How Churchill did battle with words

Winston Churchill has many famous speeches. From 'We shall fight on the beaches' and 'Their finest hour', to 'Blood, toil, tears, and sweat' and 'The few', Churchill's words have shaped how we remember the Second World War. But what made his speeches so special and how did his words affect the outcome of the Second World War?

In the dark early days of the Second World War, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had few real weapons. Allied armies were in full retreat before a powerful German Army and invasion of Britain seemed very likely. Never one to shirk a challenge though, Churchill did battle with words instead.

Winston Churchill: "If the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years men will still say this was their finest hour".

The speeches he delivered at that time were some of the most powerful ever given in the English language. His words were defiant, heroic, and human. They reached out to everyone in Britain, across Nazi-occupied Europe, and throughout the world. As journalist Beverly Nichols wrote: "He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle".

But what made his speeches so special and how did Churchill's words affect the outcome of the Second World War?

Well, before we answer those questions a reminder to subscribe to the Imperial War Museums YouTube channel, for more videos just like this every two weeks.

Churchill used language almost as a weapon and he was well known for his barbs and for his witty remarks. He had a fantastic control of language therefore not surprising that he was eventually awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and it reflects the power of his words and the fact that it had immense popular appeal.

When Churchill became Prime Minister in the summer of 1940 those skills would be tested to the full. Britain was losing the war and things were only getting worse, in fact on the very day that Churchill fulfilled his life's ambition, Germany had, that morning, began their Blitzkrieg in France, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Luxembourg.

He also faced hostility from within his own party, Churchill had only become Prime Minister because the obvious candidate Lord Halifax had declined the position. Already a politician for 40 years, Churchill was considered by many people in Britain to be a warmonger, an adventurer, and an opportunist with poor judgment. Crucially though Churchill used his words to rally the nation in defiance of Hitler.

What Churchill managed to do was radiate confidence and belief picking up an anxious and worried country and leading it forwards to the point where it had the belief they could win.

In three speeches from those dark days in 1940, we can see how Churchill attempted to bring the country together and encourage Britain to fight on, but what makes these speeches so powerful? Well, according to Nigel, there are three things that really make a Churchill speech.

The first is his very idiosyncratic choice of language, the second is the rhythm of the way he constructs the speech, and the third part was the way he delivered, it the way he performed it almost. And when you bring these things together they create powerful uplifting speeches which capture the mood of the nation and actually really genuinely inspire people.

First let's look at his choice of language by focusing on Churchill's first speech as Prime Minister - 'Blood, toil, tears, and sweat'. Given on the 13th of May, the speech aimed to define his premiership and show what Churchill was all about. While at the same time, winning over his doubters in parliament and around the country. Let's start off with that famous line. Churchill tells the house of commons that he has "nothing to offer" as prime minister "but blood, toil, tears, and sweat". Now Churchill had a large vocabulary and drew very heavily on language from The Bible and Shakespeare.

Today it maybe looks a little old-fashioned, a little bit arch, but to people at the time they would have understood it. And all of these unique phrases helped to create the power and the meaning that we can still understand.

As with so many Churchill speeches, he loved using alliteration in phrases like "struggle and suffering". He also loved repetition, he asks himself two questions "what is our policy?" and "what is our aim?" before repeating the answer to both to "wage war" until "victory".

This phraseology is what people take away. Churchill knew that this is what would capture the public imagination, it's the modern sound bite that he gives to people.

Next, let's look at Churchill's rhythm and focus on his 'We shall fight on the beaches' speech. Now, this was delivered to the House of Commons on June 4th, after the evacuation from Dunkirk. Churchill had to strike a difficult tone, celebrating the success of the operation while preparing the nation for impending invasion. Churchill achieved his signature rhythmic delivery thanks to the way his speeches were laid out on the page. They were set out in up-to-five line indented paragraphs, similar to psalm form.

He had his typist put them in very short lines so that he knew exactly where to breathe, where to pause, where to give that dramatic moment. They're almost like spoken word poems in that he brings out the power of the individual words through the construction of the rhythm.

The most famous part of this speech uses anaphora to make its impact. The rhythm generated from the repetition of the phrase "we shall" builds up to the climax, the part he wants the audience to remember.

Repeating we shall do this, we shall do that until he gets to what he really wants to say which is "we shall never surrender" and that is the key point he wants to get to. But he doesn't just say that he brings people forward, he excites them, he inspires them, so that when he tells them that we as a nation shall never surrender they believe him.

Finally, let's look at Churchill's delivery which would only become a part of his speeches later in the summer.

Today we know about Churchill speeches from the recordings that we have, but many of these were made after the war. The first of these speeches were largely read by the public in newspapers. Reading was as powerful as listening, but what happened when he moved on to the radio is that his voice became the instrument of reassurance and inspiration.

Of course, the best way to experience the power of Churchill's delivery is to listen to him directly, in this case delivering 'Their finest hour'. This speech was made on June 18th, after France had sought an armistice with Germany. Morale was at a low point, but Churchill was trying to inspire the nation not to give in by placing these events within a larger historical context.

Winston Churchill: "What General Weygand has called the Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation."

Churchill's delivery had to be faultless to get his ideas across, but public speaking wasn't something that had come naturally to him.

He had had to work hard over the years to overcome a slight speech impediment. He couldn't say the letter 'S' very well, he had a bit of a lisp and he did this by control. By controlling the rhythm, by controlling the delivery, by stopping and speaking slowly and carefully.

Winston Churchill: "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 freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands."

He was a great showman, from what he wore, the way he spoke, the way he's stood, it was all part of the show. We can see it in the way that he deliberately mispronounces words like 'Nazis'.

Winston Churchill: "Rightful case against the Nazi tyranny".

Which is part of a kind of humorous defiance as if to say 'i'm not going to say your name properly'. It was very important this delivery matched the rhetoric that he'd put down.

Winston Churchill: "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.'"

Bring all these pieces together and you can see why Churchill speeches have such power to this day and how they helped bring belief back to the British people. Opinion polls, then in their infancy, showed that between July 1940 and May 1945 Churchill's approval rating never dipped below 78%.

He reached out to the people and he not only made them believe that winning the war was possible, but he also convinced them that they were right to trust in him because in the end, he would lead them to victory.

And that's exactly what he did. On the 8th of May 1945, Churchill stood above a buoyant crowd in London having given another signature speech.

Winston Churchill: "We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing. Today is Victory in Europe Day."

But despite the elation on that glorious day, it's Churchill's speeches from 1940 that we remember best.

That reassurance, that uplifting, that inspiration, all of which he does in the summer of 1940 is all reflected in the speeches that he gives. I think that is why we keep coming back to them today because it's tremendously instructive as to how a charismatic leader can take a shaken nation and turn it around.

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