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Henry V, Churchill, and the rhetoric of war

For much of his presidency, a bust of Sir Winston Churchill was placed in George W Bush’s Oval Office. On coming to power in 2008, Barrack Obama had it removed. While Bush may have seen Churchill as a heroic defender of democracy, Obama regarded him as an imperialist oppressor, his father’s family having suffered during the Mau Mau rebellion. One man’s celebrated war hero was another’s colonial tyrant.
He was both. A complex and troubled man, Churchill’s career was marked by a series of mistakes, controversies, disasters and tragedies. Yet in 1940 he was the single man able to lead Britain’s fight against Nazism. At times it seemed his only weapon was the power of his rhetoric. Speaking in April 1963, President John F Kennedy said of Churchill’s oratory, ‘In the dark days and darker nights when England stood alone… he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.’
Churchill’s gift for speech making was not innate. As a child he spoke with a lisp, was considered a dunce at school and twice failed exams to get into Sandhurst.  Hope for us all. It was whilst with the army in India that he began a serious study of rhetoric, working his way through the speeches of Gladstone, Disraeli and other notable speakers, analysing their construction.
He learnt well; his great wartime speeches deploy every rhetorical device. They featured repetition (We shall fight them 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), lists (I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat…), inversion (This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning), colloquialisms (Give us the tools and we’ll finish the job), metaphor (Now the old lion… stands alone against hunters), quotation (‘Every morn brought forth a noble chance/And every chance brought forth a noble knight’ Tennyson), contrast (Broad, sunlit uplands… the abyss of a new Dark Age), his lines of rolling grandiloquence (Wickedness, enormous, panoplied, embattled, seemingly triumphant, casts its shadow over Europe and Asia) generally offset by sentences of short monosyllables (These are not dark days; these are great days).
Like almost anyone from his background, Churchill would have grown up familiar with both the bible and Shakespeare. In one of his earliest wartime speeches he referred to freedom as ‘a house of many mansions’ and there are frequent echoes of Shakespeare in his phraseology.
He consistently referred to Britain as ‘our Island’ – the noun always capitalised in his typescripts. This helped emphasize both Britain’s isolation in its opposition to Nazism, but also its special destiny. It was not part of the continental landmass dominated by the ‘barbarisms of Nazidom and Bolshevism’.
This constant reference to our island evokes John of Gaunt’s ‘sceptred isle’ and, less flatteringly, Britaine’s disparagement of that ‘nook-shotten isle of Albion’ in Henry V. We have always defined ourselves against the French, even when not at war with them. Even when they were on the same side.
The sense of Britain as a beleaguered nation battling against superior forces was conjured by Churchill in his ‘House of many mansions’ broadcast when he said, ‘Certainly it is true that we are facing numerical odds; but that is nothing new in our history. Very few wars have been won by mere numbers alone… Numbers do not daunt us.’ In the minds of many of his listeners would have been Henry’s speech before Agincourt when his bedraggled army faced the flower and might of French chivalry. In Act 4 Scene 3 he tells his followers,
From this day to the ending of the world
But we in it shall be remembered –
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition.
Consciously or not, Churchill was to echo Henry’s words in two of his most celebrated speeches. Speaking in the House of Commons following Dunkirk and the fall of France, he said,
‘Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”’
Henry’s timespan ‘from this day to the ending of the world’ may be a little more expansive than Churchill’s ‘thousand years’ but both suggest an enduring moment of glory. Only a few weeks later, at the height of the Battle of Britain in August 1940, Churchill was to reference the Agincourt speech again when he told the Commons,
‘The gratitude of every home in our Island… goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the world war by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’
Churchill’s ‘few’ – ‘undaunted by odds’ - is a clear restatement of Henry’s ‘happy few’. It is a tellingly simple word on which to end a speech packed with alliteration, assonance, repetition and grand phrasing.
In many ways Henry V is a patriotic hymn, showing us at our heroic best. It is therefore not surprising that Churchill’s government wished to enlist it as part of the war effort - and in 1943, Jack Beddington, a civil servant in the Ministry of Information invited Laurence Olivier to produce a film version of the play. A sub-lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve, Olivier had yet been regularly touring the country with a medley of rousing speeches, always ending with ‘Once more unto the breach dear friends…’
He both starred and directed, cutting Shakespeare’s text from 3,000 to 1500 words, in the process shaving anything that would detract from Henry’s stature as war leader. His threat to the governor of Harfleur to have ‘your naked infants spitted upon spikes’ is omitted. So too is his order that ‘every soldier kill his prisoners’ after the French have attacked the baggage boys, while Bardolph’s execution also goes unmentioned. This is Shakespeare as propaganda.
When released in 1944 the film was dedicated ‘To the commando and airborne troops of Great Britain’ and its first audience would have been conscious of the parallels between Henry’s battle and their own. By trivial coincidence, the early theatres shared use with cockfights, dog fights and bear baiting shows which is why in the Prologue Shakespeare referred to the ‘cockpit’ that now holds ‘the vasty fields of France’. By 1944, the words ‘cockpit’ and ‘dogfight’ had taken on a very new and different meaning, both intimately familiar to the ‘few’ of Churchill’s speech.
Although the play is stirringly patriotic, it isn’t merely a celebration of war. In one of its key scenes, a disguised Henry moves amongst his troops on the eve of battle. In conversation with ordinary soldiers, one of them tells him,
‘If the cause be not good, the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all, ‘We died at such a place,’ some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of anything when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the King that led them to it; who to disobey, were against all proportion of subjection.’
Strikingly, Shakespeare gives the speech to a character called Michael Williams. Unlike Bardolph, Pistol and Nym whose names reflect their comic oddity, Michael’s is the name of Everyman. There must be hundreds of Michael Williams in any large town. By choosing the name for him he did, Shakespeare is giving him respect. Its ordinariness deflects ridicule.
He speaks for the common man and tells of ‘wives left poor’ and ‘children rawly left’. Death in battle is not glorious. It is bloody and brutal, with ‘all those legs and arms and heads chopped off’.
In his speech before Agincourt, Henry said that those who fought with him would ‘gentle their condition. At Harfleur he appealed to the ‘good yeomen’. In other words, making it clear he was leading a whole nation, not a narrow military caste of noblemen.
The Second World War has been described as ‘the People’s War’, though the patrician Churchill did not refer to it as such. At its end he was voted out of office, Labour winning the election by a landslide. Churchill had been an indispensable war leader, but the people chose Clement Attlee to lead them into peace.

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