Top 10 Winston Churchill Quotes Of All Time
In an age before internet Winston Churchill stamped his mark and became one of the best known politicians of all time. His picture, silhouette and speeches resonated far beyond the shores of the United Kingdom and reached around the world.
Everyone knows how he led Britain, at a time when it was the country that stood alone against the might of the German war machine, a sole beacon of light and hope in the darkness that was enveloping Europe. He led his country at a time when people thought things were at their worst and helped them to accept that they would become worse still. He helped Britain endure. He forged alliances – some natural, such as the one with his mother’s native country of the USA and some, such as the necessary alliance with Soviet Russia, that were anathema to his political soul. Decades before Reagan, Gorbachev and Thatcher worked to bring the Cold War to an end Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill worked together to bring an end to Nazism.
Everyone has heard of his most famous lines, an exhortation to the people of the United Kingdom before the Battle of Britain: ‘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’.
There are, however, many more interesting quotes that this most adept of rhetoricians is known for. Here are 10 of the most interesting, many of which are also maxims to live by.
On Never Giving Up
‘Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.’
This quote is quintessential Churchill and is understood to originate from a speech that he gave to the boys at his alma mater, Harrow School in October 29 1941.
What is fascinating about the origin of this quote is that the Prime Minister, in the middle of the hardest struggle his country had ever fought, made the time to go to Harrow to speak to the boys. His speech followed a rendition of the school song to which the boys had added a special verse to praise Churchill and his leadership of the country during the war. As he explains to the boys the importance of courage, fortitude and endurance he talks about the position Britain had found itself in at the time of his last visit, just 10 months previously. Standing alone, without allies, poorly equipped armed forces and the best air force in the world attacking the major British cities.
Those 10 months, he explained, had seen a reversal in fortunes. The country was still at war but in a much better position. The country had, he said ‘only to persevere to conquer’. The lesson that Churchill taught those boys is every bit as relevant to boys and girls (and men and women) in the world today as it was in 1941.
On Drink (And Feminine Beauty)
‘Bessie, my dear, you are ugly, and what’s more, you are disgustingly ugly. But tomorrow I shall be sober and you will still be disgustingly ugly.’
In addition to being a master orator Winston Churchill was reputed to have a wit every bit as sparkling (and perhaps sharper) than Oscar Wilde. The quote above is often said to have been his riposte to the statement by the socialist MP Bessie Braddock in 1946 after she had accused him of being drunk. This was verified by his bodyguard. There is a school of thought that claims that the statement was made not to Ms Braddock but to the Conservative MP Lady Astor who was the first woman to be elected (1919) to the House of Commons (the British Lower House of Parliament). Winston Churchill and Lady Astor (who was also a celebrated wit) certainly crossed swords on a number of occasions. She once suggested a perfect disguise for him at a masked ball would be to arrive sober. She also is reputed to have said that were she married to him she would poison his tea. His brilliant response ‘Madam, if you were my wife, I would drink it’.
“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
When Britain went to war with Germany over the invasion of Poland the country was led by the Conservative Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain. He had followed a policy of appeasement, refusing to engage of the German/Austrian Anschluss, failing to support Czechoslovakia when first their border regions and later the entire country were invaded. It was only when Hitler invaded Poland that he realized that Britain and her allies would have to stand by their commitments and fight. Chamberlain remained in control until May 1940 when a series of disasters (including the Norway expedition which had been planned by Churchill) made his position untenable.
Churchill emerged as the only suitable candidate to lead the nation and he formed a wartime coalition government. On May 13 1940 he met with his cabinet and then spoke to the House of Commons. This famous quote was made to both and defined the tenor of his wartime leadership. The same speech contained other well known quotes including ‘You ask, what is our policy? I can 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, lamentable catalogue of human crime.’.
His speech may lack the grandeur of Shakespeare’s Henry V speech on St Crispin’s day but it is a brutally honest and incredibly effective call to arms.
On United Struggle
‘This is a War of the Unknown Warriors; but let all strive without failing in faith or in duty, and the dark curse of Hitler will be lifted from our age.’
