26 August 1944: On this day in 1944, French General Charles de Gaulle enters Paris, which had formally been liberated the day before. As he entered the Place de l’Hotel, French collaborationists took a few sniper shots at him. “There are many moments that go beyond each of our poor little lives,” he was quoted at the time. “Paris outraged! Paris broken! Paris martyrized! But Paris liberated!”
For de Gaulle, the liberation of Paris was the end of a long history of fighting Germans. He sustained multiple injuries fighting at Verdun in World War I. He escaped German POW camps five times, only to be recaptured each time. (At 6 feet, 4 inches tall, it was hard for de Gaulle to be inconspicuous.)
At the beginning of World War II, de Gaulle was commander of a tank brigade. He was admired as a courageous leader and made a brigadier general in May 1940. After the German invasion of France, he became undersecretary of state for defense and war in the Reynaud government, but when Reynaud resigned, and Field Marshal Philippe Petain stepped in, a virtual puppet of the German occupiers, de Gaulle left for England. On June 18, de Gaulle took to the radio airwaves to make an appeal to his fellow French not to accept the armistice being sought by Petain, but to continue fighting under his command. Ten days later, Britain formally acknowledged de Gaulle as the leader of the “Free French Forces,” which was at first little more than those French troops stationed in England, volunteers from Frenchmen already living in England, and units of the French navy.
De Gaulle would prove an adept wartime politician, finally winning recognition and respect from the Allies and his fellow countrymen. He returned to Paris from Algiers, where he had moved the headquarters of the Free French Forces and formed a “shadow government” in September 1943. On the eve of the Normandy invasion, de Gaulle demanded that his government be regarded as the “official” government of all liberated areas of France. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, commander of the D-Day invasion, agreed to “not recognize” any government entity other than de Gaulle’s. De Gaulle went on to head two provisional governments before resigning. In 1970, he died suddenly of an aneurysmal rupture at the age of 79.