The First Wolrd War
As a lieutenant of infantry, de Gaulle received his baptism of fire twelve days after war was declared in 1914, and shared the harsh life of the trenches with his men at the front in Champagne, in the Aisne sector and, above all, at Verdun. Three times wounded in action, he was finally captured in the Douaumont fort sector, with a thigh wound received from a German bayonet.
Baptism of fire and first wound 12 days after the outbreak of war
On 3 August 1914, the day war was declared on Germany, Lieutenant de Gaulle was in command of the 1st platoon of the 11th company of the 33rd Infantry Regiment stationed in Arras.
The regiment was committed as early as the night of 14 to 15 August to prevent the enemy crossing the Meuse in the Dinant sector. The 11th company was initially placed in the reserve but on 15 August received orders to counter-attack with fixed bayonets to push back German troops trying to cross the bridge at Dinant after the capture of the citadel and the evacuation of its defenders. De Gaulle led his platoon in the counter-attack, which was successful. At this point, his captain decided to cross the bridge with de Gaulle's platoon leading the way. Caught in a hail of machine-gun and artillery fire, the leading five men, including de Gaulle, were cut down by bullets and de Gaulle received a serious wound to the knee. This action by the 33rd Infantry Regiment enabled the 73rd Infantry Regiment to recapture the citadel of Dinant and the eastern bank of the Meuse from the Germans. It was not until night fell that de Gaulle was evacuated, first to Dinant, then to Arras and finally on to Paris where the bullet was removed. He was then sent to Lyons for convalescent care.
The front in Champagne – The Aisne sector
In October 1914 (shortly before his 24th birthday in November), Lieutenant de Gaulle rejoined the 33rd Infantry Regiment in its defensive position on the River Aisne. He was now in command of the 7th company, which alternated between the front line and the second line but was never far from the front line. Although he tried in his letters home to present a reassuring picture, the French and enemy lines in reality lay very close together, locked in a stalemate that allowed little scope for anything but localised action. Two months later, de Gaulle was appointed regimental adjutant.
The Mesnils les Hurlus sector
After a few days of rest at the rear, the 33rd Infantry Regiment moved on 18 December 1914 to the front line in Champagne, to the region of les Hurlus, north east of Châlons-sur-Marne. On 18 January 1915, Lieutenant de Gaulle was mentioned in despatches: "Carried out a series of reconnaissance missions in perilous circumstances and brought back vital information." A month later, on 10 February, he was promoted to brevet captain and later confirmed in that rank on 3 September 1915.
The sector held by the regiment was under severe pressure. Casualties were very heavy. On 19 February 1915, after four days of exhausting combat, his commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Boud'hors reported: "In four days I have lost 19 officers and around 650 men. It is very hard." Captain de Gaulle, whose duties as adjutant frequently took him into the front line, received a shrapnel wound to the ear on 6 March and a more serious bullet wound to the hand on 10 March, which led to his evacuation from the front.
Return to the Aisne
Complications arising from his wound prevented Captain de Gaulle from returning to his regiment, now in the region of Pontavert-Berry-au-Bac on the Aisne, until 13 June 1915. He then took command of the 10th company, but only until 30 August when his colonel once again appointed him adjutant. He returned to his command on 26 October 1915.
The 33rd Infantry Regiment was frequently in combat: in the period from 19 May 1915 to 13 February 1916, it spent seven months in the front line trenches with barely two months of rest.
At dawn on 26 February 1916, the regiment arrived by truck at the gates of Verdun by a road that would be known in a few months' time as the "voie sacrée", the Via Sacra, in honour of its vital role as a supply line to the beleaguered fortress.
The 33rd Infantry Regiment received orders for the night of 1 to 2 March to relieve the 110th Infantry Regiment forward of the village and the fort of Douaumont, both recently captured by the Germans in a surprise attack. Lieutenant-Colonel Boud'hors ordered Captain de Gaulle to reconnoitre the sector. In contrast to the officers of the 110th Infantry Regiment, de Gaulle considered the situation extremely dangerous. He believed the enemy was readying for an attack, and the regiment had no contact with the unit supposed to be deployed on its right. After making his report, Captain de Gaulle rejoined his company to move it into its assigned positions. After a night broken by gas-shell attacks, the positions came under intense bombardment all the next morning. Around 1 p.m., the enemy launched a frontal attack on the position held by the 10th company which repulsed the attack but was soon overrun by enemy soldiers who had outflanked the position to attack from the rear. Captain de Gaulle succeeded in organising several pockets of resistance. As he was trying to rejoin one of his platoons, with around a dozen of his men, he came face to face with the enemy. Half-stunned by the blast from a grenade, he received a bayonet thrust through the thigh and lost consciousness. At the end of that day's fighting, Captain de Gaulle was listed as missing. In reality, after summary dressing of his wound on the battlefield, he was transported to Germany to be interned at Osnabrück.