Following the opening salvos in the Battle of Britain (the Luftwaffe’s attempt to subdue the British Air Defense in preparation for a full scale invasion) Churchill used this speech to rally the nation. At the start of the speech he had to explain why the British had taken the decision to destroy the Navy of their allied nation, France. (France had fallen to the German’s and all their military hardware became a German asset, the addition of the French ships to the German naval power would have made it a significant foe on the high seas).
Following this depressing news he uses his speech to prepare the British people for the reality of the need to repel an invasion attempt whether it comes from land, sea or air. At the time the British had suffered defeats in Norway and at Dunkirk so there was every danger that morale could sink dangerously low at the threat of invasion. He speaks of the fact that all friendly European nations have fallen and that Britain stands alone, he reminds the British that ‘We are fighting by ourselves alone, but we are not fighting for ourselves alone’. Even as early as 1940 he speaks of great confidence that help will come from the US. His speech reminds the British people that they, the Unknown Warriors hold the fate of the world in their hands and that failure is not an option.
‘I am ready to meet my maker. Whether my maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter’.
As explained above Winston Churchill was well known for both wit and repartee. Despite a life of excess (food and alcohol) he died only in 1965 at the age of 90, his last words were reputed to be ‘I’m so bored with it all’. Given his poor health there had been significant public concern about his state of health in the years leading up to his death. Never one to avoid an opportunity for a quip he uttered the phrase above in response to a journalist who asked whether he was afraid of dying.
This statement seems to have been consistent with other statements he made on the topic throughout his life. In 1953 he told Lord Moran that he did not believe in another life but in ‘black velvet – eternal sleep.’ while in 1915 he had written to his wife (in a letter to be opened in the event of his death) ‘death is only an incident, and not the most important one which happens to us in the state of being.’
During a visit to the men’s room with Labor MP Emmanuel Shinwell where Churchill stood as far away from the other man as possible and in response to the question ‘I hope there’s nothing personal between us’ Churchill is reputed to have responded ‘I don’t take chances, Mannie. I know you. Any time you see anything big and working well you want to take it over’.
There is some thought that the attribution may be apocryphal – a tale that has grown in the telling. It was, however, first reported by a well-respected broadcaster Harry Bannister. Over the years Shinwell was removed from the incident and replaced with Clement Atlee (the leader of the Labor party and the man who replaced Churchill as Prime Minister towards the end of the War. While the story did not appear in print until some years after the alleged event it would have been considered too bawdy to print at the time given the sensibilities of the 1940s.
Whether or not the quote is apocryphal it certainly reads like the sort of thing that Churchill would be happy to say to someone else. The exchange is set against the background of the Labor electoral victory and their decision to implement a free at point of use National Health Service, nationalize the mines and other decisions based on Socialist ideology (always an anathema to Churchill) that led to the formation of the Welfare State.
‘Britain and France had to choose between war and dishonor. They chose dishonor. They will have war.’
This quote was taken from Churchill’s response to Neville Chamberlain (the Prime Minister) following his return from Munich with his ‘little piece of paper’ – an agreement between Britain, France, Germany and Italy to allow Germany to invade the Czech border lands uncontested. The appeasement of German aggression was meant to ensure ‘peace in our time’.
Britain and France had entered into a treaty of alliance and mutual defense with both Czechoslovakia and with Poland. The dishonor that Churchill refers to in this quote was the refusal of Britain (and France) to stand by her treaty obligations and support the Czechs against the German aggressor.
At the time of the Munich agreements Britain and France were extremely reluctant to go to war with Germany. Britain’s army was neither large nor well equipped and it was widely believed throughout the country that the country could not survive a war. Chamberlain’s well known and stated policy of appeasement was meant to ensure that the war, if it did start, would not involve Britain or her allies. Churchill was one of only a few people who was implacable in his support for a more trenchant stance against Germany reasoning that war involving Britain was inevitable.
Churchill (as so often) turned out to be right – a year later Germany, gambling that Britain would continue its policy of appeasement, invaded Poland. It was, however, a step to far even for appeasers such as Chamberlain. The whole world finally understood the insatiable nature of the German government and war became inevitable.
On The Anglo Soviet Agreement
‘If Hitler invaded hell I would at least make a favorable reference to the devil in the house of Commons’
This statement is reputed to have been made to his personal secretary just before the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. Churchill was not a fan of communists of any sort and of the Soviet Union in particular. He had spent many years warning of the dangers of the Bolsheviks and their actions in the USSR, not least the terror used to eliminate all Stalin’s opponents and the subjugation of millions of people through the targeted use of terror, famine and collectivization was well known in Britain at the time.
