The RedState Department of History had plenty to choose from today in terms of anniversaries to observe. Most notably, the 1989 Tienanmen Square protest began on this day. But instead, the Department chose an oldie but a goodie from this date in 1940.
You may be able to guess what it is by this time. The Second World War had begun the previous September and just three days prior to this date, the German Army had invaded France and the Low Countries.
The military situation wasn’t good for the Allies, but on this date it wasn’t irretrievable, either. The Germans had yet to reach the Meuse in France and as yet, the great northward movement which would pin the British Expeditionary Force with its backs to the sea had not yet occurred.
Yet events from earlier in 1940 had necessitated a change in government in Great Britain. Most notably, the Allied fiasco in Norway, which saw ski troops landed without straps for their skis and no real plan to stop the German invasion, had resulted in a sort of reverse Stamford Bridge – in 1066, the Vikings had invaded England and returned home in disgrace, and now the British were doing the same thing in 1940.
The government of Neville Chamberlain was in tatters and after the House of Commons debate on the campaign, it was clear that change was needed.
To lead the government, the choice soon devolved to Winston Churchill and Edward Lindley Wood, known as Lord Halifax, who was Foreign Secretary under Chamberlain. King George asked Chamberlain for a recommendation and he met privately with the two men. Key to the discussion was Halifax’s membership in the House of Lords, which had not produced a prime minister in 40 years. Years later, their discussion was recalled by Churchill’s private secretary, J.R. Colville:
“Chamberlain looked at Churchill and said, ‘Tell me, Winston, in this day and age, is there any reason a Prime Minister should not be in House of Lords?’ Churchill thought this was a trap, because if he said no I don’t, Chamberlain could come back to Halifax and say “if the King were to ask my opinion, I could perhaps suggest you.’ But on the other hand, if he said yes I do, there could be no alternative but himself. So Churchill turned around, looked over the Horse Guards Parade, and did not reply to the question.”
That said, the opposition Liberals had made it clear that if there was to be a unity government, they would not serve under Halifax, who in later years was accused of trying to conduct peace negotiations with the Germans while Foreign Secretary.
So Churchill formed a government, and on this date in 1940 made his expectations abundantly clear to the House of Commons. His famous “Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat” speech was the first of a remarkable series of orations in 1940 which will surely be known to history as one of the best and most stirring series of speeches ever written.
You can listen to the speech here. Maybe this is the place to leave today’s entry – with the knowledge that there are still things worth fighting for.
Happy Mother’s Day, have a great Sunday and enjoy today’s open thread.