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So Big

End of the Affair: The Collapse of the Anglo-French Alliance, 1939-1940

by Eleanor M. Gates
University of California Press, 630 pp., $28.50

Churchill and De Gaulle

by François Kersaudy
Atheneum, 476 pp., $19.95

Ever since William the Conqueror, Anglo-French relations have been a major preoccupation on both sides of the English Channel. In 1940, when the Wehrmacht bypassed the Maginot line and was on the way to Paris, a crisis arose in this relationship such as had never occurred before. From the British side came a belated proposal to unite the two countries in a common citizenship. But it was too late; the French capitulated, and turned to their aged but greatly venerated Marshal Pétain, with the unsavory Pierre Laval at his elbow, to make the best terms he could with Hitler’s Third Reich, without reference to France’s obligations to its allies.

Much water has flowed under the bridges since this happened, but it remains an episode of great interest and importance, and books on and off the campuses continue to be written about it. For instance, End of the Affair, a well-researched study of the breakdown of the Anglo-French alliance in 1939-1940: highly readable, and a useful work of reference. The title, echoing a famous Graham Greene novel, is not quite apt in that, as things have turned out, the broken-off affair led to a shotgun wedding—common membership of the European Common Market—with ominous rumbles of a divorce to follow. Dr. François Kersaudy, on the other hand, in his book presents the same situation by way of its two leading characters—Charles de Gaulle and Winston Churchill. Temperamentally, I find his treatment more to my taste than Eleanor Gates’s; people always interest me more than happenings. Even so, the two books together cover a fascinating piece of history which loses none of its luster with the passage of time.

The late Sir James (P.J.) Grigg in his early days as a civil servant was Winston Churchill’s secretary when he was chancellor of the exchequer; then, in 1942, he was made secretary of state for war in Churchill’s wartime government. It was he who related to me this curious incident. On VE Day when the Allied victory in Europe was being celebrated, he and Sir Alan Brooke, then chief of the Imperial General Staff, were looking out of the window of the War Office in Whitehall, and saw Sir Winston drive by in an open car, ruddy of face, making his V-sign, and bowing graciously to left and right. “Do you love him or hate him more?” Grigg asked Brooke. After careful consideration Brooke answered that he hated him more.

Probably most of Churchill’s associates, apart from the mere stooges like Lords Ismay and Beaverbrook and Brendan Bracken, would, if they were being honest, have answered similarly. Churchill was an inconsiderate and ungracious master, and the excitement of working with him scarcely compensated for the ardors and insults involved. Nonetheless, Grigg and Brooke would have had to agree that Churchill alone could have taken over the government in 1940 when Hitler’s panzers had swept into France, and were in a fair way to dominating the whole of Western Europe. In such circumstances, someone like Churchill was essential, with his rhetoric—a rather ghastly mix of Gibbon, the Authorized Version of the Bible, topped up by Macaulay—his unawareness that the days of the British empire were numbered, his dogged belief that the British lion was as formidable as ever, and that all he had to do as leader—as he put it himself in a subsequent broadcast—was to give tongue to the lion’s roar.

The alternative, anyway, would have been to follow France’s example and surrender, with Lloyd George as Pétain; there is good reason to believe that he was ready and poised to undertake this role. It was Stalin who, with understandable satisfaction, remarked that rarely had one man so influenced the course of history as Churchill had. What he meant was that without Churchill Hitler would have won the war, whereas with him Stalin could win it.

Curiously enough or perhaps, according to Blake’s concept of fearful symmetry, inevitably, there emerged on the other side of the Channel a corresponding leader—De Gaulle—epitomizing, as Churchill did, departed greatness; striving to uphold an empire that was already lost, and dreaming of restoring to France the power and influence that had been dissipated in the inglorious years of the Third Republic. What a brilliant idea, then, on the part of Dr. François Kersaudy to make a special detailed study of the relations and transactions between these two men, washed up together by the turbulence of the twentieth century, and managing up to a point to cooperate despite their so different temperaments and backgrounds—the one a veteran politician and the virtually unanimously chosen leader of a still undefeated country, the other, in the atrocious jargon of our time, a displaced person, claiming to represent a country that had designated him a traitor, with no money, no army, an apparat, only his own enormous will and undeviating purpose to lead France back to greatness, with himself directing its affairs and shaping its future destiny.

The very appearance of the two men expressed their differences—Churchill plump, loquacious, with that special kind of vulgarity that aristocrats develop when they take to demagogy; De Gaulle tall, withdrawn, solitary, with a professional soldier’s contempt for the parliamentary democracy in which Churchill had gloried and thrived. Initially, metaphorically speaking, they fell into each other’s arms. To Churchill, De Gaulle was the perfect antidote to the spectacle of Marshal Pétain coming to terms with Hitler; to De Gaulle, Churchill represented the will to carry on the war against Nazi Germany which he had found so tragically lacking in his native land. “Quel grand artiste!” Professor Kersaudy quotes De Gaulle as saying of Churchill after one of his ardent dissertations on how the war should be conducted. It was a correct appreciation of Churchill’s qualities; in war, as in peace, he operated romantically rather than with cool calculations and resolve. In other circumstances, he might well have been a successful writer of adventure stories—in fact, his only published novel, not a great work, is in this genre.

