Remember Churchill the man, not the myth: Why the real quotes are better than the memes

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Photograph: 'Churchill / Mihnea Maftei
Photograph: 'Churchill' / Mihnea Maftei

Alastair continues his series examining the best accounts of Winston Churchill, calling this week for a greater distinction between the real and apocryphal stories about Churchill.

“Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet just because there’s a picture next to it.” – Abraham Lincoln

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts

Winston Churchill’s military leadership was defined by his previous failures as a young minister. By the same token, Churchill was a deeply human occupant of 10 Downing Street with all his flaws and idiosyncrasies which make for an infinitely more eternal figure than the rather cliched portrayal of a stoic leader with a jutted draw and iron determination.

Where one draws the line is a singularly difficult task because of Churchill’s manifest confidence in himself and his meeting with destiny. Indeed, in his early 20s he made an eery prediction as to what his future might hold:

“I can see vast changes coming over a now peaceful world; great upheavals, terrible struggles; wars such as one cannot imagine; and I tell you London will be in danger – London will be attacked and I shall be very prominent in the defence of London … I see further ahead than you do. I see into the future. The country will be subjected somehow to a tremendous invasion … but I tell you I shall be in command of the defences of London and I shall save London and the Empire from disaster.”

Churchillian resonance is profound because the man himself had a remarkable sense of esprit de l’escallier. There was always something of an actor about Churchill and his sense of destiny was marked by an acute sense of occasion which always utilised a teeming memory of prose and poetry with his own gifts for the English language. As the famed American broadcaster Edward R. Murrow remarked in 1954:

“He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle to steady his fellow countrymen and hearten those Europeans upon whom the long dark night of tyranny had descended.”

What truth there is to Churchill’s rhetoric is blurred by the anecdotage attached to his name. Churchill, for all his flaws, was a deeply humorous and self-deprecating man, a fact which is even more striking when compared to his successors to 10 Downing Street.

The issue is that Churchillian humour has become conflated with apocryphal stories; a particular shame given that verified encounters are all the more satisfying. Consider the most famous exchange of them all:

Bessie Braddock MP: “Winston, you are drunk, and what’s more you are disgustingly drunk.”

Churchil: “Bessie, my dear, you are ugly, and what’s more, you are disgustingly ugly. But tomorrow
I shall be sober and you will still be disgustingly ugly.”

There is no account of Winston Churchill to suggest he ever listed from too much alcohol. As Richard Langworth notes, “Churchill himself liked to exaggerate his alcoholic capacity, giving rise to nonsensical myths.” Langworth was relayed the story by the late Ronald Golding, the bodyguard present on that occasion the quote took place. Golding explained that Churchill was not drunk, just tired and unsteady, which perhaps caused him to “fire the full arsenal” as Langworth concludes. However, Langworth also notes that Churchill’s daughter Mary Soames said such an ungallant rebuttal from Churchill was unlikely. Langworth later concluded that Churchill was actually likely quoting the 1934 movie It’s a Gift, where W. C. Fields’s character, when told he is drunk, responds, “Yeah, and you’re crazy. But I’ll be sober tomorrow and you’ll be crazy the rest of your life.”

Compare that story with the one allegedly from 1946, when Churchill travelled to Fulton, Missouri to deliver his famous ‘Iron Curtain’ speech. At the event, a bust of Churchill was to be unveiled. After the speech, a rather attractive woman with ample cleavage supposedly came up to him and said that she had travelled over a hundred miles to see the unveiling of his bust. The story goes that Churchill responded, “Madam, I assure you, in that regard, I would gladly return the favour.”

Unfortunately, there is no evidence to place this as anything other than apocryphal. The same is true for the story that has Churchill enter a men’s washroom in the House of Commons one day and, observing Labour leader Clement Attlee standing before the urinal, took up his stance at the opposite end of the room. “My dear Winston, I hoped that despite being adversaries in the house, we could be friends outside of it,” Attlee said. “Ah Clement,” Churchill replied, “I have no quarrel with you, but in my experience when you see something that’s big and works well, you tend to want to nationalise it.” There is again no evidence.

What is true, what is borrowed and what is cutting is a moot mix to which few will ever give the proper consideration. They become a melting pot, purported and exaggerated with even greater ease in the digital era. Nowhere is the problem seen more than with contemporary memes. “If you’re going through hell, keep going” is a popular Churchillianism that has no written or spoken record. Unfortunately, neither does the glorious Churchill’s statement ‘it makes you proud to be British’ when commenting on a story that a Buckingham palace guardsmen had been caught with a Tory MP in St. James Park on the coldest night of the year. Even Boris Johnson, who cited the story in his book The Churchill Factor acknowledged that:

“That’s the trouble. I heard that one from his grandson, whether or not that’s a substantial source, I don’t know…”

By contrast, it is easier to retrace stories about Churchill from the late 1950s onward because it’s when significant biographies began to investigate and compile vast swathes of opinion from his contemporaries. The seminal and official biography series by Sir Martin Gilbert (the first volume authored by Churchill’s son, Randolph and published in 1966) is the definitive roadmap to locating original stories because they include a traceable analysis of the accounts of those who bore witness to Churchill, and are accompanied by a plethora of companion books containing copies of the original sources. Although the quality of the independent research is assured, they are usually also corroborated independently, especially with Westminster parliamentary records and the diaries of parliamentary colleagues such as Harold Nicholson and Duff Cooper and military specialists  like Lord Alanbrooke and Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery.

