‘Blood, toil, tears, and sweat’: Churchill’s ‘electric’ speech, 80 years on

The British Royal Air Force Red Arrows conduct a fly past over the statue of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in London to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of Victory in Europe (VE75) in Britain on May 8, 2020.
The British Royal Air Force Red Arrows conduct a fly past over the statue of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in London to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of Victory in Europe (VE75) in Britain on May 8, 2020. © SAC Connor Tierney, UK Ministry of Defence, Crown Copyright 2020, Handout, Reuters

On May 13, 1940, Winston Churchill gave his first address to the House of Commons as prime minister. While German troops were tearing through Western Europe, a defiant Churchill famously told the British people that there was one objective: “Victory”. In the meantime, he had “nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat”. FRANCE 24 looks back at that crucial moment in the Second World War, 80 years on.

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When Churchill took to the dispatch box to deliver that iconic rallying cry, German soldiers had spent three days surging through France and the Low Countries, with a speed that shocked the world. The British army’s attempt to halt the German invasion of Norway, launched the previous month, was failing.

Of the three powers that eventually emerged victorious in 1945, the British Empire was the only one to have actively taken Hitler on. By contrast, the United States did not start fighting until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war in December 1941. At the start of the war the Soviet Union was allied with Germany through the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact – until Hitler famously betrayed Stalin by invading the USSR in June 1941.

In this context, when Churchill spoke on May 13, 1940, for much of his audience the prospect of victory seemed distant to say the least.

Three days before, on May 10, Neville Chamberlain resigned as prime minister after losing the House of Commons’ confidence over the Norway campaign. Since Germany seized all of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, it had become clear to many that Chamberlain’s attempts to appease Hitler – epitomised by his infamous declaration of “Peace in our time!” after signing the September 1938 Munich Agreement, which allowed the Nazis to annex part of Czechoslovakia in exchange for peace – were a humiliating sham.

The natural choice to replace him was the person who had been warning that standing up to Nazism was the only option, ever since 1935, when Chamberlain’s predecessor Stanley Baldwin declined to ramp up investment in the military to prepare for war against Hitler's Germany.

Churchill had already spent four decades as an MP when he entered Downing Street. It was a long career marked by more failures than successes – from the catastrophic hubris of the 1915 Gallipoli campaign to the folly of returning Britain to the gold standard in 1925.

To many MPs who heckled his speeches on the matter in the 1930s, Churchill’s opposition to appeasement was yet more bluster and bravado. But, after that famous speech on May 13, no MP voted against the motion “That this House welcomes the formation of a Government representing the united and inflexible resolve of the nation to prosecute the war with Germany to a victorious conclusion”. It was a moment of supreme vindication.

Later the same month – as France crumbled under the German invasion and Britain began evacuating its troops from Dunkirk – Lord Halifax argued in the War Cabinet for a peace deal with Hitler. As foreign secretary since 1938, Halifax had been a key architect of appeasement. Much of the Conservative party still supported his stance.

But having won the Commons’ approval with a goal of “victory” in that May 13 speech, Churchill outmanoeuvred Halifax – aided by support from the Labour party in the newly formed “national government”.

After the fall of France that summer, Churchill’s address continued to set the tone for Britain’s indefatigable campaign against Hitler as its focus shifted to North Africa – building up to the Second Battle of El Alamein in Egypt in October-November 1942, when Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s troops smashed Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps. This turned the tide in the Western Allies' fight against Germany, as Stalingrad (July 1942 to February 1943) did for the Soviet Union, and Midway (1942) did for the US against Japan in the Pacific.

To analyse the context and consequences of the “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” speech, FRANCE 24 spoke to historian Andrew Roberts, author of Churchill: Walking with Destiny and The Storm of War.

1. What did the situation look like on May 13 amid failures in the Norway campaign?

Churchill had made terrible mistakes during the Norway campaign. But he was not primarily blamed for it, especially during the Norway debate – when he probably should have been because he was First Lord of the Admiralty and the driving force behind the strategy of the Norway campaign.

