Winston Churchill was the most eloquent and expressive statesman of his time. It was as an orator that Churchill became most completely alive, and it was through his oratory that his words made their greatest and most enduring impact. While the definitive collection of Churchill’s speeches fills eight volumes, here for the first time, his grandson, Winston S. Churchill, has put together a personal selection of his favorite speeches in a single volume. Read an excerpt of “Never Give In: The Best of Winston Churchill’s Speeches.”
Winston Churchill’s rendezvous with destiny came on 10 May 1940, with his appointment as Prime Minister in Britain’s hour of crisis. On that day Hitler launched his blitzkrieg against France, Belgium and the Low Countries, which was to smash all in its path. It was then that Winston Churchill, already 65 years of age and, as he put it, ‘qualified to draw the Old Age Pension’, deployed the power of his oratory. After years during which the British nation had heard only the voices of appeasement and surrender, suddenly a new note was sounded. In a broadcast to the nation on 19 May 1940, he declared: ‘I speak to you for the first time as Prime Minister in a solemn hour in the life of our country, of our Empire, of our Allies and, above all, of the cause of Freedom.’
After a graphic account of the devastating advances by Nazi forces on the Continent he continued: ‘We have differed and quarreled in the past; but now one bond unites us all - to wage war until victory is won, and never to surrender ourselves to servitude and shame, whatever the cost and agony may be.’
The effect of his words was electric. Though the situation might appear hopeless, with the French and Belgian armies — which had held firm during four long years of slaughter in the First World War — crumbling in as many weeks in the face of the furious German assault, and the remnants of Britain’s small, ill-equipped army preparing to retreat to Dunkirk, and when many, even of Britain’s friends, believed that she, too, would be forced to surrender, Winston Churchill — in the memorable phrase of that great American war-correspondent, Edward R. Murrow, ‘mobilised the English language and sent it in to battle.’
With his innate understanding of the instincts and character of the British people, garnered from leading them in battle as a junior officer in conflicts on the North-West Frontier of India, in the Sudan and South Africa, as well as in the trenches of Flanders in the First World War, Churchill inspired the British nation to feats of courage and endurance, of which they had never known, or even imagined themselves capable. In his very first Address to the House of Commons, three days after becoming Prime Minister, he famously declared (13 May 1940): ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.’
With his pugnacity and puckish sense of humour, Winston Churchill commanded the attention of the British nation and was successful in persuading his fellow countrymen that — though every other major nation of Europe had surrendered to the invading Nazi hordes - Britain could, and would, fight on alone. There may have been greater orators, in the traditional sense of an ability to stand up on a soapbox and — without a note or a microphone — command and move a crowd of 10 or 20,000. Most obviously the names of Gladstone and Lloyd George spring to mind, though even in that league Winston Churchill was in the forefront.
But where he came into his own was in his command of the House of Commons and, most of all, in his radio broadcasts on the BBC to the people of Britain and the wider world. Here technology came to his aid in the nick of time. For many centuries, ever since William Caxton invented his printing press in the year 1474, the only means of mass communication had been through newspapers which, by the early twentieth century, had fallen into the hands of a handful of media tycoons who, individually and collectively, wielded immense political power. However, in 1924 — just fifteen years before the outbreak of the Second World War - Stanley Baldwin became the first British Prime Minister ever to make a radio broadcast. At the time there were barely 125,000 radio sets in Britain. However by 1940 this number had risen to close on 10 million, almost one to every home and certainly to every pub in the land.
This technological breakthrough gave Churchill a direct link to the masses of the people, and proved invaluable. The style that he adopted, and which proved so effective, was to address them not as unseen masses, but as individuals — he envisioned his audience as a couple and their family, gathered round their coal fire in the ‘cottage home’. In this way he succeeded in forging a personal bond at grassroots level with the ordinary man and woman in the street; and it was this that was to see him - and them - through five years of the cruellest war the world has ever known. Though, at the time, there were no facilities for the broadcasting of Parliament, the British Broadcasting Corporation would, in the case of his more important parliamentary speeches, arrange for him to redeliver them before their microphones, so that they could be heard, not only throughout Great Britain, but across Occupied Europe, as well as throughout the United States and the farthest outposts of the British Commonwealth and Empire.
In embarking on this work I have been anxious to draw together into a single manageable volume what I regard as the best and most important of my grandfather’s speeches, spanning more than sixty years of his active political life, from his first political speech in 1897 to his acceptance of United States Honorary Citizenship from President John F. Kennedy in 1963. At the outset, I had no idea of the magnitude of the task upon which I was embarking. I knew that my grandfather was prolific as a writer, with some 30 volumes of history and biography to his credit. I was also aware of his phenomenal output as an artist, with nearly 500 completed canvases — some of a remarkably high quality - at his home at Chartwell in Kent by the time of his death.
However, I had no idea of the sheer scale of the speeches he painstakingly composed, rehearsed and delivered. The great majority were brought together by my late parliamentary colleague, Robert Rhodes James, in his Winston Churchill: The Complete Speeches 1897-1963, published in 1974, an 8-volume work comprising more than 8,000 closely printed pages - 12,500 pages in any self-respecting typeface — totaling some 5 million words.
Time and again on the American lecture circuit I have been asked: ‘Who was your grandfather’s speechwriter?’ My reply is simple: ‘He was a most remarkable man, by the name of Winston Spencer Churchill.’ In an age when front-rank politicians, almost without exception, have a raft of speechwriters, my reply provokes amazement. My aunt, Mary Soames, the last survivor of my grandfather’s children, recently told me:
My father never, at any stage of his life, employed the services of a speechwriter. At various points in his career, in dealing with Departmental matters, he would be supplied by officials with various notes and statistics, especially in relation to technical or legal matters.
Furthermore, there was a gentleman called George Christ (pronounced ‘Krist’) — whom my father insisted on summoning with the words: ‘Send for Christ!’ — who was an official at Conservative Central Office, and who would supply suggestions of points he might consider including in his Addresses to the Conservative Party Annual Conference, during the years he was Party Leader.
But it was my father - and he alone - who drafted all his major speeches especially, of course, those to the House of Commons. Jane Portal (Lady Williams), who was one of his private secretaries at the time, tells of how my father, already 80 years old and in the final months of his second Premiership, delivered himself, in the space of 7 to 8 hours, of a lengthy and detailed speech on the Hydrogen Bomb.
The late Sir John Colville, one of my grandfather’s private secretaries in the wartime years, told me shortly before his death: ‘In the case of his great wartime speeches, delivered in the House of Commons or broadcast to the nation, your grandfather would invest approximately one hour of preparation for every minute of delivery.’ Thus he would devote thirty hours of dictation, rehearsal and polishing to a half-hour speech. Therein, no doubt, lies the explanation as to how they came to move the hearts of millions in the greatest war of history and why, even to this day, they have such emotive power.
Excerpted from “Never Give In: The Best of Winston Churchill’s Speeches” selected by his grandson Winston S. Churchill. Copyright © 2003 by Winston S. Churchill. Published by Hyperion. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.