In the book, I do not criticise Churchill’s speeches, except for noting the obvious misfires, on which Matthews himself comments. Churchill was clearly an excellent speechmaker, and there was no-one else available who could conceivably have done the task better. He enjoyed enviably high levels of popularity, and that he made a strong positive contribution to British morale, both through his speeches and through other aspects of his leadership. (That is not the same thing, though, as saying that his speeches made the decisive difference between victory and defeat.) What I am arguing is that, nevertheless, the speeches generated considerably more criticism and controversy them than we are usually led to think, either by academic historians or by media representations. The fact of this dissent is still perfectly consistent with millions of people having been inspired and galvanised by the speeches in exactly the way that we have always been told. And by highlighting the criticisms, it is certainly not my intention to endorse them: many, undoubtedly, were misconceived. But if we do not acknowledge and understand them, then we can neither comprehend the political world in which Churchill was operating, nor appreciate the true nature of his oratorical success. (I reflect on the latter here: https://history.blog.gov.uk/2013/12/02/we-shall-fight-on-the-beaches-three-things-you-never-knew-about-churchills-most-famous-speech/.) It is clear to me from my email inbox and postbag that many people think that to draw attention to contemporary negative reactions is equivalent to denigrating the speeches themselves and indeed Churchill the man. Paradoxically, though, Churchill’s anti-appeasement speeches of the 1930s are valorised exactly because he ploughed on when so many people disagreed with him!
Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965) was a British politician, army officer, writer, and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1940 to 1945, famous for his rousing speeches to strengthen England at the lowest point of World War Two. He was prime minister again for the Conservative Party from 1951 to 1955. Overall, he is the most dominant figure in twentieth century British politics.
The final speech was wide-ranging. Churchill gave a detailed recap of the Battle of Dunkirk, praising every member of the Allied forces. But he did not dwell on the lives saved. He warned that the rescue “must not blind us to the fact that what has happened in France and Belgium is a colossal military disaster.” Invasion, he insisted, could be imminent. But he was ready to fight.
However, the German eruption swept like a sharp scythe around the right and rear of the Armies of the north. Eight or nine armored divisions, each of about four hundred armored vehicles of different kinds, but carefully assorted to be complementary and divisible into small self-contained units, cut off all communications between us and the main French Armies. It severed our own communications for food and ammunition, which ran first to Amiens and afterwards through Abbeville, and it shore its way up the coast to Boulogne and Calais, and almost to Dunkirk. Behind this armored and mechanized onslaught came a number of German divisions in lorries, and behind them again there plodded comparatively slowly the dull brute mass of the ordinary German Army and German people, always so ready to be led to the trampling down in other lands of liberties and comforts which they have never known in their own.
As War Prime Minister Churchill was tireless in his refusal to surrender Britain to Germany. His now famous speeches were an inspiration to British people to stand firm in the face of adversity. His strong relationship with Roosevelt led to an influx of American supplies to support the war effort. He also maintained an alliance with Stalin following Germany’s invasion of Russia in 1941.
In convalescence and political impotence Churchill turned to his brush and his pen. His painting never rose above the level of a gifted amateur’s, but his writing once again provided him with the financial base his independent brand of politics required. His autobiographical history of the war, The World Crisis, netted him the £20,000 with which he purchased Chartwell, henceforth his country home in Kent. When he returned to politics it was as a crusading anti-Socialist, but in 1923, when Stanley Baldwin was leading the Conservatives on a protectionist program, Churchill stood, at Leicester, as a Liberal free trader. He lost by approximately 4,000 votes. Asquith’s decision in 1924 to support a minority Labour government moved Churchill farther to the right. He stood as an “Independent Anti-Socialist” in a by-election in the Abbey division of Westminster. Although opposed by an official Conservative candidate—who defeated him by a hairbreadth of 43 votes—Churchill managed to avoid alienating the Conservative leadership and indeed won conspicuous support from many prominent figures in the party. In the general election in November 1924 he won an easy victory at Epping under the thinly disguised Conservative label of “Constitutionalist.” Baldwin, free of his flirtation with protectionism, offered Churchill, the “constitutionalist free trader,” the post of chancellor of the Exchequer. Surprised, Churchill accepted; dumbfounded, the country interpreted it as a move to absorb into the party all the right-of-centre elements of the former coalition.
