Located in Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, the small village in Champagne where Charles de Gaulle lived for so many years and where he is buried, this memorial to him surprises and intrigues with its innovative approach and impressive multi-media effects. The Memorial was opened in 2008 by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, emphasising the past turbulent relations and current close ties between the two great European powers.
Here, in a series of spectacular spaces, the story of Charles de Gaulle and his time unfolds. The story is built around his life, so as you walk through the history of France and Europe in the mid-20th century, you see it in a very different and fascinating way.
What you see
The memorial is divided up chronologically, taking the major series of events in de Gaulle’s life and presenting them through films, multi-media, interactive interpretations, images and words. The only actual artefacts are two Citroen DS cars used by de Gaulle, one showing the bullet holes made during the near fatal attempt on his life in 1962.
1890 to 1946
The main exhibition is on two floors, so take the lift. You might not take it in consciously, but the shape of the lift and its entrance symbolizes the ‘V’ for victory salute and de Gaulle’s raised arms, setting up the link.
You step into the first spectacular space to the sounds of bird song and are faced with a huge screen depicting the land and forests of this small area of France known as ‘de Gaulle country’. "The land reflected him, just as he reflected the land", proclaimed Jacques Chaban-Delmas, Gaullist politician, Mayor of Bordeaux and Prime Minister under Georges Pompidou. You’re in the country around Colombey-Les-Deux-Eglises, the small village which was so close to de Gaulle's heart. This is where the story of Charles Andre Joseph Marie de Gaulle, born in 1890, starts.
Up here you see his early life, just a small boy playing with his toy soldiers. Then it's on to his service in World War I, his rise in the military and his modern ideas about warfare, including his championing of mobile armoured divisions.
There’s a domestic section involving his marriage to a young girl from Calais, Yvonne Vendroux in 1921, their young family and their move to La Boisserie, his beloved home in Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises. One reason for the move was to give his third daughter, Anne, who suffered from Downs Symdome, a quiet upbringing. Then the sequence plunges you into the 1930s through to June 1940 when Germany invaded France. The war is seen through de Gaulle’s perspective, covering 1940 to 1942, 1942 to 1944 and 1944 to 1946.
You feel the anguish of the French, the terrible hardships of an occupied country and the fierce fighting of the Free French which de Gaulle led. You also get something of the conflicts between de Gaulle and the Allies, particularly Winston Churchill who once described him pithily as a "wrong-headed, ambitious and detestable Anglo-phobe". The two great war leaders never got on.
1946 to 1970
You move downstairs for the next few years, past a huge picture window that takes in the Colombey landscape and in the distance you can see his house. The change of level is deliberate. De Gaulle stepped down from power in 1946, a great war hero but less suited, it seemed, to peacetime leadership, and formed his own political party, the RPF. From 1946 to 1958 he was in a political wilderness. He lived at La Boisserie where Anne died in 1948, aged just 20.
1958 was dramatic, with the tension building between the French government and the Algerians fighting for independence. De Gaulle was voted back as Prime Minister in May and then elected President of France, bringing political chaos to an end.
De Gaulle was the great moderniser of France. He granted independence to Algeria, a highly controversial move to the French, began the development of French atomic weapons and took a fiercely French-based foreign policy path often at odds with the U.S.A. and Britain. And, a very sore point for the Brits that rankled for decades, he vetoed Britain’s entry into the European Community twice. He resigned in 1969.
The Legacy of de Gaulle
The story carries on after de Gaulle’s death and brings home the extraordinary power he had and the reverence which the French hold him in. To many, he was France’s greatest leader. It’s certainly a persuasive memorial.
Although this is on the first floor and the first thing you see, if you have limited time leave this until last. It's a temporary exhibit (though it seems set to be permanent) called De Gaulle-Adenaueur: a Franco-German Reconciliation, about Franco-German relations from 1958 when on September 14th, the two giants of Europe met to symbolize and cement relations between the two countries. It's another timely reminder to the Anglo-Saxon people of our position in Europe.
Memorial Charles de Gaulle
Tel.: 00 33 (0)3 25 30 90 80
Admission: Adult 12 euros, child 6 to 12 years 8 euros, under 6 free, family of 2 adults and 2 children 35 euros.
Open May 2nd to September 30th daily 9:30am-7pm; October 1 to May 1st Wednesday to Monday 10am-5:30pm.
How to get there
The little village where de Gaulle spent so many contented years, is delightful and well worth seeing. You can visit de Gaulle's surprisingly modest house, set in the rolling countryside. Also walk to the local church where he and many of his family are buried. Like the tomb of Winston Churchill at Bladon, just outside Woodstock in Oxfordshire, it's a low key grave.
There are 2 good hotels in Colombey-Les-Deux-Eglises so it makes a good short break from Paris.
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