How Faith Helped Winston Churchill Keep Calm and Carry On
Laugh a little, and teach your men to laugh … If you cant smile, grin. If you cant grin, keep out of the way till you can.
-Winston Churchill, to his officers in the trenches in France, 1916
Contemporary global conditions have made us starkly aware of the fragile nature of civil order and the need for humanity to unite against the barbaric and atavistic forces mentioned by Winston Churchill.
We are living in a stressful age that New York Times columnist Roger Cohen calls a time of unraveling. Cohen imagines a future conversation about the grim situations of the present, and writes: It was the time of unraveling … a time of beheadings … a time of aggression … a time of breakup … a time of weakness … a time of hatred … a time of fever … a time of disorientation in which the fabric of society frayed.
Democracy looked quaint or outmoded beside new authoritarianisms. Politicians, haunted by their incapacity, played on the fears of their populations, who were device-distracted or under device-driven stress. Dystopia was a vogue word, like utopia in the 20th century. The great rising nations of vast populations held the fate of the world in their hands but hardly seemed to care … until it was too late and people could see the Great Unraveling for what it was and what it had wrought.
How, then, can we remain steady and unruffled in the civilization-battering turbulence all around us? Many people are wondering about that, as evidenced by the recent popularity of posters, T-shirts, and other objects bearing a message that symbolized British pluck during the fiery storms of the Second World War: Keep Calm and Carry On.
For many, Winston Churchill epitomized the attitude those words convey. His life, as we have seen, was pummeled by heavy waves of adversity that could have capsized him many times, but he stayed on beam and sailed ahead.
On September 1, 1939, as Nazi troops invaded Poland, Churchill again found himself at the helm of the British navy, at the invitation of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. As first lord of the Admiralty, he also had a seat on the War Cabinet.
By now 64 years old, Churchill probably thought that his career had already crested. However, as he took up residence in Admiralty House, where he had last lived a quarter century earlier, it was really only the beginning. His destinythe day for which his entire life had been preparing himwas yet ahead. As he scanned the rooms so familiar to him, he could still see the maps depicting positions of ships in 1915, when he had left the Admiralty after the Gallipoli disaster.
This time, however, he would meet with only acclaim. When word of his appointment reached the Admiralty Board, the order was given to send a message to all British naval stations and ships: WINSTON IS BACK.
The last time Churchill had helmed the British navy, he had sailed into the storm of the Dardanelles controversy. This time, the first lord of the Admiralty would voyage with all his shipmates into a typhoon of even greater proportions. And this time Churchill would come out the victor. However, it would be a frightening and arduous journey.
The great question before him initially was how to keep his naval forces afloat amid the turbulence of the early days of the war. In less than a year, his great concern would turn to holding the British ship of state on an even keel as it was pounded by Nazi assaults. To do that, he would need to keep the nation calm, a goal he would accomplish with his speeches and his demeanor of relentless optimism and composure.
His own personality and character would be a crucial element in this enterprise. He would have to demonstrate personally how to keep calm and carry on. The challenges he faced in forming a new government reveal the enormous size of the task.
For starters, he had to put together a coalition consisting of various political parties and their leaders, all of whom he had managed to offend at some point in his long career. When he walked into the House of Commons for the first time as prime minister, his own party, the Conservatives, gave him a tepid response, not even offering a standing ovationthough they heartily applauded Neville Chamberlain.
Meanwhile events across the Channel were moving fast, writes Churchills daughter Mary Soames. Four days after Churchill became prime minister, Nazi military forces blitzed through French defenders at Sedan. The next day, May 15, the Luftwaffe leveled Rotterdam in the Netherlands, and the Dutch army capitulated. On May 28, Belgium collapsed, and Hitlers forces surged to the Channel coast, with many of his officers eager to invade Britain. Churchill, meanwhile, had to focus on the task of getting more than 330,000 of his own troops and their allies off the French coast and back to England.
On top of all that, an even greater nightmare was taking shape in Paris, where there were signs that the French were going to cave in to the Nazis military might and abandon the fight. Over the next few weeks, Churchill and his advisors made five perilous flights to France to try to persuade the French leaders not to give up. But their efforts were futile. The Germans captured Paris on June 14, and by June 22 the French government had signed a surrender agreement with the Nazis.
