1940: Answering the Call

Le général de Gaulle au micro de la BBC à Londres, 30 octobre 1941
General de Gaulle speaking on the BBC in London, 30 October 1941. - © SHD/Vincennes



    DATE: 18 June 1940

    PLACE: London

    OBJECT: General de Gaulle’s call to arms

    OUTCOME: Founding act of the Resistance

    The call to arms of 18 June is today considered the founding act of the Resistance, but the movement was slow to find its way in the early days and in 1940 consisted purely of individual initiatives. That said, 1940 was definitely when the first pockets of resistance were formed and the symbol of the leader of Free France was born.

    The beginnings of the Resistance are often over-simplified. Having left for London on 17 June, General de Gaulle supposedly founded the Resistance the following day, with his appeal on BBC radio. A movement of mobilisation then got under way across France. Although based on fact (the departure to London, the emergence of groups of people in France who wanted to do their bit), this view of things is simplistic and inaccurate. Firstly, because, regardless of the importance of General de Gaulle’s call to arms, the Resistance – with a capital ‘R’ – did not simply come into being on 18 June 1940. Secondly, because De Gaulle’s initiative did not immediately give him any real stature or status vis-à-vis the British government, the French people or the initial pockets of resistance, which emerged independently of the action taken in London. Thirdly, because what – 80 years on – is known as the Resistance was, in the beginning, no more than a scattering of individual initiatives and actions which, from a distance, might wrongly be thought of as insignificant. A closer look is therefore required.

    General de Gaulle flies to London

    French citizens tuned in to their radios at 12.30 pm on 17 June 1940 to hear Marshal Pétain speak of the need to “stop the fighting” and ask “the adversary” whether he was prepared to join him in seeking “a means of putting an end to hostilities”. To put it plainly, the new prime minister was announcing that he had requested an armistice. Three hours earlier, General de Gaulle had taken off for England from Mérignac aerodrome. That afternoon, he met with Winston Churchill, whom he told of his desire to make an appeal over the radio waves. This was by no means a given: the Foreign Office – which hoped the terms imposed by the Germans would be unacceptable – was not burning its bridges with the Pétain government, now based in Bordeaux after leaving Paris on 10 June, and the British ambassador was having regular meetings with Pétain.

    The call to arms of 18 June

    That did not stop De Gaulle, on the morning of the 18th, from writing the message he wanted to broadcast on the BBC. Meanwhile, Churchill put the finishing touches to the speech he would make before the House of Commons that afternoon, which has gone down in history as the “finest hour” speech: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’” For that reason, Churchill was absent from the war cabinet meeting which began at 12.30 pm. Having heard of the appeal which De Gaulle wanted to make, the cabinet opposed its broadcast by the BBC “for as long as it can be hoped that the Bordeaux government will act in the interests of the alliance”. It was not until Churchill gave his full support for the idea that the decision was overturned. Around 6 pm, De Gaulle, unaware of these hesitations, recorded his message, which would be broadcast at the end of the 10 o’clock news. The BBC did not keep the recording, for the important speech of the day was surely Churchill’s.

    The content of the call

    Charles de Gaulle gave lengthy consideration to the content of his call to arms of 18 June, during the course of government meetings in which he participated until 16 June as Undersecretary for War, and which saw passionate discussions about the solution to be adopted: armistice, surrender or continuation of the fight from the Empire. De Gaulle’s approach was the exact opposite of that taken by Pétain the day before. The defeat was due to the German army’s mechanical strength, which could be overcome by superior mechanical strength. The French army may be out of the running on French soil, but all the resources to defeat Hitler were to be found around the world (the British Empire held the seas, the United States was an industrial powerhouse). Following this geopolitical analysis, De Gaulle called on all specialists of the war effort (soldiers, officers, factory workers, engineers) who were on British soil then or might be in the future, to get in touch with him. He ended his appeal with a profession of faith – “Whatever happens, the flame of resistance must not and shall not be extinguished” – and by situating the nascent action in time: “Tomorrow, I shall broadcast again from London.”

