Churchill in 1940

On this day in 1940, Winston Churchill stepped to the Speaker’s Box in the House of Commons and–his premiership still only weeks old–began telling the House of Commons of the defeat and deliverance of Dunkirk. It was 3:40 pm in the afternoon.

In both 1914 and 1940, Germany’s assault into France and Belgium had met with enormous initial success, penetrating deep into France and sending the defenders back in disarray. In 1940, unlike 1914, there was no saving battle, no resilient resistance at the Marne to save the French capital and throw back the oncoming Germans. Instead, in 1940, the German scythe struck all the way to the English Channel, cutting the defensive lines in half. The commander of the British Expeditionary Force in 1940, Lord Gort, did what British army commanders had done since time immemorial when threatened with military disaster: he headed for a saltwater port. In this case, it was Dunkirk, but it might as well have been Corunna, or Yorktown. The British believed that they might take off 30-50,000 soldiers before the Germans closed in, but to their surprise and delight, by early June, they had managed to pull off more than 338,000. This was nearly the entirety of the BEF and thousands of French soldiers as well. Dunkirk has become a legend, for the small ships who carried men from the beaches to the larger vessels off shore, to the desperate fight of the rearguard, to the strange two-day German pause in attacks. On June 4th, Churchill rose in the House to explain what had happened. It was to be one more in a series of spectacular speeches that the PM would give that year, speeches which have bequeathed to the English-speaking world a set of resonant phrases.

This particular speech is remembered most particularly for its end, to which I will come. But I wanted to pay attention to earlier portions of the speech as well. Churchill was a master of both the narrative flow of a speech and the rousing conclusion, and the June 4th speech is a classic example. He was not a natural speaker, and it had taken him years of training, practice, and rehearsal to reach the level he did in 1940.* The House of Commons is a crowded place: small, with uncomfortable benches, and not enough room for everyone to sit. On June 4th, it was full, with people standing to watch the Prime Minister speak. Churchill rose, took out his notecards, numbered lest he should spill them on the ground.**

The main part of the speech was a narrative recount of the campaign in northern France over the last several weeks. Here, Churchill the historian is on display, his analysis sharp, if not always entirely accurate. The speech was literary, in the best of that sense:

The German eruption swept like a sharp scythe around the right and rear of the Armies of the north….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

And so he went, for twenty minutes, lauding the Royal Air Force for defending the beaches from the air, the Royal Navy for carrying the men “out of the jaws of death and shame, to their native land and to the tasks which lie immediately ahead.” He treated the French more gently than he might have. The French Army was still in the field and the ultimate disaster of Vichy France had yet to unfold. He emphasized early on that this was not a victory and returned to that theme later on: “We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.” Now, Churchill said, Britain must recover and rebuild. And they would, together: “Capital and labor have cast aside their interests, rights, and customs and put them into the common stock.”

And then, very near the end, came the moment when Churchill turned to rally the House and the British people. It was not just the final words but the way in which he made the transition to the conclusion. His language changed suddenly; sharpened and shortened. The month earlier, in his first speech to the House on May 13th, he had given a fairly technical speech laying out the new government. Long sentences dominated the early part of that speech and then Churchill turned and–in the middle of one of those long sentences–became Henry V on St. Crispin’s Day: “I say to the House as I said to ministers who have joined this government,” he started, and then “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” Long sentences and long syllables were replaced by short, chopping sentences and words, delivered in a bulldog growl. On June 4th, the transition was similar. The sentence comes late “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.”

“Flag or fail”: again, short, chopping words. And so the conclusion continued:

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

The very end, though, is fascinating, and much more ambivalent than anyone remembers. For it was not Britain that would save itself, or the British Empire that would come to the final salvation of the motherland. Instead, Churchill said, it would be America. Britain and the British Empire would have to hold on “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.” Within the year eighteen months, Churchill would greet the news of Pearl Harbor with the “greatest joy.” No longer the world’s greatest Empire; now, the British needed help.

(audio link to speech is here.)

* There is the possibly apocryphal story of a family member encountering Churchill rehearsing a speech one day which started “I did not expect to speak in the House today, but…”

**When he was a young MP, Churchill would memorize his speeches and give them without notes of any kind. This lasted until one day he froze, unable to remember what came next in the speech. Flailing about, he decided to start from the beginning again, only to freeze at exactly the same point. Gamely, he started over again. By now, bored MPs had turned this into a sporting match, with people coming in from the rest of the House to watch and see if he could do it. He couldn’t, and fled from the Commons. Thereafter: notecards.

***Entertainingly enough, the remarks that came after Churchill’s speech seem almost to have ended in a fist fight. Two MPs, speaking immediately after Churchill sat down, went at each other:

Mr. Thorne: On a point of order. I want to know whether it is not advisable for men in uniform to be at their jobs as well as the people working in factory and workshop?

Captain Bellenger: They have been there.

Mr. Thorne: And so they should.

Captain Bellenger: You should go out.

Mr. Thorne: I would if I were younger.

Captain Bellenger: You have no right to make remarks of that kind.