September 15, 2021

Read a selection of Winston Churchill’s most famous quotes

“No One Would Do Such Things”

“So now the Admiralty wireless whispers through the ether to the tall masts of ships, and captains pace their decks absorbed in thought. It is nothing. It is less than nothing. It is too foolish, too fantastic to be thought of in the twentieth century. Or is it fire and murder leaping out of the darkness at our throats, torpedoes ripping the bellies of half-awakened ships, a sunrise on a vanished naval supremacy, and an island well-guarded hitherto, at last defenceless? No, it is nothing. No one would do such things. Civilization has climbed above such perils. The interdependence of nations in trade and traffic, the sense of public law, the Hague Convention, Liberal principles, the Labour Party, high finance, Christian charity, common sense have rendered such nightmares impossible. Are you quite sure? It would be a pity to be wrong. Such a mistake could only be made once—once for all.”

    —1923, recalling the possibility of war between France and Germany after the Agadir Crisis of 1911, in The World Crisis, vol. 1, 1911-1914, pp. 48-49.

“The King’s Ships Were at Sea”

“We may now picture this great Fleet, with its flotillas and cruisers, steaming slowly out of Portland Harbour, squadron by squadron, scores of gigantic castles of steel wending their way across the misty, shining sea, like giants bowed in anxious thought. We may picture them again as darkness fell, eighteen miles of warships running at high speed and in absolute blackness through the narrow Straits, bearing with them into the broad waters of the North the safeguard of considerable affairs…The King’s ships were at sea.”

—1923, recalling the passage of the Royal Navy to its war stations at the outbreak of World War I, in The World Crisis ,vol. 1, 1911-1914, pp. 212. Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, had taken it upon himself to order the fleet to its stations as war loomed between France and Germany.

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“I’d Drink [Poison]” (Apocryphal) 

Lady Astor: “If I were married to you, I’d put poison in your coffee.”

Reply: “If I were married to you, I’d drink it.”

       —1920s. Churchill biographer Sir Martin Gilbert said this exchange was more likely to have occurred between Lady Astor and Churchill’s good friend F.E. Smith, Lord Birkenhead, a notorious acerbic wit. But both Consuelo Vanderbilt (The Glitter and the Gold) and Christopher Sykes (Nancy: The Life of Lady Astor) say the riposte was by Churchill. The argument was rendered moot when Fred Shapiro, in The Yale Book of Quotations, tracked the origins of the phrase to a joke line from a 1900 edition of The Chicago Tribune.

“Total and Unmitigated Defeat”

“I will begin by saying what everybody would like to ignore or forget but which must nevertheless be stated, namely that we have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat, and France has suffered even more than we have….the German dictator, instead of snatching the victuals from the table, has been content to have them served to him course by course.”

       —House of Commons, 5 October 1938, after the Munich agreement began the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. The rest of that unhappy country was swallowed by Hitler six months later.

“Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat”

“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. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many long months of toil and struggle.

“You ask what is our policy. I will say, it is to wage war with all our might, with all the strength that God can give us, to wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime.

“You ask what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory. Victory at all costs. Victory in spite of all terror. Victory however long and hard the road may be. For without victory there is no survival.”

       —First speech as Prime Minister, House of Commons, 13 May 1940. Churchill first used the phrase “blood and sweat” in 1900; “Blood, sweat and tears” came together in his 1939 article, “Can Franco Restore Unity and Strength to Spain.”

“Be Ye Men of Valour”

“Today is Trinity Sunday. Centuries ago words were written to be a call and a spur to the faithful servants of Truth and Justice: ‘Arm yourselves, and be ye men of valour, and be in readiness for the conflict; for it is better for us to perish in battle than to look upon the outrage of our nation and our altar. As the will of God is in Heaven, even so let it be.'”

       —First broadcast as Prime Minister, 19 May 1940. Churchill adopted the quotation from 1 Maccabees 3:58-60. The four Books of the Maccabees, also spelt “Machabbes,” are not in the Hebrew Bible but the first two books are part of canonical scripture in the Septuagint and the Vulgate and are in the Protestant Apocrypha. But Churchill somewhat edited the text. For the original wording click here.

“Never Surrender”

“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 fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing-grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!”

       —House of Commons, 4 June 1940, following the evacuation of British and French armies from Dunkirk as the German tide swept through France.

“Their Finest Hour”

What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. 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.’

       —House of Commons, 18 June 1940, following the collapse of France. Many thought Britain would follow.

“War of the Unknown Warriors”

This is no war of chieftains or of princes, of dynasties or national ambition; it is a war of peoples and of causes. There are vast numbers, not only in this island but in every land, who will render faithful service in this war but whose names will never be known, whose deeds will never be recorded. This is a war of the Unknown Warriors; but let all strive without failing in faith or in duty, and the dark curse of Hitler will be lifted from our age.”

       —BBC Broadcast, London, 14 July 1940

“The Few”

“The gratitude of every home in our island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the world war by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. “

       —Tribute to the Royal Air Force, House of Commons, 20 August 1940. The Battle of Britain peaked a month later. Because of German bombing raids, Churchill said, Britain was “a whole nation fighting and suffering together.” He had worked out the phrase about “The Few” in his mind as he visited the Fighter Command airfields in Southern England.

“A Dark and Deadly Valley”

“Far be it from me to paint a rosy picture of the future. Indeed, I do not think we should be justified in using any but the most sombre tones and colours while our people, our Empire and indeed the whole English-speaking world are passing through a dark and deadly valley. But I should be failing in my duty if, on the other wise, I were not to convey the true impression, that a great nation is getting into its war stride.”

       —House of Commons, 22 January 1941

“Linchpin of the English-Speaking World”

“Canada is the linchpin of the English-speaking world. Canada, with those relations of friendly, affectionate intimacy with the United States on the one hand and with her unswerving fidelity to the British Commonwealth and the Motherland on the other, is the link which joins together these great branches of the human family, a link which, spanning the oceans, brings the continents into their true relation and will prevent in future generations any growth of division between the proud and the happy nations of Europe and the great countries which have come into existence in the New World.”

       —Mansion House, London, 4 September 1941, at a luncheon in honour of Mackenzie King, Prime Minister of Canada.

“Captain of Our Souls”

“The mood of Britain is wisely and rightly averse from every form of shallow or premature exultation. This is no time for boasts or glowing prophecies, but there is this—a year ago our position looked forlorn, and well nigh desperate, to all eyes but our own. Today we may say aloud before an awe-struck world, ‘We are still masters of our fate. We still are captain of our souls.'”

       —House of Commons, 9 September 1941

“Never Give In”

“This is the lesson: never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”

       —Harrow School, 29 October 1941. It is commonly believed that Churchill stood up, gave the three-word speech, “Never give in!,” and sat down. This is incorrect, as is the suggestion, variously reported, that the speech occurred at Oxfordor Cambridge. It was on his first visit to his old school, Harrow, where he would continue to return for the annual “Songs,” making his last appearance in 1961.

“Child of the House of Commons”     

“I am a child of the House of Commons. I was brought up in my father’s house to believe in democracy. ‘Trust the people’—that was his message….I owe my advancement entirely to the House of Commons, whose servant I am. In my country, as in yours, public men are proud to be the servants of the State and would be ashamed to be its masters. Therefore I have been in full harmony all my life with the tides which have flowed on both sides of the Atlantic against privilege and monopoly….By the way, I cannot help reflecting that if my father had been American and my mother British, instead of the other way around, I might have got here on my own!”

       —First of three speeches to a Joint Session of the States Congress, after Pearl Harbor, delivered 26 December 1941. (The others occurred in 1943 and 1952.)

“Some Chicken—Some Neck!”

“When I warned [the French] that Britain would fight on alone, whatever they did, their Generals told their Prime Minister and his divided cabinet: ‘In three weeks, England will have her neck wrung like a chicken.

“Some chicken….Some neck!