Not long after moving into the prime ministers residence at No. 10 Downing Street, Churchill invited David Margesson, the government chief whip in the House of Commons, to lunch. Margesson, a fellow Conservative, had sometimes opposed Churchill, and he had been an appeaser during the Chamberlain administration. Now, however, he was a Churchill ally, and his change of heart seemed genuine.
Clementine, however, was not so ready to forgive and forget. She had strongly opposed the appeasement policy and could still taste the gall of those years. She felt that people like Margesson had put Britain in its present precarious position.
As they sat at table, Clementine could finally no longer contain her indignation. She exploded at David Margesson, and, in Mary Soamess words, flayed him verbally before sweeping out of the room, with Mary in tow. Mary was most ashamed and horrified, but she later concluded about her mother, This outburst from the normally immaculately well-mannered Clementine is indicative of the tensions in her life at that time.
Considering the huge load that both Winston and Clementine Churchill bore during this period, they could be forgiven an occasional lapse in their composure. But as the war ground on for another five grueling years, together they became a shining example of how to keep calm and carry on.
Posters bearing the keep calm and carry on slogan had been created by the Ministry of Information in 1939 as preparations for war began in earnest. More than two million placards were printed, but they were never officially seen by the public because the intended use was only upon the invasion of Britain by Germany, which never happened. It wasnt until 2000, when Stuart Manley, a bookstore owner in Northumberland, discovered one of the original posters while sorting through a box of old books, that the posters, and the slogan, came to public attention. Manley and his wife framed and hung the placard over their cash register, and they eventually began printing and selling copies. In recent years, variations on the basic message have popped up all over, to the point of near-ubiquity.
Susannah Walker, a design historian, explains the contemporary significance of the message as not only a distillation of a crucial moment in Britishness, but also an inspiring message from the past to the present in a time of crisis.
Though Winston Churchill may never have seen one of the keep calm and carry on posters during his lifetime, during the Second World War he epitomized the message. Amid the greatest of upheavals, he showed that composure is a choice, an act of the will that subdues terrible thoughts and steadies frazzled emotions.
Churchill also modeled endurance that arose from a larger vision. He intuitively grasped the ancient truth of Solomon that people without a vision will cast off restraint and give way to chaos, through which they will ultimately perish. As Churchill demonstrated during his years on the backbenches in the House of Commons, vision should inspire all of us, not just our leaders. As London mayor Boris Johnson says of Churchill, The point … is that one man can make all the difference.
How, then, did Churchill keep calm and carry on at the very epicenter of the Allied war effort? For one thing, he believed that his entire lifewith all its character-forming lessons, tempering experiences, and attitude-shaping challengeswas preparation for that destiny. The character revealed in the great moments had been formed in the small moments. Those character traits enabled Churchill to stay on an even keel and stabilize the nation through the turmoil of war.
These were the underpinnings of Churchills composure:
Winston Churchill was not an overtly religious man, but he was a man of faith. He believed in Gods ultimate providential carefor himself and for his nation. Such a faith was foundational to his internal fortitude when all external signs pointed to disaster.
Churchill referred often to Providence, as he did in a February 1941 broadcast appeal to the United States: Put your confidence in us. Give us your faith and your blessing, and, under Providence, all will be well. We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle, nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down. Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.
During the war, Churchill had a penchant for placing himself in danger by walking outdoors during air raids on London. His bodyguard, Walter Thompson, said that Churchill would never leave Downing Street until the guns started up, then he would walk through the barrages around St. Jamess Park to the Annexe. When Thompson complained that Churchill was placing himself at risk, Churchill replied that he would not die because he had important work to do. He later expanded on that thought in another conversation with Thompson: There is somebody looking after me besides you, Thompson. Do you mean Sergeant Davies? I asked. His finger went heavenwards in a characteristic gesture. No, Thompson, I have a mission to perform, and That Person will see that it is performed.
Churchill firmly believed that he would fulfill the destiny he had foreseen in 1891 at the age of 16 and that Providence would protect and preserve him for his lifes mission.
