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

Delivered in the House of Commons in Westminster on 13 May 1940.


Mr. Speaker:

On Friday evening last I received His Majesty's commission to form a new Administration. It was the evident wish and will of Parliament and the nation that this should be conceived on the broadest possible basis and that it should include all parties, both those who supported the late Government and also the parties of the Opposition.

I have completed the most important part of this task. A War Cabinet has been formed of five Members, representing, with the Liberal Opposition, the unity of the nation. The three party Leaders have agreed to serve, either in the War Cabinet or in high executive office. The three Fighting Services have been filled. It was necessary that this should be done in one single day, on account of the extreme urgency and rigour of events. A number of other key positions were filled yesterday, and I am submitting a further list to His Majesty tonight. I hope to complete the appointment of the principal Ministers during tomorrow. The appointment of the other Ministers usually takes a little longer, but I trust that when Parliament meets again, this part of my task will be completed and that the Administration will be complete in all respects.

Sir, I considered it in the public interest to suggest that the House should be summoned to meet today. Mr. Speaker agreed and took the necessary steps, in accordance with the powers conferred upon him by the Resolution of the House. At the end of the proceedings today, the Adjournment of the House will be proposed until Tuesday, the 21st of May, with, of course, provision for earlier meeting, if need be. The business to be considered during that week will be notified to Members at the earliest opportunity. I now invite the House, by the Resolution which stands in my name, to record its approval of the steps taken and to declare its confidence in the new Government.

Sir, to form an Administration of this scale and complexity is a serious undertaking in itself, but it must be remembered that we are in the preliminary stage of one of the greatest battles in history, that we are in action at many points in Norway and in Holland, that we have to be prepared in the Mediterranean, that the air battle is continuous and that many preparations have to be made here at home. In this crisis I hope I may be pardoned if I do not address the House at any length today. I hope that any of my friends and colleagues, or former colleagues, who are affected by the political reconstruction, will make all allowances for any lack of ceremony with which it has been necessary to act. I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined the government: "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat."

We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I will 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 and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: victory. Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realised; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal.

But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, "Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength."

Footnotes

  1. The final line of Churchill’s speech appears in quotation marks, though its origins are unclear. The note with which Churchill ends the speech is a decisive call-to-action to the British people, whose aid he feels “entitled to claim.” The sentence is structured as a mandate, as Churchill begins with the firm but inviting “Come then.” In an appeal to pathos, Churchill calls for unity among the population and creates the image of an accumulated national strength.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  2. In an unusual phrase, Churchill describes his hopeful view that “our cause will not be suffered to fail among men.” The diction places the consequences of failure as suffering experienced by the people, namely the citizens of Great Britain. The twisted syntax also subtly personifies the cause, suggesting that the cause itself is subject to suffering in the event that it “fail[s] among men.” Thus “men” have the potential to be both agents and victims of failure, thereby holding responsibility for the cause of victory. Churchill’s sentiment is ultimately one of combined optimism and responsibility.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  3. In his account of the objects and values at risk of oblivion, Churchill includes “the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal.” Churchill does not make explicit the nature of the goal, as if presuming its nature to be clear. Whatever the goal may be, Churchill’s statement reveals a strain of teleological—or goal-oriented—thinking, suggesting a broad design to the cosmos as it unfolds. It is possible that Churchill’s vision of mankind’s goal is the progression of the good, as opposed to the malevolent aims of the Axis powers.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  4. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  5. In this simple statement, Churchill makes explicit the stakes of Britain’s struggle against Germany. The purpose of victory is the essential task of survival. To evoke such a struggle is a clear appeal to pathos, for it taps into the most basic of animal instincts.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  6. This passage is an example of epizeuxis, a rhetorical device by which a single word is repeated continuously in order to emphasize a central idea. In Churchill’s case, the idea is the aim of victory, which he underscores by repeating the word “victory” five times over the course of the paragraph. The incantatory effect of this focused repetition constitutes a powerful appeal to pathos.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  7. Churchill appeals to pathos, to his audience’s emotions, when he characterizes Germany as “a monstrous tyranny.” The image of a monster evokes fear in a primal sense, and the threat of tyranny produces fear of a political—though still powerful—kind. Churchill also stirs fear and anger by using a superlative construction, framing the threat of the Axis powers as the greatest yet in the “dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime.”

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  8. In this sentence, Churchill lays out the central thesis of his speech. The goal of his administration, he makes clear, is to fight against the Axis Powers and to win. We see elegant devices in the alliteration of “wage war” and the tricolon construction of “sea, land and air.” Finally, Churchill makes an appeal to ethos in his invocation to God, which suggests that his wartime cause is divinely warranted, as is the broader British drive toward victory.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  9. This is an example of a rhetorical question, known in the Latin tradition as erotema, a question that is posed but which requires no answer. In many cases, the answer to the rhetorical question is obvious by context. In this case, Churchill anticipates his audience’s questions before answering them in detail. This device engages the audience by imitating the rhythms of the question-and-answer exchange.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  10. If the first four paragraphs of the speech represent a necessary setting of the political and geopolitical scene, the final two represent an urgent call-to-arms. In these concluding passages, Churchill makes a more concerted effort to heighten the power of his language. We see Churchill’s elevated rhetorical pitch in sentences such as this one, in which subtle repetitions and alliterations produce a distinctly musical effect.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  11. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  12. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  13. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  14. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  15. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  16. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  17. Churchill’s use of “Sir” to begin this paragraph and the next one serves as a kind of affectation or tonal flourish. “Sir” is a shortening of “sire,” a title which denotes knighthood, though in common parlance “sir” can merely confer respect. Because Churchill addressed the House of Commons, a legislative body of 650 men, the word “sir” adds a tone of intimacy and closeness, as if each member of the audience were being spoken to directly.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  18. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  19. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  20. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  21. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  22. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  23. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  24. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  25. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  26. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  27. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor