Finest hours

The following quote is from Winston Churchill's famous "their finest hour" speech, delivered in the House of Commons on 18 June 1940 (and repeated for radio that evening). It's four days after the occupation of Paris: 'the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin'. After assuring the House that the strength of Fighter Command has not been dissipated over France, he turns to the threat of the knock-out blow (emphasis added):

There remains, of course, the danger of bombing attacks, which will certainly be made very soon upon us by the bomber forces of the enemy. It is true that the German bomber force is superior in numbers to ours; but we have a very large bomber force also, which we shall use to strike at military targets in Germany without intermission. I do not at all underrate the severity of the ordeal which lies before us; but I believe our countrymen will show themselves capable of standing up to it, like the brave men of Barcelona, and will be able to stand up to it, and carry on in spite of it, at least as well as any other people in the world. Much will depend upon this; every man and every woman will have the chance to show the finest qualities of their race, and render the highest service to their cause. For all of us, at this time, whatever our sphere, our station, our occupation or our duties, it will be a help to remember the famous lines: He nothing common did or mean, Upon that memorable scene.

I did a double-take when I read the bolded bit. Brave men of Barcelona? Where did that come from? Unless I'm showing my philistinism again and missing some literary reference (always possible with Churchill: there's already an Andrew Marvell quote in the last line there), he must be talking about the aerial bombardment of Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, and exhorting the British to be like the inhabitants of that city in their resistance to the terrors of bombing. Barcelona was bombed many times over a period of more than two years, most intensely between 16 and 18 March 1938 when more than 3000 people were killed (which I've discussed before). My own surprise at seeing Barcelona there is probably a reflection of the way in which Guernica has overshadowed other city bombardments of the 1930s.

But still, plenty of other cities had been bombed by the date of Churchill's speech, so why pick Barcelona? I suspect the main reason is simply that many of the other victims of bombing were hard to represent as positive role models, simply because the cities had soon fallen to the enemy. No matter how brave they were, the inhabitants of Warsaw and Rotterdam did not have to endure their ordeals for very long, because German tanks soon rolled into their cities. Churchill was preparing the inhabitants of London et al. to hold on for weeks, months, years if necessary -- to weather the knock-out blow and allow time for Britain to build up its forces and win (somehow). It's true that Barcelona eventually fell too, but it did hold out for more than two years: its citizens did not panic but adjusted to the constant air raids and went on with life under the bombs. There were few other cities which could claim a similar record at this time: Madrid would be another, and there must have been others in China -- Chungking (Chongqing), for example. Why Barcelona and not Madrid or Chungking, then? Well, perhaps the name just rolled off Churchill's tongue better.

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7 thoughts on “Finest hours

  1. I would look into British reporting on the Spanish Civil War, and disposition of the foreign brigades: it could be that he knew his audience would be quickly familiar with it.

  2. Post author

    Good idea! Here’s a quick and dirty test. I searched The Times for headline mentions of Madrid vs. Barcelona from 1 July 1936 to 31 April 1939: Madrid has 442, Barcelona only 209. The disparity is somewhat less if I search the full text instead: 3492 for Madrid vs 2263 for Barcelona. But if I do a full text search on “Madrid AND bombing” and “Barcelona AND bombing”, Barcelona now has more references, 277 to 189. (Using bombed instead of bombing, Barcelona is still ahead but it’s practically even: 230 to 220. Using bombardment instead, Madrid “wins” 173 to 143, but that would include the prolonged artillery bombardment it underwent.) So it does seem that as far as The Times was concerned, Barcelona was a more-bombed city than Madrid.

    I think the International Brigades moved around a bit: first based on Madrid, then Barcelona. But they didn’t fight at Barcelona, having already been disbanded by the time the city fell. There’s a map of the British Battalion’s actions here. No doubt Barcelona would figure in a lot of accounts of the brigades anyway (eg Homage to Catalonia), but as noted above Madrid gets more press references overall (it was the capital of the Republic, after all).

  3. Post author

    Well, as I said it might well just be that Churchill liked the way it sounded. A great orator would always be concerned about that. But I don’t see why brave men of Barcelona is necessarily more alliterative than brave men of Madrid, or courageous citizens of Chungking for that matter! Unless he made notes or said something to somebody about his choice, we probably can’t know.

    A couple of other thoughts … the intensive bombing of Barcelona was more recent than that of Madrid’s, by over a year, so he may have thought it more likely to be remembered by his audience. Also, Churchill’s major speeches were always directed at an American audience too, so perhaps the US press coverage of Barcelona vs. Madrid was a factor too.

  4. Churchill was drawing on his “Arms and the Covenant” phase in 1937/1938, when he swung around to supporting the Republic, having started off sympathising with Franco. Almost certainly he picked Barcelona as a example that would appeal to the Left.

  5. Nemo

    Perhaps Churchill’s choice of Barcelona over Madrid had something to do with the fact that Spanish Republican government had relocated from Madrid to Valencia early in the war. While the people of Madrid had endured the bombing their leaders had left (given the reality of the Nationalist armies just outside the city a reasonable move). Especially given that the French government had just moved from Paris to Bordeaux before surrendering Churchill perhaps did not want to even subliminally put the idea of his government leaving London in his listeners’ minds. BTW, I remember reading somewhere that during the Spanish Civil War the Nationalist bombers sometimes dropped loaves of bread on Republican territory. The bread was in wrappers that said something like “Bread from your Nationalist brothers”. This was apparantly designed to undermine morale in Republican Spain by lording the relatively better food situation in the Nationalist areas over them. Apparantly it was considered bad form to publicly pick up and eat the loaves, but when people could pick them up with no one else noticing they were quickly devoured.

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