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Historical Context in Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat

Churchill’s Return from the Wilderness: In 1929, after nearly three decades as a member of Parliament, Winston Churchill was voted out of office along with many of his fellow Conservatives. Thus began his period of political estrangement, which lasted for most of the 1930s and has been labeled his “wilderness years.” During the 1930s, Churchill retreated to his country home to write a history of World War I and publish his political opinions in newspapers and magazines. Of particular interest to Churchill was the rise of the Third Reich and Germany’s aggressive rearmament. Churchill devoted much of his energy to sounding the alarm, calling for Britain to rearm itself in preparation for another war. In the aftermath of the failure of Neville Chamberlain’s 1938 Munich agreement, Churchill’s concerns became mainstream. By 1939, he had returned to office as a member of Chamberlain’s cabinet. By 1940, he was appointed Prime Minister.

The Dawn of Word War II: World War I left Germany politically and economically devastated. In the interwar years, Great Britain made great efforts to heal the tensions between Germany and its neighbors, particularly France. In the late 1920s and early 30s, a new right-wing political party emerged and began to accumulate power. The Nazi party, led by Adolf Hitler, eventually took the helm of the German government in 1933 and launched a regime based on ideals of nationalism and racial purity, which were spread through a folksy, yet powerful, program of propaganda. The Nazis began to enact a series of strong-handed moves, arresting and confining German Jews, scaling up their economic and military institutions, and asserting pressure on neighboring countries. Germany provoked a diplomatic crisis when they seized the Sudetenland in 1938, citing the prevalence of German-descended people in that region of Czechoslovakia. The major European powers—France, Britain, Italy—convened to appease Germany with the Munich Agreement of September of 1938, securing peace by relinquishing miles and miles of Czech lands. The appeasement failed. A year later, Germany had begun to invade Poland, and the rest of Europe increasingly braced for war.

Historical Context Examples in Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat:

Churchill's Speech "Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat"

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"no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for,..."   (Churchill's Speech "Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat")

Such a defensive stance would have been unfamiliar to the British in 1940, given that Great Britain commanded the largest empire on the planet. The British Empire encompassed roughly a quarter of the earth’s territories, adding up to nearly 13-million square miles. After centuries of steady imperial expansion, the sudden need to fight for mere survival was a shock to Great Britain.

""I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat."..."   (Churchill's Speech "Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat")

As Churchill notes, he had uttered this famous sentence earlier on the day of May 13th when he met with his new cabinet members. The phrase proved strong enough to warrant a repeat use before the significantly larger House of Commons—strong enough to become to title of this now-famous speech. The phrase “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” has entered common parlance—often as “blood, sweat, and tears”—thanks to Churchill’s impassioned use of it, though its origins lie in the annals of Christian scripture and commentary. With its quaternity of visceral, bodily images and consonant-bound monosyllabic words, the phrase is evocative, punchy, and memorable.

"the air battle is continuous..."   (Churchill's Speech "Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat")

Churchill remarks that “air battle is continuous,” but the air battles had hardly yet begun for Britain. As the German campaign spread across Europe in the early months of 1940, the Luftwaffe—Germany’s air force—became an increasing threat to the Allied powers. On May 10th, the day Churchill became Prime Minister, Germany launched their campaign into French territory, prompting Churchill to send a significant contingent of the Royal Air Force to France to help. By July, the Battle of France had ended and the Battle of Britain began. The Battle of Britain, fought from July of 1940 to June of 1941, was almost entirely fought in the air—the first such battle in history.

"in the Mediterranean,..."   (Churchill's Speech "Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat")

Churchill is likely alluding to the situation in Italy, where Benito Mussolini was preparing his nation for war and securing ties with Adolf Hitler to the north. As of Churchill’s speech, Mussolini had not emerged as an enemy to the Allied powers, but Churchill defaulted to a position of aggression towards Italy. On the 27th and 28th of May, 1940, an enormous argument erupted over which diplomat stance to take towards Italy and Germany. Lord Halifax hoped to reach out to Italy, using the nation as a mediator to broker a peace deal with Germany. Churchill denounced this plan outright, assuming instead a stance of staunch enmity toward both nations. The British effort played out according to Churchill’s designs.

"many points in Norway and in Holland,..."   (Churchill's Speech "Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat")

In April of 1940, German troops swept into Denmark and Norway in an effort to secure their imports of iron ore from Sweden. Denmark folded almost immediately. Norway put up some resistance, aided as they were by British troops, but also soon folded. The British military’s failure in Norway led to the Norway Debates of May 7th and 8th of 1940. Those debates revealed the widespread dissatisfaction with Neville Chamberlain’s leadership among members of all parties, including Chamberlain’s own Conservative Party. Within days, Chamberlain had resigned, replaced by the more bellicose Churchill.

"the preliminary stage of one of the greatest battles in history,..."   (Churchill's Speech "Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat")

Churchill was correct that Britain was preparing for “one of the greatest battles in history.” Since the Munich Agreement in September of 1938, Germany had taken escalating military steps, seizing and threatening to claim greater and greater portions of surrounding nations, including the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, Lithuania, Albania, and finally Poland. When Germany invaded Poland in September of 1939, the Munich Agreement—brokered in part by Chamberlain—failed, and the Allied powers quickly gathered together in opposition to the increasingly aggressive Germany. By May of 1940, at the time of Churchill’s speech, the war was getting into full swing.

