The World War II speeches of Winston Churchill are legendary. In an attempt to ferret out the true impact of these speeches, author Richard Toye (Professor of Modern History at the University of Exeter) has produced an important book.
Toye looks at each of the speeches Churchill gave, but I’ll focus here on perhaps the most famous one. On June 16, 1940, the French Prime Minister resigned, and the “new government of Marshal Philippe Petain, a hero of the First World War, requested an armistice.” Thus France fell into the hands of Hitler, which prompted Churchill to deliver an address to Parliament on the 18th. “The peroration,” writes Toye, “justly became the most famous part of the speech.” It reads:
“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.’” (To hear this, click on the video box at the right of the front page of this newspaper website).
What we learn from Toye is twofold: first that the speech was not broadcast live because it “would have required the approval of the Commons and the idea lapsed.” Churchill read it for the public a little later.
Second, we learn what the “man in the street” thought of it at the time. This is a feature Toye employs to great effect throughout the book, as he delves into private letters and diaries of both ordinary people and the intelligentsia to find out what the impact was at the time. A spectrum of opinion usually greeted each speech. Before I return to Toye's book, I must remark that when I was in London waiting to see The Queen on her Diamond Jubilee in 2012, I found myself standing beside a gentleman who was a young man in London in the 1940's. I asked him as he survived The Blitz in those dark days when the Germans reigned terror on the capitol of the Empire what impact did Churchill's speeches really have at the time? He confirmed for me that they were inspirational and had a great effect on morale.
From Toye's book we learn that Churchill hated the microphone and the "thousand years" speech heard by the public lacked spark. A junior minister in the government, Harold Nicolson, wrote in his diary “How I wish Winston would not talk on the wireless unless he is feeling in good form. Now, as delivered in the House of Commons, that speech was magnificent. But it sounded ghastly on the wireless. All the great vigour he put into it seems to evaporate.”
Eleanor Humphries, a London housewife, said “Churchill made the speech of a lifetime. I cannot remember when I was so thrilled.” Occupying the middle ground was Mollie Panter-Downes who wrote in a publication London War Notes that the speech was “less stirring than sensible- a carefully reasoned balance sheet of the chances for a British victory.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum from Humphries was Cecil King, who directed the editorial policy for the Mirror newspaper. “Whether he was drunk or all-in from sheer fatigue, I don’t know, but it was the poorest possible effort on an occasion when he should have produced the finest speech of his life.” So whether it was or was not his best speech depended on who you were.
Toye puts in perspective: “It is a fallacy to assume that Churchill’s ‘best’ speeches- judged in literary terms- must have been the ones that had the most effect at the time. By the same token, those that provoked the most powerful immediate reactions are not necessarily the ones that are most resonant today.”
On July 4, 1940, for example, Churchill gave another speech to Parliament regarding the fate of the French naval fleet that Toye describes as “fairly plain; there was nothing for the editors of dictionaries of quotations.” But here is how Parliament reacted as related by the American General Raymond Lee, who was there.
“With the most dramatic effect and yet with the most superb composure, he narrated as a historian this vivid passage of history. The decorum of Parliament vanished. All were on their feet, shouting, cheering and waving order papers and handkerchiefs like mad.” Certainly such a display of drama in the House of Commons has never happened since Churchill was Prime Minister.
At the end of the war in 1945, a charity worker named Vere Hodgson pretty well summed up what we today, nearly 70 years later, believe in our hearts to be true. She was standing near Parliament and listened to Churchill’s victory speech on loudspeakers.
“How wonderful to be standing in Whitehall, in the shadow of the House of Commons, listening to That Voice which had steered us from our darkest hours to the daylight of deliverance.”
This is a valuable and impressively researched book on what many regard as among the most important speeches ever given. As an examination of the power of words, it is unequalled.
I noticed three typos: Pg. 127: “on the grounds” not “of the grounds”; pg. 129: “and impressive” not “an impressive”; pg 130: “by presenting” not “by the presenting.”
The Roar of the Lion: The Untold Story of Churchill’s World War II Speeches (309 pages, including 62 pages of notes) is $34.95 from Oxford University Press.