History

May 13, 1940: The Day the English Language Was Mobilized and Sent Into Battle

Seventy-nine years ago, on Monday, May 13, 1940, a man who had been the Prime Minister of England for just three days, and who’d only ascended to the position as the candidate of last resort after internecine squabbling within his own party, and only with the reluctant support of his King, made his maiden speech to Parliament (excerpt follows, entire speech here):

Sir, to form an Administration of this scale and complexity is a serious undertaking in itself, but it must be remembered that we are in the preliminary stage of one of the greatest battles in history, that we are in action at many points in Norway and in Holland, that we have to be prepared in the Mediterranean, that the air battle is continuous and that many preparations have to be made here at home. In this crisis I hope I may be pardoned if I do not address the House at any length today. I hope that any of my friends and colleagues, or former colleagues, who are affected by the political reconstruction, will make all allowances for any lack of ceremony with which it has been necessary to act. I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined the 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, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. 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. Let that be realized; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal. But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, “Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.”

The speech was brief (less than six minutes) and urgent. Its most famous line was cobbled together and borrowed, bits from Teddy Roosevelt, and bits from Giuseppe Garibaldi. Its message was clear. Britain was on the ropes. Appeasement had failed. Hitler was winning. Disunity at home would not be suffered to continue. A governing coalition, composed of all leaders of all parties would go forward together, with the country on a firm war footing, with victory, at any and all cost, the aim. (Although Churchill’s message for public consumption was one of “buoyancy and hope,” he was under no illusion about what was to follow, remarking to his Chief Miltary Assistant, General “Pug” Ismay, “Poor people, poor people. They trust me, and I can give them nothing but disaster for quite a long time.” And so it seemed.)

With the exception of his own Conservative Party, many of whose members clapped politely, while others sat on their hands, Winston Churchill’s speech was greeted with a rapturous ovation by the crowd at Westminster, and by the British public, which longed to hear someone speak in terms other than platitudes of appeasement and cooperation with “Herr Hitler,” and which desperately wanted a leader they could follow, and a champion of whom they could be proud. The man had met the moment, and the rest is history.

I sometimes wonder if such national unity, sense of purpose, and resolve against seemingly impossible odds will be ever seen again in the West.

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