Churchill’s ‘We shall fight on the beaches’ speech on 4 June 1940 is a eulogy to the British war effort that has been immortalised in popular memory of the Second World War. As a newly appointed Prime Minister, Churchill’s first month in office was defined by the Dunkirk evacuation. Over 300,000 Allied soldiers were evacuated in a sensational rescue mission. The success was down to a combination of German errors and the brilliant execution of the evacuation plan. However, the fact remained that, with France now fallen, Britain had become an attractive target for German invasion.
In this speech, Churchill’s aim was to counter the jubilant public reaction provoked by the evacuation from Dunkirk, and bring the discussion back to reality. As Churchill famously warns in the speech, “We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.”
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Churchill gave his famous ‘Iron Curtain’ Speech in 1946
These events took place at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury and the National Churchill Museum on the campus of Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. It was on the campus of Westminster College on 5 March 1946 that Winston Churchill gave his famous ‘Iron Curtain’ speech.
During his 37-year career in the U.S. Army, General Petraeus was widely recognized for his command of the organization that produced the U.S. Army’s counterinsurgency manual and overhauled all aspects of preparing U.S. Army leaders and units for deployment to combat. Before his retirement in 2011, his commands included the leadership of the Surge in Iraq and for his command of forces in Afghanistan. Upon retirement from the U.S. Army, he became Director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
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Here you can listen to Churchill’s recordings of many of his key speeches made over his long career. Some of these recordings are contemporary (recorded at the time), others were made by Churchill after the war, in 1949 at Chartwell, and issued by Decca in 1964
‘The printed page is not the correct medium for them, of course. To feel the shiver down one’s spine at Churchill’s words, only recordings will do. They alone can convey the growls, the strange pronunciation of the letter ‘s’, the sudden leonine roars, the cigar-and-brandy toned voice.’
Andrew Roberts, Hitler and Churchill: Secrets of Leadership
Churchill had an incredibly quick mind, a sharp tongue and a very large vocabulary. He loved playing with words – creating new ones, adapting old ones – and using words to his advantage, quite often at the expense of others (although sometimes at his own, too!) Many of his speeches – and quotes from those speeches – are very well known, but his witticisms, bon mots, jokes and puns are perhaps less well recorded (or often misattributed). Churchill had a mischievous sense of wit. This couldn’t really be called ‘humour’; he wasn’t usually trying to be funny or make people laugh; nor did he tell bawdy or ribald jokes; this wasn’t in his nature. But he did enjoy the neatness and cleverness of a well-placed and carefully judged retort. He didn’t hesitate to use his particular talent with words on others. He had certain ‘sparring partners’ (as Richard Langworth puts it) who prompted him to fire off a quick riposte. Although these might have seemed off the cuff and spontaneous, they were generally carefully rehearsed, words carefully selected for punning potential, stored in his prodigious memory and then released on their unsuspecting recipient at the right moment. In 2013, he topped a poll of ‘history’s funniest insults’. Read more – and see the full list – here. In the Dictionary of Humorous Political Quotations, there’s a Churchill quote on nearly every page. As this journalist said, he’s the last word in political wit.
He took on paid lecture tours, writing books and popular newspaper articles (he had, after all, been one of the highest paid war correspondents in the world to supplement his income and to ensure he could still buy plenty of Pol Roger Champagne.
He even turned his ‘New York Misadventure’ – when he was seriously injured while in New York in December 1931 – into a story. Having been knocked down by a car when stepping off a pavement to cross busy Fifth Avenue, he then dictated a thousand words from his hospital bed for two newspaper articles under the headings ‘I was conscious through it all’ and ‘My New York Misadventure’.
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Churchill had a great gift with words. His speeches clearly demonstrate that. But he was also a prolific writer of books and articles; in his lifetime, he published more than forty books in sixty volumes, as well as hundreds of articles. The total now stands at fifty-one individual works (eleven posthumous) in eighty volumes (twenty-one posthumous). During his lifetime, he was a celebrated – and very well-paid – journalist and a very successful author. In 1953 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his contribution to the written and spoken word. How did someone who purportedly wasn’t much of a student at school, manage to become so well known, so widely read and so highly regarded as a writer? For ‘trivia’ about Churchill’s literary life, see this article in Finest Hour. For a full list of all Churchill’s books, and a brief description of each, see the same site here. A comprehensive selection of Churchill’s books – first editions, quality second-hand – as well as books about Churchill, visit Chartwell Booksellers, the independent bookstore in New York, the only physical bookshop devoted to his writings.
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Churchill’s style of speech-making has been copied by many of today’s leaders, echoing his phrasing, rhythm and language. In February 1941, Churchill made a famous speech to the British, but aimed at the Americans (to summon supplies needed for victory in the war) – his ‘Appeal to America’. He varied his tone, rhythm and hesitation. All this was part of his ‘stagecraft’, a trick of oratory to increase emphasis and effect. He used simple, direct language to get a very clear message across. George W. Bush was to use very similar words and phrasing in 2001, in his State of the Union address after attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11 (11 September 2001). Listen to George Bush’s speech here; the phrase ‘we will not waver, we will not tire’ comes towards the end, at 6.14 mins. For the full text of his address, see the transcription by the White House, here.
