Finest Hour 143, Summer 2009
Student Essay – From Pen to Parliament
How a young man’s writings shaped a hero
By Allison Hay
Ms. Hay is a graduate with distinction from the University of Oklahoma, where she was a Letters major under Professor Ronald Schleifer. She begins law school this autumn at OU.
Less attention is paid to Churchill’s literary works than to his statesmanship, but his literary influence is notable, and its bearing on the intellect undeniable. What would our heritage be without the timelessly inspirational “This Was Their Finest Hour”? Would World War II have ended differently had he not “mobilized the English language,” as Murrow and Kennedy said, “and sent it into battle”?
By their titles alone his great wartime speeches show the quality and authority of Churchill’s work. Seventy years since the height of his career he remains a hero, but his political achievement rests on the foundation of his writings. Beyond his speeches, his books and articles left few historical stones unturned. For his literary genius, Winston Churchill is a premier example of the greatness of British Literature.
Long before he became a statesman, Churchill was an author. Many new to him are surprised to learn that he had no university education. His father, who saw no promise in his son at Harrow, found no reason to send him to Oxford or Cambridge. Instead he became a soldier.
It was left to young Winston to educate himself, which he did through the epic histories of Macaulay and Gibbon. Stationed in India in 1896, he “embarked on that process of self-education which was to prove so serviceable a substitute for the opportunities which he had neglected or rejected in his formal education…within a few months of his arrival in Bangalore he was making insatiable demands upon his mother for more books.”1
Studying the history of ancient wars and governments, parliamentary debates and his father’s speeches would serve Churchill well in future writings. Self-education made him a master of prose, and by the time he began writing seriously, his stylistic patterns were formed.
Churchill wished to establish himself as a respected and intelligent author among the statesmen whose role he craved for himself. But the war dispatches he wrote from Cuba, India, the Sudan and South Africa from 1895 to 1900 did not satisfy his ambitious desire to be noticed.
His first book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force, was hastily written in five weeks and shipped to his mother with a note on the last day of 1897: “I don’t want anything modified or toned down in any way. I will stand or fall by what I have written. I only want bad sentences polished & any repetitions of phrase or fact weeded out.”2
Although the story was embarrassingly full of errors, Churchill achieved a taste of success and established his approach to writing history: a combination of personal experiences and a realistic description of what he believed had happened. This method made his stories come alive for readers far beyond those interested in the war tales.3 The Malakand Field Force sold well, bringing Churchill to the attention of publishers and the general public.
There followed The River War, whose two volumes made Churchill known as a legitimate and trusted military reporter. Reviews were not all positive, but most agreed that he was “an astonishing young man,” his book “an astonishing triumph. It is well-written, it is impartial, it is conclusive, and we do not think that any other living man could have produced it. Of course, it has its faults. It is far too long, for instance.”4 Length never seemed to bother Churchill; his best books usually ran in multiple volumes; nor were his speeches ever described as models of brevity.
With two books complete, Churchill began to write with more confidence and quickly produced three more books, including his only novel, Savrola. To call it entirely fictitious would be misleading, since the main character resembles Churchill in an ideal manner. Savrola is a man who champions politics, specifically a republic, as a saving force of justice. He becomes disillusioned with politics and prefers philosophic contemplation and a love for the beautiful things in life.5
Winston himself was often disillusioned with political developments, though not politics itself. He was blunt in such moments, as evidenced by remarks about politicians as, “He is asked to stand [for office], he wants to sit and he is expected to lie.”6
The year 1900 marked Churchill’s shift from the military to the political sphere. After publication of two accounts of the Boer War, he entered Parliament and began to criticize his own party to such an extent that he soon changed sides over the issue of Free Trade. He published several volumes of notable speeches and an African travelogue, fast shaping his leadership style. Although the issues then were not as serious as what was to come, they gave him the experience of persuading others to understand his opinions.
Churchill wrote his speeches, and would often spend eight to ten hours perfecting one. He wrote out the full text to guard against any lapses, speaking in a professional and persuasive manner.7 He was developing an ability to conceive large ideas and to express them inspirationally, so listeners could clearly understand his position. A leader without such ability would certainly be unable to unite a country in war.
