Short speeches are often the most effective; however, even in lengthy speeches there are often shorter sections which capture perfectly the mood of the time and are remembered long after. Winston Churchill’s ‘We will fight on the beaches’ speech is such a case. Most people think of it only as that half sentence passage but it was part of a much longer speech delivered to the House of Commons at 3.40pm on 4 June 1940 as the evacuation of Dunkirk drew to a close.
The expectation was that the evacuation begun on 26 May would result in extremely heavy casualties. Casualty figures cannot be separated out for the evacuation alone; for the period 10 May to 4 June, which includes the period from the commencement of the German invasion of Belgium and the Netherlands, to the retreat and final evacuation, a total of 68,111 men were either killed, wounded, missing or captured. The successful evacuation of a total of 338,226 servicemen was seen as a ‘miracle’, however, Churchill warned ‘We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations’.
Churchill also used the speech to praise the efforts of both the Royal Navy and the RAF and all others concerned. He left no doubt about the dangers Britain faced with the immanent collapse of France. As his speech drew to a close he said
‘Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the new world, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.’
The interesting thing about this section of the speech, unlike Churchill’s whole speech overall, is that he used words only of Old English origin. The only word of French origin is, of course, surrender.
The full text of the speech can be found here.