Charles de Gaulle- a life in song

This writeup describes "All Gall", a 1963 song about Charles de Gaulle by the mighty Flanders and Swann duo. They were old-fashioned music hall entertainers even by the standards of the day. Occasionally they dipped into current affairs to augment their staples of animal songs and tales of modern life.

I've quoted each verse of the song and followed it with some historical notes. The eight verses form a potted history of General de Gaulle's eventful life.

"All Gall" is clever title for a smart song. "Gall" is a play on "de Gaulle", and on the ancient race from the region of modern France, the Gauls. But "gall" is also the English word meaning "impudence; brazen assurance" or "cheek" and "spitefullness or bitterness". This is the common view of Charles de Gaulle on this side of La Manche. So in one word we tie up the man's nationality, name, and a possible aspect of his character. So, Flanders and Swann are preparing to have a little fun at the great man's expense.

All Gall

This old man, he played one,
He played knick-knack at Verdun.
Cognac, Armagnac, Burgundy and Beaune,
This old man came rolling home.

They launch into a song built on the structure of the old standard "This Old Man". Their chronology of de Gaulle starts with his role in the horrible World War I Battle of Verdun. Between February 1916 and December that year, at least 714,231 men were killed. France emerged victorious, but only after a grim battle of attrition in which they lost more men than their German foes; enough to reduce their birth rate so that they did not have enough fighting men next time Gerry came knocking in 1940.

The French army ran a rotation system, so that almost every solider spent time at the Verdun front line, and Charles de Gaulle was no exception. Despite having spent four years at France's elite military academy, he joined an ordinary infantry regiment in 1912. In March 1916, he was left for dead in the wreckage-tangled mire of the Verdun battlefield by his comrades, but eventually captured by the Germans. He distinguished himself from their other prisoners by making five escape attempts; but he spent the rest of the war in captivity, before "rolling home".

This old man, World War Two,
He told Churchill what to do,
Free French general, crosses of Lorraine,
He came rolling home again.

Flanders and Swann's narrative then cuts to World War II, which did not go so well for the French. They miss the inter-war years, when de Gaulle was a military instructor for the Polish Army during the Polish-Soviet war and won the "Virtuti Militari", their highest honour.

De Gaulle was responsible for one of France's few clear successes in the first phase of the Second World War and was promoted to the rank of brigadier general. He went on to work with Winston Churchill on a plan to unify France and the United Kingdom into a single country; but on the same day these talks concluded, France fell to Nazi Germany. De Gaulle returned to London and set about building the Free French Forces.

He and Churchill did not see eye to eye during this time; both men were irascible. The symbol of the Free French was the Cross of Lorraine (similar to ‡); and one of Churchill's envoys said, "Of all the crosses I have had to bear during this war, the heaviest has been the Cross of Lorraine". De Gaulle himself said, "When I am right, I get angry. Churchill gets angry when he is wrong. So we were often angry at each other."

He "came rolling home again" just as Paris was being liberated, driving straight to the head of the column of advancing Allied troops as the German forces fell back. He made a noted speech on his arrival as a conquering hero. De Gaulle was then able to quickly establish Free French control of France. He declared his interim presidency as as continuation of the Third Republic, and resigned before the approval of a redrafted constitution and the formation of a Fourth Republic in October 1946.

This old man, he played trois,
Vive la France, la France c'est moi!
Gimcrack governments, call me if you please:
Colombey les deux Églises.

De Gaulle retired from politics in 1953 to the town of Colombey-les-deux-Églises. He had been careful to keep in touch with his old political allies, many of whom found themselves involved in the "Gimcrack governments" of French North-Africa. And the Fourth Republic was not going well. Under fire from separatists and ill-supported by the French government, in 1958 the French Army basically declared a coup in the colony of Algeria, and called for De Gaulle to take up the presidency of France once more. The army took Corsica, and planned to advance to the French mainland. Paratroop landings in Paris were discussed.

This old man, he played four,
Choose de Gaulle or civil war!
Come back president, govern by decree,
Referendum, oui, oui, oui!

The political establishment in Paris chose De Gaulle rather than civil war, and on the 9th of May 1958 made him the last Prime Minister of the Fourth Republic. He accepted the position, was given emergency powers (in effect governing by decree) and tasked with rewriting the constitution. He did so, based on ideas he first summarised back in 1946. The new constitution created a much stronger role for the president, and was approved in September by referendum. In the subsequent election, he was made the first president of the Fifth Republic- a role he had created to suit himself. The new constitution had a weaker role for parliament and a much stronger executive role for the directly-elected president. In France 3.0, the president was little more than a figurehead.

This old man, he played five,
France is safe: I'm still alive.
Plastique, Pompidou, sing the Marseillaise,
Algerie, n'est pas francaise!

The guerrilla war (fought with plastique) with Algerian separatists continued, and General De Gaulle felt they had no option but to grant independence. His country was under fire from the separatists, and his person was under fire from French-Algerian settlers. Their Organisation Armée Secrète group made several attempts on his life. De Gaulle's independence plan for the foundling nation was enacted in 1962, but it cost him his Prime Minister, who was replaced by Georges Pompidou. (Presumably, the handover of power to the Algerians involved a flag lowering ceremony, and the singing of Marseillaise?).

This old man, he played six,
France and England, they don't mix.
Eytie, Benelux, Germany, and Me:
that's my market recipe.

De Gaulle's vision for the rest of Europe was instrumental in the development of the European Economic Community, which was eventually to become the European Union. He saw a strong, integrated Europe as a countervailing power to match or exceed the Soviet Union and the USA.

In his view, Britain's enthusiasm for NATO, the Commonwealth and the USA made it a poor candidate for EEC membership. In November 1963, he vetoed the UK's application for membership, to general disgust in that country. Flanders and Swann's song was recorded in October of that year, but they could see which way the wind was blowing. Britain eventually joined the EEC in 1973, after suffering the indignity of another De Gaulle veto in 1967. The song says de Gaulle "played six" because there were six EEC members, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg (the Benelux nations) and France, Italy and West Germany.

This old man, sept et huit,
NATO give me back my fleet!
Mwah∗MwahAdenauer ratified in Bonn.
One old man goes on and on.

De Gaulle saw Britain and America as dominating NATO. In 1958, at the dawning of the Fifth Republic, he wrote to Eisenhower and Harold Macmillan, demanding that France, the US and the UK assumed an open and equal joint leadership of the organisation as a Tripartite Directorate. This proposal was not accepted by NATO, and France withdrew its Mediterranean fleet from NATO command in March 1959. The Atlantic and Channel fleets soon followed. They took steps to obtain independent nuclear weapons (Tom Lehrer also had something to sing about this), and required all US nukes to be withdrawn from French soil. All this while NATO had a real enemy and a key strategic importance for the US and western Europe. In 1966, all French troops were withdrawn from NATO command, and all NATO forces (including the NATO HQ) withdrew from France; they did not fully rejoin until 1993.

Instead, France sought a bilateral arrangement with West Germany. In 1962 Chancellor Adenauer and De Gaulle signed the Elysee Treaty, pledging co-operation on foreign affairs, and regular meetings on defence and education. The Bonn government ratified it in 1963.

This old man, nine and ten,
He'll play knick till God knows when,
Cognac, Armagnac, Burgundy and Beaune,
This old man thinks he's Saint Joan.

De Gaulle was president of the Fifth Republic from its foundation for ten years, finally stepping down in April 1969. His legacy is huge - France's special relationship with Germany, mild hostility to the USA, key role in Europe and its constitution live on. But the man who sired them died in 1970 at his beloved Colombey-Les-Deux-Églises.

The song "All Gall" is the 1963 copyright of M. Flanders and D. Swann, after the traditional public domain song "This Old Man". It has 183 words in it, and my interposed narrative has over 500 words by itself. CST Approved


  • Webster 1913: Gall
  • Recording of Flanders and Swann's 1963 performance at the "At the Drop of Another Hat" revue.
  • Chambers Pocket Dicitonary 1997, which is 2 inches thick and 8 × 4 inches.
  • 1967: De Gaulle 'non' to Britain - again,
  • - Verdun, de Gaulle
  • NATO,
  • Elysée Treaty,