The turmoil of World War II made heroes and household names of many in the military, most of whom were already in positions of military power and whose decisions and actions shaped their countries’ military policies and directions. Charles de Gaulle, however, held a position of relative obscurity within his military. That is, until the Germans invaded his homeland in May of 1940.
In his youth, de Gaulle was interested, above all else, in the fate of France, whether as a subject of history or as it affected his stake in public life. Born in Lille in 1890 and growing up in Paris, he was the son of a traditionalist father and a mother who, in his memoirs, de Gaulle described as having ‘uncompromising passion for her country, equal to her religious piety.’ He joined the army in 1909 and, as then required, served in the ranks for one year. In 1910 he entered the military academy at Saint-Cyr. His first assignment to the 33rd Infantry Regiment brought him in contact with a Colonel Henri Pétain. Pétain would later rise to the rank of marshal of the army and become the savior of France at Verdun during World War I. De Gaulle credited Pétain with teaching him the art of command. During World War I de Gaulle learned firsthand the harsh reality of combat. He was wounded three times and spent the last 32 months of the war as a prisoner.