The Place to Find All Things Churchill

Wit & Wisdom

Finest Hour 115, Summer 2002

Page 19

Nothing for Me, But…

From South Africa, Louis Duvenage ([email protected]) writes: “I have been trying for a long time to obtain the text of the speech that WSC made to the U.S. Congress in which he said, ‘I have not come to ask you for money…for myself!’”

There is a question about the punch line. The quotation is from the second paragraph of Churchill’s third address to the U.S. Congress on 17 January 1952. According to some accounts, after he said, “I have not come here to ask you for money,” he paused and said, “…for myself…” and got a laugh. But we would need a tape of the speech to prove it, because it was edited out of the transcript.

Interesting sidelight: the New York PR firm handling Nelson Mandela’s speech to Congress some years ago asked us for a transcript of this speech. They explained that Mr. Mandela, a longtime admirer of Churchill, wanted this specific speech, not the much better known 1941 or 1943 Congress speeches. We gathered that he was interested in how Churchill had asked for money. The alleged punch line certainly must have amused him.

The speech is in Stemming the Tide / Speeches 1951-1952, edited by Randolph Churchill (London: Cassell, 1953; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1954), starting at page 220 of both editions; and in Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches, edited by Robert Rhodes James (London: Chelsea House, NY: Bowker, 1974).

The Clattering Train

John Colligan ([email protected]) writes: “The HBO production of ‘The Gathering Storm’ [see review this issue] had Churchill reciting a poem in which the last line was, ‘For death is in charge of the clattering train.’ Is this something he wrote?”

No, but Churchill reached into his phenomenal memory for the poem (but did not repeat it) during a speech to the Commons criticizing the government’s inadequate Air Estimates on 19 March 1935. He probably repeated it verbally several times, as the HBO film suggests. It suited the moment.

For the reference, see Churchill’s first volume of war memoirs, The Gathering Storm, page 97 (London: Cassell, 1948), or in the chapter, “Air Parity Lost 1935-1935” if you have the American edition. Because this led to a key denoument—Baldwin’s confession on the 22nd that he had been utterly wrong about the pace of German rearmament—we excerpt the surrounding material.

Churchill writes:

Although the House listened to me with close attention, I felt a sensation of despair. To be so entirely convinced and vindicated in a matter of life and death to one’s country, and not to be able to make Parliament and the nation heed the warning, or bow to the proof by taking action, was an experience most painful. I went on:

“I confess that words fail me. In the year 1708 Mr. Secretary St. John, by a calculated Ministerial indiscretion, revealed to the House the fact that the Battle of Almanza had been lost in the previous summer because only 8,000 English troops were actually in Spain out of the 29,000 that had been voted by the House of Commons for this service…. the House sat in silence for half an hour, no Member caring to speak or wishing to make a comment upon so staggering an announcement. And yet how incomparably small that event was to what we have now to face….”

There lay in my memory at this time some lines from an unknown writer about a railway accident. I had learnt them from a volume of Punch cartoons which I used to pore over when I was eight or nine years old at school at Brighton.

Who is in charge of the clattering train?
The axles creak and the couplings strain,
And the pace is hot, and the points are near,
And Sleep has deadened the driver’s ear;
And the signals flash through the night in vain,
For Death is in charge of the clattering train.

However, I did not repeat them.

It was not until May 22 that Mr. Baldwin made his celebrated confession. I am forced to cite it:

“First of all, with regard to the figure I gave in November of German aeroplanes, nothing has come to my knowledge since that makes me think that figure was wrong. I believed at that time it was right. Where I was wrong was in my estimate of the future. There I was completely wrong. We were completely misled on that subject. [Italics Churchill’s.]

“I would repeat here that there is no occasion, in my view, in what we are doing, for panic. But I will say this deliberately, with all the knowledge I have of the situation, that I would not remain for one moment in any Government which took less determined steps than we are taking to-day. I think it is only due to say that there has been a great deal of criticism, both in the Press and verbally, about the Air Ministry, as though they were responsible for possibly an inadequate programme, for not having gone ahead faster, and for many other things. I only want to repeat that whatever responsibility there may be— and we are perfectly ready to meet criticism—that responsibility is not that of any single Minister; it is the responsibility of the Government as a whole, and we are all responsible, and we are all to blame.”

I hoped that this shocking confession would be a decisive event, and that at the least a Parliamentary Committee of all parties would be set up to report upon the facts and upon our safety. The House of Commons had a different reaction. The Labour and Liberal Oppositions, having nine months earlier moved or supported a Vote of Censure even upon the modest steps the Government had taken, were ineffectual and undecided. They were looking forward to an election against “Tory armaments.” Neither the Labour nor the Liberal spokesmen had prepared themselves for Mr. Baldwin’s disclosures and admission, and they did not attempt to adapt their speeches to this outstanding episode.

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