    Despite this announcement, De Gaulle did not broadcast on the BBC again until 22 June, the day the armistice was signed between France and Germany, signalling the end of British hopes of seeing Pétain change his mind about talking to the enemy. Although an appeal of 19 June is reproduced in De Gaulle’s War Memoirs, it was not broadcast by the BBC.

    The fact is that his position was unstable and, truth be told, unprecedented. With no mandate of any kind and not a particularly well-known figure, De Gaulle was a lone man seeking to restore France’s prestige and take it back into a conflict which its official government had abandoned. His position was so precarious that he had to agree to amend his text at the request of the British. The first lines of the authenticated text broadcast by General de Gaulle are well known: “The leaders who, for many years, have been at the head of our armed forces have formed a government. That government, alleging the defeat of our armies...” They are different from those which he actually spoke into the microphone: “The French government has asked the enemy under what terms fighting might cease. It has declared that, if those terms are not honourable, then the struggle should continue.” In other words, in the recording made at the BBC, he had to tone down his message.

    First period in the wilderness

    18 to 28 June was a difficult time for De Gaulle. He had to compromise with a British government still expecting the arrival in London of political leaders of a different calibre. During this unsettled period, the British made contact with Georges Mandel – who had left for North Africa on 21 June aboard the Massilia – and General Noguès, Resident-General of the Protectorate of Morocco, senior officials capable of embodying the French wake-up call. As for De Gaulle, he held his ground, speaking on the BBC on 24 and 26 June.

    Georges Mandel

    Georges Mandel, Minister for the Colonies, 8 November 1939. © Excelsior-L’Équipe/Roger-Viollet


    Between 25 and 27 June, the senior French officials across the Empire sided with the Bordeaux government, while the politicians who had left aboard the Massilia were arrested on arrival in Casablanca. De Gaulle now seemed like the only alternative. On 28 June, a British government communiqué recognised him as “the leader of all free Frenchmen, wherever they may be, who rally to him in support of the Allied cause.” It was both much and little. Much because the symbol he was was beginning to count. Little because that odd title told of the trouble they had in describing his role according to the usual diplomatic criteria. Ultimately, he was now the French interlocutor and partner to the British. The agreement signed on 7 August between Britain and Free France sealed that alliance in three points: 1. The Free French Forces, while accepting the instructions of the British command, were an army in their own right. 2. The General could establish a civilian and military administration. 3. His movement would be funded by the British, who would be reimbursed once the war was over.


    General Noguès with the sultan’s two sons, one of them the future King Hassan II of Morocco, Fez, 1940. © Roger-Viollet


    The cycle that began on 18 June 1940 ended on 24 October with the establishment of an embryonic government, the Conseil de Défense de l’Empire (Empire Defence Council). This was made possible by the rallying of certain colonial territories to Free France: Chad, Cameroon and Congo. But in September 1940, a naval expedition organised with the British to Dakar failed due to the determined response of the local Vichyist authorities. It was a bitter failure, which proved what a difficult task Free France had before it, and undermined its credibility vis-à-vis the British.  Struggling on, Free France nevertheless gained some ground, taking Gabon and thus control of Equatorial Africa. By the end of 1940, there were around 35 000 Free French.

    In his War Memoirs, in 1954, describing his situation as he crossed the Rubicon by crossing the English Channel, General de Gaulle says he felt “alone and utterly powerless”. The description was entirely apt. The call to arms of 18 June 1940 was an extremely bold gamble, which could have left its originator tragically isolated. By August 1940, that risk had been averted, but there was still a great deal to be done.


    Français libres Dakar

    Free French of the expeditionary corps on their way to Dakar, September 1940. © Musée de l’Ordre de la Libération


    Early individual initiatives in France

    René Cassin, who joined General de Gaulle in London on 29 June 1940, entitled a book of his memoirs, published in 1974, Les Hommes partis de rien, le réveil de la France abattue, 1940-1941 (The men who started from scratch: the awakening of a demoralised France, 1940-41). The phrase “the men who started from scratch” could equally well be applied to those men and women who, in a metropolitan France split into two main zones by the armistice, were doing their bit to refuse defeat and its consequences. In both zones, public opinion was anaesthetised and overwhelmed by the defeat of May-June 1940. The state of paralysis was so great that the pioneers of what was to become the Resistance were just a handful of men and women left to their own devices and driven by a refusal to give in.