Churchill did not regard Providence as an impersonal force; he saw it as the guiding hand of God. In his very first speech as prime minister, Churchill said that the policy of his new government would be to wage war against Hitler with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us. Speaking on Trinity Sunday 1940 about the eventual outcome of the war, Churchill quoted from the Bible and concluded, As the Will of God is in Heaven, even so let it be.
Churchills faith was not a rigid sectarianism, but it encompassed a high view of Jesus Christ. One day in May 1952, he was strolling on a hill overlooking Chequers, the prime ministers country retreat, with Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, a Christian of deep conviction. They were talking about human greatness. John Colville, Churchills private secretary, accompanied the men and later recorded his memory of the conversation: Montgomery, Colville recalled, would fire questions at the Prime Minister as from a machine gun, loving to act the part of Grand Inquisitor. How did Churchill define a great man? Was Hitler great? Certainly not, said Churchill; he made too many mistakes. How could Churchill maintain that Napoleon was great when he was the Hitler of the 19th century? He was not, Churchill replied. Surely the only really great men were the religious leaders? Churchills reply to that interested me, for he seldom spoke of religion. He said that their greatness was undisputed, but it was of a different kind: Christs story was unequalled and his death to save sinners unsurpassed.
When Churchills grandson and namesake was born, in May 1952, Churchill proposed a toast to Christs new faithful soldier and servant.
Churchills faith was personal and private, but it was foundational to his character and all that he did.
Churchills faith in Gods providence was at the core of his confidence. Strength is granted to us all when we are needed to serve great causes, he said in 1946. Through the strength of that confidence, he was able to reassure the British people during the darkest days of the war.
Confidence is forged by adversity, and Churchill had seen plenty of that. A person, he believed, must never be discouraged by defeats in ones youth, but continue to learn throughout ones whole life. Churchill knew people who had been hobbled by reversals, mistakes, and failings early in life. But the way to rise above them and gain confidence was to learn from them.
I see further ahead, Churchill told his friend Murland Evans in 1891 at Harrow. During the 30s, Churchills vision enabled him to see clearly the threat posed by Hitler and the Nazis. More importantly, he was also able to grasp what it would take to defeat the growing German war machine.
Churchill was not an idealistic visionary, soothing the British people with empty platitudes. He wasnt like the prophets described in Jeremiah 6:14 who offered superficial treatments for the nations mortal wound and gave assurances of peace when there is no peace. Rather, he was like the leaders of the tribe of Issachar mentioned in the book of 1Chronicles, who understood the signs of the times and knew the best course… to take.
Churchills oratorical gifts were put to use casting a vision for the British people and their allies and encouraging them to practice the disciplines necessary for victory. He spoke of the long, hard, bloody road ahead, but the dark elements of that vision were always tinted with hope. Because he had not concealed the difficulties, his words had integrity when he spoke of his vision for victory.
Churchill scholar John Lukacs connects Churchills vision with a suggestion about his place in history: He knew that … perhaps an entire era in the world that had begun about four hundred years before his birth was moving toward its end. In sum, he was the defender of civilization at the end of the Modern Age At a dramatic moment in the 20th century God allowed Churchill the task of being [civilizations] principal defender.
Churchill had a realistic understanding of human nature. In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953, he said, The power of man has grown in every sphere except over himself. While Churchill eschewed religious labels, he believed that honesty about human nature and his own personality and capacities hinged on a spiritual understanding. Man is spirit, he said.
Churchills honest self-appraisal also reflected his awareness that, despite the acclaim that accompanied his leadership skills, he still needed help. People called him their hope, the embodiment of strength and courage, the man who could win the war. Yet he knew he could not go it alonein contrast to Hitlers megalomania. There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, he said, and that is fighting without them.
He was also brutally honest about his nations policies. On May 2, 1935, he spoke of inertia regarding the British response to the expanding Nazi threat, and especially after Britain and its allies at that time had failed in their commitment to help Austria maintain its independence: When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure.
There is nothing new in the story. It is as old as the Sibylline Books. It falls into that long, dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience and the confirmed unteachability of mankind. Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gongthese are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.
