On June 4, 1940, Winston Churchill gave one of the most rousing and iconic addresses of World War II: his “We shall fight on the beaches” speech. Though history reveres this speech, it was actually quite depressing for the Brits — though it has been argued that the speech was not for them, but for the Americans who were still sitting on the sidelines, writes Smithsonian Magazine.
In any age and time a man of Churchill’s force and talents would have left his mark on events and society. A gifted journalist, a biographer and historian of classic proportions, an amateur painter of talent, an orator of rare power, a soldier of courage and distinction, Churchill, by any standards, was a man of rare versatility. But it was as a public figure that he excelled. His experience of office was second only to Gladstone’s, and his gifts as a parliamentarian hardly less, but it was as a wartime leader that he left his indelible imprint on the history of Britain and on the world. In this capacity, at the peak of his powers, he united in a harmonious whole his liberal convictions about social reform, his deep conservative devotion to the legacy of his nation’s history, his unshakable resistance to tyranny from the right or from the left, and his capacity to look beyond Britain to the larger Atlantic community and the ultimate unity of Europe. A romantic, he was also a realist, with an exceptional sensitivity to tactical considerations at the same time as he unswervingly adhered to his strategical objectives. A fervent patriot, he was also a citizen of the world. An indomitable fighter, he was a generous victor. Even in the transition from war to peace, a phase in which other leaders have often stumbled, he revealed, at an advanced age, a capacity to learn and to adjust that was in many respects superior to that of his younger colleagues.
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.’”
London: Winston S. Churchill: His Memoirs and His Speeches [discs numbered XL.1 to XL.12, with a side number reference from 1 to 24; each side also includes what appears to be a master Tape Reference running from ARL 6426 to ARL 6449. The London records differ from the Decca records in that London disc XL.1 includes side numbers 1 and 24, disc XL.2 includes side numbers 2 and 23, and so on; consequently, the speeches appearing on, say, WSC 3 do not correspond to those appearing on XL.3]
As a result, the German Blitzkrieg (lightning attack) caught the Allies off-guard. German Panzer tanks staged a surprise attack through the 'impassable' Ardennes Forest then turned northward and soon surrounded the bulk of the Allied armies in Belgium. The "Miracle at Dunkirk" occurred next as 338,000 British and French soldiers were hurriedly evacuated from the coastline by Royal Navy ships and a flotilla of civilian boats of every shape and size.
Although Churchill laid down the burdens of office amid the plaudits of the nation and the world, he remained in the House of Commons (declining a peerage) to become “father of the house” and even, in 1959, to fight and win yet another election. He also published another major work, A History of the English- Speaking Peoples, four volumes (1956–58). But his health declined, and his public appearances became rare. On April 9, 1963, he was accorded the unique distinction of having an honorary U.S. citizenship conferred on him by an act of Congress. His death at his London home in January 1965 was followed by a state funeral at which almost the whole world paid tribute. He was buried in the family grave in Bladon churchyard, Oxfordshire.
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.
Once the decision had been made, Churchill was Overlord’s fierce advocate. He reveled in the tactics and gadgets that characterized the greatest amphibious operation yet attempted—he was especially taken with the Mulberry portable harbors. He also informed Eisenhower of his intention to observe the landings from a British cruiser. The supreme commander replied that Churchill was far too valuable to risk and prohibited it. Churchill calmly replied that as a British citizen he would sign on aboard one of His Majesty’s ships, whereupon Eisenhower’s headquarters contacted Buckingham Palace. King George thereupon called Churchill, declaring that if the prime minister went to Normandy, the monarch could do no less. Churchill relented.
A self-assurance redeemed from arrogance only by a kind of boyish charm made Churchill from the first a notable House of Commons figure, but a speech defect, which he never wholly lost, combined with a certain psychological inhibition to prevent him from immediately becoming a master of debate. He excelled in the set speech, on which he always spent enormous pains, rather than in the impromptu; Lord Balfour, the Conservative leader, said of him that he carried “heavy but not very mobile guns.” In matter as in style he modeled himself on his father, as his admirable biography, Lord Randolph Churchill (1906; revised edition 1952), makes evident, and from the first he wore his Toryism with a difference, advocating a fair, negotiated peace for the Boers and deploring military mismanagement and extravagance.
The Wehrmacht next moved against the cut-off Allied forces, moving along the seacoast with only small Allied forces to resist them. After the capitulation of Belgium on 28 May, a gap had also appeared on the eastern flank of the Allied forces, which had been forced to retreat into a small pocket around the seaport of Dunkirk. From this pocket the bulk of the BEF and a considerable number of French troops had been evacuated in Operation Dynamo, but these troops had left behind virtually all of their heavy equipment (transport, tanks, artillery and ammunition). The French First Army had most of its units pocketed around Lille. Those of its units evacuated from Dunkirk were relanded in France but saw no further action; they were still being reorganised in Brittany at the fall of France.