Prior to the start of World War II German and Russia had signed a treaty of non-aggression, agreeing to partition Poland between them. This was a cynical ruse on Hitler’s part and in 1941 with the majority of the continental European nations under his control he turned his eyes towards the east, cynically discarding the pact and invading Russia.
The invasion was a gift to Churchill. Although he said he would ‘unsay no word I have spoken about it’ he also acknowledged that ‘Russian danger is…our danger’. Britain and the USSR were allied for the duration of the war with British aid being sent to Russia via arctic convoy. The price, however, was steep, the dishonor that Churchill spoke of with regard to the abandonment of Czechoslovakia (see above) would be compounded by the requirement of the Russians that Britain abandon their long term ally, Poland, still fighting alongside Britain through their government and army in exile, to the sphere of Soviet influence after the war.
On The French Opinion Of The British
‘When I warned them that Britain would fight on alone, whatever they did, their generals told their Prime Minister and his divided Cabinet, “In three weeks England will have her neck wrung like a chicken.” Some chicken! Some Neck!’
This quote formed part of Churchill’s speech to the Canadian House of Commons in December 1941. The speech talks about the vital part that Canada and the USA will play in the struggle against Germany and Japan and Britain’s role in theatres of war around the world. He used the speech as an opportunity to show the price of failure, the impact on a nation of surrender to the Nazi forces.
While his admiration for the French people (and the Free French under De Gaulle in particular) shines through together with his respect for nations such as the Dutch and Polish who continued to fight the war through governments and armies in exile he was scathing in his talk of the Vichy French and the failure of the French generals to continue to fight – a decision that led to the French government decision to surrender their country to occupation and puppet government. Churchill’s pride in the achievement of Britain, her armed forces and her people shine through in this quote, a reminder always to stand up for what is right no matter how hard.
On The Cold War
‘A shadow has fallen upon the scenes so lately lighted by the Allied victory…From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic and Iron Curtain has descended across the continent.’
Although the phrase had been used by other people prior to Churchill’s famous speech in Fulton Missouri (March 4 1946) it was this speech that popularized its use as regards the partition of Europe into Western and Eastern spheres of influence.
After the end of the War the former combatants were busy trying to move their economies back onto a peace time footing and manage the massive demobilization process. It was this speech, given in a tiny town in a (to him) foreign country, by a man who had been voted out of office the previous year, that is widely believed to mark the start of the Cold War. It was a warning to all that it was not possible to rest on the laurels of victory but that it was necessary to work hard to secure peace.
Churchill, with all the insightful brilliance of his unique mind, encourages the US and Great Britain to greater participation in the embryonic United Nations and even discusses the concept of United Nations Peace Keeping Forces.
So many western politicians of that generation had hoped that the cooperation that had existed between the Russian and other allies during the war would continue into the peace. It took Churchill, always a visionary, to articulate the danger. Luckily for the world he was not, in 1946, ignored in the same way that he was in the 1930s when he spoke volubly and regularly about the rising danger of Nazism.
It is a particular shame that this list is limited to only 10 quotes as he is known for his pithy wit and quick fire responses. Who could forget his excellent statements on truth such as ‘You must look at facts, because they look at you’ or ‘the true guide of life is to do what is right’ advice as relevant now as when he first spoke it. He also had much to say on courage recognizing that it is the foundation on which all honorable actions (whether by a nation, a group of people or an individual) are formed. They include ‘Courage is that it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen’ (many politicians today would do well to abide by that maxim).
Churchill stands out, even today, in our 24/7 news cycle with politicians who are required, more than ever, to be performers as one of the greatest political orators and rhetoricians of all time. Churchill lived much of his life in the political wilderness – the failure of the Gallipoli campaign blighting his post WWI career for many years. During the 1930s he watched as Britain and her allies stood by and allowed Hitler to arm Germany. Nevertheless he took his own advice, he never gave up, he persevered and, in his 60s his turn came again. His life can perhaps be best summed up in his own words. ‘Success is not final, failure is not fatal, it is the courage to continue that counts.’