DE GAULLE SAID THAT BY LEARNING ENGLISH HE WAS ABLE TO UNDERSTAND CHURCHILL’S FRENCH. WSC OFTEN SPOKE “FRANGLAIS,” BUT IS THERE EVIDENCE OF MALICE AFORETHOUGHT? ARE THERE STORIES OF THE COMMENTS AND REACTIONS OF FRENCHMEN (AND WOMEN) WHICH ECHO DE GAULLE’S REMARK? YES—AND THEY SUGGEST WSC’S FRENCH WAS RATHER GOOD.
by James R. Lancaster
Was Churchill’s French really as bad as we are led to believe? It is variously described on a scale from poor to execrable, not only by some of his contemporaries but also by later writers. This calumny needs to be redressed. Here is my case.
In learning French, Churchill was luckier than most of us; he had a mother who was fluent in the language. Jennie Jerome had lived in Paris with her mother Clara and her two sisters from 1867 to 1870, and from 1871 to 1874, a total of six years. Jennie spoke perfect French.
Many years later, in 1908, Churchill was fortunate in marrying someone whose French was also impeccable. Clementine Hozier had learned the French language first from her governess, Mlle. Gonnard, and then from Mlle. Louise Henri, described by Mary Soames in Clementine Churchill as an intelligent and remarkable woman.1
In the summer of 1899 Lady Blanche Hozier and her family moved to Puys, a small village by the sea near Dieppe. Come the school year, the four children moved to Dieppe. By the time the family returned to Scotland in February 1900, as Clementine’s daughter writes, she “distinguished herself by winning, in open competition with students from all over the country, a handsome solid silver medal for French, presented by the Société des Professeurs Français en Angleterre. She received it from the hands of Monsieur Jules Cambon, the French Ambassador.”2
Of Churchill’s Harrow schooldays the French historian François Bédarida writes: “He was strong in History and French.…He started to use French phrases and expressions.…Later in life it was always a pleasure for him to speak French. When he was twelve years old he acted the role of Martine, the wife of Sganarelle in Le Médecin malgré lui” (Molière’s The Reluctant Doctor).3
Winston’s French improved when he went to the Army Class under the auspices of Louis Martin Moriarty, a charming Parisian with remarkable powers of conversation in both English and French. It improved still further when, in his last year at the school, he was taught by the distinguished French teacher Bernard Jules Minssen.4 In 1891 the Harrow Headmaster, the Rt. Rev. J.E.C. Welldon, insisted that Winston spend a month with the Minssen family near Versailles, to improve his French.
In a December 1891 letter to his mother he wrote: “I have already made great progress in French. I begin to think in it….M. Minssen says I know far more than he thought I did.”5 On Christmas Eve he told his mother that the Minssen family reported “Son progrès est merveilleux” (“He is making excellent progress”).6 Of this there can be no doubt. He passed into Sandhurst with a respectable 60% in French.
His letters to his mother at this time are an amusing juxtaposition of French and English words. For example: “We arrived at Dieppe où nous partook of de bon Café au lait. Le chemin de fer était très confortable…Après le déjeuner we went for a walk. We saw nothing but soldiers—De Seine de l’artillerie, des cuirassiers et des chasseurs a pieds.”7
Henceforth and for the rest of his life, Churchill was never afraid to use French words and phrases when there was no exact equivalent in English. In one of his letters to the Morning Post from the Sudan in 1898 he wrote: “The quarrel is à l’outrance” (“the quarrel has reached a stage where there is no turning back”). In a letter to Clementine from the Western Front in 1916 he says he is “d’un pied à l’autre” (“twiddling my thumbs”). There are hundreds of similar examples. Nor was he hesitant in using French maxims and quotations. Of Lord Cromer, who helped him with The River War in April 1899, he cited the maxim, “On ne règne sur les âmes que par le calme”8 (“One can only impose one’s authority on other people by being calm and confident”).
By 1899, Churchill’s French had matured significantly. In 1944 one of his first French biographers, Jacques Arnavon, wrote of these years: “He was already at home with the French language. It had improved year by year. At this period of his life it was written French which attracted him. In later years he became more confident in speaking in French, to the point where he could make short speeches in the language.”9
Churchill’s self-education was based on wide reading, including books in French. Authors popular with the British at the turn of the century were Montaigne and Voltaire, but Churchill also amassed a significant library on Napoleon, about whom he once hoped to write a biography. On one buying spree in Paris he came away with almost 300 books. How many of them he read we do not know, but this is how he came to read French documents and letters with consummate ease.