    Among them was Jean Moulin. Refusing to sign a document attributing responsibility for deaths by the Germans to Senegalese troops of the French army, Moulin was beaten black and blue, then thrown in a cellar of his prefecture in Chartres, with the threat of more to come the following day. The 41-year-old prefect of Eure-et-Loir cut his own throat that night, 17 to 18 June 1940, i.e. before General de Gaulle’s call to arms. Moulin could have signed the shameful document and asserted, justifiably, that he had been made to agree to reprehensible things under duress. Yet he refused, preferring to brave death, because some compromises cannot be accepted without betraying oneself.  Here was the act of an isolated conscience that, without weighing up the pros and cons, kept firmly to its course, sticking to its decision. In this, Moulin was certainly a pioneer of this resistance, which began as individual refusal, without speculation as to the chances of victory.

    Jean Moulin

    Jean Moulin, prefect of Eure-et-Loir, and the Feldkommandant, Chartres, July 1940. © Musée de l’Ordre de la Libération


    The same night that Moulin attempted to take his own life, Edmond Michelet, a 41-year-old broker, Christian Democrat and father of seven, posted through letterboxes across the town of Brive a tract that reproduced a text by Péguy: “In wartime, he who does not surrender is my man, whoever he is, wherever he comes from, and whatever his party. And he who surrenders is my enemy, whoever he is, wherever he comes from, and whatever his party.” With this, he was calling for a necessary awakening of consciences.

    Meanwhile, in July 1940, the 52-year-old socialist militant Jean Texcier, an employee of the Ministry of Commerce, produced on a typewriter his Conseils à l’Occupé (Advice for the Occupied), which he distributed across his home city of Paris. The 33 pieces of advice were concerned with dignity, not fighting, and encouraged people to surround the occupier in a glass sphere. But in the summer of 1940, it was already quite something. Indeed, the last piece of advice went further: “There’s no point telling your friends to go and buy this at the bookshop. You doubtless have just one copy and it’s up to you to guard it safely. So, make copies of it and give them to your friends, who in turn will make copies. Happy occupation for the occupied!” Thoughts were already on spreading the word about refusal.

    Germaine Tillion left the Aures mountains, Algeria, on 30 May 1940, her 33rd birthday, after taking part in an ethnographic expedition there. On returning to Paris and learning of the armistice, she did not consider for one minute not doing the opposite of what Pétain was advocating. In search of contacts, she went to the headquarters of the Parisian Red Cross. There, she heard about a colonel in his seventies, Paul Hauet, who, like her, found the armistice unacceptable. Meanwhile, Hauet, who had come in late June to Place Denys-Cochin, between Les Invalides and the École Militaire, to pay his respects to General Mangin, whose statue had just been taken down by Wehrmacht sappers, had encountered Colonel Maurice Dutheil de la Rochère there, his fellow student at the Polytechnique, a fervent nationalist who saw the armistice as the ultimate dishonour. So emerged one of the first shoots of what was to become the Groupe du Musée de l’Homme, comprised of people who shared professional ties (linguist Boris Vildé, anthropologist Anatole Lewitsky, librarian Yvonne Oddon) or came from common friendship circles or militant social groups (Jean Cassou, Claude Aveline, Agnès Humbert, Marcel Abraham, Simone Martin-Chauffier). With branches outside Paris, this group developed more quickly and effectively than the other groups formed by like-minded individuals with a desire to act. It paid the price, suffering brutal repression, which broke it up in February 1941.


