Twenty-two years old and still a serving officer on leave from his regiment in India, Winston Churchill, desperate to be noticed, addressed his first public meeting, an “outing, fete or picnic” of the Primrose League (an organization dedicated to spreading Conservative principles) at the house of today’s American Museum at Claverton Manor, Bath, UK. The Bath Daily Chronicle, among details of the “bicycle race war” and other entertainments, reported that: “Mr. Winston Churchill ... was the principal speaker, this being his first attempt at public oratory”.His speech to the Conservative gathering was carefully constructed and delivered; it was obviously well-prepared, rehearsed and clearly memorized. Churchill began his speech by saying that if it was pardonable in any speaker to begin with the apology, “unaccustomed as I am to public speaking”, it would be pardonable in his case. He always regarded this as his first true ‘maiden’ speech.
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.
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.
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!
From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe: Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Belgrade, Bucharest, and Sofia. All of these famous cities and the populations lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere . . . .
He had been in the habit of totally memorising his speeches. But from this point forward, Churchill decided to forge a system of speech writing that employed copious notes and several revisions. It was this system which helped create the powerful and awe inspiring oratory which Churchill had envisioned as a 23-year-old in 'The Scaffolding of Rhetoric’ and for which Churchill has become famous. So in many ways, it was from this small failure that day in the House of Commons that Churchill’s amazing oratory was born.
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:
In order to appreciate it fully, it’s necessary to grasp the very precise circumstances in which it was delivered on 4 June 1940: shortly after the successful evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk, but before France’s final defeat and surrender to the Germans that took place later that month. Here are some facts about this magnificent oration that you may find surprising.
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.
During the first four years of the last war the Allies experienced nothing but disaster and disappointment. That was our constant fear: one blow after another, terrible losses, frightful dangers. Everything miscarried. And yet at the end of those four years the morale of the Allies was higher than that of the Germans, who had moved from one aggressive triumph to another, and who stood everywhere triumphant invaders of the lands into which they had broken. During that war we repeatedly asked ourselves the question: 'How are we going to win?' And no one was able ever to answer it with much precision, until at the end, quite suddenly, quite unexpectedly, our terrible foe collapsed before us, and we were so glutted with victory that in our folly we threw it away.
Such a moment came in 1911, when Churchill was serving as Home Secretary in the cabinet of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. Appointed at age thirty-five, he was the second-youngest Home Secretary in history. This post kept Churchill preoccupied with domestic affairs with the never-ending troubles in Ireland. When the navy in 1909 pressed for six new battleships in response to the German buildup, Churchill joined the cabinet opponents in trying to hold the number to four. With typical wit, Churchill described the outcome: “In the end a curious and characteristic solution was reached.
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 the dark early days of the Second World War Churchill had few real weapons. He attacked with words instead. The speeches he delivered then are among the most powerful ever given in the English language. His words were defiant, heroic and human, lightened by flashes of humour. They reached out to everyone in Britain, across Nazi-occupied Europe, and throughout the world. As journalist Beverley Nichols wrote, 'He took the English language and sent it into battle.'
The essence of good House of Commons speaking is the conversational style, the facility for quick, informal interruptions and interchanges. Harangues from a rostrum would be a bad substitute for the conversational style in which so much of our business is done. But the conversational style requires a fairly small space, and there should be on great occasions a sense of crowd and urgency. There should be a sense of the importance of much that is said and a sense that great matters are being decided, there and then, by the House. ... It has a collective personality which enjoys the regard of the public, and which imposes itself upon the conduct not only of individual Members but of parties.
Churchill tried seizing back the initiative with a March 1943 broadcast known as the ‘Four Years’ Plan’. Although its title made it sound more like a speech that would have originated in the Kremlin than in Downing Street, Churchill’s intent was to sketch an outline of Britain’s transition during the first few years of peace. According to Toye, the broadcast allowed Churchill to ‘relieve pressure for immediate reform by paying lip service to its importance’ – at some future date. This may explain why it caused so much confusion and why a government analysis found that public reaction to it was ‘more varied than for any of Churchill’s previous war speeches.’ While one listener called the broadcast ‘almost pure socialism’, the Liberal News Chronicle chastised parts of Churchill’s remarks as ‘typically Tory’ (pp. 203–6). Nor, for that matter, did the speech remove domestic issues from Churchill’s agenda. Before the year was out, a threatened Labour rebellion over demands to nationalise the coal industry forced him to intervene. While making clear that he himself could support such a move, no government, he told the House of Commons, could take such a far-reaching step without first receiving a mandate from the people in a general election (pp. 170–1). That is just what happened in 1945, sweeping both him and the Conservatives from power.
My biggest difficulty has been the selection of speeches. When I began, I hoped to limit inclusion on the list to full speeches, but I quickly realized that I needed to abandon that goal, as I have not been able to listen to each recorded track in order to verify the length of the content I have listed. And I have easily fallen prey to the temptation to include recordings of extracts of many fragmentary speeches, since such fragments constitute the only “live”, accessible audio flavour of otherwise obscure recordings. And where on a 33 rpm anthology album, or album set, there have been a number of such extracts, I have felt obliged to include on the list the references to better-known and frequently-published full recordings, even though the anthology only included extracts of those wholly-available speeches.
Churchill’s stirring oratory is perhaps his greatest legacy. His wartime speeches famously gave the British lion its roar during the darkest days of the Second World War. There are still competitions which honour them, including the Sir Winston Churchill Public Speaking Competition (held every year at Blenheim Palace) and the Churchill National Public Speaking Competition for Schools.
There are instances in which I hold recordings of speeches that I have not found in commercially-released form. Like all those I list as “privately recorded”, these were cut on flat discs by individuals, as well as by radio stations (although fewer of those have found their way into the hands of the public). In the modern era, we have been recording off-air or in accessible venues on 1/4″ tape cassettes or CDs/DVDs. The recordings indicated as “privately recorded” may also exist in commercially-manufactured form. In some cases I list both. In many instances I do not hold a recording other than in privately recorded form.
Winston Churchill took over as Prime Minister on 10 May, 1940, eight months after the outbreak of World War II in Europe. He had done so as the head of a multiparty coalition government, which had replaced the previous government (led by Neville Chamberlain) as a result of dissatisfaction with the conduct of the war, demonstrated by the Norway debate on the Allied evacuation of Southern Norway.
During the late 1940s Winston Churchill actively supported attempts to unify Europe through the Congress of Europe (1948) and the Council of Europe (1949). The creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949 sought to tie the United State to Britain and Euroope, and to avoid American detachment as happened after World War I. The South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), formed in 1954 tried to do for Asia what NATO did for Europe.
We shall not flag or fail. 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 in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a 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.
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.