In meetings he could almost always follow a conversation. Which is just as well, because most French people he met only had a smattering of English. This was in the days when French was the lingua franca. There were exceptions of course. General Nivelle spoke good English, as did Georges Clemenceau, who lived in America from 1865 to 1869 and married Mary Plummer, an orphan from Springfield, Massachusetts. But even here it is probable that Clemenceau and Churchill spoke French when on French soil. For example, in Anthony Montague Browne’s Long Sunset there is an account of Churchill’s last meeting with Clemenceau.
Churchill asked him, “What have you left?” Clemenceau replied: “Il me reste mes griffes” (“I’ve still got my claws”).10 This indicates that the conversation was in French. The “claws” were a reference to Clemenceau’s popular nickname “Tiger.”
Another Clemenceau story in Long Sunset is about the day in 1918 when he met Churchill wearing the uniform of an Elder Brother of Trinity House. He asked Churchill why he was dressed up as a semi-retired naval officer. Churchill replied in French: “Je suis un Frère Ainé de la Trinité” (“I am an Elder Brother of the Trinity”). Clemenceau, thinking Churchill was a member of the Holy Trinity, replied, “Quelle belle situation!” (“What a wonderful position!”).11
While on the subject of Clemenceau, for whom Churchill had the greatest admiration, and about whom he wrote two brilliant monographs, it is worth recording that Churchill knew by heart the well-known song Le Père la Victoire (The Father of Victory), which the singer Paulus made famous in 1889. The title of this popular song was attached to Clemenceau after he became Prime Minister in November 1917 and saved his country in the last twelve months of the First World War.
François Bédarida writes that Churchill knew all the verses of Le Père la Victoire by heart, and that he once recited the whole song to de Gaulle during the Second World War.12 This is corroborated by de Gaulle himself when writing about Churchill’s visit to Paris on 11 November 1944: “On my orders the band played Le Père la Victoire. And it was only his due. Besides, I remembered that at Chequers, on the evening of a black day, he had sung me our old song by Paulus word perfectly.”13
After lunch on that memorable day, Duff Cooper, then British Ambassador, recalled: “We went upstairs—de Gaulle, Coulet, Massigli, Chauvel and Palewski on one side of the table, Winston, Anthony, Alec Cadogan and I on the other. We talked for about two hours—Winston talking most of the time in his uninhibited and fairly intelligible French.”14
and Sending It into Battle
Soon after becoming Prime Minister on 10 May 1940, Churchill realised that there was an urgent need to put some backbone into an increasingly demoralised French cabinet. He flew to Paris on 16 May, again to Paris on the 31st, to Briare, near Orleans, on 11 June, and to Tours two days later. All these meetings have been admirably recounted in General Spears’s books Prelude to Dunkirk and The Fall of France. Churchill’s long familiarity with the French language had prepared him for these critical meetings, “for this hour and for this trial.”
At the first meeting on 16 May in Paris (at the Quai d’Orsay, the French Foreign Office)—as archives were being thrown onto bonfires in the garden—Churchill spoke in French most of the time. Lord Ismay recalled that he “dominated the proceedings from the moment he entered the room. There was no interpreter, and he spoke throughout in French. His idiom was not always correct, and his vocabulary was not equal to translating all the words which he required with exactitude. But no one could be in any doubt as to his meaning.”15
It was at this meeting that he asked General Gamelin “Où est la masse de manœuvre?” (“Where are your reserves?”)—a military phrase which Churchill probably remembered from Monsieur Moriarty’s Army Class at Harrow.16 The answer was “Aucune” (“None”).
During this same 16 May meeting Ismay tells how General Gamelin recounted a tale of unmitigated woe, to which Churchill responded with: “Evidently this battle will be known as the Battle of the Bulge.” But “Boolge” was the nearest WSC could get to “Bulge” in French.17 Fair enough: the nearest French word is saillant (salient) but French historians always refer to La Bataille des Ardennes, never to La Bataille du Saillant. So “Boolge” it is!