    Germaine Tillion

    Germaine Tillion in 1935. © PVDE/Bridgeman Images


    These individual awakenings were also marked by clandestine departures to England. Such was the case of Jacques Bingen, 32, a civil engineer of the École des Mines and graduate of the École Libre des Sciences Politiques, who escaped to Gibraltar, from where he wrote to the British government on 6 July 1940: “I am safe and sound having escaped Nazi soil, and am ready to join the British Empire and fight Hitler to the death. I have lost all I had, my money (not a penny to my name), my work, my family, who stayed behind in France and whom I may never see again, my country and my beloved Paris. But I am a free man in a free country and that is what counts above all else.”

    An array of motivations

    What were the motivations of the pioneering members of this Resistance, which had to come up with all of its actions from scratch? Extremely varied: they ranged from militant anti-fascism, to the Germanophobic nationalist tradition, to the desire to preserve the Republic and see France keep its place on the world stage. The common denominator was most certainly patriotism, the determined refusal to accept a France which, under pressure from the Germans, had ratified an armistice with such draconian terms. Mingled with it was an ethical awakening, in the sense that accepting defeat and attributing it to what Pétain called, on 20 June, “the spirit of enjoyment” were morally intolerable.

    In this initial stage, it was individuals who rose up against a situation they considered unacceptable. They chose in isolation to fight. How to go about it? No one really knew in the summer of 1940. From that moment on, in the northern zone, and from winter 1940-41 in the southern zone, those individuals came together to form cells, through chance encounters in which they cautiously found out what the other knew. These cells, each with a few dozen members at most, set up escape lines for escaped prisoners of war and airmen shot down over enemy territory, left handwritten graffiti and later stickers on walls, and wrote and distributed pamphlets. In the unoccupied zone, Marshal Pétain’s prestige was the biggest obstacle to overcome to recruit willing participants. In the occupied zone, the ubiquitous German presence and the harshness of the repression acted as a spur. Thus, Germaine Tillion wrote that the early cells “multiplied at the speed of infusoria in tropical waters.” Even so, these were tough beginnings.

    The importance of a symbol and the power of legend

    In such a difficult and hostile setting, symbols matter. The call to arms of 18 June soon served as an anchor point, becoming the symbol of refusal and the ongoing struggle. Yet although Free France and the internal Resistance groups did not make regular contact until autumn 1941, when France’s first political envoy, Yves Morandat, arrived from London, the 350 words spoken on 18 June 1940 were of paramount importance to the battle that was under way. Up until mid-1943, General de Gaulle’s great strength would be precisely that he was a symbol, even if being just a symbol would also be his main weakness.

    de Gaulle Mont Valérien

    Official opening of the Memorial of Combatant France, Mont Valérien, 18 June 1960. © Musée de l’Ordre de la Libération


    In late July/early August 1940, posters addressed “To all French people” were put up across London and other British cities, with what purported to be a transcription of the call to arms of 18 June, which few people had heard in France and even fewer volunteers in England were familiar with. It summed up the content of the call with a single phrase which De Gaulle had not uttered on 18 June: “France has lost a battle! But France hasn’t lost the war!” The call to arms and the poster are clearly two distinct texts. In representations, however, they merged to form a single credo, and so the legend of the leader of Free France was born. He may not have impelled the Resistance in occupied France from day one, in 1940, but his bold words of 18 June did give him a privilege of precedence which nothing and no one could dispute. Thus a “place of remembrance” began to be fashioned, which has permeated representations right up to the present day. “The passage of time, the prestige of his ten-year reign, France’s decline in the 2000s and the authority of his War Memoirs contributed, as De Gaulle wanted, to making 18 June, together with the myths inherited from the French Revolution, the founding act of our current Republic.” (Jean-Louis Crémieux-Brilhac)


    Laurent Douzou - Lecturer of contemporary history, Sciences Po Lyon

    Read more

    La lutte clandestine en France. Une histoire de la Résistance, 1940-1944, Sébastien Albertelli, Julien Blanc, Laurent Douzou, Seuil, coll. La Librairie du XXIe siècle, 2019.

    De Gaulle, la République et la France Libre, 1940-1945, Jean-Louis Crémieux-Brilhac, Perrin, coll. Tempus, 2014.

    Pourquoi enseigner de Gaulle ?, Tristan Lecoq, Inspecteur général de l'éducation nationale

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