DE GAULLE, General Charles (1890–1970)
Plaque erected in 1984 by Greater London Council at 4 Carlton Gardens, St James’s, London, SW1Y 5AA, City of Westminster
Armed Forces, Philanthropy and Reform
GENERAL CHARLES DE GAULLE President of the French National Committee set up the Headquarters of the Free French Forces here in 1940
During the Second World War, General Charles de Gaulle led France’s government-in-exile, the French National Committee, and set up the headquarters of the Free French Forces at 4 Carlton Gardens in St James’s in late July 1940. Later he was the founding force behind the Fifth Republic and served as the President of France for ten years.
Born in Lille, de Gaulle pursued a military career, and was promoted brigadier-general not long after the outbreak of the Second World War. He served briefly as Under-Secretary of State for War, but rebelled against the government led by Marshal Pétain – which sought a truce with Nazi Germany – and fled to London.
On 18 June 1940, the day after his arrival, de Gaulle used the BBC radio service – with the support of Winston Churchill – to deliver his famous address in which he encouraged his countrymen to continue to fight occupation. He concluded the broadcast with the words: ‘Whatever happens the flame of French resistance must not and shall not be extinguished.’
Sentenced to death in absentia, de Gaulle set about organising the so-called Free French Forces, which by the end of 1944 numbered one million individuals. Following liberation, he became head of the French Provisional Government, and in 1958 he became the first President under France’s new Fifth Republic, a post he held until 1969.
Some of de Gaulle’s actions were controversial, such as his withdrawal of France from full NATO membership in 1966 and his support for separatists in the French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec. His grant of independence to Algeria in 1962 has been cited as evidence that he was no reactionary imperialist. But more recently it has been alleged that his failure to offer refuge to ethnic Algerians who fought to remain French effectively condemned many to death.
There is no doubt of de Gaulle’s vast influence in shaping modern France, and modern Europe too. Twice he vetoed British entry into the European Economic Community – the forerunner to the European Union. Some have linked this to the condescension shown to him at times during his London-based exile. He was not, for example, involved in the D-Day landing plans.
Initially, it was intended that the plaque be placed on 3 Carlton Gardens, a building dating from around 1828 and which housed de Gaulle’s private office, where he slept on occasion. However, at the suggestion of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, it was placed on the neighbouring number 4, which housed most of the Free French departments.
The forces were associated with this building until mid-1944, though their headquarters was moved to Algiers in 1943. Under the selection criteria, de Gaulle was not eligible for a blue plaque when the proposal was made in 1983, because he had died only 13 years earlier. However, it was deemed that because the plaque would commemorate the wider associations of the site as much as the individual, an exception could be made.
It was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother, in the presence of the French Ambassador and veterans of the Free French Forces on 5 June 1984, just hours before the 40th anniversary of the D-Day landings.
The blue plaque rests next to the rectangular tablet of black marble set up by the Free French of London to record de Gaulle’s rallying call of 18 June 1940. This, in turn, sits alongside the blue plaque to Lord Palmerston – ironically, the Prime Minister who is widely remembered for a costly set of coastal defences built some 80 years earlier to repel a phantom French invasion. A statue of de Gaulle also stands nearby.