THE ROAR OF THE LION
The Untold Story of Churchill’s World War II Speeches
By Richard Toye
Oxford University Press
ISBN: 978 0 19 964252 6
Review by Mark Barnes for War History Online
If you’ve had the good fortune to read Max Hastings’ book on Winston Churchill’s reign during the Second World War then you can probably feel secure that you have him pegged. In my parents house a drawing my mum made of the great man when she was a war time teenager was framed proudly as a pair with that other enigma Monty. I have always concluded that the image of Churchill was the better of the two and in life we can assume much the same. The two men remain partly heroic and controversial. I don’t need to tap out epithets on our war time prime minister. He was then and remains now a giant, but I have to be honest and tell you I am not a fan. He was brilliant and clever and he was a lot more besides, but his adventurist armchair generalship and his dogged imperialism are not my cup of tea. I welcome his upcoming arrival as the obverse image on our five pound notes. He should have been there some time ago.
This absorbing book by Richard Toye looks at Churchill’s war through the progress of his speeches. There were a lot of them. Crucially, the book doesn’t reproduce them verbatim, but seeks to explain how they were constructed and received. The author is correct to assert that this is an important way to assess Winston’s war and equally important it sets out the course to his election defeat in 1945.
Like a lot of us, I have grown up with the classic quotes of Churchill’s brilliant oratory. What comes as a surprise, though perhaps it shouldn’t; is the depth of involvement and forceful persuasion used by others in the making of his speeches. The classic lines are all his, but there is much to learn here about the many people who had an influence on his words. This is genuinely fascinating stuff. It puts so much in perspective and leads you down new avenues. The Churchill we all think we know and his words are ingrained on us. He didn’t actually enjoy broadcasting and was happier with a live audience. He was diligent on his dealings with Parliament, who he steadfastly believed he answered to. He was dictatorial but he was on a genuine mission to maintain the power and authority of his Britain at the worst of times. All that he knew was beginning to unravel. It would have happened anyway, but the war acted as an accelerant.
As an orator and writer he was top class. I’ve read some of his writings and am resolved to seeking out his early books. For someone who doesn’t particularly admire the full Winston, I seem to have more books on him than about anyone else except another more divisive figure – Douglas Haig. This seems correct. Churchill’s place in our history through his speeches is immensely important. Not just for his chart toppers about The Few and fighting on the beaches, but for the full substance of his war time mission. The author reminds us that Churchill was strong enough to meet with triumph and disaster and be open and mostly honest with the people. He was a politician, so you can’t have everything.
He got into spats that diminish his reputation. He was prone to grandstanding with aspects of his oratory, especially to the Americans whom he courted with gusto. He was a romantic making imagery of the partnership of Britain and the USA that was far from the reality. But it was war and these things were necessary. He had to deal with Stalin and the unpalatable truth of Soviet ambition. He could rarely be assured of unanimous support from within his own party. There is so much to the story of Churchill at war which is not straightforward or as simplistic as some histories contend. He was spinning a lot of plates and some of them got broken. The author gets all of this into context.
We learn from Mr Toye just how varied public attitudes to Churchill were. They rove from complete adulation to downright hostility. The book supports this with regular quotes from the work of Mass-Observation and other surveys carried out during the war. It doesn’t take long to see the reality of Churchill’s predicament. The British people were happy for him to lead them in time of war, but for the peace they had other preferences. My father was home in time to vote for Labour in their 1945 landslide victory. People wanted the fresh start their fathers had been denied in 1918 and were going to get it.
As the title suggests this book takes us through the period of our history when Winston Churchill acted as the roar of the British lion. The man was a genius at this sort of quote. But for all his efforts he couldn’t stop the regression of the king of the beasts into something of a tired old moggy. None of us should mourn the loss of empire, but I do feel my post war generation has been lumbered with the vacuum created by a loss of purpose. Britain’s place in the world has changed and it was this reality which Churchill could not stomach. The war years were his finest hour and he deserves our gratitude. But we have come a long way since and it is difficult to assess what he would make of our world. He was of his time. In every respect this book enforces the image we have of the man and his moment. He was racing against the clock and while he may have lost in sense one he achieved something greater and that is his immortality.
I grew up with assertions from my mother and others that he had practically won the war by himself. We know this is tosh and the truth is much more complex. Conventional biographies do much to explain him, but a book like this does what the author intended. He has stripped down our entry point into Churchill’s world and opened it up for us. In many ways I feel enriched. I don’t like the man any more than before but I have a greater appreciation of his sense of vulnerability.
Mr Toye has written an important book and if you are student of the war leaders you must read it. If you are a staunch admirer of Churchill you might feel less assured at the end, but his greatness remains intact. Asked some years ago whether he preferred Churchill or Lenin, the sometimes controversial union leader Bob Crow chose the Russian. If asked, I would be wrong to abstain and would have to vote for Churchill. For all his faults we are in debt to him. He never shrank and always kept the faith. Seventy years on from D-Day and the path to victory, putting him on the back of a fiver is the least we can do.