If you are in France this latter part of June you are not going to escape hearing or hearing about “The Call,” “L’Appel du 18 Juin“.
It already is and will continue to be constantly discussed on the radio, on television and in the written press.
That’s because June 18 marks the 70th anniversary of Free French leader Charles de Gaulle’s famous World War II radio call from London urging his countrymen to carry on their resistance to Hitler’s Germany despite the opposite one the day before by France’s nominal leader, Marshall Philippe Petain, urging them to lay down their arms.
French men and women who wanted their country to be free should and would continue to fight, overseas if necessary, until eventually the tide would turn and Hitler would be defeated, de Gaulle insisted.
Actually, at that time, of course, most French citizens didn’t even know who de Gaulle was. He had been a French army colonel relatively recently promoted to the rank of Brigadier General. As commander of a French tank division he had fought brilliantly and bravely against overwhelmingly superior German forces and, on June 5, 1940, had been named Assistant Secretary of Defense with particular responsibility for military coordination with British forces.
However, on June 16, France’s increasingly shaky government, internally strife-torn between those who wanted to end and those who wanted to continue the war, named Petain to assume the leadership of France.
The very next day, June 17, The Marshal, who still was regarded as an honored father figure by millions of French citizens because of his prestigious role in France’s World War I victory, announced to the nation that he was asking Germany for an armistice and that all armed resistance to German forces should cease.
Actually, at that moment, General de Gaulle was in London discussing just the contrary course of action with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. They were planning how France and Britain could continue to battle together despite the looming occupation of France by Germany
De Gaulle, like many French, simply could not accept Petain’s decision to stop fighting and he got Churchill’s acceptance to broadcast on the British Broadcasting Corporation, the BBC, a call to his countrymen not to lose faith and to carry on.
“France is not alone. She is not alone. She is not alone,” he insisted on the air waves.
The nation could count on its forces overseas in the French colonies, he reminded. It could count on Britain’s beleaguered but far from defeated armies. And, although America had not yet entered the war, it could count also, in the long run, on the eventual support of American might.
That call struck such a responsive chord among French who were shamed by the nation’s defeat and ready to fight for its liberation again that, within months, thousands of French citizens from all walks of life found ways to heed the “Appel,” escape from German-occupied parts of France and join what eventually became de Gaulle’s “Free French” movement.
When France signed an armistice with Germany on June 22, Churchill, totally in accord with General de Gaulle’s determination to carry on, gave his prime ministerial approval the next day, June 23, to de Gaulle’s creation in London of a National French Committee, Comité national français. That marked the official bureaucratic birth of the Free French movement. In historical terms, however, the generally accepted starting point remains l’Appel du 18 juin.
Actually, relatively few people in France itself heard de Gaulle’s initial call on June 18. There was no international television. Radio transmissions from London were not easily captured amid the turmoil of war and de Gaulle’s main target was the French overseas community, the one he hoped would fight on even if mainland France was occupied.
With Churchill’s permission, to maximize its reception and effect, de Gaulle went back to broadcast his call again on June 19.
That’s when he found out that, because of a mix-up in the BBC studio, although it had been broadcast, the initial June 18 call had not even been recorded.
De Gaulle was not happy about that. Not at all.
Leonard Miall, the then director of the BBC broadcast section concerned, later wrote ruefully in the Independent magazine:
“The Director General sent me a message asking us to take General de Gaulle to his office after this second broadcast so that he might congratulate him on the courageous stand he was taking.
“Over our drinks General de Gaulle asked me whether we had recorded his appeal of the day before, and I had to tell him we had not. I then became one of the first British recipients of the famous de Gaulle temper. This imposing figure, in full military uniform, glared down from his enormous height and castigated the BBC in general, and me in particular, for failing to appreciate the historical significance of his broadcast. In poor French I tried to explain the technical difficulties, but I don’t think he was mollified.”
Recorded or not, various foreign newspapers picked up and reported the June 18 message and the word quickly got around.
Oddly enough, however, most French citizens, if asked what they remember about l’Appel de 18 Juin, would say it was when de Gaulle said “France has lost a battle. It has not lost the war.”
Actually, that wasn’t in the initial call. It was the lead-in headline to the poster that the Free French movement had printed and pasted up on walls all around London toward the end of June 1940.
Headed by the image of two crossed French flags, written in French but with a smaller English-language version in a bottom corner of the poster, it was addressed in big bold-faced letters “A TOUS LES FRANCAIS.”
Ending with de Gaulle’s signature and the words “VIVE LA FRANCE,” it said: “I call upon all the French wherever they are, to unite with me in action, in sacrifice and in hope! Our country is in danger of death!
Let us all unite to save it!”
And so they did.
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