When this Liberal program necessitated high taxation, which in turn provoked the House of Lords to the revolutionary step of rejecting the budget of 1909, Churchill was Lloyd George’s closest ally in developing the provocative strategy designed to clip the wings of the upper chamber. Churchill became president of the Budget League, and his oratorical broadsides at the House of Lords were as lively and devastating as Lloyd George’s own. Indeed Churchill, as an alleged traitor to his class, earned the lion’s share of Tory animosity. His campaigning in the two general elections of 1910 and in the House of Commons during the passage of the Parliament Act of 1911, which curbed the House of Lords’ powers, won him wide popular acclaim. In the cabinet his reward was promotion to the office of home secretary. Here, despite substantial achievements in prison reform, he had to devote himself principally to coping with a sweeping wave of industrial unrest and violent strikes. Upon occasion his relish for dramatic action led him beyond the limits of his proper role as the guarantor of public order. For this he paid a heavy price in incurring the long-standing suspicion of organized labour.
His simple and frequently repeated advice can be boiled down to two words “Study history, study history.” He added, “In history lie all the secrets of statecraft.” It was a familiar lesson for those close to Churchill. He gave the same advice to his grandson, Winston S. Churchill II, when the boy was only eight years old. “Learn all you can about the past,” Churchill wrote to his grandson in 1948, when the younger Winston was away at boarding school, “for how else can anyone make a guess about what is going to happen in the future.”
Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us now. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. 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.'
This brings me, naturally, to the great question of invasion from the air, and of the impending struggle between the British and German Air Forces. It seems quite clear that no invasion on a scale beyond the capacity of our land forces to crush speedily is likely to take place from the air until our Air Force has been definitely overpowered. In the meantime, there may be raids by parachute troops and attempted descents of airborne soldiers. We should be able to give those gentry a warm reception both in the air and on the ground, if they reach it in any condition to continue the dispute. But the great question is: Can we break Hitler's air weapon? Now, of course, it is a very great pity that we have not got an Air Force at least equal to that of the most powerful enemy within striking distance of these shores. But we have a very powerful Air Force which has proved itself far superior in quality, both in men and in many types of machine, to what we have met so far in the numerous and fierce air battles which have been fought with the Germans. In France, where we were at a considerable disadvantage and lost many machines on the ground when they were standing round the aerodromes, we were accustomed to inflict in the air losses of as much as two and two-and-a-half to one. In the fighting over Dunkirk, which was a sort of no-man's-land, we undoubtedly beat the German Air Force, and gained the mastery of the local air, inflicting here a loss of three or four to one day after day. Anyone who looks at the photographs which were published a week or so ago of the re-embarkation, showing the masses of troops assembled on the beach and forming an ideal target for hours at a time, must realize that this re-embarkation would not have been possible unless the enemy had resigned all hope of recovering air superiority at that time and at that place.
Oddly enough, some people believe that they did hear it on the radio though. Nella Last, a British housewife who kept diaries during the war, wrote in 1947, “I remember that husky, rather stuttering voice acclaiming that we would ‘fight on the beaches, on the streets. I felt my head rise as if galvanised and a feeling that ‘I’ll be there — count on me; I’ll not fail you.'” Even a Dunkirk soldier thought he had heard the speech, writes Smithsonian. Some began to think they heard an impersonator deliver the words.
Despite the scorn of the army staff, in three years, it would all happen just as Churchill predicted. He gave the twentieth day of the German offensive as the day on which the French armies would be driven from the Meuse and forecasted that the German army’s advance would be stopped on the fortieth. This is exactly what happened, and on the forty-first day, Germany lost the Battle of the Marne, setting the stage for the awful stalemate of trench warfare for the next four years.
In protecting the alliance, the respect and affection between him and Roosevelt were of crucial importance. They alone enabled Churchill, in the face of relentless pressure from Stalin and ardent advocacy by the U.S. chiefs of staff, to secure the rejection of the “second front” in 1942, a project he regarded as premature and costly. In August 1942 Churchill himself flew to Moscow to advise Stalin of the decision and to bear the brunt of his displeasure. At home, too, he came under fire in 1942: first in January after the reverses in Malaya and the Far East and later in June when Tobruk in North Africa fell to the Germans, but on neither occasion did his critics muster serious support in Parliament. The year 1942 saw some reconstruction of the cabinet in a “leftward” direction, which was reflected in the adoption in 1943 of Lord Beveridge’s plan for comprehensive social insurance, endorsed by Churchill as a logical extension of the Liberal reforms of 1911.
