In 1911 the provocative German action in sending a gunboat to Agadir, the Moroccan port to which France had claims, convinced Churchill that in any major Franco-German conflict Britain would have to be at France’s side. When transferred to the Admiralty in October 1911, he went to work with a conviction of the need to bring the navy to a pitch of instant readiness. His first task was the creation of a naval war staff. To help Britain’s lead over steadily mounting German naval power, Churchill successfully campaigned in the cabinet for the largest naval expenditure in British history. Despite his inherited Tory views on Ireland, he wholeheartedly embraced the Liberal policy of Home Rule, moving the second reading of the Irish Home Rule Bill of 1912 and campaigning for it in the teeth of Unionist opposition. Although, through his friendship with F.E. Smith (later 1st earl of Birkenhead) and Austen Chamberlain, he did much to arrange the compromise by which Ulster was to be excluded from the immediate effect of the bill, no member of the government was more bitterly abused—by Tories as a renegade and by extreme Home Rulers as a defector.

If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”

After he was stricken, the Times commented, “Life is clearly ebbing away, but how long it will be until the crossing of the bar it is impossible to say.” Not for the first time the Times was wrong about Churchill. It was possible to say how long it would be—Churchill had already said it. Colville told the queen’s private secretary, “He won’t die until the 24th.” Though Churchill seldom regained consciousness in the two weeks that followed, he survived to the predicted date. Churchill had survived his father by precisely three score and ten years—the full biblical lifetime—and had fulfilled many of his father’s ambitions as well as his own.

Almost a year has passed since I came down here at your Head Master's kind invitation in order to cheer myself and cheer the hearts of a few of my friends by singing some of our own songs. The ten months that have passed have seen very terrible catastrophic events in the world - ups and downs, misfortunes - but can anyone sitting here this afternoon, this October afternoon, not feel deeply thankful for what has happened in the time that has passed and for the very great improvement in the position of our country and of our home? Why, when I was here last time we were quite alone, desperately alone, and we had been so for five or six months. We were poorly armed. We are not so poorly armed today; but then we were very poorly armed. We had the unmeasured menace of the enemy and their air attack still beating upon us, and you yourselves had had experience of this attack; and I expect you are beginning to feel impatient that there has been this long lull with nothing particular turning up!
Late that night in his stateroom, Churchill surveyed a map of Europe, drawing a black line from the Baltic states to Trieste. By one report, it was then that Churchill added the phrase for which his speech would be known. When the train made its only stop for refueling, Churchill lifted his curtain and saw that they were in Springfield, Illinois, “the home of Lincoln.” Sentimentalists like to believe that the ghost of that other champion of freedom and master of the English language inspired him.
His rhetorical technique continued to develop over the years. His elaborate, Victorian style of oratory seemed increasingly out of touch and irrelevant and he began to adopt a more spontaneous speaking style. Here Churchill writes to his wife Clementine, who was away on a 4-month cruise, in one of his charming 'Chartwell Bulletins' portraying life at Chartwell in her absence: “At sixty, I ... now talk to the House of Commons with garrulous unpremeditated flow ... [W]hat a mystery public speaking is! It all consists in ... selecting three or four absolutely sound arguments and putting these in the most conversational manner possible. There is apparently nothing in the literary effect I have sought for forty years!”.Although he later reverted to his usual more formal ‘literary’ style – the use of rhythm, argument, repetition of words and phrases, using archaic words to conjure up nostalgic references to the past – he also interspersed this with intimate and conversational asides, a combination which was to serve him well in later years.
When Neville Chamberlain succeeded Baldwin, the gulf between the Cassandra-like Churchill and the Conservative leaders widened. Repeatedly the accuracy of Churchill’s information on Germany’s aggressive plans and progress was confirmed by events; repeatedly his warnings were ignored. Yet his handful of followers remained small; politically, Chamberlain felt secure in ignoring them. As German pressure mounted on Czechoslovakia, Churchill without success urged the government to effect a joint declaration of purpose by Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. When the Munich Agreement with Hitler was made in September 1938, sacrificing Czechoslovakia to the Nazis, Churchill laid bare its implications, insisting that it represented “a total and unmitigated defeat.” In March 1939 Churchill and his group pressed for a truly national coalition, and, at last, sentiment in the country, recognizing him as the nation’s spokesman, began to agitate for his return to office. As long as peace lasted, Chamberlain ignored all such persuasions.