Most of his plans and projects were as disastrous as the Gallipoli campaign in the 1914-1918 war and the invasion of Norway in the 1939-1945 war, for both of which campaigns Churchill was largely responsible; his great contributions were his ebullience, his droll sayings, his clowning. Once, near the end of his life, when he was out of office but still a member of Parliament, I happened to be in the House of Commons press gallery when he made his entrance. His mere presence virtually brought the proceedings to a full stop. As soon as he was settled in his place, he began to search through all his pockets for a lozenge with the eyes of all honorable members on both sides of the House focused on him. At last he found his lozenge in one of the upper pockets of his waistcoat, put it in his mouth, and at once fell asleep. While he slumbered on, honorable members proceeded with their business, but still with half an eye on his dozing figure.

Again, on a previous occasion, I have a vivid memory of how, when the egregious Ramsay MacDonald was prime minister in a minority Labour government, and had been accepting a whole series of Tory amendments to a government bill, Churchill rose to his feet and recalled how, when he was a child, his nurse had taken him to a fair. There he had seen an announcement outside a tent that on show within was the Boneless Wonder, but his nurse considered he was too young to be allowed to go inside and have a look at it. “I have waited all these years,” he went on, “and now, at last”—pointing to the prime minister—“I see the Boneless Wonder.” Everyone present, including the MPs on MacDonald’s side of the House, burst into fits of helpless laughter.

It was this capacity to mesmerize and amuse that was the basis of Churchill’s leadership, especially welcome in times of crisis. De Gaulle had no such gift; his strength lay rather in his total confidence in his own authority, which enabled him to impose it on others, and make it acceptable to others. Thus as an exile in London without an army—apart from a few demoralized troops who had come over to England from Dunkirk—money, or weapons, he was still able to establish himself as the authentic leader of the Free French—those, that is to say, who had not accepted the Pétainist setup in Vichy. At this time there were all sorts of émigré governments and missions knocking about in London from German-occupied countries. Today only a few specialists would remember they ever existed, let alone their names; but no one, writing about this period, will ever be able to forget De Gaulle. Out of his own resolution, his own arrogance even, his sense of history and his abounding love for his country and its people, and inexhaustible egotism, he carved a unique place for himself; a reputation that will always be controversial but can never be overlooked.

Relations between Churchill and De Gaulle were initially most amicable. Churchill’s memories of the 1914-1918 war, not to mention his visits as a young man to Paris, led to his glamorizing France and the French, and the arrival in London of a French officer resolved to represent his country and continue the war against Germany on its behalf greatly appealed to Churchill’s romanticism; the more so because De Gaulle’s very dependence on the British for arms and other facilities would, he calculated, mean that he could manipulate De Gaulle, especially in his struggles with President Roosevelt. Professor Kersaudy shows with chapter and verse, sometimes very amusingly, how Churchill came to realize that, far from having a young and respectful disciple on his hands, he was dealing with someone stronger and more obstinate than himself.

One of the weapons Churchill employed in their rows was to insist on speaking French that De Gaulle could not understand; nor could he bring himself to suffer gladly such a slaughter of his mother tongue. A device De Gaulle used was to disappear into some remote part of the French empire and leave Churchill guessing what he was up to. Or he would involve himself in an imaginary struggle to salvage French colonial interests—for instance, in Syria—on which he believed the British had cast envious eyes. He and Churchill were both preoccupied with safeguarding the future of empires that to all intents and purposes no longer existed, and they were fated not just to witness, but to accept as inescapable, the dismantling, in Churchill’s case of the British Raj in India, in De Gaulle’s of French North Africa.

With the Allied landings in North Africa, and the setting up in Algiers of an Allied forces headquarters, teeming with British and American officers, De Gaulle’s position was greatly enhanced despite the efforts of President Roosevelt to replace him by General Henri Giraud. I was myself present there as a liaison officer with the French Securité Militaire, and was able to watch De Gaulle forge ahead and Giraud fall by the wayside despite his powerful sponsor. In the exchanges of letters between Roosevelt and Churchill* there was a certain amount of bad-taste badinage about their two French protégés, De Gaulle and Giraud; “In regard to De Gaulle,” Roosevelt wrote to Churchill, “I have hitherto enjoyed a quiet satisfaction in leaving him in your hands—apparently I have now acquired a similar problem in brother Giraud.” As Professor Kersaudy intimates, Churchill knew better than this, and did truly recognize in De Gaulle outstanding qualities and vision which would give him a role in the history of the years ahead, but his own, as he considered, necessity to ingratiate himself with Roosevelt led to his ostensibly falling in with the president’s patronizing and often facetious attitude.

  1. *

    Roosevelt and Churchill: Their Secret Wartime Correspondence, edited by Francis L. Loewenheim, Harold D. Langley, and Manfred Jones (Saturday Review Press/Dutton, 1975).

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