The grave tone of Churchill’s speech made some impression and may have contributed in some measure to the rather pessimistic atmosphere of today. […] The contents of the speech were on the whole expected but some apprehension has been caused throughout the country on account of the PM’s reference to ‘fighting alone’. This has led to some slight increase in doubt about the intentions of our ally [France].
But the escalating situation in Europe was getting hard to ignore. Churchill rose to the Prime Ministry on May 10, 1940, coinciding with the end of the so-called “Phoney War,” a period stretching from September 1939, with the declaration of war against Germany, to the spring of 1940, a period with no major military land operations on the European continent. That stagnation ceased after the Nazis invaded Denmark and Norway in April. The Battle of Dunkirk -- which would incur heavy Allied casualties, prompt a Belgian surrender, and precipitate the fall of France -- commenced in May.
We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land, and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be.
On the first day of 1942, Churchill and Roosevelt, along with representatives of China and the Soviet Union, signed a declaration creating the United Nations. This wartime alliance eventually grew to include twenty-six countries and to form the nucleus for a lasting international organization. For the next year Churchill tried to forge good working relationships with his most important ally, the United States, as well as with the Soviet Union and the Free French led by General Charles de Gaulle. Churchill often differed with the Americans over questions of grand strategy and the future of the British Empire, but he was able to resolve many issues in the course of face-to-face meetings with Roosevelt in Washington and, later, in Casablanca, Morocco. Related Objects
English: Yalta summit in February 1945 with (from left to right) Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin. Also present are USSR Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (far left); Field Marshal Alan Brooke, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Andrew Cunningham, RN, Marshal of the RAF Sir Charles Portal, RAF, (standing behind Churchill); George Marshall, Army Chief of Staff and Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy, USN, (standing behind Roosevelt).
On June 18, 1940, immediately after the fall of France, Churchill rallied the British people once more. With his characteristic Shakespearean gusto, he declared, "Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty, 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.' "
There is certainly no evidence that any version of the speech, impersonator or not, was broadcast on June 4, 1940. Numerous records detail newsreaders, not Churchill reciting the speech. Regardless, the conspiracy theory spread rapidly. David Irving, a dubious historian and Holocaust denier, ran especially hard with the allegations, claiming Churchill hadn’t really given any of his speeches. A few legitimate historians championed the story as well, but it was thoroughly and repeatedly debunked.
The action verbs, the rhythm of the words – the beat – and the staccato lines all reinforce his message. George W. Bush was to consciously echo this speech in his own State of the Union address in the days following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11, 2001: “We will not waver, we will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail”.
4. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight on the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender. House of Commons, 4 June 1940
After the evacuation of Dunkirk was complete, Churchill had a very specific tone to strike in his speech on June 4. He also had to address a reluctant ally in the United States: Franklin Roosevelt. Much of the American public was still hesitant to get involved in the war, and Roosevelt was trying not to anger the isolationists as he mounted a re-election campaign. But Churchill nevertheless saw an opportunity to make an appeal.
While it is impossible to scrutinize every public utterance made by Churchill between 1939 and 1945, one of this book’s strengths is that it examines a number of speeches made during the war’s later years which, at the time, caused quite a stir even though they have long since receded from memory. On at least two occasions, for instance, Churchill caused major diplomatic rows with Britain’s wartime allies: first, in 1943, when he suggested that planning the post-war world should be left to ‘the three great victorious powers, the British Commonwealth of Nations, the United States, and Soviet Russia’ (p. 157). This triumvirate pointedly excluded China and sparked outrage not only among Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists but also among their American supporters, the so-called China Lobby. Much the same thing happened a year later, when Churchill told the House of Commons that his government would oppose any attempt to overthrow the Franco regime in Spain, this time arousing the displeasure of both Washington and Moscow. While the Spanish tempest was soon overshadowed by the D-Day landings in Normandy, it was not forgotten. During the 1945 general election, the Labour-supporting Daily Herald resurrected the incident with an article headlined, ‘A VOTE FOR CHURCHILL IS A VOTE FOR FRANCO’ (p. 182).
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”.
Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech at Fulton, Missouri, on March 5, 1946, ranks as one of the most famous and consequential speeches ever made by someone out of high office, comparable in its force to Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech of 1858 and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963. It is remembered as the announcement to the world of the beginning of the Cold War, although as Churchill knew the seeds had been germinating for some time. It crystallized the new situation facing the United States and Western democracies and also forecast how the new and unusual “cold” war should be conducted so as to avoid World War III and achieve a peaceful future.