In his paper, Churchill envisioned an opening battle in which the alliance of Britain, France, and Russia would confront an attack by the Central Powers of Germany and Austria. In such a situation, Churchill concluded, the decisive military operations would be between France and Germany. “The German army,” he said, “mobilizes 2,200,000 against 1,700,000 for the French.” Germany would attack through neutral Belgium, over the Meuse River, into northern France. “The balance of probability,” predicted Churchill, “is that by the twentieth day the French armies will have been driven from the line of the Meuse and would be falling back on Paris and the south.” He reasoned that the thrust of the German advance would then be weakened because of diminishing supplies and increasing casualties as it pressed southward.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941) altered, in Churchill’s eyes, the whole prospect of the war. He went at once to Washington, D.C., and, with Roosevelt, hammered out a set of Anglo-American accords: the pooling of both countries’ military and economic resources under combined boards and a combined chiefs of staff; the establishment of unity of command in all theatres of war; and agreement on the basic strategy that the defeat of Germany should have priority over the defeat of Japan. The grand alliance had now come into being. Churchill could claim to be its principal architect. Safeguarding it was the primary concern of his next three and a half years.

Churchill knew that mastering the art of speech-making and writing was very important in a political career; he also believed in his abilities as an orator, despite being relatively inexperienced. During the July 1899 Oldham by-election campaign, he writes to his mother Lady Randolph Churchill of his conviction that he would win the election: “My speech last night at the club produced great enthusiasm ... and there is no doubt that if anyone can win this seat I can”.In the event, although he did slightly better than his running-mate in the polls, he did not win, losing a previously held Conservative seat. He might have been defeated, but he was conscious that in this fight he had not been disgraced. According to the Manchester Courier, “he made a splendid impression on the constituency, but the time was too short”.


On May 13 Churchill faced the House of Commons for the first time as prime minister. He warned members of the hard road ahead—“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”—and committed himself and the nation to all-out war until victory was achieved. Behind this simplicity of aim lay an elaborate strategy to which he adhered with remarkable consistency throughout the war. Hitler’s Germany was the enemy; nothing should distract the entire British people from the task of effecting its defeat. Anyone who shared this goal, even a Communist, was an acceptable ally. The indispensable ally in this endeavour, whether formally at war or not, was the United States. The cultivation and maintenance of its support was a central principle of Churchill’s thought. Yet whether the United States became a belligerent partner or not, the war must be won without a repetition for Britain of the catastrophic bloodlettings of World War I; and Europe at the conflict’s end must be reestablished as a viable, self-determining entity, while the Commonwealth should remain as a continuing, if changing, expression of Britain’s world role. Provided these essentials were preserved, Churchill, for all his sense of history, was surprisingly willing to sacrifice any national shibboleths—of orthodox economics, of social convention, of military etiquette or tradition—on the altar of victory. Thus, within a couple of weeks of this crusading anti-Socialist’s assuming power, Parliament passed legislation placing all “persons, their services and their property at the disposal of the Crown”—granting the government in effect the most sweeping emergency powers in modern British history.
Rather, he gave it in the House of Commons, beginning at 3.40 pm and sitting down at 4.14. By contrast with some later occasions – notably his ‘finest hour’ speech of 18 June – he did not repeat it over the airwaves that evening. The thought simply does not seem to have occurred to him or to anyone else. Instead, a BBC announcer read sections of it during the nightly news. You have, of course, heard him delivering it, but he did not make that recording until 1949, when he was persuaded to do so for the benefit of posterity.
At the Board of Trade, Churchill emerged as a leader in the movement of Liberalism away from laissez-faire toward social reform. He completed the work begun by his predecessor, Lloyd George, on the bill imposing an eight-hour maximum day for miners. He himself was responsible for attacking the evils of “sweated” labour by setting up trade boards with power to fix minimum wages and for combating unemployment by instituting state-run labour exchanges.
Clementine Churchill, Baroness Spencer-Churchill (wife) Diana Churchill (daughter) Randolph Churchill (son) Sarah Churchill (daughter) Marigold Churchill (daughter) Mary Soames, Baroness Soames (daughter) Lord Randolph Churchill (father) Jennie Jerome, Lady Randolph Churchill (mother) Jack Churchill (brother) Descendants John Spencer-Churchill (grandfather) Frances Anne Spencer-Churchill (grandmother) Leonard Jerome (grandfather)
Lest the account which I have given of these large forces should raise the question: Why did they not take part in the great battle in France? I must make it clear that, apart from the divisions training and organizing at home, only twelve divisions were equipped to fight upon a scale which justified their being sent abroad. And this was fully up to the number which the French had been led to expect would be available in France at the ninth month of the war. The rest of our forces at home have a fighting value for home defense which will, of course, steadily increase every week that passes. Thus, the invasion of Great Britain would at this time require the transportation across the sea of hostile armies on a very large scale, and after they had been so transported they would have to be continually maintained with all the masses of munitions and supplies which are required for continuous battle--as continuous battle it will surely be.
