75 Years On: New Year 1942

75 Years On: New Year 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!”

Munro in the Civ­il & Mil­i­tary Gazette, Lahore, 1 Jan­u­ary 1942.

Some­where east of Ottawa, a spe­cial train bore the Prime Min­is­ter of Great Britain toward Wash­ing­ton, after he had addressed Canada’s Par­lia­ment. In Ottawa he had spo­ken 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 chal­lenges at the Japan­ese: “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 who was not alive and sen­tient then can under­stand the mag­ni­tude of the task we faced sev­en­ty-five years ago this New Year’s Eve. 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 mor­tal blow at Pearl Har­bor. Japan ran amok in south­east Asia.

“I was lucky in the tim­ing of these speech­es in Wash­ing­ton and Ottawa,” Churchill 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. What­ev­er the odds, Win­ston Churchill would roar defi­ance. At every chance, to audi­ences large and small, to lis­ten­ers great and ordi­nary, time and again, until the end. One of his detec­tives after the war, fly­ing Hur­ri­canes with the RAF in 1942, 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 ticked away before 1942, it was steam­ing south­ward on New York Central’s broad tracks along the Hud­son, appro­pri­ate­ly close to Roosevelt’s home at Hyde Park. Here Churchill was invit­ed to the press car­riage, to toast the New Year with the reporters of a dozen coun­tries.

He need­ed 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. Yet he must not min­i­mize the chal­lenges, or assign any time-lim­its to the deliv­er­ance. Those would depend “on our exer­tions, upon our achieve­ments, and on the haz­ardous and uncer­tain course of the war.”

He entered the press car­riage amid cheers and applause. “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!’”

One can only be encour­aged that the per­ils of 2017 are nowhere near the scale we faced sev­en­ty-five years ago. “Sail on, O ship of state,” Roo­sevelt had quot­ed Longfel­low, encour­ag­ing Churchill months ear­li­er. Longfel­low is still appro­pri­ate three-quar­ters of a cen­tu­ry on.

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.*

Here’s to anoth­er year of toil and struggle….May we all come through safe and with hon­or.


* “A Psalm of Life,” Knicker­bock­er Mag­a­zine, Octo­ber 1838

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