As Britain’s prime minister from 1940-1945, Winston Churchill is best remembered for leading us through the Second World War. Many people regard him as the best prime minister of all time, as a result of his inspiring speeches and his refusal to give up in the face of adversity.
Born in 1874 at the family home, Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, Churchill spent time in the British Army and was also a war reporter in his youth, travelling to South Africa in 1899 to report on the Boer War. After being captured by enemy forces, he was made a prisoner of war, but his daring escape made him a celebrity back in Britain.
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In 1900, he became the Conservative Member of Parliament for Oldham, but ruffled a lot of feathers by often voting with the Liberals against the government. In May 1904, he finally defected to the Liberals. He became Home Secretary in 1910.
Churchill was responsible for a great deal of important legislation put before the Commons in the early 20th century, including introducing improved safety standards for coal miners, better conditions for shop employees and the National Insurance Act of 1911.
World War I
During the First World War, Churchill was in charge of Britain’s naval war effort and was instrumental in transporting 120,000 British troops across the English Channel to France in just two weeks.
In September 1914, he took over the role of spearheading Britain’s defences and travelled to France several times to personally oversee the war effort. He also spoke at all-party recruitment rallies back in the UK.
Returning to the British Army in 1915, he remained an MP, while gaining front-line experience with the 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards. He was appointed Lieutenant-Colonel of the 6th Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers in 1916 and experienced first-hand the horrors of venturing into no man’s land.
After the war, he was made Secretary of State for War and Secretary of State for Air in 1919. He returned to the Conservative Party in the 1920s.
World War II
In the 1930s, Churchill warned the nation about Hitler and the rise of Nazis Germany, calling for Britain to arm itself against the growing threat.
When Britain declared war on Germany on 3rd September 1939, Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty – a position he had held during the Great War. He became a member of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s War Cabinet.
In May 1940, after Germany’s lightning advance across Europe, Chamberlain resigned and Churchill became Prime Minister. The American editor and publisher Ralph Ingersoll, in a newspaper report in late 1940, said that people admired Churchill for his “energy and courage”. He had heard it said that they “didn’t know what Britain would do without him”.
One of the PM’s main tasks was to keep Britain united – a challenge he achieved admirably. As an eccentric character, whose rousing speeches were quite unique, he became a heartening and endearing figure to the British public.
Meeting soldiers and members of the public, he was often seen around the cities of Britain, wearing a pinstripe suit and bow-tie, and with the familiar cigar in his mouth. He became known as a true man of the people.
Parliament continued to sit throughout the war and publicly debated its progress. During the dark months of 1941 and 1942, he frequently had to report disasters, always assuming full responsibility.
In foreign affairs, he engaged the sympathy of the United States and forged a crucial military alliance in December 1941. He had already found an ally in the shape of the Soviet Union. The “grand alliance”, as it became known, was held together by Churchill, who travelled thousands of miles during the war to meet with Roosevelt and Stalin to keep the alliance together.
A new concept at the time, a number of summit meetings of national leaders were held, most notably the meeting in Iran at the Tehran Conference in 1943, where many discussions crucial to the war effort took place – in particular, the combined military strategy against Germany and Japan was discussed and shaped, including America’s commitment to invading northern France in May 1944, called Operation Overlord.
His vast experience during World War I, including in government and as a soldier himself, helped Churchill to shape the strategies that were vital to the Allies’ victory in World War II.
He had many ideas himself which he would put to the Army and Navy chiefs for exhaustive consideration. One of his beliefs was that the generals tended to plan and move too slowly. His own zeal for aggressive activity prevented the British armed forces from lapsing into solely defensive mode early on in the war.
After the war ended in 1945, it was agreed almost universally that Churchill’s efforts during the war to save democracy and the liberty of Western Europe had been an enormous achievement, opening the door to peace after six years of conflict.
His inspirational speeches are still quoted today, urging people never to give up and to keep on fighting, even in the face of adversity. His words of wisdom include, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm,” and, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
He also said, “Never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense.”
This means you should never give in if you know you’re doing the right thing, but that you should know when to give up if it’s sensible to do so, admitting to yourself that you’re wrong. “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen,” summed up his attitude.
One of his universal quotes was, “One always measures friendships by how they show up in bad weather,” – hence the phrase “fairweather friend”, meaning someone whose friendship can’t be relied upon in times of difficulty.
Perhaps his most famous quote of all time was: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few,” – when he spoke of the bravery of the Royal Air Force pilots who were fighting the Battle of Britain at the time.
As Remembrance Sunday approaches, on 11th November, people across Britain will be uniting to pay tribute to those brave members of the Armed Forces who made the ultimate sacrifice during times of conflict.
It will be the 101st anniversary of the end of World War I this year and the two-minute silence at 11am will be particularly poignant.
Slide or Fold joins the nation in commemorating the great sacrifices our ancestors made to ensure future generations’ freedom.
We will remember them.