       —Canadian Parliament, Ottawa, 30 December 1941. Following this speech, Yousuf Karshtook his famous photographs of Churchill.

“Sugar Candy”

“We have not journeyed across the centuries, across the oceans, across the mountains, across the prairies, because we are made of sugar candy.”

       —Canadian Parliament, Ottawa, 30 December 1941.

“The End of the Beginning”

“The Germans have received back again that measure of fire and steel which they have so often meted out to others. Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

       —Lord Mayor’s Luncheon, Mansion House following the victory at El Alamein North Africa,  London, 10 November 1942.

“We Shape Our Buildings”

“On the night of May 10, 1941, with one of the last bombs of the last serious raid, our House of Commons was destroyed by the violence of the enemy, and we have now to consider whether we should build it up again, and how, and when.

“We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us. Having dwelt and served for more than forty years in the late Chamber, and having derived very great pleasure and advantage therefrom, I, naturally, should like to see it restored in all essentials to its old form, convenience and dignity.”

       —House of Commons (meeting in the House of Lords), 28 October 1943. The old House was rebuilt in 1950 in its old form, remaining insufficient to seat all its members. Churchill was against “giving each member a desk to sit at and a lid to bang” because, he explained, the House would be mostly empty most of the time; whereas, at critical votes and moments, it would fill beyond capacity, with members spilling out into the aisles, in his view a suitable “sense of crowd and urgency.”

“Up with which I will not put” (Apocryphal)

“This is the kind of tedious [sometimes “pedantic”] nonsense up with which I will not put!”

       —Alleged marginal note by Churchill, 27 February 1944, to a priggish civil servant’s memo objecting to the ending of sentences with prepositions. The New York Times version reported that the Prime Minister underscored “up” heavily.

The sources are cable reports by The New York Times and Chicago Tribune, 28 February 1944. The Yale Book of Quotations quotes The Wall Street Journal of 30 September 1942 which in turn quoted an undated article in The Strand Magazine: “When a memorandum passed round a certain Government department, one young pedant scribbled a postscript drawing attention to the fact that the sentence ended with a preposition, which caused the original writer to circulate another memorandum complaining that the anonymous postscript was ‘offensive impertinence, up with which I will not put.'” Verdict: An invented phrase put in Churchill’s mouth.

“I leave when the pub closes”

Toward the end of World War II, before the July 1945 election that he would lose, The Times (London) prepared an editorial suggesting that Churchill campaign as a non-partisan world leader and retire gracefully soon afterwards. The editor kindly informed Churchill that he was going to make these two points.

“Mr Editor,” Churchill replied to the first point, “I fight for my corner.”

And, to the second: “Mr Editor, I leave when the pub closes.”

       —May 1945. H.A.Grunwald, Churchill: The Life Triumphant (American Heritage, 1965)

“Lousy” as a Parliamentary Expression

The Minister of Fuel and Power, Hugh Gaitskell, later Attlee’s successor as leader of the Labour Party, advocated saving energy by taking fewer baths: “Personally, I have never had a great many baths myself, and I can assure those who are in the habit of having a great many that it does not make a great difference to their health if they have less.”

This was too much for Churchill, a renowned bather: “When Ministers of the Crown speak like this on behalf of HM Government, the Prime Minister and his friends have no need to wonder why they are getting increasingly into bad odour. I have even asked myself, when meditating upon these points, whether you, Mr. Spekaer, would admit the word ‘lousy’ as a Parliamentary expression in referring to the Administration, provided, of course, it was not intended in a contemptuous sense but purely as one of factual narration.”

       —House of Commons, 28 October 1947

“Withhold No Sacrifice”

“We have surmounted all the perils and endured all the agonies of the past. We shall provide against and thus prevail over the dangers and problems of the future, withhold no sacrifice, grudge no toil, seek no sordid gain, fear no foe. All will be well. We have, I believe, within us the life-strength and guiding light by which the tormented world around us may find the harbour of safety, after a storm-beaten voyage.”

       —Chateau Laurier, Ottawa, 9 November 1954

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