Churchills assessment was disturbing, yet it demonstrated that someone in leadership understood the situation and had the boldness to address it.
Courage, said Churchill, is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities because, as has been said, it is the quality which guarantees all others. Churchill expected those closest to him to embrace and display such courage and toughness. In 1940, as bombs rained on London, Churchill added a wry remark in a secret speech: Learn to get used to it. Eels get used to skinning.
Churchills visits to bombed areas took great courage because there was always the danger of assassination when he was in public. However, as he walked among the ruins and talked to people who had lost loved ones, homes, businesses, and much more, his courage was passed on to them. He lifted his fingers in the V-for-victory sign and modeled for the nation how to be courageous under fire.
In the minds of many Britons, Winston Churchill was the personification of the British Bulldog. Churchill himself admired the feisty animal. The nose of the bulldog has been slanted backwards so that he can breathe without letting go, he said. Indeed, Churchills determination was relentless when others were pushing for appeasement and even surrender. That character quality also inspired the nation not to turn Hitler loose until he was defeated.
In his biography of Churchill, Lewis Broad describes the situation that Churchill faced when he assumed leadership of the British government: Never did a PM assume office in such an hour. The blitzkrieg had opened as a tornado. Every message gave tidings of disaster from Holland, from Belgium, and from France. The Germans were sweeping all before them. They had broken out at the Ardennes gap. It was on the shortest route to Paris.
If you are going through hell, keep going is a quotation often attributed to Churchill, though there is no indication that he ever actually said it. Still, it reflects his dogged determination to get his nation to the other side of the hellish road it now traveled. For defeat there is only one answervictory, he proclaimed.
Churchill rallied the nation to carry on by drawing inspiration from their long history: Persevere towards those objectives which are lighted for us by all the wisdom and inspiration of the past. In fact, one of his mottoes was We must just KBO. KBO stood for Keep Buggering Onthat is, keep on plodding even when you are too tired to run.
Churchill once asked one of his hardworking secretaries, Elizabeth Nel, if she was tired. When she said that she wasnt, Churchill replied, We must go on and on like the gun-horses, till we drop.
Churchill drew inspiration from Moses in the Old Testament. Very broadly interpreting Exodus 34, he writes: God spoke to Moses from the Burning Bush. He said to him in effect: You cannot leave your fellow-countrymen in bondage. Death or freedom! Better the wilderness than slavery. You must go back and bring them out No more let them be chained in the house of bondage I will endow you with superhuman power. There is nothing that man cannot do, if he wills it with enough resolution. Man is the epitome of the universe. All moves and exists as a result of his invincible will, which is My Will.
Churchill says of the burning bush that it was now surely inside the frame of Moses. Such a spirit of fire was clearly inside Churchills frame as well, and it contributed greatly to his ability to keep calm and carry on.
From his earliest days, Churchill was absorbed with a moral vision for his life, writes Steven Hayward. He did not exclude personal behavior from his consideration of morality, though he was not a romantic idealist like the utopians who denied the fallen nature of humanity.
He knew that maintaining moral equilibrium was essential for individuals and their societies. Civilization, he said, is the state of society when moral forces begin to escape the tyranny of physical forces. In this, Churchill reflected the Bibles view of the law, which the apostle Paul says serves as a guardian to keep things in check until the principles can be internalized. The law places necessary restraints on our behavior for the safety and well-being of society. To Churchill, the necessity of moral balance was clear-cut: Human life is presented to us as a simple choice between right and wrong.
In his essay on Moses, Churchill reflects on Pharaohs seesawing promises, which reveal the Egyptian leaders lack of moral balance. Each day when Moses appeared before him, Pharaoh hardened his heart and took back in the morning what he had promised the night before. Churchill knew he could not equivocate; that he had to maintain the balance of integrity. He could be wily, which had contributed to the perception by some that he could not be trusted. But now the nations resolve to press on depended on his trustworthiness.
Sir Charles Wilson was Churchills personal physician, and he knew Churchills disposition well. He attributed Churchills resilience to his buoyant temperament.