Churchill’s speech-making didn’t always go well. Even great speakers ‘dry up’. Although he had a phenomenal memory (he’d won a prize at school for reciting great reams of poetry), learning speeches by heart clearly wasn’t enough. Even though he meticulously rehearsed them beforehand, there was always the possibility of forgetting his lines. In the spring of 1904, making a speech in the House of Commons, he’d been speaking for forty-five minutes when – without notes to hand – he forgot his words. He struggled for ‘the most embarrassing 3 minutes of my life’, trying to remember the rest of his speech, and then sat down in silence, humiliated. So even great speakers can find public speaking difficult and stressful. After this confidence-shattering experience, Churchill nearly always prepared full notes – and had them to hand – to prevent this happening again. And thanks to this, the Churchill Archives Centre contains lots of Churchill’s speeches notes. (No wonder ‘presentation skills’ experts encourage the use of those small cards with speaking notes or handy PowerPoint slides as prompts…)
Churchill drafted his speeches several times and wrote them out in a way that would help him deliver them effectively. He rehearsed passages, again and again, pacing his rooms, repeating them out loud, learning whole speeches by heart. He developed a unique oratorical style that both covered up and employed his speech difficulties so that his ‘lisp’ – or ‘stammer’, which could occasionally seem like a groping for words – became a prop, not a hindrance. Until old age, Churchill wrote every speech himself, usually by dictating to a secretary and then revising on the typed copy. He would then ask them to present the words on the page in ‘speech form’, in the style of a poem, with staggered lines and breaks in the text (referred to by others as ‘psalm style’), so that he could see at a glance where to pause, hesitate or add emphasis, when delivering the lines. He was a relentless reviser of his speeches – as he was with his books, too – and made numerous drafts. The final version would be retyped on smaller sheets, the size of notepaper, and even these would show last-minute changes to the text, with crossings-out and added scribbled words.
Churchill’s first public speech was an impromptu one, when – in his last term at Sandhurst and on a visit to the Empire Theatre in Leicester Square – he called for makeshift barriers between the sexes, erected to prevent prostitutes from mingling with theatre-goers in the bar, to be pulled down (an unlikely cause for a nineteen-year-old young man): ‘Ladies of the Empire, I stand for Liberty!’
‘He is a remarkable fellow – perhaps the finest orator in America, with a gigantic C. J. [Charles James] Fox head – & a mind that has influenced my thought in more than one important direction.’
Churchill, writing about Bourke Cockran in a letter to Clementine, 30 May 1909, in Soames, Speaking for Themselves
Although he always regarded his first political speech as one he gave at a picnic of the Primrose League (a Conservative organisation) in July 1897 (aged twenty two and still a serving officer on leave from his regiment in India), his true maiden speech in the House of Commons was on 18 February 1901.
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Churchill wasn’t a born orator. He worked very hard to transform himself into a great public speaker. He didn’t have a particularly attractive speaking voice. Early in his career, he talked in a monotone, without much change in pitch, pace or volume. He also suffered from a speech impediment – he had difficulty pronouncing the letter “s”, not helpful in a public speaker. But he understood the power that words, both written and spoken, could have on an audience and was determined to master public speaking – and do it well. At the age of only twenty-two, when he’d only made one public speech, he wrote an unpublished article on the art of speaking. He clearly realised the effect a really good speech could have on its audience.
‘Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king.’
Churchill, The Scaffolding of Rhetoric, his unpublished essay of 1897
The largest collection of Churchill’s speeches – made in the House of Commons between 1901 and 1955 – are to be found in Hansard (the verbatim record of all debates in Parliament). Many of Churchill’s speeches were collected together and published in book form either shortly after he gave them – he was always keen to capitalise on his writing through publishing – or over the subsequent years.
Churchill’s reputation as an orator is based principally on his speeches and broadcasts as Prime Minister during the summer of 1940 during a particularly vital point in the WWII when Britain was under the threat of invasion. You’ll probably know lots of famous phrases or quotes from these speeches: ‘We shall fight on the beaches’, ‘This was their finest hour’ and ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few’. His most well-known and most quoted speeches are those known usually as ‘Blood, toil, tears and sweat’ (13 May), ‘We Shall Fight on the Beaches’ (4 June) and ‘This was their Finest Hour’ (18 June), all of which were delivered in the House of Commons, though Churchill also broadcast the ‘Finest Hour’ speech over the BBC. He only made a total of five broadcasts to the nation during this vital stage of the Second World War (19 May, 17 June, 18 June, 14 July, 11 September), but these speeches conveyed Churchill’s determination and commitment, and they gave his country confidence. Did Winston’s Words Win the War? Click here to learn more.
‘It has been said words are the only things which last forever.’
Churchill, Press conference, Foreign Office, London (cited in Langworth, Churchill: In His Own Words), 10 June 1909
Annotated typescript first draft of ‘Finest Hour’ speech and broadcast, 18 June 1940. Here you can see the marked-up typescript of the first draft of one of Churchill’s most famous speeches, with the most iconic phrase at the bottom of the page: ‘this was their finest hour’. © Churchill Archives Centre
Churchill is perhaps now best remembered for his powerful speeches and broadcasts, particularly those delivered during the Second World War – ‘a series of speeches that rank with the greatest in British history’ (Simon Jenkins, in A Short History of Britain, 2011). He used his great skill with the written word, and his dedication to rehearsing its delivery, to influence a national and an international audience. His speeches were carefully crafted both to raise morale at home and to act as political and diplomatic weapons abroad, sending messages of defiance to the enemy and calls to arms to allies. Learn more about Churchill’s development as a speaker, in an exhibition showcasing relevant documents from the Churchill Archives, here. And this review of the exhibition in the New York Times here.
‘I was very glad that Mr Attlee described my speeches in the war as expressing the will not only of Parliament but of the whole nation. Their will was resolute and remorseless and, as it proved, unconquerable. 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. It was a nation and race dwelling all round the globe that had the lion heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.’
Churchill, Westminster Hall, London, 30 November 1954
Watch newsreel footage of the Conference, with some of Churchill’s speech, here. Churchill stops his speech to take a drink and then says: ‘I don’t often do that’. After laughter and applause, he then adds, with perfect comedic timing, ‘I mean, when I’m making a speech’.
© British Pathé