There were two interpreters at the subsequent meetings: Roland de Margerie translated from English into French, and Captain Berkeley translated from French into English. Churchill spoke in English, interspersed frequently with French words and phrases. At the meeting in Paris on 31 May, when discussing the evacuation of British and French soldiers at Dunkirk, Churchill interrupted Roland de Margerie by exclaiming that they would leave French soil “bras dessus, bras dessous” (“arm in arm”).18
The French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud spoke good English, but at the Briare meeting on 11 June, there was one occasion when, after listening to Churchill speaking French, as a debating tactic he asked for a “traduction” (“translation”).19 Spears describes one of Churchill’s perorations at this meeting: “I ceased taking notes and watched him, hypnotised. He found wonderful flashing words to express his fiery eloquence. They came in torrents, French and English phrases tumbling over each other like waves racing for the shore when driven by a storm.”20
Churchill’s spoken French was his own creation. As was his English, where he often invented new words, such as “paintatious” to describe places worthy of his brush. That he often spoke “franglais” was intentional. There is his memorable phrase during a heated discussion with de Gaulle in Casablanca in January 1943 when he said “Si vous m’obstaclerez, je vous liquiderai!,” which needs no translation. It should be remembered that de Gaulle spoke little English when he first arrived in London, and it is fair to assume that when they met they both spoke in French. De Gaulle’s English improved over time, allowing him to joke that this allowed him to understand Churchill’s French.
Churchill’s private secretary, John Colville, wrote an amusing description of a meeting between Churchill and de Gaulle, in the summer of 1941. It started off badly. As Terry Reardon mentions in the previous article, Colville went in after a while only to find them smoking the Prime Minister’s cigars and talking in French, “an exercise which Churchill could never resist and one which his audience, even when they spoke with the purity of de Gaulle, invariably found fascinating.”21 And at his last meeting with Churchill, in Nice on 22 October 1960, de Gaulle, now President of France, enjoyed listening to Churchill’s stories about the old days, recounted in a French which needed no translation.22
Brigadier Ian Jacob has left us an amusing account of Churchill’s ability to translate an English text into French on the fly. On 30 January 1943 Churchill flew from Cairo to Adana in Turkey to meet with President Inönü. Prior to the meeting he had prepared a paper reviewing Anglo-Turkish relations. The idea was that a member of the British Embassy in Ankara, Paul Falla, would translate the paper into French as it was read by Churchill. But after a few minutes Churchill waved Falla aside and translated his own text directly into French.
Jacob, whom Churchill had introduced to the Turks as “le fils du Maréchal Jacob” (“the son of [Field] Marshal Jacob”), noted for that day:
This amounted to doing orally with no time at all for thought or preparation, a long Unseen into French, no small task. The PM’s French is fairly fluent, and he was rarely stuck for a word. But of course he could only make a perfectly literal translation, and his accent is almost pure English….The PM waded resolutely on, and came out at the far end bloody but unbowed. It was really quite a tour de force, of an unusual kind! Peculiar though it all was, I do not think anyone felt like laughing. They couldn’t help admiring his determination and self-possession.23
French Writer and Speaker
In his writing, Churchill frequently used French words and phrases where the context and the meaning were appropriate. And he used them accurately. Some might even think that he could write French verse. In his delightful postwar book about his hobby, Painting as a Pastime, there is the delightful verse:
La peinture à l’huile
Est bien difficile,
Mais c’est beaucoup plus beau
Que la peinture à l’eau 24
However, this is not an example of the muse in WSC but of his memory. It comes from a popular song which most French children know by heart.
What about Churchill’s accent? Without any doubt he made little attempt to emulate the polished French accent of colleagues such as Colville, Eden or Spears. On the contrary, he often went out of his way to use the English pronunciation of foreign names and cities, for example Shams Ellizie for Champs Élysées! In conversation with Jack Seely he once said: “Jack, when you cross Europe you land at Marsai, spend a night in Lee-on and another in Par-ee, and, crossing by Callay, eventually reach Londres. I land at Mar-sales, spend a night in Lions, and another in Paris, and come home to London.”25
He made several broadcasts and speeches in French, notably his radio broadcast on 21 October 1940, and his speech in Ottawa on 30 December 1941, where he briefly addressed his French Canadian audience. Jean Oberlé, who worked for the French section of the BBC from July 1940 to the end of the war, wrote a book in 1945 about his five years in London. In his Jean Oberlé vous parle is an amusing description of the preparation of the radio broadcast on 21 October 1940. (I paraphrase):
The English version of the broadcast was sent to the French section of the BBC to be translated. The head of the section, Jacques Duchesne, took the translation to Churchill at 10 Downing Street. After lunch he was offered a cigar and a whisky and then listened to Churchill reciting the broadcast in French. He returned in the evening for a second practice session. Bombs were falling close by. Duchesne remarked that there did not appear to be much security at 10 Downing Street. Churchill burst out laughing: “Si une bombe tombe sur la maison, nous mourrons comme deux braves gens!” (“If a bomb falls on this building, we will die nobly together”).26 Duchesne did not find this very reassuring.