World War I was next on Churchill’s learning curve as a writer. The Admiralty, Munitions Ministry and War Office gave him an insider’s perspective on the actions and realities of war, deftly conveyed in his multi-volume (five volumes in six) memoir, The World Crisis. Nowhere is Churchill’s political awareness better expressed than in his fourth volume, Part II, at the end of the war in 1918:
Is this the end? Is it to be merely a chapter in a cruel and senseless story? Will a new generation in their turn be immolated to square the black accounts of Teuton and Gaul? Will our children bleed and gasp again in devastated lands? Or will there spring from the very fires of conflict that reconciliation of the three giant combatants, which would unite their genius and secure to each in safety and freedom a share in rebuilding the glory of Europe?8
During the publication of the first two World Crisis volumes Churchill was out of office, and had begun his skein of hundreds of articles for newspapers and magazines by which he earned a living in the 1920s and 1930s. All too soon they began to warn of German rearmament. Reading them today, one is conscious of his prophecy. His aim was clear: warn the country. Although in the 1930s he had no office and few backers, he tried to make his voice heard—to be noticed, just as when he was a young soldier in India.
Churchill’s looks into the future were complemented by his writings of his past, notably the life of his ancestor John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough, in four massive volumes between 1933 and 1938. This great work “took him back not to the politics of his youth but to the global conflict of another century and his required mastery of the spirit of a remote age.”9 Churchill invested nearly a million words in Marlborough; it was significant not just as a biography but as a description, then only hopeful, of what he saw as his destiny. Reading its account of an English patriot confronting a continental tyrant who seeks England’s ruin, it is easy to find the genesis of the immortal speeches of 1940. Churchill’s affinity for Marlborough’s wars compares vividly to his abhorrence of 20th century war in The World Crisis.
Then came the Hitler war and the year Churchill said “nothing surpasses.” On 13 May 1940, as Britain faced a seemingly all-powerful enemy, came his first speech as Prime Minister: one of the most resolute, honest and inspiring ever delivered by a politician.
The speech itself is posted on our website (http://xrl.us/beuner). Let us consider only its best-known sentence: “I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this Government: ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”10 I disagree with his sentiment— Churchill did have more to offer: inspiration, eloquence, leadership—but how modest and honest these words are.
The famous phrase had a long and somewhat complicated gestation, and Churchill, like all good writers, developed it over time. He first used “blood and sweat” speaking with a friend in 1900; mentioned “their sweat, their tears, their blood” in regard to the Russians in 1931, and “blood, sweat and tears” later in the Daily Telegraph.11
Now the words came together as he rallied his country, despite his concern that it might be too late: “If this long island story of ours is to end at last,” he told Cabinet privately, “let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”12 They responded with cheers and roars, but how many would have had the same thoughts had Churchill not crystallized the words?
Churchill is the reason Britain continued to fight. His words and spirit gave strength to the people. Because he was courageous, they were. Words rallied a nation desperately short of weapons. Ronald Golding, a Royal Air Force squadron leader later WSC’s bodyguard (see previous article) said of the famous voice crackling over the radio: “After those speeches, we wanted the Germans to come.”13 Churchill, the orator without speechwriters, was Britain’s source of courage.
More powerful and rousing speeches followed, like “Be Ye Men of Valor” a few days later on Trinity Sunday: “Side by side, unaided except by their kith and kin in the great Dominions and by the wide Empires which rest beneath their shield—side by side, the British and French peoples have advanced to rescue not only Europe but mankind from the foulest and most soul-destroying tyranny which has ever darkened and stained the pages of history.”14
Brtain’s task was not for herself but for the world: “Arm yourselves and be ye men of valour,” Churchill quoted from the Book of Macabees, words familiar to his nation.
As France fell and doubts rose again, Churchill responded directly: “…we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be….we shall never surrender.”15
Churchill had learned reading Gibbon and Macaulay years before that the Romans and Greeks won wars by staying the course. In what was arguably his most desperate speech, on 18 June 1940 with France defeated (“another bloody country gone west,” he remarked), he took on the tangible and real threat to Britain herself. With utter frankness he declared, “The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us.” But then he added: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.'”16 Brace they did.