Concurrently, the Churchill scholarship in the late 1960s and 1970 benefitted from the wider proliferation of recorded interviews of everyone who had a story to tell; from former war ministers to those who knew him and those who knew him in passing, including Brooke. The wonderful gem of Orson Welles reciting his experience of Churchill in the Mediterranean (below); interviews with Alanbrooke and Gilbert’s own extensive interviews  with colleagues and family members bring to life a much more tangible version of Churchill that moves past the pastiche.


In the age of television, celebrities like Welles have done more to solidify an image of Churchill as an irascible rascal in the public consciousness than anything. Richard Burton’s glorious exposition about Churchill at the theatre, like Welles, relishes in the real-life impishness that has also given rise to the false pretenders and misattribution, as seen above, precisely because the real deal is so similar.


Will the real Winston please stand up?

Indeed, finding the original sources for many of the most popular and inspiring Churchill’s quotes make authenticating beloved, yet assumed stories, all the sweeter. In the film Into the Storm, Churchill (Brendan Gleeson) is trying to persuade his War Cabinet to fight against Nazi Germany. Churchill rumbles that:

“That nations which went down fighting rose again, but those which surrendered tamely were finished.”

The scene is evocative and defiant. In a poignant a scene afterwards, Churchill confides his fear of failure to his wife and is lovingly reassured by her (Janet McTeer). The next day, and matched to perfection by a Howard Goodall’s crescendoing soundtrack, Gleeson’s Churchill makes his final and most splendid peroration:

“I am convinced that every one of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end, only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”

Used in any film today the language and tone of defiance would be taken as a creative liberty for dramatic effect. Yet, between the 25th and 28th of May 1940, the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax and Churchill tried to muster support for their respective positions. Halifax, an appeaser under Neville Chamberlain, favoured a settled peace and Churchill considered it a futile exercise to trust Adolf Hitler.

In reality, the film scene actually combines two meetings that happened on the 28th of May, 1940 in Churchill’s office in the House of Commons. The first quote was said to the tightly knit War Cabinet when Churchill again rejected any parley or negotiation with Hitler. Immediately after, the latter quotation was pronounced to a meeting with the members of his wider Cabinet. The event was duly noted in the diaries of the Minister for the Economy Hugh Dalton who notes that, like in the film, there was a great deal of cheering. No mention is made of the symbolic, albeit highly unlikely scene, of Lord Halifax storming out of the room in protest. Nevertheless, in fact, as in fiction, it is considered the moment when Churchill secured his mandate to carry out total war against the Nazi regime.

Truth to fiction breeds a more saccharin appreciation of real events, particularly when they seem to be a melodramatic indulgence which couldn’t possibly be real. Another golden thread throughout Into the Storm is the meaning of a passage twice recited by Gleeson from Thomas Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome:

Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the gate:
‘To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods.’

Like before it would seem as if the script is making a theatrical indulgence, particularly with such an apt poem, but like before it’s rooted in documented fact. John ‘Jock’ Colville, Assistant Private Secretary to Chamberlain and later Churchill, describes in his diariesThe Fringes of Power: Downing Street Diaries, 1939-55, Churchill being in good spirits and repeating the poem in the summer of 1940.

Churchill learnt the poems of Thomas Macaulay at school, winning a prize for reciting 1000 lines as he notes in his only autobiography, My Early Life:

“From Gibbon I went to Macaulay. I had learnt [as a boy] The Lays of Ancient Rome by heart, and loved them; and of course I knew he had written a history; but I had never read a page of it.…I accepted all Macaulay wrote as gospel, and I was grieved to read his harsh judgments upon the Great Duke of Marlborough. There was no one at hand to tell me that this historian with his captivating style and devastating self-confidence was the prince of literary rogues, who always preferred the tale to the truth, and smirched or glorified great men and garbled documents according as they affected his drama.”

With a taste for the dramatic, it is not surprising these words would be on his mind as destiny loomed. Indeed, as William Manchester surmises in his book The Last Lion:

“All who knew him came to know that in Churchill such sentiments were intrinsic.”

Television and film portrayals of Winston Churchill hold the ironic distinction of being presumed to be soaked in creative licence when most, in fact, hold true to fact. It’s highly unlikely that creative embellishments can improve upon the larger than life splendour and humour of the real man. The Gathering Storm opens with a naked Churchill, as played by Finney, urinating and reciting a speech in his bathroom when he was out of power in the 1930s. It ends with the beautiful juxtaposition of Churchill’s triumphant return to the Admiralty in 1939 at the start of the Second World War (a post he first held during the First World War). The closing scene is Churchill entering the Admiralty and being greeted by a marine who informs him that a message was sent to the British fleet announcing that ‘Winston is back’. Cigar raised and chuckling, Finney rumbles to a crescendo: “Mmmm,Winston is back…and so he bloody well is!”