The peroration – quoted below – even at a moment of great apparent danger to British national survival talks not only of national survival and national interest, but of noble causes (freedom, Christian civilisation, the rights of small nations) for which Britain was fighting and for which Churchill thought the United States should – and given time would – fight.[d] The War Illustrated published the speech with the title "'If the Empire lasts a thousand years men will say, this was their finest hour'".
In the rush to disarmament, “conditions were swiftly created by the victorious Allies which, in the name of peace, cleared the way for the renewal of war . . . . The crimes of the vanquished find their background and their explanation, though not, of course, their pardon, in the follies of the victors. Without these follies crime would have found neither temptation nor opportunity.”
Expecting that the German offensive would develop along much the same lines as it did in 1914, the lines of communication of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) did not run through the "short crossing" Channel ports – Boulogne, Calais, Dunkirk, etc. – but rather through Dieppe and Le Havre. On 13 May, the Wehrmacht's attack through the Ardennes had reached the Meuse River at Sedan and then crossed it, breaking through the defences of the French Army. By 20 May, Wehrmacht armoured divisions had reached the coast of the English Channel, splitting the BEF and the French First Army from the main French forces.
This points to a problem with Toye’s use of these two sources. More than once, while the Home Intelligence Division reported overall support for a Churchill address, Toye is quick to highlight negative comments about the same speech found in the MO files, even when those comments represented ‘minority feeling’ (p. 108). Moreover, these negative reactions often say less about Churchill’s oratory than they do about a war-weary, but also fickle public. According to one MO report, by mid-April 1942 what most Britons wanted was ‘more action and less talk, they are feeling that the present is no time for oratory’. Yet even as this same report noted complaints about the ‘flatness’ of Churchill’s recent speeches, and that some Britons were now calling him an ‘old windbag’, they nonetheless had come to expect him to deliver ‘great and moving speeches every time’ (p. 138).
8. Far be it from me to paint a rosy picture of the future. Indeed, I do not think we should be justified in using any but the most sombre tones and colours while our people, our Empire and indeed the whole English-speaking world are passing through a dark and deadly valley. But I should be failing in my duty if, on the other wise, I were not to convey the true impression, that a great nation is getting into its war stride. House of Commons, 22 January 1941
78 rpm: HMV (JOX.33), Gramophone (C3198) [issued as part of Gramophone Album The Progress of the War, No. 348], BBC, World Record Club EZ.1026, World Record Club ME-2121-2123; 33 rpm: EMI/Odeon 1-2, Capitol, Caedmon TC 2065, Decca 5, London XL.10, Caedmon TC 2018; Tape: BBC Radio Collection, Argo 1118; CD: BBC Audiobooks, This England, EMI, Enlightenment, SpeechWorks, ProArte
Well, your tour of Churchill’s England, and my little tour of Churchill’s world tonight, have no security classification. While in London, I know you will visit many of the places associated with his life. I hope you will also find time to go and see some of the charming houses in which he spent his youth. The people who live in these houses, the first of which is 48 Charles Street, the second being 29 St. James’s Place, are puzzled that they cannot get blue plaques appended to the walls. Unfortunately the blue plaque policy is to select a few and abandon many.
The shock of rejection by the nation fell heavily on Churchill. Indeed, though he accepted the role of leader of the parliamentary opposition, he was never wholly at home in it. The economic and social questions that dominated domestic politics were not at the centre of his interests. Nor, with his imperial vision, could he approve of what he called Labour’s policy of “scuttle,” as evidenced in the granting of independence to India and Burma (though he did not vote against the necessary legislation). But in foreign policy a broad identity of view persisted between the front benches, and this was the area to which Churchill primarily devoted himself. On March 5, 1946, at Fulton, Missouri, he enunciated, in the presence of President Truman, the two central themes of his postwar view of the world: the need for Britain and the United States to unite as guardians of the peace against the menace of Soviet Communism, which had brought down an “iron curtain” across the face of Europe; and with equal fervour he emerged as an advocate of European union. At Zürich, on September 19, 1946, he urged the formation of “a council of Europe” and himself attended the first assembly of the council at Strasbourg in 1949. Meanwhile, he busied himself with his great history, The Second World War, six volumes (1948–53).
