Churchill’s “Wrung Like a Chicken”: Who Said It First?

Churchill’s “Wrung Like a Chicken”: Who Said It First?

“Wrung Like a Chick­en” is excerpt­ed from an essay for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the orig­i­nal text includ­ing more images and end­notes, please click here. Sub­scrip­tions to this site are free. You will receive reg­u­lar notices of new posts as pub­lished. Just scroll to SUBSCRIBE AND FOLLOW. Your email address is nev­er giv­en out and remains a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enigma.

Ottawa, 30 December 1941

In his first and as it proved only address to the Cana­di­an Par­lia­ment, Win­ston Churchill brought down the house in words which will live as long as his sto­ry is told:

The French Gov­ern­ment had at their own sug­ges­tion solemn­ly bound them­selves with us not to make a sep­a­rate peace…. But their gen­er­als mis­led them. 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.

Whence the wrung chicken?

The writer Caleb Jack­son asks (via Andrew Roberts) about the “wrung chick­en” line. Did Churchill real­ly get it from the French gen­er­als? Or was it per­haps Joseph P. Kennedy, then Roosevelt’s Ambas­sador to the Court of St. James’s? The answer per­haps says more about the Ambas­sador than the chicken—or the French.

Sir Ger­ald Tem­pler, 1953. (Nation­al Archive of Malaysia, pub­lic domain)

Hav­ing one’s neck “wrung like a chick­en” was not a new expres­sion in 1940. But Mr. Jack­son noticed an inter­est­ing alter­na­tive ver­sion of where Churchill derived it. He sends us this excerpt from Tiger of Malaya, John Cloake’s biog­ra­phy of Field Mar­shal Sir Ger­ald Tem­pler.

One morn­ing in June [1940] at about 9.30, I was sent for by Major Gen­er­al Per­ci­val, and told that Joseph Kennedy, the Amer­i­can Ambas­sador, was behav­ing like Cas­san­dra and that he had no faith in this coun­try being able to defend itself….it had been arranged that I was to see Kennedy…. I warned [Per­ci­val] that it would be pret­ty rough going, and he said that was quite all right by him…. [In the Ambassador’s room] there was only one oth­er per­son present and I did not know him. I gath­ered after­wards that it was the Ambassador’s sec­ond-in-com­mand in the Embassy—Her­schel John­son—whom I now know to have done all in his pow­er, if unsuc­cess­ful­ly, to cor­rect the harm which Kennedy was spread­ing both in Amer­i­ca and among the vis­i­tors to his office in London.

Kennedy’s prediction

At the time—it was like­ly Tues­day June 11th or 18th—French army was being rout­ed every­where. Kennedy, Tem­pler recalled, “under­stood that I felt strong­ly about events in France, and asked me to tell him.” Tem­pler, before and after, was not a man known for hid­ing his feelings:

I burst, and nev­er stopped talk­ing for more than half an hour. They appeared some­what aston­ished at my behav­iour but did not inter­rupt me nor ask me any ques­tions. I did not mince my words about Britain’s ter­ri­ble unpre­pared­ness, about the cow­ard­ly atti­tude of the French army on the right of the BEF which I had observed with my own eyes…. In due course I ran out of steam and Kennedy said to me: “Young man, Eng­land will be invad­ed in a few weeks’ time and your coun­try will have its neck wrung by Hitler like a chicken.”

I got up and told him exact­ly what I thought of him in most undiplo­mat­ic lan­guage. I was quiv­er­ing with fury. Hav­ing got that off my chest I marched out of the room with­out fur­ther ado, and went back to the War Office and report­ed the whole affair.… I have no doubt it was relayed on to 10 Down­ing Street quick­ly. I have often won­dered whether it was from this inci­dent that Churchill coined his famous phrase, “Some chick­en! Some neck.”

Coincidence or intent?

We thank Mr. Jack­son for this account, which was new to us. Kennedy made no bones about his opin­ion that Britain alone could not stand. Still, it seems unlike­ly that Churchill, in Decem­ber 1941, quot­ed the chick­en line as a stab at the Ambas­sador. By then Kennedy was 14 months gone, relieved in Octo­ber 1940, John Winant, with whom Churchill was on good terms.

Churchill said: “…their gen­er­als told their Prime Min­is­ter, and his divid­ed Cab­i­net….” His basis for that was French Pre­mier Paul Rey­naud, who quot­ed the words in a let­ter. Churchill’s pri­vate sec­re­tary, Jock Colville, pro­vides the evi­dence in his diary note for 9 July 1940. Churchill

had been impressed by a let­ter from Rey­naud to Pétain, sent some weeks ago, in which the for­mer recalled how the Gen­er­als had said to him that after the Fran­co-Ger­man Armistice Eng­land would have “her neck wrung like a chick­en” in three weeks. Rey­naud had sent copies of this let­ter through the Amer­i­can Ambas­sador at Vichy to the P.M. and to the Pres­i­dent. It is impres­sive reading.

Even though Kennedy used the chick­en line to Tem­pler, it seems coin­ci­den­tal. It is far more like­ly that Churchill recalled it from Reynaud’s let­ter to him and Roosevelt.

Who said it?

Most his­to­ri­ans cred­it the chick­en crack to Maxime Wey­gand, the Anglo­phobe French gen­er­alis­si­mo. He often cit­ed British inad­e­qua­cies. When he said it is less clear. Wey­gand and Rey­naud, but not the cab­i­net, were in Tours on June 11th, when Churchill made his penul­ti­mate 1940 vis­it. On Churchill’s last trip, to Bri­are on the 16th, they were all present. But Spears regards Wey­gand say­ing it then as “unlike­ly.”

Sir Gerald Templer…

…is a reli­able wit­ness. A Lieu­tenant-Colonel in 1940, he rose to high posi­tions after the war. In 1952, he became High Com­mis­sion­er to Malaya. There he put down a com­mu­nist upris­ing, not with­out con­tro­ver­sy over his meth­ods, but Malaysia achieved inde­pen­dence five years lat­er. Today it has a par­lia­ment, a legal sys­tem based on Eng­lish Com­mon Law, and the third largest econ­o­my in South­east Asia. Still lat­er, Tem­pler found­ed the Nation­al Army Muse­um in Chelsea.

Templer’s Malaya assign­ment came dur­ing Churchill’s return to Ottawa in Jan­u­ary 1952. Tem­pler, then unknown to Churchill, was rec­om­mend­ed by Earl Alexan­der, then Cana­di­an Gov­er­nor General.

“After you, my dear…. This is my house”

Churchill retired in 1955 and began quick­ly to for­get names and places. They met again, touch­ing­ly, out­side the House of Com­mons in 1958. Tem­pler was by now Chief of the Impe­r­i­al Gen­er­al Staff, but Sir Win­ston didn’t rec­og­nize him. Eddie Mur­ray, Sir Winston’s body­guard, wrote:

[Churchill] turned to me as if to say that he had a feel­ing that he should know this stranger in front of him, some four or five yards away, but who was he? “Gen­er­al Tem­pler, Sir Win­ston,” I said quick­ly. “Of course,” he replied, try­ing to imply that he had known all along who it was. They shook hands, and at the door the Gen­er­al stood aside for Sir Win­ston to enter first, but with a very cour­te­ous ges­ture with his right hand the Old Man waved Sir Ger­ald in. “After you, my dear, after you. This is my house.”

Sir Ger­ald Tem­pler was an hon­orary pall­bear­er at Sir Winston’s funeral.

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