Despite Churchill’s meticulous preparation for his speeches, he soon realized – following “a complete disaster” – that learning them by heart was not enough. In the spring of 1904, as he moved further and further away from his old Tory colleagues, his House of Commons experiences were tense and difficult. He became an increasingly isolated figure. On 22 April, making a speech in favour of improving trades union rights, he had been speaking for 45 minutes, without notes as usual, when he forgot his words. He struggled vainly for what he later called “the most embarrassing 3 minutes of my life”, trying to remember the rest of his speech, and then sat down in silence, distraught. Some believed him to be displaying early signs of the same mental decline from which his father Lord Randolph had suffered, and saw this as an appallingly public display of weakening mental faculties. His breakdown was met with jeers from some Tory members, but also with sympathy by others.
Turning once again, and this time more generally, to the question of invasion, I would observe that there has never been a period in all these long centuries of which we boast when an absolute guarantee against invasion, still less against serious raids, could have been given to our people. In the days of Napoleon, of which I was speaking just now, the same wind which would have carried his transports across the Channel might have driven away the blockading fleet. There was always the chance, and it is that chance which has excited and befooled the imaginations of many Continental tyrants. Many are the tales that are told. We are assured that novel methods will be adopted, and when we see the originality of malice, the ingenuity of aggression, which our enemy displays, we may certainly prepare ourselves for every kind of novel stratagem and every kind of brutal and treacherous manœuvre. I think that no idea is so outlandish that it should not be considered and viewed with a searching, but at the same time, I hope, with a steady eye. We must never forget the solid assurances of sea power and those which belong to air power if it can be locally exercised.
By repeating “we shall” ten times as a mantra, Sir Winston was employing a rhetorical device that originated with the classical Greek orators and continues to be used to the present day. In a prior Forbes post, I wrote about how Emma Gonzalez, a teenage survivor of the Florida high school shooting, rocketed to media fame with a speech using the same technique.
In the most famous passage of his speech, Churchill warned Britain about the possible collapse of France and that, consequently, she would stand alone against Germany and face an invasion. He left the House in no doubt what the resolution would be should that occur: '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 in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!'.
Churchill was writing to Cockran, a Democratic congressman from New York City, about the economic problem of the “trusts,” which was then front and center in American politics. As we shall see, Churchill had strong views about how governments would need to respond to social changes in the twentieth century—indeed, that question was the focus of his early ministerial career—but from his earliest days, even before he entered politics, he saw that the new scale of things in the modern world would be felt most powerfully in the area of warfare. His observations about the “terrible machinery of scientific war” in The River War led him to ask what would happen when two modern nations—not Britain and the Sudanese Dervishes—confronted each other with the modern weapons of war. It was a question no one else was asking.
Sir Winston’s oratorical skills were world famous, and he started developing them at an early age. When he was just 23, he wrote an unpublished paper called “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric,” in which he offered five “principal elements” to win over audiences. With all due respect to Sir Winston’s estimable writing skills, I’ve taken the liberty of extending his 1897 verbiage (bolded) into modern times:
Goodnight then: sleep to gather strength for the morning. For the morning will come. Brightly will it shine on the brave and true, kindly upon all who suffer for the cause, glorious upon the tombs of heroes. Thus will shine the dawn. Vive la France! Long live also the forward march of the common people in all the lands towards their just and true inheritance, and towards the broader and fuller age.
The emotions of the speaker and the listeners are alike aroused. This recommendation addresses a requirement as frequently unmet today as it was in Churchill’s 19th century day and even before that: to align the speaker’s goals with those of the audience. A speech or a presentation is not a broadcast or podcast. The essential scaffold of rhetoric is a two-way street. It’s not just about you, it’s all about them.
And what they heard were some of the greatest words spoken in history, words which even today as I read them, I am filled with resolve and determination to never give in to any of life’s difficulties. Churchill was in effect a poet in the guise of a politician. He used his ability to manipulate words into unforgettable speeches, thus instilling the listener with incredible fortitude. This particular speech transcends its political context and becomes a literary tour de force, which actually reads as if it were written in verse form:
In a sense, the whole of Churchill’s previous career had been a preparation for wartime leadership. An intense patriot; a romantic believer in his country’s greatness and its historic role in Europe, the empire, and the world; a devotee of action who thrived on challenge and crisis; a student, historian, and veteran of war; a statesman who was master of the arts of politics, despite or because of long political exile; a man of iron constitution, inexhaustible energy, and total concentration, he seemed to have been nursing all his faculties so that when the moment came he could lavish them on the salvation of Britain and the values he believed Britain stood for in the world.