We shall fight on the beaches analysis
The speech “We shall fight on the beaches” was delivered by the British prime minister, Sir Winston Churchill in the house of commons (the lower chamber of Parliament, Britain’s legislative body) on June 4, 1940. He had much to discuss hence it being one of the most rousing and iconic addresses of World War II. It is widely believed the speech had such a great effect on various aspects of British culture that it is credited with powering the Allies, particularly the British to victory in World War II. While much of the speech focused on recent Allied military setbacks and a reflection on the difficult path ahead, Churchill’s passionate commitment to fight in seas, oceans, hills, streets, and beaches to “never surrender” is remembered the most. The purpose of this short essay is to investigate the background, intent, and public reaction to this speech, rather than to praise its historical significance. I’ll be analysing the context around Churchill’s assertions, the message and policies that Churchill would have been attempting to convey, and I will be drawing conclusions to show that, despite Churchill’s alleged popularity and the high regard in which the speech is remembered, the speech had few impacts or none on shaping the British populaces during the war.
The speech was intended to inform the House of Commons about the disastrous news from the French war, including King Leopold of Belgium’s surprise subservience, which exposed British flanks to German onslaught and, of course, left the Allied forces 26,000 men soldiers weaker as the Belgians tapped out of the war (Churchill 1940). Following it, French land was rapidly lost, culminating in the Battle of Dunkirk. As the Germans encircled Dunkirk, Churchill described the severity of the attack, citing the breakdown of communication, ammunition, and supply lines to the troops. He stated that they planned to snare no more than 45,000 troops from “the jaws of death” during the Battle of Dunkirk, but the Royal Navy and Merchant Seamen, on the other hand, helped convey 338,000 Allied troops to England safely. He went on to say that the Germans had complete air superiority, but that for every British airman lost, the Germans lost four. Individual examples of heroism and sacrifice, as well as the cowardice they caused the Germans, whom he referred to as a noble race, were highlighted by him. In the minds of the domestic audience, this aspect of the speech presented what was primarily a strategic setback as a considerably less devastating blow, though Churchill nonetheless acknowledged the real consequences of the defeat, declaring that “Wars are not won by evacuations” (Churchill 1940).
There is more to the speech than the events of the Belgian capitulation, battle, and retreat from Dunkirk. A few months after the fall of France, Churchill discussed the repercussions on the British war effort, noting that the British Expeditionary Force was lost to France and the Low Countries, and that valuable weapons and technology were lost. As Churchill noted in this particular part of the speech, an alliance of capital and labor had been established for the benefit of the British war effort. According to Churchill (1940), society has thrown away each other’s customs, interests, and rights, in order to foster greater war efforts by British industry. As Davis and Heffer (2015) explain, this did not happen in response to Churchill’s landmark speech, and it was untrue given the thousands of non-union sanctioned labour strikes that took place between 1940-1944.However, sustaining a productive industry to manufacture items for the war effort was a fundamental feature of ensuring Allied success or, at the very least, Britain’s defence. Because worker strikes were destructive to the war effort, it was advantageous for Churchill to construct a story of loyal common labourers in the interest of the welfare of mankind. It appears that a special linking midway from two points capital and labour was required, either by antagonistic-extraordinary regulations imposed in 1940 or through labour union loyalty to the war effort (Dropkin 2003).
Churchill also emphasised the possibility of fifth column activists operating within the country, alluding to persons with fascist tendencies who would try to disrupt the British war effort by using either aggressive or subversive measures to aid the Germans. This is in the background of the Blackshirts’ march on Cable Street four years before (Barling 2011), as well as other fascist agitations between then and the time of the speech. He promised to “use a hard hand to put down fifth column activities (…) until we are convinced that this tumour in our midst has been properly rooted out” (Churchill 1940). MI5 was conducting a secret operation at the time to identify fascist sympathisers and prevent information about the British war effort from reaching German intelligence compel (MI5.gov.uk 2015). Churchill could have been referring to a phantom haunting Britain when discussing fifth column activities because the Communist Party of Great Britain had likewise reached its electoral and membership peaks during World War Two, but fascists on the doorstep were a more current concern.
