Charles de Gaulle, the writer

The writings of Charles de Gaulle were virtually unknown to the public until 1954. Only a handful of readers were aware of his four major pre-war works - La Discorde chez l'ennemi, Le Fil de l'Epée (translated into English under the title The Edge of the Sword), Vers l'Armée de Métier (The Army of the Future), La France et son Armée (France and her Army) - and his twenty or so articles. His speeches were never collected for publication, and so have failed to survive as written works. The first edition of Discours et Messages, published in 1946, attracted little attention. It was not until publication of the first volume of Mémoires de Guerre (War Memoirs) in 1954 that the author's talent was recognised by the literary world. Sadly, his Mémoires d'Espoir (Memoirs of Hope) were to remain unfinished.

Charles de Gaulle first started writing as an adolescent and produced a number of works in the period between the two wars. He gradually shaped and developed his skills as an author to bring them to their full expression, although he continued to doubt his own abilities right up the very end of his writing career.

Writing was an act of particular importance for Charles de Gaulle. Whenever he felt something strongly, he translated those feelings into writing. He would often say that the things that really mattered were dealt with in writing, and he repeatedly said that only his written word was binding. During his time as a prisoner of war, his writing and the lectures he prepared and delivered offered an intellectual escape from captivity. When his first article on the Vistula campaign appeared in 1922, to be followed by La Discorde chez l'ennemi in 1924, he soon began to be considered as a soldier-author. This is perhaps one reason why he was attached to Marshal Pétain's staff, as a soldier with a gift for writing. Indeed, some kind of literary row – the forerunner of later confrontations - blew up between de Gaulle and the Marshal, who had thoughts of publishing a history of the soldier under his own name.

Even as President, General de Gaulle meticulously corrected every text submitted to him. Sometimes he would have a document rewritten two or three times to arrive at a version that met his exacting standards. He detested the imprecise, deplored the slapdash. No error of syntax, vocabulary or spelling escaped his eagle eye. His punctuation obeyed strict rules of his own: punctuation, he believed, allowed the sentence to breathe, and commas were "the younger sisters to brackets".

The care with which he read any books sent to him and wrote letters to their authors was well known. Equally well known was his special interest in the Académie Française, which was under his protection as President. He received an award from the Académie Française in 1940 (the Maximin Guérin prize) but rejected a subsequent proposal by Georges Duhamel that he should be made a member, on the grounds that when he became head of government, he also became the Académie's protector.  He relished what he referred to in his memoirs as "his perpetual labour", i.e. the writing of speeches and addresses of every kind: through this struggle with words, the battle of writing, de Gaulle succeeded in making his mark on history and dominating events. In all his daily business, thinking and writing were inseparable and setting his ideas out on paper was often the prelude to action. Whenever he wished to pin down a thought in the course of a discussion, he would note it down and it would later appear as a memo or an instruction. He attached great importance to writing letters and proved to be an excellent correspondent, rather in the style of the 17th century. When at last he was freed of his responsibilities, his first thought was to turn to the blank page, to analyse the past and to foretell the future. His work as a writer was an integral part of how he perceived his mission, and the position he occupied or had formerly occupied. One might wonder whether de Gaulle was not first and foremost a writer, and whether he would have preferred to go down in history as a great chronicler of events. In any case, he is the last author of memoirs of state to have recorded his own acts. To find similar examples of such a twofold or even threefold role as politician, soldier and author, we would need to look back to Caesar or, to a lesser degree, Guizot. Neither Richelieu, Louis XIV nor Napoleon wrote their memoirs unaided; Raymond Poincaré and Churchill placed little emphasis on literary authorship, while Retz and Chateaubriand played no central part in the events they relate. As Pliny wrote, "It is a twofold gift from the Gods both to play a part in history and to have the power to write about it with skill" – and with objectivity.