Book review – The Roar of the Lion: The Untold Story of Churchill’s World War II Speeches

David Stafford considers an ambitious book that sets out to explore the reality behind Churchill’s famous wartime oratory

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Reviewed by: David Stafford
Author: Richard Toye
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Price (RRP): £25

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It is a truth almost universally proclaimed that Churchill’s wartime speeches were not just eloquent and magnificent but that they galvanised Britain into action through its darkest hours. Even though Churchill himself made the apparently modest claim to have done no more than give the voice – or the roar – to the lionhearted will of the people, this did nothing to challenge the image of a nation energised as one by his rhetoric. This apparent truth still lingers powerfully on in the collective memory. Who today is not familiar, in one way or another, with such phrases as “this was their finest hour” or “never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few”?

Yet, as Richard Toye asks in this thought-provoking book, how much of the accepted view is actually true? Astonishingly, his is the first to provide a comprehensive analysis of all of Churchill’s wartime speeches (and not just the most memorable, or those from the grim days of 1940), and to explore seriously how and why they were written and delivered, and what impact they actually had on those who heard them.As Toye usefully reminds us, their target was not just the British people but also listeners throughout the British empire, the USA, allied nations and neutrals – and, indeed, those in enemy countries. It’s no wonder that the files Toye has examined reveal that Churchill consulted extensively with his ministers and others, both before and after constructing what he had to say. Sometimes, we learn, he came to resent the exhausting demands to make broadcasts at all.

Toye undertakes an ambitious task. Not only was the reach of Churchill’s speeches global, but the evidence of how they were received is sparse and, when unearthed, remains far from scientific. Toye relies heavily on two main sources to test the British reaction: the Ministry of Information’s Home Intelligence Division reports, which regularly surveyed public opinion on morale, rumours and the reception of ministerial broadcasts and announcements; and the large body of evidence collected by Mass Observation, a research organisation that relied on reports supplied by voluntary observers and interviewers as well as on diaries sent in by ordinary people. Not surprisingly, their reactions often reflected pre-existing loyalties. For example, although curiously Toye does not tell us this, one of the consistently critical diarists he quotes, the journalist Denis Argent, was a prewar conscientious objector who at the very least had sympathies towards the communists. It’s hardly surprising that he had little good to write about Churchill.

Still, however impressionistic the evidence, what emerges is a useful corrective to the legend. Not only was there a larger variety of responses to Churchill’s oratory than usually imagined, but sometimes Churchill’s speeches actually depressed, rather than exhilarated, people. Nor did praise for his wartime oratory mean that people thought Churchill would be the best person to lead the nation after victory, as the 1945 election showed. Good military news, as Toye’s evidence makes clear, was always a more invigorating tonic than the most inspirational rhetoric.

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David Stafford is the author of Endgame 1945: Victory, Retribution, Liberation (Abacus, 2008)