In response to French Marshal Philippe Pétain, who believed that Britain would succumb to the Germans and “have its neck wrung like a chicken,” Churchill responded with his oration, “Some chicken, some neck.” The rousing speech before the Canadian delegation was meant to praise the courage of Canadian soldiers, muster confidence for the war effort, and challenge those who dared to think the British could fall in the Battle of Britain.
The timing of the speech was also notable, as it came a little over three weeks after the Japanese bombing at Pearl Harbor. Churchill had ventured to the United States on December 22 aboard the HMS Duke of York. He intended to establish a friendship with President Roosevelt, as the Japanese attack on American soil might convince the President to enter the war. Originally, Churchill had not intended to make a trip to Canada during his sojourn across the Atlantic Ocean. But he managed to make a two-day trip to Canada at the invite of the Governor General, the Earl of Athlone, and Prime Minister Mackenzie King. He gave a speech before the Canadian House of Commons, which included MPs, senators, premiers, judges, foreign diplomats, and other high officials. And, perhaps not yet known at the time, Churchill received a warm welcome from the people of Ottawa that prompted the beginning of Canadian support for the war.
Speech: “Some Chicken, Some Neck”
Date: December 30, 1941
Context: Churchill responds to a suggestion that the British would succumb to the Germans and highlights the importance of Canadian troops in the war
Audience: Canadian Parliament in Ottawa
Mr. Speaker, Members of the Senate, and Members of the House of Commons: It is with feelings of pride and encouragement that I find myself here in the House of Commons of Canada, invited to address the Parliament of the Senior Dominion of the Crown. I am very glad to see again my old friend, Mr. Mackenzie King, for fifteen out of twenty years, your Prime Minister, and I thank him for the all too complimentary terms in which he has referred to myself. I bring you, Mr. Speaker, the assurance of good will and affection from everyone in the Motherland. We are most grateful for all you have done in the common cause, and we know that you are resolved to do whatever more is possible as the need arises and as opportunity serves. Canada occupies a unique position in the British Empire because of its unbreakable ties with Britain and its ever-growing friendship and intimate association with the United States. Canada is a potent magnet, drawing together those in the New World and in the Old, whose fortunes are now united in a deadly struggle for life and honour against the common foe. The contribution of Canada to the imperial war effort—in troops, in ships, in aircraft, in food, and in finance—has been magnificent.
At the deliverance of Churchill’s speech, Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King was serving his fifth term in office. As the leader of the liberal Party, King was originally supportive of Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement. However, after the Nazi invasion of Poland and the British declaration of war, King officially declared war on Germany on September 10. Churchill wanted to praise King for his commitment to fight alongside the “Old [World]” in the “deadly struggle for life and honour.” Indeed, King had been hesitant to embroil his voters in any European war by means of conscription. Moreso, by 1941, voluntary enlistment had slowed down and the number of men who wanted to go to war had fallen. The friendship between Britain and Canada, the latter as a former colony and close ally, became ever more crucial to the British war agenda.
The Canadian Government have imposed no limitation upon the use of the Canadian Army, whether on the Continent of Europe or elsewhere, and I think it is extremely unlikely that this war will end without the Canadian Army coming to close quarters with the Germans, as their fathers did at Ypres, on the Somme, or on the Vimy Ridge. Already at Hong Kong, that beautiful colony—which the industry and mercantile enterprise of Britain has raised from a desert isle and made the greatest port of shipping in the whole world—at Hong Kong, that Colony, wrested from us for a time until we reach the peace table, by the overwhelming power of the Home Forces of Japan, to which it lay in proximity, at Hong Kong, Canadian soldiers of the Royal Rifles of Canada and the Winnipeg Grenadiers, under a brave officer whose loss we mourn, have played a valuable part in gaining precious days and have crowned with military honour the reputation of their native land.
