Charles De Gaulle - Early Life

Early Life

De Gaulle was born in the industrial region of Lille in French Flanders, the third of five children of Henri de Gaulle, a professor of history and literature at a Jesuit college, who eventually founded his own school. He was raised in a family of devout Roman Catholics who were patriotic and traditionalist, but also quite progressive.

His father came from a long line of parliamentary gentry from Normandy and Burgundy, while his mother, Jeanne Maillot, descended from a family of wealthy entrepreneurs from Lille. His mother's family was of part Irish (MacCartan), Scottish (Fleming) and German (Kolb) ancestry. According to Henri, the paternal family's true origin was never determined, but could have been Celtic. He thought that the name could be derived from the word gaule—a long pole which was used in the Middle Ages to beat fruits from the trees. Another source has the name deriving from Galle, meaning "oak" in the Gaulish language, and the sacred tree of the druids.

The oldest recorded ancestor of de Gaulle could well be that of a Richard de Gaulle, squire of King Philippe Auguste, who endowed the de Gaulle with a fiefdom in Elbeuf-en-Bray in Normandy in 1210.

De Gaulle's father, Henri, encouraged historical and philosophical debate between his children at mealtimes, and through his encouragement, Charles grew familiar with French history from an early age. Struck by his mother’s tale of how she cried as a child when she heard of the French capitulation to the Germans at Sedan in 1870, he developed a keen interest in military strategy and endlessly questioned his father about the other failures of the brief war at Vionville and Mars-la-Tour, and though a naturally shy person his entire life, often organised other children to re-enact ancient French battles.

The wider de Gaulle family were also very literary and academic, and he was raised on tales of the flight of the Scottish Stuarts into France, to whom he was related on his mother's side. He was also impressed by his uncle, also called Charles de Gaulle, who was a historian and passionate Celticist who wrote books and pamphlets advocating the union of the Welsh, Scots, Irish and Bretons into one people. His grandfather Julien-Philippe was also a historian and his grandmother Josephine-Marie wrote poems which impassioned his Christian faith.

When he was eight years old, the young Charles suffered what he regarded as the most traumatic event of his childhood; the French humiliation at being forced to withdraw its expeditionary force from the upper Nile region to prevent the Fashoda Incident developing into outright war with Britain. This marked the beginning of his lifelong mistrust of Great Britain.

Always a voracious reader, he particularly loved to read his father’s books by such writers as Henri Bergson, Charles Péguy, and Maurice Barrès. In addition to the German philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche, Immanuel Kant and Johann Goethe, the works of the ancient Greeks (especially Plato) and the prose of the romanticist poet François-René de Chateaubriand. By the time he was ten, he was reading medieval history, such as the Froissart’s Chronicles of the Hundred Years War. He began his own writing in his early teens, and later his family paid for one composition, a one-act play in verse about a traveller, to be privately published.

When he was 11, the family moved to Paris, where he loved to climb the tower at Notre Dame de Paris to look out over the city, and also visit the Catholic Church of Saint-Sulpice with his parents to listen to the world famous organ music.

De Gaulle was educated in Paris at the College Stanislas and also briefly in Belgium where he continued to display his interest in reading and studying history, and shared the great pride many of his countrymen felt in their nation’s achievements. France made a significant contribution to European culture with its Impressionist painters, the sculpture of Rodin, writers such as Émile Zola and Marcel Proust and the music of Claude Debussy, and helped lead the way with technological advances such as with the construction of the Suez Canal and the Eiffel Tower and in recent developments in aviation, the cinema and the motor car. As he grew older, he also developed a profound belief in his destiny to achieve great things, and, eager to avenge the French defeat of 1870, decided upon a military career as being the best way to make a name for himself.

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