The Orations of Winston Churchill: “Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat”

On May 10, 1940, Neville Chamberlain resigned from the position of Prime Minister amidst pressure from the other MPs in Parliament. Just three days earlier, MP Leo Amery had delivered a political tirade at the House of Commons, critiquing Chamberlain’s failed Norwegian Campaign and calling for his resignation: “There must be a change. First and foremost, it must be a change in the system and structure of our governmental machine. This is war, not peace… In the name of God, go.”

Pressure from former Prime Minister David Lloyd George also urged Chamberlain to step down. The Prime Minister had conceded to the demands of Adolf Hitler over the Sudetenland, a region of Czechoslovakia that was mostly of German ethnicity. Chamberlain maintained that a policy of appeasing Hitler through this concession was necessary for securing peace in Europe: “I could give him my personal opinion which was that on principle I had nothing to say against the separation of the Sudeten Germans from the rest of Czechoslovakia, provided that the practical difficulties could be overcome.” In response, Lloyd George denounced Chamberlain for his weak attempt at negotiating with the Nazis, as the German Chancellor was now in a better position to wage war on neighboring countries. After losing support from members of his own Conservative Party, Chamberlain resigned on May 10. Approximately ten minutes later, Churchill, who was then First Lord of the Admiralty, subsequently began his premiership.

Speech: “Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat”

Date: May 13, 1940

Context: Churchill’s first speech as Prime Minister

Audience: House of Commons


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.

At the beginning of his speech, Churchill sought to described the composition of his proposed War Cabinet. The five-member board was comprised of key government figures from both parties: Neville Chamberlain, Lord President of the Council (Conservative); Clement Attlee, Lord Privy Seal (Labour); Lord Halifax, Foreign Secretary (Conservative); and Arthur Greenwood, Minister without Portfolio (Labour). In his words, the ministry was meant to reflect the ideals of all citizens and represent “with the Opposition Liberals, the unity of the nation.” Furthermore, forming an administration that was prepared for war became an important “task” for the government. The general election of 1935 saw the Conservative government lose 83 seats while the Opposition under Labour gained 102. Unity within the House, especially during times of war, was the sine qua non for a British military victory.

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 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.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Chamberlain had won a vote of confidencein Parliament by 281 votes to 200. Yet the fact that 40 members of his own party voted with the Opposition suggested Chamberlain was losing popularity. The Tribune further suggested that a resignation be an option due to the “growing uneasiness and bitterness” within the House. It became important to Churchill, less than a week after Chamberlain’s vote of (weak) confidence, that he received more support for his war-time policies. Distancing himself from the unpopular administration under Chamberlain would have helped him gain support for the war. His intent proved effective, as several days after the “Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat” speech, Time reported that Churchill won a vote of confidence of 381-0 in the House.

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 other 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 this Government: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

Churchill sought to provide hope and high morale for a war that the continent had never seen before. The Prime Minister was well aware that Britain’s position as a world leader was a precarious one, and that a victory against a militarily well-equipped Germany was uncertain. His references to the fall of Norway and Holland suggested that the Nazi regime was intent on continuing its westward push throughout Europe. Britain was certainly its next target. The speech also again alluded to the failure of Chamberlain’s administration, a common theme in his speech, wherein he sought to differentiate his policies from those of his predecessor. In particular, Churchill attacked the terms of the Munich Agreement (1938), referring to it as “a total and unmitigated defeat” of Britain and France. With a phrase like “political reconstruction” and the emphasis on “former” in “former colleagues,” Churchill used persuasive rhetoric to distance himself from Chamberlain.

Attempting to lead a nation to victory required the “‘blood, toil, tears, and sweat'” of the government and its citizens. These four descriptive words also seemed to evoke feelings of war: blood (from combat), toil (from the difficulty faced by those on the homefront), tears (from the tragedy of death that may befall a nation), and sweat (from the difficulty associated with rebuilding a postwar nation). Churchill employed pathos, a feeling of strong feelings and sympathetic emotion and a rhetorical device used to bring the nation together. He strived to emphasize his willingness to provide as much work and diligence necessary to win the war as soldiers who would have fought in the conflict. Such ideals seek to bring him closer to the people, as he explicates how the war truly could have affected every British citizen.

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 can say: It is to wage war by sea, land and air, with all our might; 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. 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.”

“Unity” has been a motif of Churchill’s first speech to the House. From the beginning of his speech, he expounded upon the all-important partnership among the “three party leaders,” as well as the war cabinet composed of members from the two major parties. And, by the end of his speech, the idea of unity returned. A British government with a common goal and agenda could have ensured the stability of the British Empire. In what is regarded as “one of the greatest speeches ever delivered in the English language,” “Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat” became the defining moment for his administration; it was a moment in which Churchill sought to define his political strategy and military intentions. And, as he ascertained, only “united” could the empire combat the enemy that threatened the existence of Britain.

Image Credit: Time: History

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