Book Review – Free France’s Lion: The Life of Philippe Leclerc, De Gaulle’s Greatest General

William Mortimer Moore, Free France’s Lion: The Life of Philippe Leclerc, De Gaulle’s Greatest General. Newbury: Casemate Publishers, 2011. 508 pp. Maps. Notes. Bibliography.

This book begins in medias res with the death of Leclerc in a plane crash in North Africa, before following a more conventional biographical format, moving through Leclerc’s life from birth. It is probably fair to describe the book as a military biography; the majority of the material fits in the span 1940-45, and post-war service in Vietnam and pre- and post-war service in North Africa also get significant attention. Leclerc’s early life is covered succinctly, but Moore does explore the basis of his subject’s political and religious convictions, which are central to Leclerc’s life.

Moore takes trouble to examine Leclerc’s reasons for escaping from occupied France, and German captivity, to become une Gaulliste de la premiere heure. Most early Gaullists were supposedly men with nothing to lose; Leclerc left behind his wife and six children, as well as his aging parents. Many other Frenchmen, especially in 1940, felt that the war was over, and that patriotism or pragmatism required them to follow Petain’s lead. It is in picking apart Leclerc’s motivations in the late summer of 1940 that Moore succeeds in explaining the drive which sustained Leclerc for the next five years of war, and the difficulty that Leclerc had in accepting and working with men who joined the Free French only later, when the pendulum of military fortune had begun to swing heavily to the Allies. Leclerc’s right-wing political beliefs, his aristocratic background, and his strong Catholicism, which in other people could and did produce initial strong adherence to Petain’s Vichy regime, are recognized as being central to his motivations, but Moore emphasizes that Leclerc was a patriot above all, and felt himself unable to pursue any course of action that did not lead to the restoration of France. It is a testament to the author’s writing that this deeply religious, very politically conservative, and uncompromisingly patriotic figure is portrayed evenly and on his own terms. As a result, Leclerc comes across sympathetically when a different presentation could have made him appear more like a heroic statue than a man.

Perhaps the greatest strength of Moore’s work is that he succeeds in presenting his subject as a human being. With a man like Leclerc, incredibly patriotic, committed to an exacting ideal of duty, who became one of the saviors of his nation and its pride, it would be easy to descend into hagiography. Nevertheless, Moore has a keen eye for little day-to-day anecdotes which do much to bring his subject to life. Losing his way on an exercise, Leclerc got himself and his horse stuck in an area surrounded by barbed wire, and told his men that when someone has done something ‘bloody stupid’ it is best to say so! After the war, he protested when he found his wife scrubbing a bath. Therese, who had cared for the children and managed the family property through five years of separation, replied that she could scrub baths even if she were wearing a pearl necklace. Leclerc took the hint and bought her a necklace. A savior of France he may have been, but he was still a human being, and Moore’s selection of simple scenes does much to bring out the humanity of Leclerc.

There is a lot of the early history of the Free French movement—given Leclerc’s key role, it could hardly be otherwise—which adds a second dimension to the book. The actions that secured French African colonies for the Free French involved a few ships, and sometimes no more than a handful of men, but it was a start, and by early 1941 Leclerc’s small collection of troops was launching raids on Italian positions in Libya, sometimes operating in conjunction with the Long Range Desert Group. The events in this section of the book are likely to be entirely new to anyone who hasn’t made extensive study of the Free French or the raiding war in the desert, as neither subject appears often in most histories of the war. In general histories, the Free French often appear, apparently for the first time, at Bir Hacheim, and then re-appear two years later to march into Paris. An Anglophone account that follows Free French fortunes from start to finish through one man’s eyes is a useful corrective to the scant coverage usually given in wider histories.

Moore assumes that the reader will have no more than a basic idea of twentieth century events—when the World Wars took place, who was on which side, and the barest outlines of the major campaigns. This makes the book easily accessible, but does necessitate stepping back from Leclerc’s life to explain the significance of things. This could have been cumbersome, but the background provided in the course of the book, on subjects like the French demographic worries of the inter-war years, is succinct and ably covers the required ground without losing the pace of the narrative. The writing is good and the book is well-provided with maps of all the theatres of war.

One downside of writing a biography of a less well-known figure is the restriction that Moore seems to have felt in addressing contentious or controversial topics. He mentions that Leclerc, having liberated Strasbourg, threatened to shoot German prisoners in response to sniper attacks and apparent use of civilian artillery spotters in the city. This would seem to be an issue worth exploring in some detail, especially given that the German reply, condemning this threat as ‘contrary to international law’ is quoted at length, but only two paragraphs are devoted to the subject. Given that Leclerc has not been the subject of many other biographers, perhaps Moore felt it enough to note the incident and the German and Allied command’s responses and then move on, when a biographer handling a similar incident in the life of Montgomery, say, could expect his audience to already be familiar with the event and the debate about it, and could thus more easily devote space to discussion of it. Given the careful exploration of Leclerc’s thoughts at other critical moments, which does so much to illuminate his character, the failure to do the same here seems a missed opportunity.

Overall, this is an excellent and enjoyable work, well worth a read for anyone with an interest in broadening his or her knowledge of the Second World War or the life of a very interesting and engaging man.

By Andrew Duncan, PhD Candidate, Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham

You can download a copy of the review here.

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