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His Finest Words

February 3, 2021

By Jim Rhodes

Saturday marked the 56th anniversary of the date of Winston Churchill’s funeral.

The service was held on January 30, 1965, at St. Paul’s Cathedral, where more than 3,500 worshipers joined their voices in singing The Battle Hymn of the Republic – one of Churchill’s favorites. And after all the parades, eulogies, hymns and gun salutes were done, the Royal Marine Band played Rule Britannia as the coffin was placed on a boat at Tower Pier. The East London dockworkers dipped their cranes in homage as the boat glided slowly past on its somber journey upriver.

I have for many years been a shameless admirer of Winston Churchill while acknowledging his many flaws. My bookshelves are weighed down with books he wrote or that others wrote about him. I pulled down and browsed through some of them on a snowy Saturday afternoon.

As a journeyman writer who has made a relatively decent living out of the written word, I have studied Churchill’s unique prose style with great curiosity.

His style as a writer and speaker was singularly powerful and moving.

Why is that?

He, more than any other writer I have read, preferred to use short, punchy single-syllable words and with a singsong cadence reminiscent of Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter:

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.”

I’ll share a few examples with you.

From an address to the House of Commons, June 4, 1940:

“Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous states have fallen or may fall in to the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the new world with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.” (139 single-syllable words of 178 – 78%)

From a speech to Dominion High Commissioners and Allied Ministers, June 12, 1941:

“We shall aid and stir the people of every conquered country to resistance and revolt. We shall break up and derange every effort which Hitler makes to systematize and consolidate his subjugation. He will find no peace, no rest, no halting place, no parley. And, if driven to desperate hazards, he attempts the invasion of the British Isles, as well he may, we shall not flinch from the supreme trial. With the help of God, of which we must all feel daily conscious, we shall continue steadfast in faith and duty till our task is done.” (69 of 96 – 72%)

From The Second World War, Vol 3: The Grand Alliance (describing his reaction upon learning of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor):

“So, we had won after all! … We had won the war. England would live; Britain would live; the Commonwealth of Nations and the Empire would live. How long the war would last or in what fashion it would end no man could tell, nor did I at this moment care. Once again in our long Island history we should emerge, however mauled or mutilated, safe and victorious. We should not be wiped out. Our history would not come to an end … I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful.” (86 of 94 – 91%)

And finally, from a speech to the House of Commons, June 18, 1940:

“The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. 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 free, and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. 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.’” (103 of 134 – 77%)

He got it wrong about the thousand years. The Empire and Commonwealth lasted less than two decades, and he saw them crumble to dust in his lifetime.

But he was right about their hour.

And it was his hour too.