One of Winston Churchill’s most iconic speeches took place on this day in 1940. Europe was embroiled in the beginnings of World War II, which Britain, France, and Belgium were ill-prepared for and were about to be swept from the mainland under the onslaught of the German blitzkrieg.

Churchill addressed Parliament in the House of Commons on Monday, May 13, after the King of England had offered the commission as the Prime Minister to him on Friday, May 10. Churchill replaced Neville Chamberlain as the PM after his policies of appeasement towards Hitler and the Nazis failed.

On the same day, as Britons were well aware, the Germans attacked France, Belgium, and the Netherlands and they would sweep across France in just six weeks. Britain would stand alone. The Germans hadn’t yet attacked Russia and the United States was still clinging hopelessly to their neutrality.

Excerpts from his speech:

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.

I would say to the House as I said to those who have joined this 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.

Churchill asked for the Parliament to declare confidence in his new government and at the end of this speech it was granted unanimously. This was a big change in Parliament for Mr. Churchill. He was a fairly unpopular member for much of the 1930s due to his criticism or Chamberlain and had even been heckled many times.

But the effects of Churchill’s speech was considered “electrifying” on the House of Commons by some and muted by others, his enemies who were hoping that he’d fail. This was the first of many morale building speeches Churchill made in the early dark days of World War II including his RAF “their finest hour” speech and the “we will fight them on the beaches” speech after Dunkirk.

Interestingly enough, Churchill, an astute studier of history, probably took those words this speech is known for from two earlier speeches from people he studied closely.

On 2 July 1849 Giuseppe Garibaldi when rallying his forces in Rome uttered: “I offer hunger, thirst, forced marches, battle, and death.” Churchill considered writing a biography about Garibaldi when he was a young man.

Garibaldi’s situation was similar to that of Churchill’s in early 1940. His revolutionary troops were facing a desperate situation after the tides of war had turned against him and he was forced to retreat thru the Apennine Mountains.

Later around the turn of the century, Teddy Roosevelt, addressed the Naval War College in June 1897, after his was appointed as Assistant Secretary of the Navy:

“Every man among us is more fit to meet the duties and responsibilities of citizenship because of the perils over which, in the past, the nation has triumphed; because of the blood and sweat and tears, the labor and the anguish, through which, in the days that have gone, our forefathers moved on to triumph.”

Churchill’s words were often cited as a direct quote from Roosevelt and he (Churchill) held a similar post as the First Lord of the Admiralty. And there is no doubt that he would have read the speech by Roosevelt. So there is probably some truth that his words were influenced by reading two of his predecessors.

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But it in no way should lessen the effect of his words that day. England was in dire straits in May/June of 1940. They needed a wartime leader, the country and the government could rally around, be the face of a nation standing alone and pull together the ultimate victory. Churchill was that leader.

An MP3 recording of Churchill’s speech can be heard here:

Photograph: Wikipedia