There are many sides to Sir Winston Churchill: he was an icon of the Allied war effort; a Prime Minister who led a nation to victory; a leader who fought fiercely against a tyrannical regime; and a man who strengthened a people with words of courage.
It is on a human level, as a man speaking to other men and women that he made his greatest impact. His words which offered encouragement and consolation during WW2's darkest moments have an enduring legacy. To appreciate these feats of oratory we must understand the context in which they were spoken to fully grasp their impact and how they lifted the spirits of a dejected country.
'Blood, toil, tears and sweat' - May 10 1940
This was Churchill’s first speech since assuming the role of British Prime Minister, following Neville Chamberlain’s resignation: 'I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.' Churchill asked the Commons for a vote of confidence in his new all-party government. Despite not being Chamberlain's preferred successor - primarily due to his opposition to the former’s appeasement policy - it was passed unanimously.
Three days prior, the ‘phoney war’ (a period of relative calm after Britain and France declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939) ended abruptly - The Battle of France had begun. Churchill made it very clear how he planned to deal with the Nazis: ‘You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air…’ He also assured the Commons of his commitment and stressed how high the stakes were, 'without victory there is no survival’.
'We Shall Fight on the Beaches' - June 4 1940
Much of this speech addressed the military developments in Western Europe - including the weakening of the French army (even suggesting an eventual surrender) and the loss of the Belgian one. The success of Operation Dynamo was also highlighted – the evacuation of over 338,000 Allied troops from Dunkirk.
At the time, Churchill was under pressure from fellow ministers to sue for peace with Hitler. Instead, Churchill reinforced his war policy and emphasized a message of no surrender: ‘we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny...’
He also made it clear that Britain would never surrender, even after defeat. Why? Because the American government needed this avowal. Via secret channels, President Roosevelt wanted an assurance of British military commitment even if defeated on the field. This was necessary if there was to be any American intervention.
'This was their finest hour' - June 18 1940
This was Churchill’s third and final speech during the Battle of France, made two days after France began seeking an armistice. The thirty-six-minute speech acknowledged French losses and Hitler’s shifting focus to Britain: ‘What General Weygand has called the Battle of France is over…the Battle of Britain is about to begin.’ Churchill continued to rally the country, highlighting the severity of the situation whilst stressing the importance of Britain’s response in the coming weeks and months: ‘If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed.’
A message of belief in victory continued to be pushed, with parallels drawn to The Great War, where the Allies had found themselves in a similar losing situation: ‘During that war we repeatedly asked ourselves the question, “How are we going to win?” and no one was able ever to answer….until at the end…our terrible foe collapsed before us.’
Churchill also continued to address the need for American involvement: 'But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States…will sink into the abyss of a new dark age…’
'The Few' - August 20 1940
The Battle of Britain had begun and in this speech, Churchill praised the Royal Air Force - 'undaunted by odds, unweakened by their constant challenge and mortal danger' that was fending off the German Luftwaffe and 'turning the tide of world war by their prowess and their devotion’. Rapid aircraft salvaging and production were also commended.
Britain’s response was applauded, considering the gains made by the Germans and the losses suffered across Europe: ‘Few would have believed we could survive – none would have believed that we should today…be stronger than we have ever been before.’
The speech concluded with an update on Britain’s strategic alliance with America specifically, the provision of British defence facilities for the United States.
'Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few’
Coupled with the three speeches above, Churchill had created rousing and heartening rhetoric that bolstered the nation in the early stages of the war.
‘You do your worst - and we will do our best’ – July 14th,1941
Churchill’s words of strength were present throughout the war. Notably in this speech, where he paid homage to those who had served during The Blitz and expressed admiration of the spirit of the British people: ‘The courage, the unconquerable grit and stamina of our people, showed itself from the very outset.’
Churchill also warned of further German bombing raids as the RAF offensive continued, to which he also added a message of strength, reiterating the scale of what the nation was fighting for: ‘We shall never turn from our purpose, however sombre the road, however grievous the cost, because we know out of this time of trial and tribulation will be born a new freedom and glory for all mankind.’
In a long-career of oratory, journalism and historical writing these notable speeches, represent just a small proportion of what he contributed to the English language - a man whose words were just as important as his actions.