The demise of Hong Kong, a colony that had fallen to Japanese troops earlier that month, proved that no country was ‘safe’ from the Axis Powers. Hong Kong in 1941 had a bustling economy, supported by the local industries of shipbuilding and sugar, sustained by the trade it had with eastern Asia. Current events, such as Pearl Harbor and the fall of Hong Kong, strengthened the message of Churchill’s speeches in pointing out the sheer urgency of the situation at hand. He recognized that soldiers from across the British Dominions were actively fighting the Japanese, including nearly 2,000 Canadians at the Battle of Hong Kong.
We did not make this war. We did not seek it. We did all we could to avoid it. We did too much to avoid it. We went so far, at times, in trying to avoid it as to be almost destroyed by it when it broke upon us. But that dangerous corner has been turned, and with every month and every year that passes, we shall confront the evil-doers with weapons as plentiful, as sharp, and as destructive as those with which they have sought to establish their hateful domination. I should like to point out to you, Mr. Speaker, that we have not at any time asked for any mitigation in the fury or malice of the enemy. The peoples of the British Empire may love peace. They do not seek the lands or wealth of any country, but they are a tough and hardy lot. We have not journeyed all this way across the centuries, across the oceans, across the mountains, across the prairies, because we are made of sugar candy.
Both the Dominion of Canada and Colony of Hong Kong, despite being on opposite sides of the world, had a shared historic connection: they were tied to the British Empire. A common mentality between these two, Churchill ascertained, was the commitment to “peace” and the desire to “confront the evil-doers” of the world. His grandiose oration highlighted the need for security against threats to the empire.
Look at the Londoners, the Cockneys. Look at what they have stood up to. Grim and gay with their cry, “We can take it,” and their wartime mood of “What is good enough for anybody is good enough for us.” We have not asked that the rules of the game should be modified. If any, we shall never descend to the German and Japanese level, but if anybody likes to play rough, we can play rough too. Hitler and his Nazi gang have sown the wind. Let them reap the whirlwind.
Churchill had asked the proceeding to be filmed and broadcasted on public radio. He knew that his speech was critical in convincing, not only the House, but also the nation that war was necessary. Battered by the devastation of World War 1, Canada, like the United States, was against another European conflict. But Churchill succeeded in vilifying the Germans and Japanese, identifying them as a “gang” who has “sown the wind” of a conflict that would soon spiral out of control. As one journalist noted, Churchill knew that the war had become “a cultural struggle, not only a military one, and he had no qualms about characterizing his side as that defined by language and religion.”
On top of all this came the great French catastrophe. The French Army collapsed, and the French nation was dashed into utter and, as it has proved so far, irretrievable confusion. The French Government, had at their own suggestion, solemnly bound themselves with us not to make a separate peace. It was their duty, and it was also their interest, to go to North Africa, where they would have been at the head of the French Empire. In Africa, with our aid, they would have had overwhelming sea power. They would have had the recognition of the United States, and the use of all the gold they had lodged beyond the seas. If they had done this, Italy might have been driven out of the war before the end of 1940, and France would have held her place as a nation in the counsels of the Allies and at the conference table of the victors. But their generals misled them. 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.
Pétain predicted the British were to fall to German forces within three weeks. The French general assumed that the might of the German Luftwaffe, through their large-scale, fast attacks known as Blitz, would lead to the downfall of the country during the Battle of Britain. The Battle, however, ended in October 1940 with a British victory. Indeed, the Royal Air Force was able to achieve and maintain air superiority. Despite being initially outnumbered, Britain began to ramp up factory production and, by the end of the battle, the rate of new British aircraft outstripped German aircraft by a wide margin. Churchill thus took an opportunity to ridicule the French military leaders who felt that the country would surely fall and “her neck [would be] wrung like a chicken.” He retorted, “some chicken” to the cheers of the House, and then “some neck” to even more. The “neck” may also refer to the nerve of the French, who underestimated Britain’s capabilities during the war.
We may observe three main periods or phases of the struggle that lies before us. First, there is the period of consolidation, of combination, and of final preparation. In this period, which will certainly be marked by much heavy fighting, we shall still be gathering our strength, resisting the assaults of the enemy, and acquiring the necessary overwhelming air superiority and shipping tonnage to give our armies the power to traverse, in whatever numbers may be necessary, the seas and oceans which, except in the case of Russia, separate us from our foes. It is only when the vast shipbuilding programme on which the United States has already made so much progress, and which you are powerfully aiding, comes into full flood, that we shall be able to bring the whole force of our manhood and of our modern scientific equipment to bear upon the enemy. How long this period will take depends upon the vehemence of the effort put into production in all our war industries and shipyards.
Thanking the Americans and Canadians for their support thus far in the war remains an important talking point. While Churchill hoped to encourage more helpful support from their North American allies through this speech, he was careful not to make it seem like the war was by any means nearly over.
The second phase which will then open may be called the phase of liberation. During this phase, we must look to the recovery of the territories which have been lost or which may yet be lost, and also we must look to the revolt of the conquered peoples from the moment that the rescuing and liberating armies and air forces appear in strength within their bounds. For this purpose it is imperative that no nation or region overrun, that no government or state which has been conquered, should relax its moral and physical efforts and preparation for the day of deliverance. The invaders, be they German or Japanese, must everywhere be regarded as infected persons to be shunned and isolated as far as possible. Where active resistance is impossible, passive resistance must be maintained. The invaders and tyrants must be made to feel that their fleeting triumphs will have a terrible reckoning, and that they are hunted men and that their cause is doomed. Particular punishment will be reserved for the quislings and traitors who make themselves the tools of the enemy. They will be handed over to the judgment of their fellow-countrymen.
By December 1941, the map of Europe had been completely redrawn. Although Britain had fended itself off against a Nazi invasion, other countries had not fared as well. Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France had been invaded. Yugoslavia and Greece were also occupied. The Baltic states and parts of Eastern Europe also are under control of the Axis Powers. Britain feared that, with the continent of Europe in the midst of crisis, it was time to go to the United States and Canada and appeal for aid. He highlights the moral obligation of their counterparts across the Atlantic to ascertain that “no nation or region [is] overrun, that no government or state… [is] conquered.” After the Americans and Canadians provide aid and troops, this second phase can thus transition to the final, third phase.
Sir, there is a third phase which must also be contemplated, namely, the assault upon the citadels and homelands of the guilty powers both in Europe and in Asia. Thus, I endeavour in a few words to cast some forward light upon the dark, inscrutable mysteries of the future. But, in thus forecasting the course along which we should seek to advance, we must never forget that the power of the enemy and the action of the enemy may at every stage affect our fortunes. Moreover, you will notice that I have not attempted to assign any time-limits to the various phases. These time-limits depend upon our exertions, upon our achievements, and on the hazardous and uncertain course of the war.
Nevertheless, I feel it is right at this moment to make it clear that, while an ever-increasing bombing offensive against Germany will remain one of the principal methods by which we hope to bring the war to an end, it is by no means the only method which our growing strength now enables us to take into account. Evidently the most strenuous exertions must be made by all. As to the form which those exertions take, that is for each partner in the grand alliance to judge for himself in consultation with others and in harmony with the general scheme. Let us then address ourselves to our task, not in any way underrating its tremendous difficulties and perils, but in good heart and sober confidence, resolved that, whatever the cost, whatever the suffering, we shall stand by one another, true and faithful comrades, and do our duty, God helping us, to the end.
Throughout his speech before the Canadian House of Commons, Churchill received great support from government officials. “Churchill was greeting with wild applause, which reached a tumultuous crescendo as he stood up to speak,” as one Australian newspaper argued. Churchill addressed the House of Commons with convincing and commanding prose. With the press gallery above and the public galleries on the sides, the chamber became the focal point of Anglo-Canadian wartime relations.
Image Credit: Imperial War Museums