April 6, 2009

Feature Articles – Finest Hour 112

From September 11th his words were on every lip. Dr. Stephen Bungay explains how Churchill crafted the speeches that still inspire us today.

Dr. Bungay, a member of ICS (UK), is the author of The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain (Aurum Press: 2000), an account of the events of summer 1940, and of the role Churchill played in them. In the present article, he is indebted to Garry Wills, whose brilliant Lincoln at Gettysburg (Simon & Schuster) shows how Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address has a structure going back to Pericles and also forms a tightly interlocked linguistic network. The author has followed the visual display technique used by Wills on his pages 172-5. Dr. Bungay writes: “It was Wills’s book which first gave me the idea of looking at Churchill’s speeches in a similar way. Both Lincoln and Churchill were rooted in the same long western tradition of political  rhetoric, and the words spoken by both men at times of crisis have had a profound and lasting impact on their respective nations.”


“Blood, toil, tears and sweat”… “we will fight on the beaches” … “this was their finest hour” … “never was so much owed by so many to so few.” These phrases, all uttered in the summer of 1940, have almost become cliches, showing that Churchill was a master of what we now call the sound bite. They have taken on a life of their own outside the speeches in which they first occurred. Yet the power of oratory cannot be reduced to a string of memorable phrases. The sound bites were embedded in speeches and derived a lot of their original effect from their context. The impact of the speeches has been routinely observed but seldom analysed. Why have they become so famous? How did Churchill do it?

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His oratory was not universally acclaimed at the time, particularly in Parliament. Indeed it confirmed many members’ suspicions about the soundness of his judgment. One Tory MP commented, after the Conservative Party meeting on 9 October 1940 when Churchill was made party leader, that he was “a word-spinner, a second-rate rhetorician.”1 Churchill had become Prime Minister on 10 May 1940, against the wishes of the King and many Conservative MPs who would have preferred the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax.

Oratory was the main instrument he used to maintain his shaky position in Parliament, to solidify support in the nation, and to get the war fought.2 It was a very personal instrument, for he employed no speech writers. Churchill was his own spin doctor.3

The style he had developed changed little over the years and had not always worked. Romantic and verbose, he deployed a vocabulary that was old-fashioned even in 1940. Before the war, it had often seemed ridiculously inappropriate.4 In 1940, events suddenly rose to the dramatic level necessary for Churchillian prose to be worthy of them. Yet his sense of language was always very keen and his use of it precise.

One of his Private Secretaries, John Martin, has recalled how, driving with Churchill along the Embankment, he had casually observed that the windings of the Thames were “extraordinary.” “Not ‘extraordinary,'” Churchill had corrected — all rivers wind. Rather, ‘remarkable.'” Denis Kelly, who helped draft lengthy tracts of the war memoirs, recalls preparing the sentence, “Germany was isolated and surrounded on all sides.” Churchill drew a line through it, saying: “The word you want is ‘crushed.'”5

The PM’s speech in the House of Commons on the afternoon of 18 June 1940 has become one of his most famous. It gave the Battle of Britain its name and ends with the phrase which has become shorthand for the way in which Britain conducted its resistance to Hitler in 1940: “their finest hour.” Probably unconsciously, it makes creative use of established rhetorical devices and has a classical pedigree. At times, Churchill’s exact meaning is obscure, but he employs formal linguistic tools which have moved and persuaded people since ancient times. Few if any of his listeners would themselves have been aware of this, but the effect was felt by them all the same. By and large, the less sophisticated his audience, the greater the effect of his words.