The English-speaking world was stunned when Churchill was turned out of office in July 1945. What appeared to be staggering ingratitude by the British voters probably was better explained by the approaching peace. Winston Churchill was a warrior by instinct and by preference; his countrymen recognized that fact and considered Labour’s candidate, Clement Atlee, better suited for peacetime challenges. With Japan’s surrender in September, those concerns became even more immediate. He regained the prime ministership in 1951.
For five years I have talked to the House on these matters – not with very great success. I have watched this famous island descending incontinently, fecklessly, the stairway which leads to a dark gulf. It is a fine broad stairway at the beginning, but after a bit the carpet ends. A little farther on there are only flagstones, and a little farther on still these break beneath your feet. [ ... ] Look back upon the last five years – since, that is to say, Germany began to rearm in earnest and openly to seek revenge ... historians a thousand years hence will still be baffled by the mystery of our affairs. They will never understand how it was that a victorious nation, with everything in hand, suffered themselves to be brought low, and to cast away all that they had gained by measureless sacrifice and absolute victory – gone with the wind! Now the victors are the vanquished, and those who threw down their arms in the field and sued for an armistice are striding on to world mastery. That is the position – that is the terrible transformation that has taken place bit by bit.
For the purposes of his study, Toye also disregards public opinion surveys because most were ‘not directed to the reception of speeches per se but to approval/disapproval of Churchill as Prime Minister’ (p. 227). The fault, though, is with his premise, that Churchill’s oratory, and its impact, can be assessed in isolation. Toye admits as much when, at the end of his book, he quotes a December 1942 MO report. According to this assessment, Churchill’s personal popularity along with reaction to his speeches, rose or fell in ‘very close association with the general feelings of cheerfulness or depression about the war situation’ (p. 227). Which is rather stating the obvious.
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[e] last for a thousand years, men will still say, "This was their finest hour."
I return to the Army. In the long series of very fierce battles, now on this front, now on that, fighting on three fronts at once, battles fought by two or three divisions against an equal or somewhat larger number of the enemy, and fought fiercely on some of the old grounds that so many of us knew so well-in these battles our losses in men have exceeded 30,000 killed, wounded and missing. I take occasion to express the sympathy of the House to all who have suffered bereavement or who are still anxious. The President of the Board of Trade [Sir Andrew Duncan] is not here today. His son has been killed, and many in the House have felt the pangs of affliction in the sharpest form. But I will say this about the missing: We have had a large number of wounded come home safely to this country, but I would say about the missing that there may be very many reported missing who will come back home, some day, in one way or another. In the confusion of this fight it is inevitable that many have been left in positions where honor required no further resistance from them.
Descended from the Dukes of Marlborough, Churchill was primed for success despite his parental problems. He graduated from the Sandhurst military academy in 1895 and embarked upon a dizzying army career. He reported news from Cuba, served in India, and in 1898 he fought in the battle of Omdurman in Sudan, where he rode in one of the last great cavalry charges. The following year he was a newspaper correspondent in South Africa, covering the Boer War. Not yet twenty-five, he received a thousand dollars a month plus expenses—a staggering amount, but London’s Morning Post considered him worth it. He was audacious and innovative, and as a later biographer said, ‘‘Churchill used the English language as if he invented it.’’ He also provided drama: captured by the Boers, he completed a daring escape and returned to safety despite a bounty on his head.
It is said that immediately after giving the speech, Churchill muttered to a colleague, "And we’ll fight them with the butt ends of broken beer bottles because that's bloody well all we've got!" Nonetheless, Churchill impressed his listeners and the speech was immediately recognised to be historic. One of Churchill's secretaries noted in his diary "A magnificent oration, which obviously moved the House". A Conservative MP wrote in his diary "he was eloquent and oratorical and used magnificent English; several Labour members cried". A Labour MP, Josiah Wedgwood, 1st Baron Wedgwood, friend and admirer of Churchill since the Dardanelles campaign, wrote to him, "My dear Winston. That was worth 1,000 guns and the speeches of 1,000 years".
Some of us who were not born then only hear about these leaders. We marvel at their courage, determination, integrity and intelligence. Times have changed, but if we ever had Sir Winston Churchchill with us today, I am sure he would have been the leader the world had then. Not only Great Britan but the world should honor such a illustrious individual.