That buoyancy lifted many in Britain and beyond. Churchills optimism could be trusted because it was couched in reality. For example, as war loomed in January 1940, he said, Certainly, it is true that we are facing numerical odds; but that is no new thing in our history. As he said at another time, The threat of adversity is a necessary factor in stimulating self-reliance.
Churchill gave people the sense that he could look at the past through the lessons of history, had a clear view of the present, and could peer far ahead into the future. He calculated present situations based on historical precedents and future impacts.
Churchills foresight arose from his personal philosophy: Plant a garden in which you can sit when digging days are done. He was preparing his nation not only to defeat the enemy in the present but also to preserve their long-term quality of life. Victory was incomplete unless people could enjoy its fruits. Churchill intended to take his people all the way, sowing the garden, as it were, for their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
Churchill learned much from painting. As he studied perspective in art, he saw the application of those principles to life in general: The glory of light cannot exist without its shadows. That was the attitude that helped Britain and the Allies carry on with hope.
His perspective was also sharpened by his sense of the historic: The future is unknowable, but the past should give us hope. His passion for this type of perspective was revealed in an admonition he gave to a young student: Study history, study history. In history lies all the secrets of statecraft.
Churchill dealt with large-scale issues, but he had high regard for the little things as well. In the words of the Old Testament prophet Zechariah, he did not despise the day of small things. He was a calming influence because his staff and the British people knew there was little that escaped his attention. They had also learned that he could read between the lines and discern the actual meanings behind pompous diplomatic statements, warlike threats, and inflated statistics.
Churchill was the rare leader in whom all three leadership essentials were combined: vision, strategy, and tactics. There was much he missed and wrongly estimated, but there was a great deal he properly discerned. In 1933, when Churchill was still out of favor with many in the British establishment, former prime minister and Liberal Party leader David Lloyd George referred to him as one of the most remarkable and puzzling enigmas of his time His fertile mind, his undoubted courage, his untiring industry, and his thorough study of the art of war, would have made him a useful member of a War Cabinet.
That thorough study of the art of war coupled with discernment was what enabled Churchill to see the potential of the tank as a weapon. Though he did not invent it, he certainly contributed to its development. Indeed, during the First World War, Churchills natural interest in scientific gadgetry deepened.
Highly visionary people sometimes fail because they neglect to consider the small details and hidden facts, which can be swallowed up in their big-picture thinking. But Churchill realized that the veils of the future are lifted one by one, and mortals must act from day to day. Such a perspective keeps the visionary from being blindsided by the fine print.
Perspective is also vital in holding back the urge to panic under pressure. When danger is far off we may think of our weakness; when it is near we must not forget our strength.
Churchill believed that perspective aided by discernment would give the complete picture necessary for success. Life is a whole, he said, and good and ill must be accepted together. But always ones view must be based on reality, because even mans greatest neglects or failures may bring him good. Even his greatest achievements may work him ill.
In his early life, especially when he changed political parties, Churchill was viewed as inconsistent. No doubt there were times in his youth when such an allegation carried some truth. However, instead of becoming stodgy and inflexible as he matured, he continued to embrace the importance of flexibility and adaptability.
In lifes steeplechase, he said, one must always jump the fences when they come. Necessary change was a good thing, he thought. To improve is to change, so to be perfect is to have changed often. Churchill may have smiled a bit when he wrote those words.
His frustrations mounted, however, when he was unable to persuade Parliament and the prime ministerfirst Stanley Baldwin and then Neville Chamberlainto change their policies towards Hitler and to rearm Britain as the Nazi threat intensified.
On May 2, 1935, Baldwin made a confession in Parliament that stunned Churchill. The British leader revealed that the Germans had achieved air parity with Great Britainsomething that the prime minister had promised six months earlier he would never allow to happen.
Churchill rose to respond. He gave Parliament a brief history lesson: I pause to ask the committee to consider what these facts mean and what their consequences impose. I confess that words fail me. In the year 1708, Mr. Secretary St. John, by a calculated ministerial indiscretion, revealed to the House the fact the battle of Almanza had been lost in the previous summer because only 8,000 British troops were actually in Spain out of the 29,000 that had been voted by the House of Commons for that service. When a month later this revelation was confirmed by the government, it is recorded that the House sat in silence for half an hour, no member caring to speak or wishing to make a comment upon so staggering an announcement. And yet how incomparably small that event was to what we have now to face.