But people forgave him, frankly, because he had been out of power for 10 years, he’d been warning people about Hitler and the Nazis for years, and nobody had taken any notice. And from the time when Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia in March 1939 onwards, everything that Churchill had warned about quickly became true. So he was in a very powerful moral position, even though as far as the Norway debate was concerned, it was actually his decisions – more so than Neville Chamberlain’s – that were responsible for the defeat there.

I think people generally recognised that if we had the kind of army, navy and air force that he’d spent years calling for, we wouldn’t have done as badly as we did in Norway.

2. What kind of personal qualities and experiences enabled Churchill to be so prescient about the evils of Nazism during his “wilderness years” in the 1930s?

There were three things, really. The first is that he liked Jews, he’d grown up with Jews. So he had an early warning system when it came to Hitler that many in the House of Commons didn’t have – especially of course people who were anti-Semitic.

The second thing is that he was a historian, and he’d seen the dangers posed by Philip II of Spain, Louis XIV of France, Napoleon and Kaiser Wilhelm II, and he’d put them in the historical context – the long continuity of threats from the hegemonic power in [continental] Europe. So that was a reason why he was able to spot Hitler and the Nazis and the danger they posed.

The third thing is that he’d actually come up against fanaticism in his own life. He saw the same tropes in the fanaticism of Hitler and the Nazis, in a way that the prime ministers of the 1930s – Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain – never did, because they’d never come across that kind of fanaticism before at all.

3. What kind of morale-boosting effect did this speech of Churchill’s have in spurring the heroic efforts of the British people during the Second World War?

It was electric. We see from Mass Observation, from the newspapers of the day, from correspondence and diaries, that people wanted to have an absolutely unequivocal commitment to victory. His use of the word “victory” at the end of the speech was a tonic; it was exactly what people wanted to hear. There’d been very large peace demonstrations – both for the fascist and communist (of course the Soviet Union was allied to the Germans at the time) parties – and so when Churchill spoke for Britain, it was a very popular thing to have said.

4. To look at one counter-factual, how much more difficult do you think the war effort would have been for the other Allies if Britain had adopted Halifax’s approach instead of Churchill’s?

It would have been next to impossible to get the Americans into the war in any meaningful way, because of course it wasn’t until November 1942 that the Americans landed in the western theatre in any large numbers, in Operation Torch [in North Africa]. If Britain had made some kind of a peace deal with Hitler in May or June 1940 under Lord Halifax, that wouldn’t have happened. The Americans would have been a) not interested in North Africa and b) wouldn’t have had any kind of springboard from which to liberate Western Europe in 1944.

It would also have been extremely demoralising for the rest of the [British] Empire, because of course the Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, Indians and South Africans put in the most fabulous effort in the Second World War – and none of that would have been forthcoming if we’d been at peace with Hitler.

5. In his May 13 speech, Churchill famously declared that the objective could be stated in one word: “Victory”. How significant were the contributions to victory made by Churchill’s decision to aggressively take the fight to the Axis, most notably in North Africa, even when the British Empire was standing alone against the Nazis?

The whole basis of the western Allies’ grand strategy in the Mediterranean – first to liberate North Africa and after that to go into Sicily in July 1943, and then to cross over into mainland Italy in September 1943, and then only after had Rome had fallen to cross the English Channel and attack in northern France – all of that was the brainchild of Winston Churchill and [head of the British army] Field Marshal Lord Alan Brooke, who managed to sell it to the very reluctant American chiefs of staff.

I think Churchill’s grand plan – his great strategy – for liberating at least the western half of Europe, and waiting until June 1944 to liberate France and Belgium and so on, was a) the correct strategy and b) not an easy one to sell to the Americans, so you needed someone who was charismatic, who was highly driven. And that, of course, was Winston Churchill.

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