The Japanese surprise attack on the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, brought America into the war. Churchill was with the President's special envoy, Averell Harriman, and the U.S. Ambassador to Britain, John Gilbert Winant, when he received the news over the telephone from President Roosevelt. Four days later, Germany declared war on the United States, making U.S. involvement in Europe inevitable. Related Objects
Furthermore, I do not dismiss the Gallup polls, although I offer some reasons for thinking that they may have exaggerated the extent of Churchill’s (nonetheless very high) popularity. My point about the inadequacy of ‘yes/no’ questions for ascertaining reactions to his speeches stands. High approval ratings can take account neither of those who supported Churchill politically but who were not that keen on his broadcasts, or of those who thought that the speeches were all very fine but had doubts about his leadership nonetheless. Matthews asks why those surveyed by MO and the Ministry of Information (MoI) should have been less influenced by social pressures than those interviewed by Gallup. To begin with, those who entrusted their diaries to the eyes of strangers clearly were, pretty much by definition, less inhibited than the ordinary run of people. Second, where MO and MoI used face-to-face interviews, it is quite possible that some respondents held back – in other words, there may have been more criticism than the reports reveal. Finally, though, these bodies had other sources of information besides interviews. MO observers attended public places and wrote down what they overheard. MoI too drew on a network of informants, as well as on questionnaires filled in by bodies ranging from W.H. Smith and Sons to the Brewers’ Society. Postal censorship and Special Branch reports were also used.(2) Matthews takes me for task for not quoting more widely from censorship summaries of soldiers’ letters. Obviously, if such documents existed, and if they analysed the political opinions of serving men, they would be a treasure trove of material. Yet, except for the report created in the special circumstances of the Greek crisis, I do not believe that they have been preserved, assuming them to have created in the first place. If I am wrong, and if Matthews knows where these documents are, he will be doing a great service to the profession if he reveals where they are to be found.
As well as rallying his audience at home, Churchill also appealed to the United States to enter the war against Nazi Germany: ‘And if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle until, in God’s good time, the new world, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old’.
Matthews is right to suggest that Churchill re-recorded the ‘Finest Hour’ speech in 1949.(3) He also makes a valuable point about the variant versions floating around, and about the lack of care that broadcasters have exercised over the years. The post-war history of the speeches is certainly a very interesting issue, and my reference to it, it is true, is buried in a footnote (p. 252, n.173). It is certainly a topic deserving of more extensive treatment, but examining it in the book would not have materially altered my findings about the speeches’ contemporary reception. This may, however, be a good moment to own up to a genuine error, which was kindly drawn to my attention by Allen Packwood, director of the Churchill Archives Centre. The book makes the clear suggestion that Churchill broadcast his famous 20 August 1940 speech which referred to ‘The Few’, having earlier given it in the House of Commons (pp. 69, 231). This is in spite of the fact that there is no evidence whatsoever that he did so. But having heard the recording of it he made later, I gave into the powerful sense that somehow he ‘must’ have delivered it on the radio at the time. This, I think, is strong testimony to the cognitive dissonance generated when familiar historical myth collides with historical fact, even when one is doing one’s utmost to be hard-headed.
78 rpm: HMV (JOX.39), Gramophone (C3204) [issued as part of Gramophone Album “The Progress of the War”, No. 348], BBC; 33 rpm: EMI/Odeon 1-2, Capitol, World Record Club ME-2121-2123, I Can Hear It Now ML 5066/KL 5066, Caedmon TC 2018, Decca 8, London XL.10; Tape: Hodder; CD: Sunday Express, Hodder, BBC Audiobooks, This England, EMI, ProArte, Argo 1118
The year 1953 was in many respects a gratifying one for Churchill. It brought the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, which drew out all his love of the historic and symbolic. He personally received two notable distinctions, the Order of the Garter and the Nobel Prize for Literature. However, his hopes for a revitalized “special relationship” with Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower during his tenure in the White House, beginning in 1953, were largely frustrated. A sudden stroke in June, which caused partial paralysis, obliged Churchill to cancel a planned Bermuda meeting at which he hoped to secure Eisenhower’s agreement to summit talks with the Russians. By October, Churchill had made a remarkable recovery and the meeting was held in December. But it did not yield results commensurate with Churchill’s hopes. The two leaders, for all their amity, were not the men they once were; their subordinates, John Foster Dulles and Anthony Eden, were antipathetic; and, above all, the role and status of each country had changed. In relation to the Far East in particular there was a persistent failure to see eye to eye. Though Churchill and Eden visited Washington, D.C., in June 1954 in hopes of securing U.S. acceptance of the Geneva Accords designed to bring an end to the war in Indochina, their success was limited. Over Egypt, however, Churchill’s conversion to an agreement permitting a phased withdrawal of British troops from the Suez base won Eisenhower’s endorsement and encouraged hopes, illusory as it subsequently appeared, of good Anglo-American cooperation in this area. In 1955, “arming to parley,” Churchill authorized the manufacture of a British hydrogen bomb while still striving for a summit conference. Age, however, robbed him of this last triumph. His powers were too visibly failing. His 80th birthday, on November 30, 1954, had been the occasion of a unique all-party ceremony of tribute and affection in Westminster Hall. But the tribute implied a pervasive assumption that he would soon retire. On April 5, 1955, his resignation took place, only a few weeks before his chosen successor, Sir Anthony Eden, announced plans for a four-power conference at Geneva.
