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!”
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