"I now invite the House, by the Resolution which stands in my name, to record its approval..."   (Churchill's Speech "Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat")

The “Resolution” Churchill refers to here is the adoption of a new administration to lead the British into war. At the end of the House of Commons meeting, after Churchill’s speech, the following question was put to a vote: “‘That this House welcomes the formation of a Government representing the united and inflexible resolve of the nation to prosecute the war with Germany to a victorious conclusion.’” The House voted unanimously (381 to 0) in favor of Churchill’s new coalition.

"on account of the extreme urgency and rigour of events...."   (Churchill's Speech "Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat")

On May 10th, 1940, three days before delivering this speech, Churchill became Prime Minister. Earlier that day, Germany had invaded the Netherlands and France, initiating the “Battle of France.” As the first weeks of Churchill’s administration elapsed, the Allied lines in France yielded and receded, leaving Britain increasingly exposed to German attack. In July of 1940, Germany set its sights on Britain, sending its Luftwaffe across the channel to besiege southern England with a year-long barrage of aerial bombings. Churchill’s emphasis on “the extreme urgency and rigour of events” is no understatement.

"The three Fighting Services have been filled...."   (Churchill's Speech "Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat")

The “three Fighting Services” of the British military Churchill refers to are the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force, and the British Army. In September of 1939, after the outbreak of the war, the Chamberlain administration enacted the National Service Act, initiating a military draft of men ages 18 to 41. In 1942, as the scale of the war increased and the need for troops returned, the draft expanded to bring in men ages 18 to 51.

"either in the War Cabinet or in high executive office...."   (Churchill's Speech "Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat")

As Churchill notes here, the three party leaders served key posts in the wartime administration. Neville Chamberlain served as Lord President of the Council, Clement Attlee as Lord Privy Seal, and Sir Archibald Sinclair as Secretary of State for Air.

"The three party Leaders..."   (Churchill's Speech "Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat")

The three primary political parties in Great Britain in 1940 were—in descending order of power—the Conservative Party, founded in 1834; the Labour Party, founded in 1900; and the Liberal Party, founded in 1859. The party leaders Churchill refers to are Neville Chamberlain, who helmed the Conservative Party until handing over the reins to Churchill in October of 1940, Clement Attlee (1883–1967) of the Labour Party, and Sir Archibald Sinclair (1890–1970) of the Liberal Party.

"A War Cabinet..."   (Churchill's Speech "Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat")

Churchill’s war cabinet consisted of Edward Wood (Lord Halifax), Neville Chamberlain, Clement Attlee, Arthur Greenwood, Sir Alexander Cadogan, Sir Archibald Sinclair, and Sir Edward Bridges. Churchill is correct to say that the cabinet represents “the unity of the nation” in that the leaders of the three major parties—Conservative, Labour, and Liberal—were included in the cabinet.

"the parties of the Opposition...."   (Churchill's Speech "Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat")

The primary opposing party to the Conservative Party was the Labour Party. When Neville Chamberlain began to consider resigning in May of 1940, he hoped to help construct a new administration that would receive support from those of both major parties. Some politicians expressed a desire for Chamberlain to remain in office, albeit with a new cabinet, while others posited Edward Wood, Earl of Halifax, as a suitable successor. However, Chamberlain and Halifax both agreed that Churchill was the right choice. On May 10th, two events sealed Chamberlain’s decision: Germany invaded the Netherlands and the Labour Party made clear that they would not support another Chamberlain administration. That day, Chamberlain went to King George, resigned, and officially submitted his approval of Churchill.

"the late Government..."   (Churchill's Speech "Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat")

The “late government” Churchill refers to here is the administration of Neville Chamberlain (1869–1940), who served as Prime Minister from 1937 to 1940, overseeing the early years of the war. Chamberlain and Churchill were both members of the Conservative party and were for the most part mutual admirers, although many of Chamberlain’s supporters distrusted Churchill. When Churchill took office, he decided to keep many of Chamberlain’s government appointees in their positions, despite any divisions in the Conservative Party.

"wish and will of Parliament..."   (Churchill's Speech "Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat")

The Parliament of the United Kingdom is the legislative arm of the British government. Parliament consists of two branches: the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The House of Commons contains 650 elected members, while the House of Lords contains a similar but nonspecific number of appointed members. It is the House of Commons whom Churchill addresses in this speech.

"His Majesty's commission..."   (Churchill's Speech "Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat")

The King of England during World War II was George VI, who reigned from 1936 to 1952. As Churchill notes, George approved Churchill’s appointment to the seat of Prime Minister three days earlier, on May 10th, 1940. George’s first choice had been Edward Wood, Lord Halifax, who, like both Chamberlain and Churchill, was a central figure in the Conservative Party. As a result of Chamberlain’s urgings, George assented to the choice of Churchill. Despite the king’s initial misgivings, he and Churchill came to form a close political and personal bond, meeting for a private lunch every Tuesday to discuss the progress of the war.

"Delivered in the House of Commons in Westminster on 13 May 1940...."   (Churchill's Speech "Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat")

The House of Commons traditionally convenes at the Palace of Westminster in London. Just weeks after delivering this speech, Churchill decided to move the meetings of Parliament from the Palace of Westminster to the nearby Church House. The cause was the “blitz,” the German bombings of London in 1940 and 1941. Churchill’s decision proved wise: the Palace of Westminster was directly bombed by German fighter planes on fourteen separate occasions.

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