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Winston Churchill on France and the French

Finest Hour 157, Winter 2012-13

Page 31

“All my life I have been grateful for the contribution France has made to the culture and glory of Europe, and above all for the sense of personal liberty and the rights of man which has radiated from the soul of France….Show me a moment when I swerved from this conception, and you will show me a moment when I have been wrong”
—WSC, 1944


Cherbourg, July 1944: In an iconic photo published in Newsweek, a French dock worker lights Churchill’s cigar. Alongside the PM is Major General Cecil Moore, U.S. Army, Chief Engineer, European Theatre of Operations. Churchill was making his second visit to France since D-Day, chiefly to meet with Montgomery prior to the second phase of OVERLORD. He visited Utah Beach and the main British landing point at Arromanches, where he examined one of his own ideas, the Mulberry Harbour; and inspected a captured, unfinished flying bomb launching site, now safely in the Allies’ hands. (Imperial War Museum)

Editor’s note: Quotations without references are from speeches in the House of Commons (Hansard).

“Pétain was of all others fitted to the healing task….He thus restored by the end of the year [1917] that sorely tried, glorious Army upon whose sacrifices the liberties of Europe had through three fearful campaigns mainly depended.”     —The World Crisis III, Part 1, 1927.

★★★

“[Foch] began his career a little cub brushed aside by the triumphant march of the German armies to Paris and victory; he lived to see all the might of valiant Germany prostrate and suppliant at his pencil tip. In the weakest posi- tion he endured the worst with his country; at the summit of power he directed its absolute triumph….Fortune lighted his crest.…In 1914 he had saved the day by refusing to recognise defeat. In 1915 and in 1916 he broke his teeth upon the Impossible. But 1918 was created for him.”
July 1929, “Foch the Indomitable,” Pall Mall, reprinted in Great Contemporaries (1937).

“We have all heard of how Dr. Guillotin was executed by the instrument that he invented….”

[Sir Herbert Samuel: “He was not!”]

“Well, he ought to have been.”
—29 April 1931

★★★

“The truth is that Clemenceau embodied and expressed France. As much as any single human being, miraculously magnified, can ever be a nation, he was France. Fancy paints nations in symbolic animals—the British Lion, the American Eagle, the Russian double-headed ditto, the Gallic Cock. But the Old Tiger, with his quaint, stylish cap, his white moustache and burning eye, would make a truer mascot for France than any barnyard fowl. He was an apparition of the French Revolution at its sublime moment.

“The Clemenceau of the Peace was a great statesman. He was confronted with enormous difficulties. He made for France the best bargain that the Allies, who were also the world, would tolerate. France was disappointed; Foch was disappointed, and also offended by personal frictions. Clemenceau, unrepentant to the end, continued to bay at the Church. The Presidency passed to an amiable nonentity [Paul Deschanel], who soon tumbled out of a railway carriage.”
December 1930, “Clemenceau, ” Evening Standard, reprinted in Great Contemporaries (1937).

★★★

“We all know that the French are pacific. They are quite as pacific as we are.…But the French seem much nearer to the danger than we are. There is no strip of salt water to guard their land and their liberties. We must remember that they are the only other great European country that has not reverted to despotism or dictatorship in one form or another.”
— 24 October 1935.

★★★

“The peasants have the land. The aristocracy are broken. The Church is quelled. For good or for ill the French people have been effectively masters in their own house, and have built as they chose upon the ruins of the old régime. They have done what they like. Their difficulty is to like what they have done.”
18 September 1936, “A Testing Time for France,” Evening Standard, reprinted in Step by Step (1939). A refrain heard by WSC’s family was “do what you like, but like what you do.” Here he effectively turns it on its head.

★★★

“Many…are apt to regard the French as a vain, volatile, fanciful, hysterical nation. As a matter of fact they are one of the most grim, sober, unsentimental, calculating and tenacious races in the world.…The British are good at paying taxes, but detest drill. The French do not mind drill, but avoid taxes. Both nations can still fight, if they are convinced there is no other way of surviving; but in such a case France would have a small surplus and Britain a small army.”
—25 June 1937, “Vive La France!” Evening Standard, reprinted in Step by Step (1939).

★★★

“…at a moment of great disaster, when it seemed that the French and British armies might well be severed from one another by the German advance, the illustrious Marshal [Foch] took command of the stricken field, and after a critical and even agonizing month, restored the fortunes of the war. General Weygand, who was head of his military family—as the French put it—said: If Marshal Foch were here now, he would not waste time deploring what has been lost. He would say: ‘Do not yield another yard.’”
—19 May 1939, Corn Exchange, Cambridge.

★★★

“The House will feel profound sorrow at the fate of the great French nation and people to whom we have been joined so long in war and peace, and whom we have regarded as trustees with ourselves for the progress of a liberal culture and tolerant civilization of Europe.”
—25 June 1940.

★★★

“…the French were now fighting with all their vigour for the first time since the war broke out.”
—3 July 1940, Colville, Fringes of Power. In July 1940, a British squadron destroyed the bulk of the French fleet at their ports in North Africa when the French refused either to surrender them or to sail them to neutral ports.