"Winston Churchill managed to combine the most magnificent use of English — usually short words, Anglo-Saxon words, Shakespearean," says Andrew Roberts, author of a history of World War II called The Storm of War. "And also this incredibly powerful delivery. And he did it at a time when the world was in such peril from Nazism, that every word mattered."
Toye is surely right that Churchill did not command unanimous support during the war, a fact he demonstrates by lacing his book with contemporary reactions to the wartime speeches. Along with the published diaries of politicians and other officials, he has again turned to two other underutilized sources. Between May 1940 and December 1944, the Ministry of Information (MoI)’s Home Intelligence Division produced weekly reports on public reaction to, among other things, ‘ministerial broadcasts and pronouncements’ (p. 7). To that can be added the reports and, especially, the individual diaries collected by the sociological research organization, Mass-Observation (MO). Toye mines both of these rich seams of material to drive home the point that Churchill’s oratory failed to win over all of his listeners even when, as the Home Intelligence Division reported, his prestige was at ‘its highest level’. In a victory speech after El Alamein, Churchill famously told the nation ‘this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.’ His masterful phrasing was not enough, however, to impress the aunt of one MO diarist. After the broadcast, she turned to her niece and remarked: ‘He’s no speaker, is he?’ (pp. 148–50)
Churchill was, above all, a great writer. Words were his great strength. The peroration of this speech has justly become one of the most iconic passages of all Churchill’s speeches, clearly demonstrating his mastery of the English language: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bear ourselves that if the British Commonwealth and Empire lasts for a thousand years men will still say “This was their finest hour”.
If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”
The House of Commons has lifted our affairs above the mechanical sphere into the human sphere. It thrives on criticism, it is perfectly impervious to newspaper abuse or taunts from any quarter, and it is capable of digesting almost anything or almost any body of gentlemen, whatever be the views with which they arrive. There is no situation to which it cannot address itself with vigour and ingenuity. It is the citadel of British liberty; it is the foundation of our laws; its traditions and its privileges are as lively today it broke the arbitrary power of the Crown and substituted that Constitutional Monarchy under which we have enjoyed so many blessings.
To make note of the complexity of the origins and responses to this wonderful speech by no means implies criticism of Churchill. Rather, it prompts us to rethink the factors that contributed to his oratorical success. He did not merely provide uplifting soundbites; he presented a factual and reasoned case, provided the public with new information and, crucially, provided them with the context necessary to understand it. He was willing to run the risk of depressing his audience if this would serve the greater purpose of bringing them into contact with reality; he did not attempt to win easy popularity by providing false hope. He followed this formula throughout the war, not always with complete success in terms of audience response, but with the ultimate achievement of establishing his credibility as someone who would deliver the facts no matter how unpalatable they might be. This is a lesson which modern orators will do well to follow.

Ronald I. Cohen MBE is the author of the seminal Bibliography of the Writings of Sir Winston Churchill (London: Continuum, 2006), although as he states, recordings were not part of that work and here serve as a supplement. Mr. Cohen founded the Churchill Society of Ottawa in 2011. In 2012, he received the Farrow Award in recognition of his bibliography. In 2014, HM The Queen named him as a Member of the Order of the British Empire “for services to British history.ˮ
After he was stricken, the Times commented, “Life is clearly ebbing away, but how long it will be until the crossing of the bar it is impossible to say.” Not for the first time the Times was wrong about Churchill. It was possible to say how long it would be—Churchill had already said it. Colville told the queen’s private secretary, “He won’t die until the 24th.” Though Churchill seldom regained consciousness in the two weeks that followed, he survived to the predicted date. Churchill had survived his father by precisely three score and ten years—the full biblical lifetime—and had fulfilled many of his father’s ambitions as well as his own.
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