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Mankind’s Finest Hour

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. 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?

Churchill used language almost as a weapon and he was well known for his barbs and his witty remarks. He had incredible 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 they had immense popular appeal. When Churchill became Prime Minister in the summer of 1940, he knew his oratory skills would be tested to the full. The very day that Churchill became Prime Minister, Germany had begun their Blitzkrieg in France, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Luxembourg. 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 his speeches from those dark days in 1940, we can see how Churchill attempted to bring the country together and encourage Britain to fight. His idiosyncratic choice of language, the rhythm of the way he constructs the speech, and the way he delivered, it the way he performed it almost. And when you bring these things together, they create powerful uplifting speeches that capture the nation’s mood and genuinely inspire people.

With oration, Churchill was winning over his doubters in Parliament. Churchill tells the House of Commons that he has "nothing to offer" as Prime Minister "but blood, toil, tears, and sweat". Churchill had a large vocabulary and drew very heavily on language from The Bible and Shakespeare. Today it maybe look a little old-fashioned, 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 the listeners 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.

Churchill also focused on rhythm. Re: We shall fight on the beaches. 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 the psalm. 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 are 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 wants to say: “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.

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. "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 civilization." Churchill's delivery had to be faultless to get his ideas across. 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'. "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. This delivery needed to match the rhetoric that he'd put down. "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's speeches have such power to this day and how they helped bring belief back to the British people.


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