★★★

“Faith is given to us, to help and comfort us when we stand in awe before the unfurling scroll of human destiny. And I proclaim my faith that some of us will live to see a fourteenth of July when a liberated France will once again…stand forward as the champion of the freedom and the rights of man. When the day dawns, as dawn it will, the soul of France will turn with comprehension and kindness to those Frenchmen and Frenchwomen, wherever they may be, who in the darkest hour did not despair of the Republic.”
—14 July 1940, Bastille Day.

★★★

“Our old comradeship with France is not dead. In General de Gaulle and his gallant band, that comradeship takes an effective form. These free Frenchmen have been condemned to death by Vichy, but the day will come, as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow, when their names will be held in honour, and their names will be graven in stone in the streets and villages of a France restored in a liberated Europe to its full freedom and its ancient fame.”
20 August 1940.

★★★

“Frenchmen! For more than thirty years in peace and war I have marched with you. I am marching still along the same road. Tonight I speak to you at your firesides, wherever you may be, or whatever your fortunes are. I repeat the prayer upon the louis d’ or, ‘Dieu protège la France.’ Here at home in England, under the fire of the Boche, we do not forget the ties and links that unite us to France.…Here in London, which Herr Hitler says he will reduce to ashes… our Air Force has more than held its own. We are waiting for the long-promised invasion. So are the fishes.”
— 21 October 1940, Broadcast to France.

★★★

“I certainly deprecate any comparison between Herr Hitler and Napoleon; I do not wish to insult the dead.”
—19 December 1940.

★★★

“While there are men like General de Gaulle and all those who follow him—and they are legion throughout France—and men like General Giraud, that gallant warrior whom no prison can hold, while there are men like those to stand forward in the name and in the cause of France, my confidence in the future of France is sure.”
—19 November 1942.

★★★

“The Almighty in His infinite wisdom did not see fit to create Frenchmen in the image of Englishmen. In a State like France which has experienced so many convulsions—Monarchy, Convention, Directory, Consulate, Empire, Monarchy, Empire and finally Republic— there has grown up a principle founded on the ‘droit administratif’ which undoubtedly governs the action of many French officers and officials in times of revolution and change. It is a highly legalistic habit of mind and it arises from a subconscious sense of national self-preservation against the dangers of sheer anarchy….

“We all thought General Giraud was the man for the job, and that his arrival would be electrical. In this opinion, General Giraud emphatically agreed.”
—Secret session speech. 10 December 1942.

★★★

“Comic relief has been afforded by the attempt to bring de Gaulle to the altar where Giraud has been waiting impatiently for several days! [De Gaulle] thinks he is Clemenceau (having dropped Joan of Arc for the time being), and wishes Giraud to be Foch, i.e., dismissible at Prime Minister Clemenceau’s pleasure! When a country undergoes so frightful a catastrophe as France, every other evil swarms down upon her like carrion crows.”
WSC to his wife, Casablanca, 24 January 1943.

★★★

“When Voltaire was invited to visit the Prussian Court he stipulated that all expenses should be paid, and that the Order of Merit should be thrown in. Both were forthcoming.”
—22 March 1944.

★★★

“For forty years I have been a consistent friend of France and her brave army; all my life I have been grateful for the contribution France has made to the culture and glory of Europe, and above all for the sense of personal liberty and the rights of man which has radiated from the soul of France. But these are not matters of sentiment or personal feeling. It is one of the main interests of Great Britain that a friendly France should regain and hold her place among the major powers of Europe and the world. Show me a moment when I swerved from this conception, and you will show me a moment when I have been wrong….

“I had many differences with General de Gaulle, but I have never forgotten, and can never forget, that he stood forth as the first eminent Frenchman to face the common foe in what seemed to be the hour of ruin of his country, and possibly of ours; and it is only fair and becoming that he should stand first and foremost in the days when France shall again be raised, and raise herself, to her rightful place among the great Powers of Europe and of the world.
—2 August 1944.

★★★

“… after Leipzig in 1813, Napoleon left all his garrisons on the Rhine, and 40,000 men in Hamburg.…Similarly, Hitler has successfully scattered the German armies all over Europe, and by obstinating at every point, from Stalingrad and Tunis down to the present moment, he has stripped himself of the power to concentrate in main strength for the final struggle.”
—28 September 1944.

★★★

“I am going to give you a warning: be on your guard, because I am going to speak, or try to speak, in French, a formidable undertaking and one which will put great demands on your friendship for Great Britain.”
—12 November 1944, Paris Liberation Committee, Hotel de Ville, Paris.

★★★

“I rejoice in the undoubted growing recovery of France; but I want to warn you that the kind of political whirligig under which France lives, which is such great fun for the politicians and for all the little ardent parties into which they are divided, would be fatal to Britain. We cannot afford to have a period of French politics in Westminster.”
—4 February 1950, Leeds.

★★★

“The Frogs are getting all they can for nothing, and we are getting nothing for all we can.”
—31 May 1954, Downing Street (Mary Soames, Speaking for Themselves). WSC to his wife, referring to a Geneva conference after the French collapse in Indo-China.

★★★

“There now appeared upon the ravaged scene an Angel of Deliverance, the noblest patriot of France, the most splendid of her heroes, the most beloved of her saints, the most inspiring of all her memories, the peasant Maid, the ever-shining, ever-glorious Joan of Arc. In the poor, remote hamlet of Domrémy, on the fringe of the Vosges Forest, she served at the inn.”
— The Birth of Britain, 1956.

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