The June 18th speech lasted for 36 minutes. As Prime Minister of a National Government, Churchill was obliged to tell the House what was going on, so he in fact devoted most of that period to a report on the recent events of the war. Public opinion surveys conducted by the Ministry of Information had indicated that there was some danger of a rift between Parliament and the people so, despite his dislike of the relatively new medium of radio, he was prevailed upon to broadcast to the nation at 9:00 that evening. He repeated the speech almost word for word.6

In the Commons, the reaction to Churchill’s words was muted. His Private Secretary, John Colville, wrote that “he spoke less well than on the last occasion, and referred more often to his notes; but he ended magnificently.”7 Member of Parliament Harold Nicolson wrote in his diary that he thought Churchill sounded “ghastly” on the wireless.8 Newspaper owner Cecil King thought he was either ill or drunk, and wrote in his diary that it was “the poorest possible effort.”9 Colville’s female dinner companion that night remarked that it was like listening to a bishop.10 Churchill did the whole broadcast whilst smoking a cigar, which, together with his lifelong difficulty in pronouncing the letter ‘s,’ may account for the impression that he was the worse for drink.

Whatever these influential and important people thought, Churchill had captured the nation’s heart. Audience research carried out by the BBC at the time showed that 51% of the population listened to his first broadcast as Prime Minister on 19 May, the percentage increasing with every broadcast, reaching almost 60% on 18 June, increasing further after that. A Home Office report on public opinion conducted the following day records some adverse comments about the delivery, but found that the anxiously awaited speech was considered “courageous and hopeful.”11 One of his political opponents, “Rab” Butler’s private secretary Henry “Chips” Channon, admitted that although Churchill left him unmoved, the nation would no doubt be impressed.12 It was impressed enough throughout the summer that a Gallup Poll conducted in July gave Churchill an extraordinary 88% approval rating and in October, despite the incessant bombing of London that had begun, 89%.13

June 18th was the 125th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, and the British Army, along with the French, had just met its own Waterloo at the hands of the Wehrmacht. The evacuation from Dunkirk had ended just two weeks before, and Britain was expecting to be invaded at any moment. Churchill opened his address by reviewing the history of the lamentable collapse on the continent, dismissing the search for scapegoats there and the hounding of former appeasers at home. He outlined the forces available for home defence, noting that the existence of the Royal Navy made a sea crossing a perilous undertaking, and then considered the threat from the air.

The “great question,” he said, was whether we could “break Hitler’s air weapon.” He asserted that the RAF, though less numerous than the Luftwaffe, was still very powerful and had so far proven itself superior. He addressed the possible impact of bombing, and used the example of Barcelona to show that resolute people could stand up to it. Expressing his conviction that France should continue to resist, he warmed to his theme, screwing up the emotional tension by talking of Britain’s sense of comradeship with the French people:

If we are now called upon to endure what they have been suffering, we shall emulate their courage, and if final victory rewards our toils, they shall share the gains, aye, and freedom shall be restored to all. We abate nothing of our just demands; not one jot or tittle do we recede. Czechs, Poles, Norwegians, Dutch, Belgians have joined their causes to our own. All these shall be restored.14

Here for the first time Churchill stops reporting on events and addresses themes which recur throughout all of his speeches. These themes are like leitmotifs which, taken together, spell out his political vision. They form a simple, coherent whole which could be expressed as five propositions:

(1) We face a monstrous evil which is a threat to the whole world.

(2) If we can stand up to it, we will save not only ourselves, but the whole of mankind.

(3) Our ultimate goal must be victory, for this is an evil so virulent that it must be utterly extinguished.

(4) The road to victory will be long and hard, and involve much pain and sorrow…

(5) …but if we support each other and stick together, we can do it.

This was the message he delivered again and again that summer: to Parliament, to the British people, to the occupied countries of Europe, and — crucially — to the United States.

Having conjured up the picture of a prostrate Europe, he ended by drawing all his themes together in a coda of 180 words. These words have given the Battle of Britain its name, though unlike the “Battle of France,” in the original transcript “battle” was referred to in the lower case, for it was not yet the title of an event.15 The words make it clear that whatever was to come it was not about a few aeroplanes having some dogfights.16 They also define an integral part of what it has meant to be British for the two generations after the one which heard it broadcast that summer evening — and perhaps, now, to a new generation facing another mortal foe:

“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.'”

The basic message was: “We are going to be attacked. For our own and everybody else’s good we have got to resist. So let’s get on with it.” This is not very inspiring; indeed it is more than a little unsettling. The way Churchill conveys the message does not simply adorn it — it utterly transforms the content.

Part of the power of the argument derives from its structure, which is complex. Formally, it makes constant use of groups of three phrases and of contrastive pairs. These devices are the most frequently used by speakers seeking to gain audience approval and are regularly employed by politicians today.17 Churchill’s use of them is best shown visually. The threes are numbered and the contrastive pairs lettered.

The three battles: (1) What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. (2) I expect that the battle of Britain is about to begin. (3) Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation.

The three threats: (1) Upon it depends our own British life… (2) …and the long continuity of our institutions… (3) …and our Empire.

The two contrasts, them and us: (A) The whole fury and might of the enemy (B) must very soon be turned on us. (A) Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island (B) or lose the war.

The alternatives before us: (A) If we can stand up to him, (1) all Europe may be free and (2) the life of the world may move forward (3) into broad, sunlit uplands. (B) But if we fail, (1) then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, (2) will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.

The consequence: Let us therefore (1) brace ourselves to our duties and (2) so bear ourselves that (3) if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, (4) men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”

The triplets and pairs in the sentence structure are deepened by the embedding of a further contrast as he lays out the alternatives, and the rhetorical pattern is disrupted by an additional clause in the penultimate (“and perhaps more protracted”) and final sentences (“if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years”). Both of these disruptions, which prevent the underlying pattern from becoming too regular and formulaic, are presented as interpolated reflections and as uncertainties (“perhaps” and “if”). In this way, they add strength to the certainties otherwise stated.

If we look at the text semantically rather than structurally, we find a dense, self-referential system which is rendered compelling by the logic of its development. Sentences refer back to each other and describe an overall movement of expansion and contraction.18 (Italics and underlinings are this writer’s):

The situation and the Cause: (1a) What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. (1b) I expect that the battle of Britain is about to begin. (1c) Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. (1d) Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire.

What must now inevitably happen: (2a) The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. (2b) Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war.

What this implies about our behaviour and our choices: (3a) 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. (3b) 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.

The consequence: (3c) 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.”

The first three sentences are linked by their reference to battles. The first is located in France in the immediate past. The second, following on from it, is located in Britain in the immediate future. The third sentence is a shock, for it links this second battle to “Christian civilisation.” This battle will not be simply for territory, but for a set of moral values. It will not only be for space, but for time as well, for losing it could both annul the past and threaten the future.

The fourth sentence pivots on the pronoun “it” to introduce those to whom the message is sent: “us.” “We” are those being summoned, those from whom action is demanded, upon whom all depends. Some form of the first person plural occurs no fewer than eleven times. The force of “their finest hour” is strengthened by the twist in perspective it represents, for “they” are of course “us.” The shift from first to third person is a shift from what “we” must do to how others will judge us, which is the only reward “we” are offered by Churchill: to be honoured in history by future generations, not just by immediate descendants, but by “men” as a whole — the judgement the world will make of the British. It is deliberate myth-making, as if Homer were addressing the Greek army before Troy and promising that their deeds, if worthy, will always be recounted and marvelled at. Churchill promises his countrymen the opportunity of future epic fame as the one sure gain into which to transform what is otherwise for them simply the avoidance of loss.

In defining the threat, Churchill states who is threatened and so names “us” — “Britain,” “British” and “our Empire” — and repeats and amplifies it in the final sentence: “the British Empire and its Commonwealth.” What is threatened is not just another European country akin to those already lost, but a global Empire. This concretizes the assertion that the outcome of the battle would affect “the whole world,” but also reminds the audience that Britain could call upon resources no other European country could muster in opposing its foe.

This was not idle: Canadian troops were already in Britain, and within Fighter Command, fully 10% of the pilots were from Commonwealth countries. A further 10% were from the occupied countries of Europe, and the United States. Against the sacrifice he is demanding of “us” are ranged three areas of civilisation: “France,” “all Europe” and “the United States.” The first is lost, the second subjugated but with the possibility of becoming free, the third threatened. These three, together with “the British Empire and its Commonwealth,” constitute “Christian civilisation,” which is threatened by and antithetical to “a new Dark Age.” Thus, places embody moral principles and the fates of all hinge on the central place in the text: “this island” — the 73rd and 74th words out of 180, almost exactly half-way.

The movement of the first section is expansive, going from concrete to abstract; the second section moves back again to the concrete, and the third moves steadily outwards until it embraces global space and past and future time. For the duration of an “hour,” the one which the British are summoned upon to make their finest, “this island” is placed in the centre of human history.

In this way Churchill builds the whole passage on three contrasts of extent. The first is the contrast in the extent of time between the past of the Dark Ages and the possibly “protracted” future as opposed to the “hour” in which “we” are called upon to do our duty. The second is the contrast in space between “all Europe” and “the United States” on the one hand and “this island” on the other. The third is the contrast between the number of people affected in “the whole world” and “us.” This underlying thought was to resurface in a different and more pointed form on August 20th, when the air fighting was at its height, when “we” became embodied in “the few.”

There is a further contrast built in to sections 3a and 3b. The phrase “move forward into broad, sunlit uplands” implies free, upward movement into light. “Sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age” implies involuntary, downward movement into darkness. The term “sunlit uplands” is probably an echo of a phrase from H.G. Wells’s The Discovery of the Future, in which Wells refers to “the uplands of the future.” Churchill read Wells avidly, and the thought of describing fighter pilots as “the few” may also have been triggered by a passage in Wells’s novel The War in the Air, where Wells observed that in air warfare the balance of military efficiency was shifting back “from the many to the few.” Churchill kept a store of phrases in his encyclopedic memory like fragments of tunes in the mind of a composer, and at some point they would emerge in full form.19

Whilst the structure of these 180 words is complex and multivalent, the language is remarkably simple. Three-quarters of the words are monosyllables. Only twelve are polysyllables and of these half are used to express the length of the “continuity of our institutions,” the length of the new Dark Age made more sinister and perhaps more protracted by the lights of perverted science,” and the duration of the British Empire and its Commonwealth.”

The “lights of perverted science” is one of those expressions which suggests more than it says. It conjures up the image of a Bosch painting of Hell, with a vile experiment being conducted on some victim in a dark corner. It was prescient indeed, but in 1940, Mengele and his like had not yet been unleashed on the concentration camps. The phrase was stored in Churchill’s mental sketchbook and resurfaced in a radio broadcast given on 24 August 1941 about his meeting with President Roosevelt, which makes his meaning more clear. Hitler, he commented, “has weapons and machinery for grinding down and holding down conquered countries which are the product, the sadly perverted product, of modern science.”20

The third section of the June 18th speech is more consciously rhetorical and abstract than the first two. It can in fact be read as a reversal of a formal Greek funeral oration, an epitaphios, from which the word “epitaph” derives. The most famous was that given by Pericles on the burial of the dead after the battle of Marathon.21 An epitaphios contained two main sections: the praise of the dead (epainesis) and advice for the living (parainesis). In the epainesis, the dead were praised by claiming that they were worthy of their ancestors (progonoi), that their shared ancestry came from the earth of Athens (autochthones), that they were trained to heroism (paideia), and that the city’s norms were heroic (politeia). The valour of the fathers (arete) is matched by the sons. In the subsequent parainesis, the living are admonished to be comforted that the dead have won honour and to prove themselves worthy of the fallen (paramythetikon and protreptikon).

Churchill has produced an inverted epitaphios by calling on the living to be heroes for their descendants. He anticipates the future epitaphios of those currently living in which it will be said that “this was their finest hour.” By “bracing themselves to their duties,” the fathers of future sons are to be worthy of the norms of the past (progonoi) in which withstanding tyranny was simply a duty (paideia and politeia) and by their bearing (arete) defend the present and so link the past and future of the people of this island (autochthones) in such a way that descendants will be comforted that “we” have won honour (paramythetikon) and will then seek to be worthy of “us” (protreptikon).

This inversion is to be expected, as Churchill was speaking before the battle, not after it as Pericles was. In couching his appeal to the audience as an appeal to duty, Churchill suggests that what is needed is not heroism or indeed anything out of the ordinary, but simply what people would expect of others and themselves. Such a call had been made before as battle approached. Nelson raised the signal “England expects that every man will do his duty” as he sailed towards his enemy off Cape Trafalgar. The echo is faint, but it is still there.22

So it is that Churchill has pre-created historical memory. He turns the battle into memory before it has begun, lifting it into almost cosmic significance. His object was not truth but persuasion. Fighting the battle was a choice and some members of the government were more than ready to choose otherwise. Although formally Churchill presents us with a choice, the systematic rigour of his argument effectively precludes all but one option: to fight.

Churchill is most definite where he knows least. He could not possibly know whether Hitler actually knew that “he will have to break us in this island or lose the war.” Where he could have been certain, he hedges. He did know that the Battle of Britain was about to begin. He says so. He conjures up the horrors of Nazism, of which he was utterly convinced, with a temporising “perhaps more protracted,” as if peering through a glass, darkly.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this text is its uncanny accuracy. It is a rhetorical tour de force, but it is not “mere” rhetoric, for its substance is as telling as its style. Churchill himself commented after the war:

All these often-quoted words were made good in the hour of victory. But now they were only words….Hitler’s need to finish the war in the West was obvious. He was in a position to offer the most tempting terms. To those who like myself had studied his moves it did not seem impossible that he would consent to leave Britain and her Empire and Fleet intact and make a peace which would secure him a free hand in the East of which Ribbentrop had talked to me in 1937 and which was his heart’s desire….Can one wonder that astute calculators in many countries, ignorant as they mostly were of the problems of overseas invasion, of the quality of our Air Force, and who dwelt under the overwhelming impression of German might and terror, were not convinced?…Rhetoric was no guarantee. Another administration might come into being….Doubts could be swept away only be deeds. The deeds were to come.23

The insight into the political and strategic situation of the time shown by this famous Churchill speech is extraordinarily penetrating. Form and content have become a distinction without a difference. It is an achievement of the highest order.


1 Andrew Roberts, Eminent Churchillians, Orion Books 1995, 186.

2 An account of how he did this can be found in my book on the Battle of Britain, The Most Dangerous Enemy, Aurum Press 2000, 16-26.

3 His method of composition and the long gestation period of some of his phrases is described by John Colville in Action This Day: Working With Churchill, Macmillan 1968, 68-73.

4 The development of Churchill’s rhetorical style from its 19th century origins is traced by Frederick Woods in Artillery of Words: The Writings of Sir Winston Churchill, Leo Cooper 1992, 63-77

5 Action This Day, 147; Denis Kelly to the editor of Finest Hour, 1989.

6 David Irving has put it about that this broadcast, along with the fight on the beaches” speech of 4 June was in fact the work of the actor Norman Shelley (Churchill’s War, Avon Books 1987, 313, 338). Others, such as Clive Ponting in 1940: Myth and Reality (Hamish Hamilton 1990, 158) eagerly followed suit. In fact, neither Churchill nor Shelley broadcast the speech of 4th June: parts of it were read out by an announcer with no pretence to be other than who he was. The speech of 18 June was broadcast by Churchill and can be heard at the National Sound Archive in London, ref. 2488-91, preceded by an announcer saying: “Ladies and gentlemen, the Prime Minister.” Churchill was asked by the British Council later in the war to make a recording for the U.S., and having rather a lot on his plate, he suggested they use an actor instead. Shelley did the recording, Churchill heard it, was much amused and gave his approval. Shelley told the story in a BBC radio interview in 1978. It is not known for sure when, if at all, his recording was used. Its fate remained unknown until the autumn of 2000 when Anthony Shelley discovered a disc dated 7 September 1942 of his late father doing a Churchill impression, though it is not of any known Churchill speech. I am grateful to the late Sally Hine and to Simon Rooks of the BBC Sound Archive and to Chris Mobbs of the National Sound Archive for helping to sort this out. (See, “That Actor Again” in Datelines, FH 109.)