In a similar vein, Churchill uses the occasion to cast a divisive internment policy in a good light, noting that “suspect characters of other nationalities, but even British subjects” may need to be relocated from sensitive areas of the country, maybe for their own safety (BBC 2016). This policy was aimed primarily towards German, Austrian, and Italian nationals living in the United Kingdom, as well as potentially hostile Britons. Thousands of people were interned, deported, and sometimes murdered as a result of this programme. Despite the fact that Italy and Britain were not at war at the time of the Battle of Dunkirk, 19,000 Italians in the United Kingdom were considered for detention. The official declaration of war followed six days after the address, suggesting that the speech and incarceration programme foreshadowed the impending war with fascist Italy.
Always the public cheerleader “I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall once again prove ourselves capable of defending our Island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone,” Churchill concluded the historic speech (Churchill 1940). He proclaimed that they would battle the German Reich hand in hand with the French until they had exhausted all defences. It was lauded by a Member of Parliament as “worth 1000 guns and 1000 years of talks,” and it was favourably welcomed by Churchill’s Parliamentary audience (Stern and Gilbert 1983, p 468). What matters more is how the speech was received in the public sphere. Because it was impossible to observe Parliamentary proceedings live from home in 1940, there was a delay between the delivering of the address to Parliament and the delivery to the general public.
The British Broadcasting Channel offered the Prime Minister a chance to perform the speech live on air, but he declined and a news reader delivered excerpts of the speech that night (James 1996). Despite the fact that only excerpts of the speech were read out on the radio that night, there is a collective recollection of the speech and its inspirational content among people (Toye 2013, p 4-10). This goes some way in demonstrating the larger than life image that Churchill had, but moreover the role of the British propaganda machine in manufacturing the galvanizing impact that the speech is often accredited with (Balfour 1979, p 520). However Churchill and others maintained that Churchill was merely giving voice to the universal feelings of Britons rather than manufacturing an emotional response to it. (Churchill 1906, p 275; Nicolson and Nicolson 1967, p 96)
According to historians, the general public’s reaction to the speech was mixed, with many ordinary Britons finding it dreary, dull, or even suggesting that Britain would be better off under the German Führer, Adolf Hitler, than under Winston Churchill (Toye 2013, p 4-10). Winston Churchill was widely regarded as a popular figure in the United Kingdom and even beyond (Knickerbocker 1941). The fact that his popularity never fell below 78 percent in polls is frequently given as proof. However, the methodology used by British pollsters at the time is debatable, as Churchill had an 83 percent personal satisfaction rating in 1945 yet still lost the general election (Toye 2013). With such a wide margin of error in polls, it’s reasonable to assume that polling previous to the election was similarly wildly wrong in portraying public support for Churchill in the United Kingdom (Toye 2013). While traditional history suggests that Churchill was well-liked in Parliament, he appears to have received mixed assessments outside of it. Historians have often attributed anti-Churchill sentiment in Britain to political elitism on the part of Churchill’s parliamentary foes, rather than any specific criticism from the general public (Toye 2013, p 4-10; Arnett 1991).
On the surface, Winston Churchill appeared to be a popular and well-liked wartime leader, yet Churchill was clearly a divisive character in British politics. While he had relatively high wartime approval ratings, he nevertheless had a number of ardent opponents among the working class who were uninspired by the speech or its orator. Toye (2013), pp. 4–10. Because the only new material offered during the speech was in respect to the capitulation and the circumstances of the retreat from Dunkirk, it was a propaganda exercise that allowed Churchill to depict current Government policy in a more favourable light. With this in mind, it appears that the speech’s objective was to strengthen and support existing wartime policies as well as inform the nation about the happenings of the French war. Anti-strike legislation and other war-effort policies, rather than Churchill’s speech, were ultimately responsible for rallying the British people and the war effort.
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