Winston Churchill

Here you can see the typescript copy of notes for Churchill’s famous speech, ‘We shall fight on the beaches ... We shall never surrender’, showing clearly his amendments and revisions to the phrases to ensure he got the words and emphasis the way he wanted. See the text of the full speech in the Archive here.

Key questions on Churchill: discussion, debate and historical controversy

By any standards Winston Churchill was a remarkable individual who led an extraordinary life. But so have many other great leaders from history. What was it about him that led to him being voted by the general public as ‘the greatest Briton’?

Churchill is generally regarded as a great orator; his speeches (or phrases from those speeches) are famous not only in Britain but across the world. Some of them have been seen as turning points in history. The most famous are those speeches he made as Britain’s wartime leader, with powerful phrases like ‘We shall fight on the beaches’. But were these speeches really the great morale boosters they’re now regarded? Just how good a speaker was he? And how did Churchill write and prepare for these speeches?
Churchill also knew the value of publicity and he wasn’t shy about presenting himself as a key figure in the history he was making. In fact Churchill is reported to have said that history would be kind to him because he would write that history!

‘For my part, I consider that it will be found much better by all Parties to leave the past to history, especially as I propose to write that history myself.’ (Churchill, 23 January 1948)

He did write his own history of both the First and Second World Wars as well as other history books and his account of the Second World War in six volumes, particularly The Gathering Storm volume, became very influential. But can we rely on his interpretation of events; can we rely on Churchill as a historian? Churchill never in fact claimed these books were ‘history’ but his contribution to history – and his own interpretation of events – and Arthur Balfour clearly agreed, commenting that Churchill’s World Crisis (a multi-volume account of the years 1911 to 1928) was ‘autobiography disguised as a history of the universe’.

These days not all historians accept Churchill’s account either and some are questioning the legend which surrounds Churchill. Some question how important his speeches were and others question whether his history books are reliable records. We’ve collected material from the archive which will allow you to tackle a range of investigations relating to these issues.

 

 

Click on the questions below to investigate this topic

As Britain’s war leader in the Second World War Churchill presented himself as being in the thick of the action. Here he is inspecting a ‘Tommy gun’ during a visit to inspect costal defence positions during the Second World War. This image was used in both British and Nazi propaganda (the latter, perhaps because he looks like a gangster!). (© IWM)