Churchill in Manchester: Clem in the Gents, Huns at Your Throat

Churchill in Manchester: Clem in the Gents, Huns at Your Throat

Manchester on Churchill

William Man­ches­ter was a lyri­cal writer who brought more fans to Churchill than any­one save Mar­tin Gilbert (and, nowa­days, Andrew Roberts). It was my priv­i­lege to know him and even to work with him, vet­ting his man­u­script for the sec­ond vol­ume of his tril­o­gy, The Last Lion. (The third and final vol­ume was com­plet­ed by Paul Reid.)

Bill made many detail mis­takes, but nobody could top him for mag­is­te­r­i­al prose. Except pos­si­bly Sir Win­ston him­self. We also have him to thank for con­firm­ing with a reli­able wit­ness a famous quo­ta­tion long con­sid­ered apoc­ryphal. (And, for per­pet­u­at­ing anoth­er one, which Churchill didn’t orig­i­nate, but def­i­nite­ly used with relish.)

Clem and Winston in the Gents

The late great colum­nist Charles Krautham­mer liked to cite the amus­ing encounter between Churchill and social­ist Prime Min­is­ter Clement Attlee in the Gentlemen’s Con­ve­nience in the House of Com­mons, cir­ca 1951. Attlee is stand­ing over the trough as Churchill enters on the same mis­sion. Observ­ing Attlee, Churchill shuf­fles as far away as possible.

Attlee: “Feel­ing stand­off­ish today, are we, Winston?”

WSC: “Every time you social­ists see some­thing big you want to nation­alise it.”

I labeled this a mis­quote, con­sign­ing it to the “Red Her­rings” appen­dix in my quo­ta­tions book, Churchill by Him­self.  But Chris­t­ian Schnei­der of the Mil­wau­kee Jour­nal-Sen­tinel led me to a reli­able attri­bu­tion. Mr. Schnei­der advised that he had the quote from William Manchester’s The Last Lion, vol. 1, Visions of Glo­ry 1874-1932, page 35.

The ref­er­ence is to a 21 Octo­ber 1980 inter­view Man­ches­ter con­duct­ed with Sir David Pit­bla­do (1913-1997). A civ­il ser­vant, Pit­bla­do was prin­ci­pal pri­vate sec­re­tary to both Attlee and Churchill. More­over, he was a reli­able source. So, with great delight, we may restore this one to the ranks of the genuine.

Huns at your throat or feet

Bill Man­ches­ter had an eye for the stel­lar quo­ta­tion, and many famous Churchill lines bedi­zen his biog­ra­phy. One of these—only six pages into his first vol­ume, was about the Ger­mans. “The Hun,” exclaimed WSC, “is always either at your feet or at your throat.”

That has been around a long time. Some time ago the Nation­al Memo’s Joe Cona­son crit­i­cized Joe Scarborough’s ambiva­lent atti­tude toward a cer­tain politi­cian by mis­quot­ing Churchill: “It’s what he said about the Hun, which is: They’re either at your feet or at your throat.”

“You’ve com­pared me to a Nazi,” Scar­bor­ough retort­ed. “No, I didn’t,” said Cona­son. “Churchill wasn’t talk­ing about the Nazis, he was talk­ing about The First World War. [Those Huns] were not Nazis.”

Now it’s true that all Huns were not Nazis. (The orig­i­nal Huns go back to the Fourth Cen­tu­ry.) But Churchill often referred to Nazis as Huns. What joy­ful com­bi­na­tion of Red Her­rings this is….

Scar­bor­ough and Cona­son were both wrong. Churchill first quot­ed the line dur­ing the Sec­ond, not the First World War. It occurred in his sec­ond speech to Con­gress, 19 May 1943. But by iden­ti­fy­ing it as a “say­ing,” it was clear he was cred­it­ing it to some­body else:

The proud Ger­man Army has once again proved the truth of the say­ing, “The Hun is always either at your throat or your feet….”

A great line, but no cig­ar for orig­i­nal­i­ty. So this one remains among the “Red Her­rings” in the upcom­ing expand­ed edi­tion of Churchill in His Own Words, work­ing subt­si­tle, An Ency­clo­pe­dia of His Great­est Expres­sions. It is com­ing in 2024 from Hills­dale Col­lege Press.

Further reading

“All the Quotes Win­ston Churchill Nev­er Said”: An up-to-date list, 2024.

An Emp­ty Taxi Arrived and Clement Attlee Got Out,” 2012.

“Clement Attlee’s Noble Trib­ute to Win­ston Churchill,” 2018.

“Man­ches­ter and Reid: The Last Lion, Defend­er of the Realm,” 2023.

“McKinstry’s Churchill and Attlee: A Van­ished Age of Polit­i­cal Respect,” 2019.

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