Churchill’s broadcast in French on 21 October 1940 began: “Français! C’est moi, Churchill, qui vous parle. Pendant plus de trente ans, dans la paix comme dans la guerre, j’ai marché avec vous, et je marche encore avec vous aujourd’hui.”27
One can hear Churchill speaking these words in a BBC audio CD called Churchill Remembered, published in 2006. His French accent is remarkably good—much better than the French accent of most of his compatriots.28
The English version of this memorable broadcast is: “Good night then: sleep to gather strength for the morning. For the morning will come. Brightly will it shine on the brave and true, kindly upon all who suffer for the cause, glorious upon the tombs of heroes. Thus will shine the dawn. Vive la France!” By their firesides in France, those who were brave enough to listen to the BBC could not fail to be heartened by these words:
Allons, bonne nuit; dormez bien, rassemblez vos forces pour l’aube, car l’aube viendra. Elle se lèvera, brillante pour les braves, douce pour les fidèles qui auront souffert, glorieuse sur les tombeaux des héros. Vive la France !
Most of the audio recordings of Churchill’s well-known speeches and broadcasts include these words of hope and encouragement. The accent is very Churchillian—clear, expressive and completely unaffected. In Britain’s finest hour he not only inspired his listeners at home; he also raised the spirits of all French men and women in their Heure Tragique, their darkest hour.
This was not the last time he asked his listeners to dormez bien (sleep well). Many years later he ended his broadcast from Ottawa on 30 June 1954, during his last visit to Canada:
Au revoir mes amis Canadiens. C’est toujours un plaisir pour moi de faire un séjour dans votre pays, que j’ose considérer presque comme le mien. Au revoir et dormez bien. C’est un avenir splendide qui vous attend demain. Bonsoir. Goodnight! 29
1. Soames, Mary, Clementine Churchill (London: Cassell, 1979), 11.
2. Ibid., 22.
3. Bédarida, François, Churchill (Paris: Fayard, 1999), 49.
4. Churchill, Randolph S., Winston S. Churchill, Companion Volume I, Part 1 (London: Heinemann, 1967), 295.
5. Ibid., 298.
6. Ibid., 299.
7. Ibid., 297.
8. Arnavon, Jacques, W. Churchill (Paris: Les Éditions Universelles, 1944), 25.
9. Ibid., 26.
10. Montague Browne, Anthony, Long Sunset (London: Cassell, 1995), 198.
11. Ibid., 322. In 1913 as First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill became an Elder Brother of Trinity House, which looks after aids to navigation.
12. Bédarida, op. cit., 450n.
13. Kersaudy, François, Churchill & de Gaulle (London: Fontana, 1990), 378, quoting Charles de Gaulle, Le Salut, 49.
14. Duff Cooper, Alfred, Old Men Forget (London: Hart-Davis, 1953), 341.
15. Ismay, The Lord, Memoirs (London: Heinemann, 1960), 127.
16. The author has asked many literate Frenchmen the meaning of the phrase La masse de manœuvre. None knew, since it is a strictly military term.
17. Ismay, op. cit., 127.
18. Spears, Edward, Prelude to Dunkirk (New York: Wyn, 1954), 308.
19. Avon, The Earl of, The Reckoning (London: Cassell, 1965), 116.
20. Spears, Edward, The Fall of France (London: Heinemann, 1954), 148.
21. Colville, John, Footprints in Time (London: Collins, 1976), 114-15.
22. Kersaudy, François, Churchill et Monaco (Monaco: Rocher, 2002), 91.
23. Gilbert, Martin, Winston S. Churchill, vol. VII Road to Victory (London: Heinemann, 1986), 321.
24. Painting in oils/Is quite difficult/But it is much more rewarding/ Than painting in watercolours.
25. Brooks, Collin, “Churchill the Conversationalist” in Eade, Charles., ed., Churchill by his Contemporaries (London: Hutchinson, 1953), 363.
26. Oberlé, Jean, Jean Oberlé vous parle: souvenirs de cinq années à Londres (Paris: La Jeune Parque, 1945), 75.
27. “Frenchmen! This is me, Churchill, speaking to you. For more than thirty years, in peace and in war, I have marched with you, and I am marching still along the same road.”
28. Churchill Remembered, BBC Audio 2006. Churchill’s words in French can be heard on CD2 at the end of track 9, entitled Broadcasts to Occupied Europe.
29. “Goodbye, my Canadian friends. I always enjoy visiting your country, which I have come to look on almost as my own. Goodnight and sleep well. There is a wonderful future awaiting you in the morning. Goodnight.” Dilks, David, The Great Dominion (Toronto: Allen, 2005), 426-27.