Happy New Year: “May we all come through safe and with honour”

Happy New Year: “May we all come through safe and with honour”

New Year’s Eve, 31 December 1941…

Some­where east of Ottawa, a spe­cial train bore the Prime Min­is­ter of Great Britain toward Wash­ing­ton. He had been in Cana­da to address Par­lia­ment. His most mem­o­rable lines came as he spoke of the French in 1940:

When I warned them that Britain would fight on alone, what­ev­er they did, their gen­er­als told their prime min­is­ter and his divid­ed cab­i­net, “In three weeks Eng­land will have her neck wrung like a chick­en.” Some chick­en! … Some neck.

A week ear­li­er Churchill had won cheers from hard­ened Amer­i­can politi­cians in Con­gress, hurl­ing defi­ance at the ene­my. “They have cer­tain­ly embarked upon a very con­sid­er­able under­tak­ing…. What kind of a peo­ple do they think we are? Is it pos­si­ble they do not real­ize that we shall nev­er cease to per­se­vere against them until they have been taught a les­son which they and the world will nev­er for­get?”

High Sense of the Moment

No one not alive and sen­tient then can under­stand the mag­ni­tude of the task the Great Democ­ra­cies faced as the New Year of 1942 began. Hitler held Europe from the Chan­nel almost to Moscow. Nazi U-boats prowled the Atlantic, stran­gling British ship­ping; Rommel’s Afri­ka Korps was advanc­ing toward Suez. Stalin’s Red Army was des­per­ate­ly hang­ing on. Amer­i­ca had received a heavy blow at Pearl Har­bor. Japan ran amok in south­east Asia and the Pacif­ic.

Churchill saw in all this only an oppor­tu­ni­ty. “I was lucky in the tim­ing of these speech­es in Wash­ing­ton and Ottawa,” he wrote….

They came at the moment when we could all rejoice at the cre­ation of the Grand Alliance, with its over­whelm­ing poten­tial force, and before the cataract of ruin fell upon us from the long, mar­velous­ly pre­pared assault of Japan. Even while I spoke in con­fi­dent tones I could feel in antic­i­pa­tion the lash­es which were soon to score our naked flesh. Fear­ful for­feits had to be paid not only by Britain and Hol­land but by the Unit­ed States, in the Pacif­ic and Indi­an Oceans, and in all the Asi­at­ic lands and islands they lap with their waves. An indef­i­nite peri­od of mil­i­tary dis­as­ter lay cer­tain­ly before us. Many dark and weary months of defeat and loss must be endured before the light would come again.

It didn’t mat­ter. Churchill would make his fight­ing speech­es every­where, to audi­ences large and small, to lis­ten­ers grand and ordi­nary, time and again, until the end. One of his lat­er body­guards was fly­ing Hur­ri­canes in 1942. He said to me: “After one of those speech­es, it didn’t mat­ter that we were out­num­bered and out­gunned. We want­ed them to come.”

Here’s to the New Year

The train rushed on as the last min­utes of 1941 ticked away. Soon it was steam­ing south­ward on New York Central’s broad tracks along the Hud­son. Appro­pri­ate­ly close to Roosevelt’s home at Hyde Park, the Prime Min­is­ter  called staff and reporters to the din­ing car. He want­ed in a few words to “cast some for­ward light upon the dark, inscrutable mys­ter­ies of the future.”

Of course he would voice con­fi­dence in the cer­tain­ty of vic­to­ry. He would not min­i­mize the chal­lenges, or fore­cast when deliv­er­ance might come. That would depend “on our exer­tions, upon our achieve­ments, and on the haz­ardous and uncer­tain course of the war.”

He entered the din­ing car­riage amid cheers and applause, rais­ing his glass to the com­pa­ny. “It was with no illu­sions,” he wrote, “that I wished them all a glo­ri­ous New Year”…

Here’s to 1942, here’s to a year of toil—a year of struggle and peril, and a long step forward towards victory. May we all come through safe and with honour.

His sen­ti­ments at that time are not inap­pro­pri­ate now. Look­ing back, we should be encour­aged. The per­ils we face today are nowhere near those of 1942.
.
“Sail on, O ship of state,” Roo­sevelt had quot­ed Longfel­low, encour­ag­ing Churchill months ear­li­er. Longfel­low is still appro­pri­ate as we remem­ber Churchill at New Year 1942, now near­ly eighty years on:
New Year
Chica­go Tri­bune, 1965.

Lives of great men all remind us

       We can make our lives sub­lime,

   And, depart­ing, leave behind us

       Foot­prints on the sands of time;

   Foot­prints, that per­haps anoth­er,

       Sail­ing o’er life’s solemn main,

   A for­lorn and ship­wrecked broth­er,

       See­ing, shall take heart again.*

Let us then be up and doing

With a heart for any fate;

Still achiev­ing, still pur­su­ing;

Learn to labor and to wait.

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