A lion roared but did we listen?
In the dark days early in World War 2, Britain stood alone in the fight against the Nazi regime; one small island defiant in the face of a vastly superior force. What roused the people of Britain and sustained them through those terrible years was the impassioned defiant words of Prime Minister Winston Churchill. His speeches and radio broadcasts gave the nation the courage to fight against all the odds and in the face of catastrophic human loss.
That’s the view presented in scores of films and made-for-tv programmes about Churchill’s political career and the history of World War 2. The speeches themselves have acquired an iconic status on a par with Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” oration and the Gettysburg address. Phrases such as ‘their finest hour” or “never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few” are the stuff of legend. But the nature of the Churchill effect is rather more complex than we’ve been led to believe according to Richard Toye, a professor of history at the University of Exeter. In The Roar of the Lion, his newly published book on Churchill’s wartime speeches, Toye argues that the effects of Churchill’s speeches have been wildly exaggerated.
Debunking of heroes is such a popular pastime, that we’ve become used to authors who set out to re-write history in order to prove their own theory. Toye’s book bears no relation to works of that ilk. The Roar of the Lion is, instead, an extensively researched analysis of the reactions at home and abroad to Churchill’s wartime rhetoric conveyed via radio and parliamentary appearances.
Toye examined personal diaries kept by ordinary members of the British public together with reports from Mass Observation ( a sociological research organisation that tracked public morale throughout much of the war using a team of observers and interviewers) and Ministry of Home Intelligence Division reports which tracked the reception to ministerial pronouncements between May 1940 and Dec 1944.
While acknowledging that the view in some quarters of society was that Churchill’s speeches expressed the will of the whole nation to win the war and made ‘brave men from the weakest’, Toye shows that this was not a uniformly held point of view. Instead there were pockets of dissent and criticism much larger than previously thought, with concerns expressed by fellow politicians and members of the civil service as well as the ordinary ‘man on the Clapham omnibus.’ One speech delivered in October 1940 was for example considered a ‘good fruity speech’ by an electricity worker from Hampshire though a teacher further north in Northumberland apparently was shocked at the relish by which Churchill described the zealous efforts of the Royal Navy to hunt down U boats.
Some of the reactions Toye identified could be considered as typical cynical responses towards politicians, such as the report from one Mass Observation contributor who overheard a bus passenger in 1942 comment that:
‘well, he is very good at speeches – lovely speeches ‘e makes – but ‘e don’t do much. Grunts of approval all round.
Toye is careful to point out that such examples – and there are many quoted in his book – don’t provide definitive evidence of exactly how many people held a particular view. But they do evidence that there was a far greater diversity of responses than the Churchill myth factory has led us to believe.
Yes they were speeches that stimulated,energised, invigorated and excited many people. But they were also speeches which caused depression and disappointment in many others.
Even some of Churchill’s most famous speeches brought a muted response. Toye reports that the ‘Dunkirk speech’ in which he pledged to fight on the beaches, the air, the fields and the streets but never to surrender, was received enthusiastically in America by press and the country’s President but the British response was more muted where the reference to fighting alone if necessary created apprehension among the populace. One housewife said she felt ‘sick’ after reading the speech.
The most fascinating aspect of the book for me however came from the way Toye shows the processes Churchill used to create his speeches. The romantic image of Churchill as “a lone genius conjuring masterly speeches out of the ether”. Using drafts from the archives Toye’s shows that the text of the speeches was actually the result of a collaborative approach in which political colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic provided him with suggestions and commented on his drafts. Churchill was not averse to ‘borrowing’ phrases and ideas from other people and even recycling phrases that he felt worked well. One example shows that the tone and some of the word patterns of his Dunkirk speech, can be traced to a memo by William Phillip Simms, the foreign editor of an influential chain of American newspapers.
The content was only one part of the story however. Turning the facts and the ideas into a richly evocative speech was entirely down to Churchill’s careful preparation which often involved him testing patterns of words out loud until he was satisfied with the resonance. They were skills he learned by observing his father Sir Randolph Churchill and then honing them through repeated practice and in some cases trial and error – in his early political life he learned his text by heart so he could speak without reference to notes. That approach ended after one highly embarrassing occasion when he stood in the Commons – and forgot his lines. After that he always spoke from prepared notes.
It’s insights of that nature that help to make this a highly readable book. One of the best reads I’ve had this year.
My copy of The Roar of the Lion was supplied courtesy of the publishers via NetGalley.
Roar of the Lion is published by Oxford University Press