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De Gaulle Explained

April 2024
1min read

Long-established institutions tend to place themselves at the center of world history. This can charm or exasperate, according to your own involvement with the institution. Wartime memories of Oriel College, Oxford, are a case in point for me.

I was there for a year and a half, from the fall of 1940 to the spring of 1942, trying to read history while also preparing to be a soldier. In those crimped conditions it was hard to imagine what peacetime college life could be like. But I was gratified, indeed awed, to find myself a member of a foundation in company with the likes of Sir Walter Raleigh, Matthew Arnold, and Arnold’s poet friend Arthur Hugh Clough. I first heard of this last figure one night in the blacked-out porter’s lodge, where a little crowd had gathered around a wireless set to hear a broadcast by Winston Churchill. We were quietly attentive until the prime minister began to quote poetry. “Say not the shtruggle naught availeth. … ” A shy, elderly don shouted out, with extraordinary pride and glee: “Clough! Arthur Hugh Clough! Oriel man!”

At about the same time, General de Gaulle came to dinner in the college hall. All I now remember of that towering, cartoonlike presence was his uniform, his heroic nose, and the severity with which he responded to some undergraduate’s graceful little speech, in good French, with a few lapidary phrases in no doubt even better French. Long afterward an Oriel contemporary reminded me of the occasion. “That Oxford visit,” he remarked with calm certainty, “changed the subsequent course of the war.” How? I inquired. “Well, of course, it was hushed up. The thing is, somebody stole the general’s kepi—well, took it for a souvenir. It was terribly hard for him to find another. De Gaulle felt it was an insult. From that moment on he was anti-British, which also meant anti-American. Hence all the trouble the Allies had with him later on.”

I observed that the story did not do much credit to Oriel hospitality.

“Quite,” said my friend. “Of course, it couldn’t have been anyone from the college who stole the hat—probably some nearby outsider, from Merton or Christ Church. Still, it was historic, and it did happen in Oriel!”

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