Q: I am trying to locate a quotation of Churchill to the effect, “we will not give up till we are choking on our own blood…” Can you help me? —[email protected]
A: On 28 May 1940, as France was reeling under the German onslaught, Churchill called a meeting of the full cabinet—extraordinary, since this would normally be discussed by the war cabinet. Churchill may have wanted the outer cabinet to be present, knowing that they would bolster his determination to fight on. (In the war cabinet, Halifax was still arguing for exploring, via Mussolini, Hitler’s terms for a cease-fire.)
Two versions of Churchill’s words were recorded by Hugh Dalton, Labour MP, Minister of Economic Warfare (not in the war cabinet). In his memoir, The Fateful Years 1939-1945 (London, 1957), 335. Dalton writes that Churchill said:
“We shall go on and we shall fight it out, here or elsewhere, and if at last the long story is to end, it were better it should end, not through surrender, but only when we are rolling senseless on the ground.”
But Dalton also added a marginal note with a revised quotation:
“If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”
John Lukacs in Five Days in London: May 1940 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), p. 5, speculates that Dalton may have later “showed this diary entry to Churchill, who dien added or corrected the phrase.”
The precision bombing of enemy strongholds in Afghanistan, which so remarkably minimized non-combatant casualties, is a tribute to the technological competence and moral precepts of America and Britain. Nevertheless there are interesting thoughts on “collateral damage” in Winston Churchill’s first book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force (1898).
After describing Sir Bindon Blood’s decision to send a punitive expedition against the Mamunds, Churchill wrote:
“In pursuance of these orders, the 2nd Brigade on the 29th destroyed all the villages in the centre of the valley, some twelve or fourteen in number, and blew up with dynamite upwards of thirty towers and forts….”
He then adds: “I feel this is a fitting moment to discuss the questions which village-burning raises….Many misconceptions exist on this subject in England. One member of the House of Commons asked the Secretary of State whether, in the punishment of villages, care was taken that only the houses of the guilty parties should be destroyed. He was gravely told that great care was taken. The spectacle of troops, who have perhaps carried a village with the bayonet and are holding it against a vigorous counter-attack, when every moment means loss of life and increase of danger, going round and carefully discriminating which houses are occupied by ‘guilty parties’, and which by unoffending people, is ridiculous. Another member asked, ‘Whether the villages were destroyed or only the fortifications?’ ‘Only the fortifications,’ replied the minister guilelessly.
“What is the actual fact? All along the Afghan border every man’s home is his castle. The villages are fortifications, the fortifications the villages….Throughout these regions, every inhabitant is a soldier from the first day he is old enough to hurl a stone, till the last day he has strength to pull a trigger, after which he is probably murdered as an encumbrance to the community.
“Equipped with these corrected facts, I invite the reader to examine the legitimacy of village burning for himself. A [British brigade]…is attacked at night…The assailants retire to the hills. Thither it is impossible to follow them. They cannot be caught. They cannot be punished. Only one remedy remains—their property must be destroyed. Their villages are made hostage for their good behaviour. They are fully aware of this, and when they make an attack on a camp or a convoy they do it because they have considered the cost and think it worth while. Of course, it is cruel and barbarous, as is much else in war, but it is only an unphilosophic mind that will hold it legitimate, to take a man’s life, and illegitimate to destroy his property.”
A selection of Churchillian remarks compiled by Laurence Geller
“An appeaser is one that feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.”
“His [Lenin’s] sympathies cold and wide as the Arctic Ocean, his hatreds tight as the hangman’s noose. His purpose to save the world, his method to blow it up.”
“There are no people in the world who are so slow to develop hostile feelings against a foreign country as the Americans, and there are no people who, once estranged, are more difficult to win back.”
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