7 Colville, The Fringes of Power (Hodder & Stoughton 1985), 192.

8 Nigel Nicolson (ed.), Harold Nicolson: Diaries and Letters, Vol. II(Hodder & Stoughton, 1967), 19 June 1940, 97.

9 John Lukacs, The Duel (Bodley Head 1990), 146. Lukacs also cites other critics of Churchill’s efforts, including Evelyn Waugh and Malcolm Muggeridge, 148-49.

10 Colville, op. cit., 193.

11 Lukacs, op. cit., 184 & 148.

12 Quoted by John Charmley, Churchill: The End of Glory (Hodder & Stoughton 1993), 418.

13 See Richard Lamb, Churchill as War Leader (Bloomsbury 1991), 74 and Laurence Thompson, 1940: Year of Legend, Year of History (Collins 1966), 140.

14 The full text is readily available. I have used the version first published and compiled by Randolph Churchill from Into Battle (Cassell 1941), 225-34.

15 Some subsequent printings of the speech have nevertheless projected hindsight onto the text by capitalising the Battle of Britain. See for example David Cannadine, ed., Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat: Winston Churchill’s Famous Speeches (Cassell 1989), 177.

16 At the time, of course, Churchill did not know that the battle would take place exclusively in the air, and in his mind the phrase at this time encompassed all German military activity directed against the British Isles, including a possible invasion. He stated explicitly that no invasion could take place before the RAF was overpowered, but from the perspective of 18 June there was no guarantee that this would be anything other than an opening phase.

17 In his study of political rhetoric, Our Masters Voices (Methuen 1984), 57-73, Max Atkinson identifies the most commonly used devices for gaining audience approval as the list of three, unfavourable references to them and favourable references to us, and the use of contrastive pairs.

18 In his brilliant Lincoln at Gettysburg (Simon & Schuster 1992), Garry Wills demonstrates that the Gettysburg Address is similarly interlocked. I have here followed the visual display technique used by Wills on pp. 172-75. The parallels with the Gettysburg Address do not end here, nor are they fortuitous.

19 In commenting on the speech, Colville noted in his diary that he was amused Churchill brought in Marvells lines: He nothing common did or mean, Upon that memorable scene, because he has been repeating it [sic] consistently and often for the last fortnight. Last Saturday he came out with it several times in the course of the evening and could not resist quoting it to the American Ambassador on the telephone while demanding assistance from the U.S. (op. cit., 192).

20 The Unrelenting Struggle: War Speeches by the Right Hon. Winston S. Churchill C.H., M.P., compiled by Charles Eade (Cassell & Co. Ltd. 1942), 234.

21 In the following analysis I am once more indebted to Garry Wills. The Gettysburg Address forms a literal epitaphios. For a fuller account of its elements as summarised below, see Lincoln at Gettysburg, 58-62. Wills also provides a translation of PericlesÕs epitaphios in Appendix III. Greek orators also made generous use of contrastive pairs and polarities, as all orators have done throughout the ages.

22 Nelson’s signal, like Churchill’s speech, did not enjoy universal approval at the time. Once again, it was the most sophisticated who were least impressed. Whilst the hoisting of his complex set of flags on HMS Victory prompted great cheers from the common seamen, Nelson’s second-in-command, Collingwood, was irritated enough to remark, “What is Nelson signalling about? We all know what we have to do!” (See Tom Pocock, Nelson (Pimlico 1994), 325.

23 Churchill, The Second World War, vol. II, ‘Their Finest Hour,’ Chartwell Edition (London: Educational Publishing Co. 1956), 174-75.

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