Churchill understood the importance of being agile enough to jump the fences, and he was distressed at the governments intransigence, inability to see the reality of Nazi Germanys threats, and lack of the flexibility needed to take action.
When at last he became prime minister, he knew he had to move quickly to shift Britains policy to wartime statusand he hoped it was not too late.
Despite his frustrations both with his countrys leadership before the war and with his opponents throughout his political career, Churchill understood the importance of grace. This character quality also inspired his countrymen to keep calm and carry on, especially in the face of betrayal and accusation.
Churchill was a great giver of grace, which is what enabled him to work successfully with his coalition War Cabinet, even though the sailing was not always smooth. Just as Churchill came to power, his most somber warnings were now coming true, and the unwillingness of so many to take him seriously was laid bare. No man on earth has such good reason today to say, I told you so, Ren Kraus observes. He never says it.
There was good reason for Churchill to show such grace. Hatred plays the same part in government as acids in chemistry, he said. That understanding governed Churchills actions after the Germans had been defeated, and it may have saved Europe from repeating the catastrophic situation created by the Versailles Treaty after the First World War. As we have triumphed, so we may be merciful; as we are strong, so we can afford to be generous.
Between 1940 and 1945, Churchill had the most demanding, stressful job in the world. It was overwhelming and wearying, and yet he flourished. His energy was reassuring to his own people and to those nations who fought at their side. Despite being run over by a car in New York in 1931, suffering a heart attack in 1941, and having a bout with pneumonia while visiting the North African front in 1943, Churchill was able to plow on.
He lived to the ripe old age of 90.
One of his secrets was understanding the importance of rest. So many leaders, it seems, try to impress others with their heavy schedules, as if the entire world would collapse if they paused and rested. Churchill needed to impress no one, starting with himself. He scheduled time away from London at Chequers, the rural retreat of British prime ministers that his daughter Mary called a true haven from outer storms. Chartwell, Churchills family home in the rolling countryside of Kent, was his favorite site for relaxation. He felt that a day away from Chartwell [was] a day wasted.
Mary Soames describes her father resting during a 1942 visit to President Franklin Roosevelts home at Hyde Park, New York: Papa presented a charming sight flat on his back in a patch of sun … I lay near him and we gazed up at the very blue sky & the green leaves dancing against itflecked with sun.
Such relaxation eased Churchills much-burdened mind, and he began to muse about the colors he would use if he were painting the scene: [He] commented on the wisdom of God in having made the sky blue and the trees green. It wouldnt have been nearly so good the other way round.
Churchill believed that cultivating a hobby and new forms of interest is … a policy of first importance to a public man. He discovered such a hobby at the age of 40 in his love for painting. Painting came to my rescue in a most trying time, he said. Churchill described how, after he left the Admiralty in 1915, he was still a member of the prime ministers Cabinet and War Council. However, the sudden change in pace from the intensity of the Admiralty to the narrowly measured duties of a counsellor left me gasping. But Churchill also felt great anxiety and no means of relieving it as he listened to discussions and watched developments regarding the First World War from a position where he knew everything and could do nothing.
Then, one Sunday in the country, he took a paint box belonging to his children, experimented with it, and decided to procure the next morning a complete outfit for painting in oils. Years later, he recalled of those days that the Muse of Painting came to my rescueout of charity and out of chivalry.
The lazy afternoon he spent at Hyde Park with Mary, thinking about God, the sky, and colors, may have seemed trivial against the immense issues that would be the primary topic of his later conversation with Franklin Roosevelt. However, that moment with his daughter showed how Churchills mind expanded to the true scale of reality and found calmness there. In that frame, he was able to shoulder the nearly unbearable burden of giving leadership to his nation in a time of war and persevering until victory was achieved.
Taken from God and Churchill by Jonathan Sandys & Wallace Henley. Copyright 2015. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.
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