On July 14th, 1940, Britain faced existential danger. Hitler’s forces had crushed all opposition across continental Europe and now stood poised to invade southern England.
July 14th is, of course, the French national holiday, Bastille Day, the day the French people celebrate the many accomplishments of their country and their culture. But this particular Bastille Day was a day of national bitterness and shame; France had just suffered ignominious defeat, and Nazi storm troopers paraded down the Champs-Élysée in celebration of their triumph.
On this day Winston Churchill addressed the British people. This speech is not considered one of his ‘great speeches,’ but who else could have expressed such an unflinching bravery in the face of such a great threat? Who else could have laid out in such detail the scope of the danger? Who else could have expressed such resolve?—‘be the ordeal sharp or long, or both, we shall seek no terms, we shall tolerate no parley; we may show mercy-we shall ask for none.” Who else could have summoned up the resolve of the British people and named the coming conflict the ‘War of the Unknown Warriors?’
The Battle of Britain was beginning. The fate of the world hung in the balance.
Excerpts from Churchill’s July 14th address:
And now it has come to us to stand alone in the breach, and face the worst that the tyrant’s might and enmity can do. Bearing ourselves humbly before God, but conscious that we serve an unfolding purpose, we are ready to defend our native land against the invasion by which it is threatened. We are fighting by ourselves alone; but we are not fighting for ourselves alone. Here in this strong City of Refuge which enshrines the title—deeds of human progress and is of deep consequence to Christian civilization; here, girt about by the seas and oceans where the Navy reigns; shielded from above by the prowess and devotion of our airmen—we await undismayed the impending assault. Perhaps it will come tonight. Perhaps it will come next week. Perhaps it will never come. We must show ourselves equally capable of meeting a sudden violent shock or—what is perhaps a harder test—a prolonged vigil. But be the ordeal sharp or long, or both, we shall seek no terms, we shall tolerate no parley; we may show mercy—we shall ask for none.
But all depends now upon the whole life-strength of the British race in every part of the world and of all our associated peoples and of all our well-wishers in every land, doing their utmost night and day, giving all, daring all, enduring all—to the utmost—to the end. This is no war of chieftains or of princes, of dynasties or national ambition; it is a war of peoples and of causes. There are vast numbers, not only in this Island but in every land, who will render faithful service in this war, but whose names will never be known, whose deeds will never be recorded. This is a War of the Unknown Warriors; but let all strive without failing in faith or in duty, and the dark curse of Hitler will be lifted from our age.