Speeches of Winston Churchill

I am not very familiar with the political situation before, during, and after World War II. But after reading the best speeches of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, I am impressed that his powerful, confident speeches were a deciding factor in the perseverance of the United Kingdom through the trying times of World War II. I loved reading his political speeches: though my situation is different, his powerful words buoy me.

I was surprised to see Winston Churchill's name on the list of Nobel Prize winners. Obviously, I knew the name, but I was not familiar with his writing. I decided to approach his writing firstly through his well-known speeches.

Churchill's Speeches

Unlike many modern politicians, Sir Winston Churchill had no speech-writing staff: he wrote his own speeches. His secretary claimed,
In the case of his great wartime speeches, delivered in the House of Commons or broadcast to the nation, [Churchill] would invest approximately one hour of preparation for every minute of delivery." (Editor's Preface, xxv)
That means 30 hours of "dictation, rehearsal, and polishing" for a 30-minute speech. Churchill's care is apparent in his speeches. He has phenomenal control over the English language. I found myself impressed with his powerful words.

History vs. Current Events

Reading political speeches from 50-100 years ago again reminded me that I appreciate history much more than current events. I loved the perspective of recent history as I read Churchill's speeches about the Boer War, World War I, the time between the wars in which Germany began to rearm, World War II, and the beginnings of the Cold War, all speeches he gave from various positions in government.

Being unfamiliar with World War II from the British perspective, I was surprised by the repeated warnings in the 1930s from Churchill, an unpopular Member of Parliament, about the re-arming of Germany. For example, take this beautiful quote, from 31 May 1935:
It would be a folly for us to act as if we were swimming in a halcyon sea, as if nothing but balmy breezes and calm weather were to be expected and everything were working in the most agreeable fashion. By all means follow your lines of hope and your paths of peace, but do not close your eyes to the fact that we are entering a corridor of deepening and darkening danger, and that we shall have to move along it for many months and possibly for years to come ... (page 114)
The sense of foreboding is eerie, reading it so many years after the fact.

Giving Hope (Along with Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat)

When war did come, Churchill was thrust into the role of Prime Minster. Rather than saying "I told you so," as he rightly could have, he instead gave hope through his powerful words. In his first speech to Parliament as Prime Minister on 13 May 1940, his voice is solemn and trembling. As always, he seems to have a little lisp as he speaks. But his dedication to Britain is unwavering, and the hope he instills through his words gave me the chills:
In this crisis I hope I may be pardoned if I do not address the House at length today ... I would say to this House, as I said to those who have joined this Government: "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat."
(In a later speech, he adds that he's also sure he'll offer a few mistakes along the way too!)

He continues:
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 can 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 crim. 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; for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realized; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal. But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, "Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength." (emphasis added, page 206; listen here via Online Speech Bank)
A few days later, he speaks publicly via the radio. His voice is upbeat and full or hope and energy. He obviously desires to instill hope in the hearts of those in the midst of war when he calls upon them to
Arm yourselves, and be ye men of valour, and be in readiness for the conflict (page 209; listen here)
The front is broken in Belgian, and 338,000 Allied troops are miraculously evacuated. He warns against pride in that matter, for the war would continue until victory, as he'd mentioned before:
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, 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.
His speeches, especially in those first years of the war before America joined the fight, are full of such power. These are but a few of his powerful words.

A notable non-war speech was "The Sinews of Peace" given in 1946, which has been named "The Iron Curtain" speech. Again, I was intrigued by the apparent vision Churchill had for what was to come in the future and reading these so many years after the fact was fascinating.

Reading Churchill's Speeches

I approached Churchill's speeches through Never Give In!: The Best Speeches of Winston Churchill, which was edited by Sir Winston S. Churchill's grandson of the same name. You could certainly read the eight-volume set of his complete speeches, but the 500-page volume was sufficient for my needs. I can't say whether Never Give In! was truly the best representation of Churchill's speeches, as these are the only ones I've read. However, I enjoyed the brief historical context before each speech; it helped me gain the context. I also felt that there were few gaps in the history of Churchill's career and I liked that. Were these the best of the best? I don't know. But I certainly enjoyed them.

You can purchase, via Audible, an audio abridgment of this book read by the grandson. Alternatively, many of the well-known speeches are transcribed at The Churchill Centre.

I loved Churchill's writing, and I look forward to reading his (abridged) memoirs of World War II.

Originally posted on Rebecca Reads.

1 comment

Rose City Reader said...

Sounds great! I have the six volume set of Churchill's WWII history. But that is so daunting, I think starting with his speeches would be a better introduction.

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