BEHIND THE IMAGE: The Liberation of Paris, August 1944

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Crowds of jubilant Parisians greet the US 2nd Armoured Division as it passes through the Arc de Triomphe and along the Champs-Élysées. The American troops had been chosen to accompany the returning Charles de Gaulle – whose familiar figure is not seen here. He was several inches taller than any of his entourage, and made even taller by the characteristic kepi he wore atop his head.

De Gaulle strode down the centre of the grand route, hailed by banners that proclaimed, ‘Long live de Gaulle’ and ‘De Gaulle to power’ – but his journey to this moment of triumph had not been by any means inevitable, and a few hours later it may even have ended in tragedy.

The general had left the French capital in June 1940, desperate for the city to be defended as the Germans approached. But his colleagues in government, Pétain, Weygand, and Reynaud, declared an ‘open city’ and –perhaps in the misguided hope of preventing another slaughter 20 years after the last German conflict – argued for an armistice.

In exile in London, de Gaulle became (by both choice and accident) the symbol of French resistance and the voice of Free France. Having declared his opposition to his colleagues’ swift capitulation – and stripped of his rank by Vichy officials – his leadership was affirmed with a speech, broadcast by the BBC on 18 June 1940, that reignited resistance in occupied France.

De Gaulle’s eventual return to Paris in August 1944 was equally dramatic. Thousands lined the route – but with German snipers, Vichy supporters, and fifth columnists fighting to the last, his procession was targeted by machine-guns in the Place de la Concorde.

Later, as the general entered Notre-Dame as head of the provisional government, more shorts were heard. Reporting live, a BBC correspondent conveyed the drama:

the General is being presented to the people. He is being received… they have opened fire!… firing started all over the place… that was one of the most dramatic scenes I have ever seen. …General de Gaulle walked straight ahead into what appeared to me to be a hail of fire… but he went straight ahead without hesitation, his shoulders flung back, and walked right down the centre aisle, even while the bullets were pouring about him. It was the most extraordinary example of courage I have ever seen.

Later in the day, de Gaulle gave the historic declaration of the continuity of the Third Republic, but the jubilant city was again targeted by the Wehrmacht: that evening, several thousand Parisians were killed and injured in revenge.

This is an article from the April 2019 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.

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