmth and splendor to the scene, the Brigade of Guards and regiments of cavalry were drawn up on the Horse Guards’ Parade in L.ondon to honor President de Gaulle with a march past. Never have I seen the famous setting in such a glorious mood. The glinting rays of the sun on the little lake looked as if diamonds had rained upon it. But there was glory everywhere, glory and thankfulness to God.

London is a city of moods and can be as cantankerous as old Scrooge with a toothache, but this day it was absolutely perfect, the march past of the Guards and the nodding heads of the Cavalry Brigade would have forced the approval of the most explosive sergeant-major who ever bellowed the old taunt: “Thank God we've got a navy!”

Light-hearted moments

Who would not be a Londoner on such a morning? No wonder the horses tossed their heads in open self-satisfaction. But we did not linger when the march past had ended. The morning's program had only begun. Down by the sun-sparkled Thames, Westminster Hall was waiting for the arrival of the president, the prime minister, the lords and the commons. So we turned our steps from Whitehall to parliament and then to Westminster Hall.

While we arc making our way there let us contemplate for a moment the history of this Palace of Westminster.

Over nine hundred years ago, before the Normans had defeated the Saxons, a royal palace stood on the site now occupied by the houses of parliament and still officially known as the Palace of Westminster.

Westminster Hall, built by William Rufus (third son of the Conqueror) and re-roofed by Richard II. still stands. Ponder for a moment on what that means and do not give all your thoughts to the great men, and the lesser men who have played mighty roles in the political life of the nation. What of the men who worked with their hands and gave us an edifice that shrugs off the decay of the centuries as though years were just the nibbles of a gad 11 y ?

We only use Westminster Hall on such

occasions as when both houses of parliament want to combine for a tribute to a statesman or to celebrate the crowning or to mourn the death of a king or a queen. But it has light-hearted and happy moments as when we in parliament paid honor and congratulations to Princess Elizabeth when she married the Duke of Edinburgh.

Yet you must not imagine that even these best laid plans always achieve the splendor and the pleasantness that is intended. You may recall that a committee of both houses was set up to commission the painting of Winston Churchill to honor his eightieth birthday. The committee in charge chose Graham Sutherland, a vigorous painter much in fashion and a man whose name would live through the years.

So the great day came when the lords and the commons were invited to attend Westminster Hall to sec the unveiling of the masterpiece which they had commissioned and for which a large fee had been paid. When the preliminary niceties, jests and tributes to Churchill had been made the unveiling took place. There was the portrait — but with it there was a puzzled silence.

The artist had painted Churchill as a slow thinking, sullen, self - important squire of the countryside. Obviously this was the portrait of a man who had lived so long with pigs and oxen that he had acquired their character as well as their appearance. In a few biting words Churchill went through the motion of thanking the MPs and the peers but those closest to him knew he was furious. The legend is, and I believe it to be true, that Churchill decapitated himself—or rather the face and the head of the man on the canvas — and declared that the portrait would be seen no more.

But that was some time ago. Now I suggest that in courtesy to General de Gaulle, our chief guest, we come to the speech that he delivered to us on his recent visit to London.

.“This meeting in London.” he said, “is to be interpreted on the French side as an act of homage which France desires to make to you. the British. The man whom she has charged with this task finds himself the same who, not so long ago, had the honor of leading her at the side of Great Britain when the latter, heroic and alone, took upon herself the liberty of the world. This meeting takes place today within the most symbolic

walls of your own institutions. It comes at a time when fate appears to wish to choose between peace and great disaster.

"It is nearly sixteen years.” he continued, “since 1 was in your country. The last occasion was when, leaving your shores, the armies of the West set foot anew on the soil of France in order to liberate Europe. That event marked the brilliant military success of your kingdom and commonwealth, glorified in the events and sacrifices made by your people on land, at sea and in the air. as in the factories, the mines, the fields and the offices.”

Then he paused, turned towards Churchill, and said: "You invested Winston Churchill with the immortal glory of having been the leader and the inspiration not only of Britain, in the sternest test she has ever known, but of many others.”

That was generous of de Gaulle. It was also courteous. He was being at once sincere and a good guest. But after all he is a Frenchman — a supreme Frenchman — and we applauded long and loud when he added the short statement: "This too was the vindication of the Resistance of France!” When the applause subsided he said quietly and without raising his voice: "Today my presence among you affirms to the people of Great Britain that the people of France have dedicated to you for always their friendship and admiration.”

1 am aware that you who are reading these words may say, with some logic, that the president was exchanging compliment for compliment as befits the atmosphere of such an occasion. Admittedly sweet courtesies are the very coinage of friendly intercourse but one had only to look at de Gaulle to realise that he was desperately, almost incredibly sincere.

Thus when he turned to the subject of West Germany he dealt with the past without bitterness but also without mock sentimentality. “France believes." he said, "that peace can only be attained if the general fear of sudden annihilation is.first removed, which involves the limitation and control of armaments in both camps.

"France wishes nuclear weapons to be destroyed,” he cried. "The installations where they are made to be used for different purposes. The rockets and aircraft capable of carrying them — as well as the fixed or floating bases from which these vehicles of death can be launched — should be placed under surveillance.”

As he neared the conclusion of his speech he made graceful references to Mr. Macmillan and President Eisenhower and then his voice rose to a new and final intensity. "At all events," he cried, “France is deeply conscious of what is at stake and she is filled with a rational hope, i declare that, at this important juncture, she feels herself shoulder to shoulder with Britain. What other countries have, as much as ours, and over and above their divergences, such similar aims? What peoples know better than France and Great Britain that nothing will save the world except just those qualities of w'hich they are par excellence capable — wisdom and resolution?”

The ceremony was over. The last compliments had been exchanged and the entente was stronger than it had ever been.

But we forgot all these things for a moment when the guests stood aside as Winston Churchill, shakily, aided by a walking stick, made his way slowly to the exit. He smiled — and then he frowned — but perhaps he was thinking of that damned decapitated portrait of himself which in our innocence, we had presented to him. ^