While events may not have panned out in quite the same dramatisation or cinematic smoothness, Churchill records in his Second World War sextet:

“On this the Board were kind enough to signal the Fleet, ‘Winston is back.’ So it was that I came again to the room I had quitted in pain and sorrow almost exactly a quarter of a century before.”

The action is unusual for the British Navy and demonstrates just how like a film script Churchill’s life read at key moments. The same is true for Simon Ward in Young Winston, Richard Burton in the TV series The Gathering Storm, Robert Hardy in the Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years, Michael Gambon in Churchill’s Secret, Adam James in Churchill’s First World War and is highly likely to also be true in the upcoming Churchill biopics starring Brian Cox and Kevin Spacey respectively.

Churchill was not only a master of oratorical bon mots, but a comedian of expert timing. During his second premiership, when he fought on against his ailing body and mind before eventually resigning in 1953, Anthony Eden, had been sniping at his heels to resign for years. As his valet, Norman McGowan so wonderfully recounts a train journey to Venice around this time, when Churchill had his head of a window attempting to get a better view, only to have to be wrenched back by his detective:

“My Guv’nor’s smiling comment was: ‘Anthony Eden nearly got a new job then, didn’t he?’”

McGowan’s account of Churchill remains a serial hit list of fun. Knowing that Churchill perused in out of his vast book collection in the evenings, nearly electrocuted himself feeding his fish, abhorred whistling are made all the more amusing by McGowan’s self-deprecating sense of humility. Recalling finding a series of exercises to help Churchill lose weight,  (unaware as to what they were) he left instructions for Churchill on his bathroom mirror, only to be asked the following evening: “Norman, do I look pregnant?” They were antenatal exercises.

Churchill’s fondness for headgear and uniforms and reluctance to change clothes after decades of use is also confirmed. Many old suits seen in the earliest photographs are the same in the latter ones. McGowan remembers arguing with Churchill before a reception in France that Churchill’s Medaille Militaire ribbon should be worn on the left lapel. Churchill ignored him, “It is worn on the right lapel,” he insisted. Before the reception was over, all attendees had changed theirs to the wrong lapel too. Rather sheepishly, Churchill later concluded: “Norman, the French are the best diplomats in the world.”

McGowan recalls a similar anecdote when the Churchill party was on a holiday to Marrakesh he heard the most terrific scream. He burst into Churchill’s room with his police aides:

“Our first thought was that he was being assassinated. I was first to reach the bathroom where Mr. Churchill was still roaring. I flung open the door, terrified of what I might find.

But there was the Guv’nor quite alone, with his hands clasped to his back shouting blue murder. It was several minutes before he could tell me what had happened, and by that time there was a milling crowd outside the door.

‘Norman’ he said ruefully but with a grin, ‘as I was getting out of the bath I slipped and sat on the hot water tap.’”

The lifetime of effort required to distill the truth from the well-meaning, but fantastical, stories about Churchill is why the study of his life exists. To do so if no predilection for the rigour of investigation exists is near impossible and is not a crime. To the contrary, it’s a testament to Churchill’s enduring popularity that tall tales sit side by side with substantiated and equally entertaining anecdotes and witticisms.

Consider on a closing note Adolf Hitler. His personal vilification of Churchill was broad. Hitler referred to Churchill as an “unscrupulous politician who wrecks whole countries”, a “puppet of Jewry”, and an “undisciplined swine who is drunk eight hours out of every twenty-four …who spends extravagantly and smokes without moderation”. He didn’t stop there: “As lunatics like that drunkard Churchill and Maccabeans and numskulls like that brilliantined dandy Eden are at the helm we’ve to be prepared for just about anything!”

For all the malice behind these words, there is a reassuring satisfaction by Hitler raising words to match and embody the horror of the person who uttered them. Knowing Hitler did make such utterances makes his defeat all the more enjoyable, and the titanic victory of his obliteration more marvellous.

The same is true for Churchill. For those committed to the study of Churchill’s memory, and those who enjoy his presumed parlance need not sit in conflict or arrogant condescension of the other. His words, his real words, are infinitely more enjoyable if we can distinguish fact from fiction.

As Churchill, so wonderfully articulated and so theatrically stated:

“If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.”

It is idolatry to purport a myth over the truth. It makes Churchill’s life, achievements and defiance all the more remarkable to know what’s real.

Incidentally, the above quote was said by Churchill to his private secretary, John Colville.

A case in point, perhaps.


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About Alastair Stewart 228 Articles
Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and journalist. He was previously a press officer in the Scottish Parliament and worked in public affairs. He graduated from Edinburgh University with an MA in International Relations and writes regularly on politics and the arts in the Spanish and British press.

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