A Certain June 18th

By Corbett, Anne; Johnson, Douglas | History Today, July 2000 | Go to article overview

A Certain June 18th


Corbett, Anne, Johnson, Douglas, History Today


AT THIS TIME OF YEAR the Paris district of Montparnasse, dominated by the huge 1970s tower which bestrides the railway station, has a special significance for the French. It evokes a national memory sixty years old this year. On the square in front of the old railway station, in the afternoon of August 25th, 1944, General de Gaulle was handed the document, signed by the German commander of Paris, agreeing to give up the German garrison. Paris was liberated. But the space in front of the new station is not called the Place du 25 aout 1944 as one might expect. It is the Place du 18 juin 1940.

Why should June 18th, 1940, be remembered? Every French child learns that this was the day that General de Gaulle broadcast on the BBC from London his appeal to French officers, soldiers, engineers and munition workers to resist the Petain government's surrender to the Nazis, and to join him on British soil to fight on for France. `... For France is not alone. She is not alone! She is not alone! She has an immense Empire behind her. She can unite with the British Empire, which commands the sea and is carrying on with the struggle. Like England, she can make unlimited use of the vast industries of the United States. This war is not confined to the unhappy territory of our country. This war has not been decided by the Battle of France. This war is a world-wide war.... Whatever happens the flame of French resistance must not and shall not go out.'

The June 18th speech is seen as a turning point in French national history. The `appel' of `Moi, General de Gaulle, a Londres' was the starting point for la France libre, Free France, a France which did not have to feel dishonour at the course of the war. It was the hope that the Liberation of Paris on August 25th, 1944, was to fulfil. But while the `appel' is seen as de Gaulle's first act in his construction as a statesman, French pupils are taught that this event could not have taken place without the support of Churchill and the British government. Allowing de Gaulle to speak as `France' on the BBC was critical for the development of Free France.

By the same token June 18th, 1940, is also an event in British history. But today's British are familiar with only one part of it. What they know is that the Fall of France on June 17th, 1940, left Churchill alone with the crushing task of defending the world's freedom against Hitler. This was the moment of Churchill's broadcast on `their finest hour.'

But do they know that, when Britain stood alone, Churchill was desperate for the French contribution to the war effort, which included the French fleet and the resources of the French colonies in Africa, the Middle East and the Pacific and trading establishments in India? That he had spent much of June initially trying to rally the failing government of Paul Reynaud, with proposals that even included the idea of an Anglo-French Union, consisting of a single government and parliament, and a single citizenship?

Do they know that, as one of de Gaulle's recent French biographers puts it, `Churchill's predator's eye had recognised in General de Gaulle the man of destiny?' and made a daring decision with consequences which were to contribute to Hitler's defeat, and which were to lead de Gaulle to the presidency of a France that was once more a world player? …

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