70th anniversary/General de Gaulle’s Appeal
London, June 18, 2010
Dear and great British people,
On this, the 70th anniversary of the Appeal of June 18th, made on the BBC by General de Gaulle at one of the most tragic moments in our common history, here at the Royal Hospital Chelsea which is for Britain what Les Invalides are for France, allow me to offer you the fraternal greeting and eternal gratitude of the French people, who do not forget what you accomplished for their liberty and honour.
By offering the hospitality of its shores to General de Gaulle, Britain did not only behave as a true ally of the man who had chosen to go into exile, embodying respect for one’s word of honour. France had given her word that in this war she would never forsake Britain, that she would never cease to fight, side by side.
By welcoming General de Gaulle, by offering him the microphone of the BBC, by recognizing his legitimacy and that of Free France, Britain made known its conviction that the only true France – were she represented by one man only – could be that France which had not stooped to betrayal, which had the will to fight on, which did not accept defeat.
By recognizing General de Gaulle’s right to speak and act in the name of France, Britain paid to France the finest tribute she has ever received, because it signified that in British eyes France could only be one and the same with the highest notion of honour.
In so doing, Britain made possible the very existence of the French resistance. The Appeal of 18 June could have been made nowhere else than from among the sole free people on earth which continued to resist the forces of Nazism with all its might.
When France had been overwhelmed by the enemy and when her leaders, taking advantage of such distress, were treacherously suing for armistice in contempt of their given word and engaging in a collaboration that was to involve them in covering up the most heinous of crimes, in London, on 18 June, General de Gaulle was responding to Winston Churchill, who on 4 June had vowed, ‘We shall never surrender’: ‘The flame of the French resistance must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished’.
As the British people prepared to repel the coming invasion, a lone voice was heard in the night which had descended upon France, and which soon would be cut through by ack-ack searchlight beams seeking out the aircraft delivering the money, radio sets and weapons so urgently needed by the French Resistance: a voice which was raised to tell all those French men and women who were unresigned to defeat that they would be able to continue to fight, in French uniform and under the French flag.
Those grave and simple words of 18 June have since become part of our history, not because many in France heard them when they were spoken, but because they were the answer sought by all those who wished to fight, but did not know with whom, did not know where, or how to proceed.
The first Free French, the first who resisted, all agreed later on one thing: that the early resistance was made blunderingly, in the dark. General de Gaulle lit up that darkness.
To all those whom the complete collapse of the Nation had left distraught and rebellious, the Appeal of 18 June offered a landmark, a framework, a rallying point. And it did more: it gave a cause to serve, a goal, to combatants who knew, every last one, what they had revolted against, but who did not yet know what they were to be fighting for.
Without 18 June, there would still have been those who resisted. But there would have been no Free France. There would have been no National Council of the Resistance. France would not have been among the victors on the day when Germany surrendered. France would not have been cleansed of the dishonour of collaboration. No matter that in June 1940 there were only some few hundred volunteers in London and some few thousand French in their homeland trying desperately to resist. On 18 June General de Gaulle spoke for the future. And already then he spoke, too, of all that was to take place at the Liberation and later.
The French Chiefs of Staff believed that, once France had surrendered, Britain would surrender in its turn within a week.
General de Gaulle knew the qualities of the British people, their courage and tenacity. He knew the determination of their Prime Minister. He knew that Britain would not yield and that, if Britain did not yield, the war would become a world war.
He knew that Germany could never win such a world war.
He knew that if France left the war, she would be leaving history, too, because history would be written without her.
On 8 August 1940 the following order of the day was issued to the aircrew and servicemen of the Royal Air Force:
‘The Battle of Britain is about to begin. Members of the Royal Air Force, the fate of generations lies in your hands’.
The first bombs fell on London on 24 August. On 7 September, a hundred bombers dropped their deadly loads on the city. On 15 September, the RAF fought off the greatest air assault ever launched against Britain. The day that was to become known as Battle of Britain Day proved to be a turning point. The last Luftwaffe raid over London took place on 10 May 1941. The Battle of Britain had left 40,000 dead and 50,000 injured. At this critical time, the Royal Family behaved in exemplary fashion: King George VI and Queen Elizabeth stayed in London together with their people, lending decisive moral support.
Winston Churchill later summed up the struggle with the words, ‘never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few’.
The French people, like the British people, know what they owe to those few.
Among them were fifteen Free French pilots, of whom nine were killed in action.
Their number mattered little… As did the number of sailors, airmen and soldiers. Each had freely chosen his destiny. Whether in the skies above London, at sea, beneath the African sun, at Bir Hakeim, or anywhere, all of them were to behave with admirable dignity and courage, as did those who went underground, the members of the Maquis, and those who fought in Italy, at Monte Cassino, along the Garigliano, on the beaches of Provence, in all the battles to free the land.
Yet none of them would look on themselves as heroes.
All of them would merely feel that they had done their duty.
They did that duty by sacrificing their youth, their careers, their lives.
The tiny band of volunteers who commenced here that glorious and tragic venture, lacking every kind of material means, were equipped solely with the spiritual force that they could draw from the awareness of being the custodians of everything which France and her values, her language, her culture and history could stand for in the eyes of the world. And ‘they wanted to be able to love France while loving justice, too’. That awareness was strengthened and supported by the warmth, the kindness and the generosity shown them by the British people.
It was carried forward by their shared conviction that they had found the man who would lead each and every one of them on the paths of ‘honour, good sense and the higher interest of the homeland’ until the final victory. That spiritual force was greater than the material strength they lacked. It made up for their numerical weakness. It turned the ‘epic tramps’, as André Malraux called them, into conquerors. Whatever their political opinions, social involvements and religious views might have been before the war, in the end they all fought for the same idea of liberty, the same idea of humankind, the same idea of civilization.
This they would all realize later, when the first death camps were opened up before them and they met with the first of the living dead, the survivors of hell. These makeshift soldiers about whom nothing at the outset gave any hint that they could fight together for a common cause, and who rallied under General de Gaulle as the British people rallied under Churchill, were not content with having liberated France.
After the war, they fought for peace as fiercely as they had fought to liberate their country. They knew better than any what war could bring in the way of suffering, adversity and misfortune.
Winston Churchill, the old lion, the relentless foe of Hitler’s Germany, was to call, hardly had the guns fallen silent, for the creation of the United States of Europe.
And General de Gaulle would say to Konrad Adenauer: ‘Let us forget nothing of the past, but let us look together towards the future’.
In June 1940 the British government made a generous offer to France for our two nations to unite.
Today, it is by taking on together the special responsibility which falls to them in Europe by virtue of their history and their real strength, by taking on together the defence of freedom and democracy everywhere in the world, as they have always done, as they still do, that Great Britain and France will be true to those who died for them in the skies above London, in the Libyan desert, on the Normandy beaches and the plain of Alsace, when all that we hold most dear was threatened with annihilation.
In commemorating today the 70th anniversary of 18 June 1940, the British Nation and the French Nation remember that their unity has always been a condition of their survival.
All of the peoples of Europe must remember, too, that in June 1940 European civilization came close to perishing for ever, that the unity of Europe is a condition of the survival of its civilization and that, in consequence, everyone must do everything in their power to preserve it.
Only through that realization and that common determination does the firm ‘no’ to barbarism uttered in June 1940 by men and women of goodwill take on its full meaning.
This, in the end, is the finest tribute we can pay to them.
Long live France!
Long live Great Britain!
Long live Franco-British friendship!./.