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In London, on June 18, 1940 at 10 p.m. on the BBC, General de Gaulle gave his first speech calling on the French not to stop fighting the Germans. Although few French citizens heard the general’s appeal live, the press relayed his appeal the next day. It is undoubtedly one of the most significant documents of the Second World War. He is considered to be the founder of the French Resistance against Hitler’s Third Reich. Back to the genesis of this historic moment.
Since 5 p.m. on September 3, 1939, the French army has officially been at war with Nazi Germany. On the Maginot Line – the fortifications along the borders with Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and Italy – reinforcements arrive thanks to the general mobilization of the day before. The first days are calm, because the French and German troops remain in their positions and the fighting is rare. From September 9 to 21, when Hitler’s forces were concentrated on the eastern front and advancing towards Poland, the French army carried out its first military operation of the Second World War: the offensive of the Sarre, north-east of the town of Sarreguemines in Moselle. The rest of the winter is calm on the front lines. But this is only a respite, as the onset of spring also sees Hitler’s plans to invade France come to fruition.
► To read also: September 1, 1939: “internal exile” of Alsatians in the South-West of France
German troops are advancing further into the interior of the country and many fortifications give way under the force of enemy tanks. Colonel, Charles de Gaulle is at the head of the 4th Armored Division and his soldiers are trying to contain the German advance. On May 17 at 4.45 a.m., de Gaulle launched the battle of Montcornet in the Aisne, which would push back the armored vehicles and artillery of the Wehrmacht during the day.
Since the breakthrough of the Ardennes, the advance of Hitler’s troops has been very rapid. They are busy destroying the French regiments defending Dunkirk using large numbers of tanks and planes. Meanwhile, on May 27, de Gaulle launched the Battle of Abbeville in the Somme, aided by British troops. This hastily built unit, without radios or large numbers of tanks, managed to stop the Germans until May 30, as Berlin dispatched reinforcements and additional armament.
On June 1, 1940, Charles de Gaulle was appointed general and, five days later, also became Under-Secretary of State for War and National Defense in the government of Prime Minister Paul Reynaud. But the month of June was catastrophic for the French troops: the territories gave way one after the other and the Germans advanced from the north and east at a great speed. French soldiers as well as civilians are on the road to exodus. The military debacle reached its peak when on June 14, Hitler’s army entered and marched through Paris. The day before, the government finds refuge in Bordeaux.
On June 16, very early in the morning, General de Gaulle flew to London to meet the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. He asked him for air and sea reinforcements and a Franco-British union agreement was accepted by Churchill. In the evening, Charles de Gaulle returned to Bordeaux to announce the good news, but he learned very bad news: the President of the Council, Paul Reynaud had resigned and Marshal Pétain replaced him. The very popular winner of the Battle of Verdun in the previous war is about to negotiate an armistice with Germany and he intends to collaborate with Hitler.
The morning of June 17 is decisive: for de Gaulle. For him, it is out of the question to stop fighting. Churchill’s representative to the French government, General Edward Spears, arrives in Bordeaux by plane before noon. He wants to convince Paul Reynaud, head of government, and Georges Mandel, Minister of the Interior, to go to London with him to join the war government that Churchill has set up as part of the Franco-British alliance. But Spears only learns when he arrives that Reynaud is no longer the head of government and that Mandel is leaving for North Africa. Almost immediately, he turned back to London and in his plane also boarded General de Gaulle. Arriving in London, he meets Churchill again at 2:30 pm and explains to him that he does not want to lay down his arms and that he wants to speak on the BBC, the British public radio.
On June 18, after getting the green light from the British Prime Minister, de Gaulle shut himself up in the French diplomatic apartment, at Seamore Place in London, with the French representatives in the United Kingdom, Élisabeth de Miribel and Geoffroy de Courcel. He writes the text of the speech, corrects it, polishes it while “smoking cigarette after cigarette”, according to a story from the Charles de Gaulle Foundation.
At 6 p.m., de Gaulle is in the BBC building recording his speech. During the news bulletin at 8 p.m., the announcer announces the intervention of the general. Finally, the recording is broadcast at 10 p.m. sharp.
The June 18 speech was not heard by many French people. Historians explain that many families when the speech was broadcast were already on the road to exodus to the free territories and therefore unable to listen to the radio program. It was not until the next day that certain regional newspapers such as Le Petit Provençal, Le petit Marseillais or Le Progrès de Lyon transcribed General de Gaulle’s speech.
French archives specify that no recording of June 18 is kept. The version of the speech that can easily be found today is indeed the one delivered four days later, on June 22. That day, the French general spoke again on the BBC, after the signing of the Franco-German armistice by Marshal Pétain. This second broadcast speech is quite close to the first but longer and more argued.
Throughout the month of June 1940, General de Gaulle repeated his speeches on the airwaves, but it was indeed the first speech that marked the birth of the French Resistance, the event celebrated every year as a symbol of the refusal of defeat. . In the summer of 1940, thousands of volunteers joined the Free French Forces, now led by General de Gaulle.
“The leaders who have been at the head of the French armies for many years have formed a government.
This government, alleging the defeat of our armies, got in touch with the enemy to stop fighting.
Certainly, we have been, we are, overwhelmed by the mechanical force, land and air, of the enemy.
Infinitely more than their number, it is the tanks, the planes, the tactics of the Germans which make us retreat. It was the tanks, the planes, the tactics of the Germans that surprised our leaders to the point of bringing them to where they are today.
But has the last word been said? Should hope disappear? Is the defeat final? No !
Believe me, I am speaking to you knowingly and telling you that nothing is lost for France. The same means that defeated us can one day bring victory.
Because France is not alone! She is not alone ! She is not alone ! She has a vast Empire behind her. It can join forces with the British Empire, which holds the sea and continues the struggle. She can, like England, use without limits the immense industry of the United States.
This war is not limited to the unhappy territory of our country. This war is not resolved by the Battle of France. This war is a World War. All the faults, all the delays, all the suffering, do not prevent there being, in the universe, all the means necessary to one day crush our enemies. Thunderstruck today by mechanical force, we will be able to overcome in the future by superior mechanical force. The fate of the world is here.
I, General de Gaulle, currently in London, I invite the French officers and soldiers who are in British territory or who would come to be there, with their weapons or without their weapons, I invite the engineers and the workers specialists in the armaments industries which are in British territory or which would come to be there, to get in touch with me.
Whatever happens, the flame of French resistance must not and will not be extinguished.
• To listen: → [Interview] Daniel Cordier, great resistance fighter and secretary of Jean Moulin → The 70 years of the Appeal of June 18 → The children of June 18 → The political legacy of the appeal of June 18 of the General of Gaulle
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