Winston Churchill’s 1953 Nobel Prize citation, translated from Swedish, reads: ‘For his mastery of historical and biographical description, as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values’.
The famous wartime Prime Minister was a world-class orator. He mastered the art of speechmaking, and according to Andrew Roberts, author of ‘The Storm of War’, a history of the Second World War, ‘Winston Churchill managed to combine the most magnificent use of English – usually short words, Anglo-Saxon words, Shakespearean’.
Of course Churchill will be best remembered as the Prime Minister who carried the country through the darkest hours of the war to victory over the Nazi machine. His famous speeches rallied the nation in their hour of need. Similar in style to the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, both men had a deep-rooted, profound impact on their nations through the power of oratory.
Winston Churchill understood the awesome power of words as a child. He practiced enunciation to overcome a lisp and, when he was serving in India, he wrote an essay called ‘The Scaffolding of Rhetoric’, including the line ‘the climax of oratory is reached by a rapid succession of waves of sound and vivid pictures’.
Being an accomplished public speaker also helped to solidify both his position in Parliament and garner the support of the nation. When he was made leader of the Conservative Party in October 1940, one Tory MP said he was ‘a word spinner, a second-rate rhetorician’. However, it’s important to note that he didn’t employ speechwriters – he wrote virtually every word himself – and the phrase ‘Churchillian prose’ has become part of our everyday lexicon.
An Inspirational Leader
During the war years, Churchill made some extraordinary speeches and clearly understood the concept of the soundbite. A lot of the quotes we know today are in fact abridged versions of his speeches to the nation. There are a number of fascinating examples of his oratory, including:
‘I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.’
BBC Broadcast, October 1, 1939
‘You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory – victory at all costs, victory in spite of terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.’
First speech as Prime Minister, May 13, 1940
‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’
House of Commons, discussing the Battle of Britain, August 20, 1940
‘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, 1941
‘We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle, nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down. Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.’
Broadcast, London, February 9, 1941
‘I have never promised anything but blood, tears, toil and sweat. Now, however we have a new experience. We have a victory – a remarkable and definite victory. The bright gleam has caught the helmets of our soldiers and warmed and cheered all our hearts.’
1942 after Britain drove German troops out of Egypt
‘Here let me say that there is no finer investment for any community than putting milk into babies. Healthy citizens are the greatest asset any country can have.’
BBC Broadcast, March 21, 1943
‘If we are together, nothing is impossible. If we are divided all will fail. I therefore preach continually the doctrine of the fraternal association of our two peoples, not for any purpose of gaining invidious material advantages, not for territorial aggrandisement or the vain pomp of earthly domination, but for the sake of service to mankind and for the honour that comes to those who faithfully serve great causes.’
Speech at Harvard University after receiving an honorary degree, September 6, 1943
‘For my part, I consider that it will be found much better by all Parties to leave the past to history, especially as I propose to write that history.’
Speech in the House of Commons, January 23, 1948
A Politician with Wit
Not only is Churchill undeniably one of the 20th century’s greatest figures for ably leading a nation through a devastating war, he was also widely considered to be a brilliant wit. Indeed, one of his most famous quotes turns out to be an apocryphal tale…
The story goes that when Britain’s first female MP Nancy Astor said to Churchill ‘if I were your wife I would put poison in your coffee’ he replied ‘Nancy, if I were your husband I would drink it’. It turns out however that this joke appeared almost 40 years earlier in an edition of the Chicago Tribune!
After the war, Churchill met Labour politician Bessie Braddock, a plump, card-carrying Tory–hater. After she said to him, ‘Winston, you are drunk’, he responded ‘Madam, you are ugly and I will be sober in the morning’.
On a lecture tour of America, he was invited to a buffet lunch where the hosts served chicken. ‘May I have some breast?’ Churchill said to the waitress, prompting the response ‘Mr Churchill, in this country we ask for white meat or dark meat’.The following day, Churchill is said to have sent her an orchid by way of thanks, with a note stating ‘I shall be obliged if you would pin this on your white meat.’