A point often missed in the soaring rhetoric of this speech was its appeal to patriotic duty, a reference to such Britons as the wardens who ushered people into bomb shelters, the blackout curtains, the fire brigades and the Home Guard. Churchill was making a call to duty for all citizens to perform the patriotic duty requested of them, which gave them a sense of power over the enemy. The enemy might come—but their visit would not go unanswered.
Churchill admitted that things would get worse before they got better, and chaffed over the continued aloofness of America. His 9 February 1941 world broadcast shows how passionately he was campaigning for American aid, even if he had to shame Americans into it: “Give us your faith and your blessing, and, under Providence all will be well. We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire….Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.”17
When he put it that way, it did not seem as if he was asking for much. Of course, he was asking for a great deal: Roosevelt was limited by the fact that only Congress could declare war. Churchill chose simple language so there would be no misunderstanding; coal miner and statesman alike could understand.
We all know how the story ended. The Allies won the war and Churchill was voted out of office. The whys and hows of that episode have already been discussed in these pages (“Why Churchill Lost,” Finest Hour 140:74). But consider the consequences, which were not all bad.
In defeat Churchill had time to do more of what he did best: writing. Between 1948 and 1958 he published six volumes of war memoirs, five volumes of speeches, four volumes of his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, even a book on his hobby of painting. At Fulton in 1946 he warned of the dangers of a new war, and suggested how to prevent it. Throughout those years he stressed the common heritage of Britain and America, and how their bonds should be as he said, “cemented.”18 His writings described the mistakes of the past, and warned against repeating them. In 1953 he received Nobel Prize for Literature “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.”19
It has been said of his writing style that he was not afraid of repetition: “Once a felicitous phrase had occurred to him, Churchill never hesitated to reuse it, resulting in a remarkable consistency over half a century.”20 His photographic memory stood him well throughout. He often used old-fashioned phrases, like something your grandfather said as you bounced on his knee. I believe Churchill saw in old expressions an association with a better or at least more settled time; surely his use of them was not accidental.
Churchill did minimize his affinity for language by using a simplified syntax, hoping to drive people not to dictionaries but to courage and heroism. As a professional writer he knew how to connect. His words humanized him, connecting him with people of all classes. This tactic is the capstone of the Churchill style, whether to tug our heart-strings, to gain sympathy, or to inspire action or devotion. He was always, triumphantly, in touch.
Churchill himself was humble about his war speeches. “The people’s will was resolute and remorseless,” he recalled in 1954. “It fell to me to express it, and if I found the right words you must remember that I have always earned my living by my pen and by my tongue.”21
It was a remarkable triumph for a young man, unschooled and self-educated, who went on to become the foremost statesman of the 20th century. Churchill the writer should be known at least as well as the statesman and the war leader—for “the incandescent quality of his words,” as President Kennedy said, which “illuminated the courage of his countrymen.”22
1. Randolph S. Churchill, Winston S. Churchill, vol.1: Youth 1874-1900 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966), 307, hereafter Youth.
2. Youth, 353.
3. Maurice Ashley, Churchill as Historian (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons), 41.
4. Youth, 442.
5. James W. Muller, ed., Churchill as Peacemaker (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 79.
6. Richard M. Langworth, ed., Churchill by Himself: The Definitive Collection of Quotations (New York: Public Affairs, 2008), 392.
7. Rufus J. Fears, “Churchill” (Teaching Company, 2001).
8. John Lukacs, Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat: The Dire Warning (New York: Basic Books, 2008), 13.
9. Manfred Weidhorn, Sword and Pen: A Survey of the Writings of Sir Winston Churchill (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1974), 110.
10. David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar, The Longman Anthology of British Literature, 3rd ed., (New York: Pearson, 2006), 2799.
11. Langworth, 4.
12. Gretchen Rubin, Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill (New York: Ballantine, 2003), 53.
13. Langworth, 2.
14. Ibid., 4.
15. Ibid., 5.
16. Ibid., 5.
17. Ibid., 7.
18. Ashley, 210.
19. The Nobel Prize in Literature 1953, “Winston Churchill,” Nobel Prize.org, http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1953/index.html/.
20. Langworth, ix.
21. Ibid., viii.
22. John F. Kennedy conveying Honorary American Citizenship on Sir Winston Churchill, the White House, Washington, 9 April 1963.
Get the Churchill Bulletin delivered to your inbox once a month.