Documents: World War II

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Documents: World War II

Neville Chamberlain

From October 6, 1938 speech to the House of Commons

Since I first went to Berchtesgaden [to confer with Hitler in Germany] more than 20,000 letters and

telegrams have come to No. 10, Downing Street [British prime minister's residence]. Of course, I have only been able to look at a tiny fraction of them, but I have seen enough to know that the people who wrote did not feel that they had such a cause for which to fight, if they were asked to go to war in order that the Sudeten Germans might not join the Reich. That is how they are feeling. That is my answer to those who say that we should have told Germany weeks ago that, if her army crossed the border of Czechoslovakia, we should be at war with her. We had no treaty obligations and no legal obligations to Czechoslovakia and if we had said that, we feel that we should have received no support from the people of this country. . When we were convinced, as we became convinced, that nothing any longer would keep the Sudetenland within the Czechoslovakian State, we urged the Czech Government as strongly as we could to agree to the cession of territory, and to agree promptly. The Czech Government, through the wisdom and courage of President Benes, accepted the advice of the French Government and ourselves. It was a hard decision for anyone who loved his country to take, but to accuse us of having by that advice betrayed the

Czechoslovakian State is simply preposterous. What we did was to save her from annihilation and give her a chance of new life as a new State . . . . Therefore, I think the Government deserve the approval of this House for their conduct of affairs in this recent crisis which has saved Czechoslovakia from destruction and Europe from Armageddon.

Does the experience of the Great War and of the years that followed it give us reasonable hope that, if some new war started, that would end war any more than the last one did?. . .

One good thing, at any rate, has come out of this emergency through which we have passed. It has thrown a vivid light upon our preparations for defence, on their strength and on their weakness. I should not think we were doing our duty if we had not already ordered that a prompt and thorough inquiry should be made to cover the whole of our preparations, military and civil, in order to see, in the light of what has happened during these hectic days, what further steps may be necessary to make good our deficiencies in the shortest possible time.


Source: Neville Chamberlain, In Search of Peace (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1939), pp. 173-74, 175, 214, 215, 217.



From October 5, 1938, speech in the House of Commons.

. . .I will begin by saying what everybody would like to ignore or forget but which must nevertheless be stated, namely, that we have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat, and that France has suffered even more than we have. . . .


And I will say this, that I believe the Czechs, left to themselves and told they were going to get no help from the Western Powers, would have been able to make better terms than they have got -- they could hardly have worse -- after all this tremendous perturbation. . . .

. . . I have always held the view that the maintenance of peace depends upon the accumulation of deterrents against the aggressor, coupled with a sincere effort to redress grievances. . . . After [Hitler's] seizure of Austria in March . . . I ventured to appeal to the Government . . . to give a pledge that in conjunction with France and other Powers they would guarantee the security of Czechoslovakia while the Sudeten-Deutsch question was being examined either by a League of Nations Commission or some other impartial body, and I still believe that if that course had been followed events would not have fallen into this disastrous state. . . . France and Great Britain together, especially if they had maintained a close contact with Russia, which certainly was not done, would have been able in those days in the summer, when they had the prestige, to influence many of the smaller States of Europe, and I believe they could have determined the attitude of Poland. Such a combination, prepared at a time when the German dictator was not deeply and irrevocably committed to his new adventure, would, I believe, have given strength to all those forces in Germany which resisted this departure, this new design. They were varying forces, those of a military character which declared that Germany was not ready to undertake a world war, and all that mass of moderate opinion and popular opinion which dreaded war, and some elements of which still have some influence upon the German Government. Such action would have given strength to all that intense desire for peace which the helpless German masses share with their British and French fellow men. . . .

. . . I do not think it is fair to charge those who wished to see this course followed, and followed consistently and resolutely, with having wished for an immediate war. Between submission and immediate war there was this third alternative, which gave a hope not only of peace but of justice. It is quite true that such a policy in order to succeed demanded that Britain should declare straight out and a long time beforehand that she would, with others, join to defend Czechoslovakia against an unprovoked aggression. His Majesty's Government refused to give that guarantee when it would have saved the situation. . . .

All is over. Silent, mournful, abandoned, broken, Czechoslovakia recedes into the darkness. She has suffered in every respect by her association with the Western democracies and with the League of Nations, of which she has always been an obedient servant. She has suffered in particular from her association with France, under whose guidance and policy she has been actuated for so long. . . .

What is the remaining position of Czechoslovakia? Not only are they politically mutilated, but,

economically and financially, they are in complete confusion. Their banking, their railway arrangements, are severed and broken, their industries are curtailed, and the movement of their population is most cruel. The Sudeten miners, who are all Czechs and whose families have lived in that area for centuries, must now flee into an area where there are hardly any mines left for them to work. It is a tragedy which has occurred. . . . I venture to think that in future the Czechoslovak State cannot be maintained as an independent entity. You will find that in a period of time which may be measured by years, but may be measured only by months, Czechoslovakia will be engulfed in the Nazi regime. Perhaps they may join it in despair or in revenge. At any rate, that story is over and told. But we cannot consider the abandonment and ruin of Czechoslovakia in the light only of what happened only last month. It is the most grievous consequence which we have yet experienced of what we have done and of what we have left undone in the last five years -- five years of futile good intention, five years of eager search for the line of least resistance, five years of uninterrupted retreat of British power, five years of neglect of our air defences. Those are the features which I stand here to declare and which marked an improvident stewardship for which Great Britain and France have dearly to pay. We have been reduced in those five years from a position of security so overwhelming and so

unchallengeable that we never cared to think about it. We have been reduced from a position where the very word "war" was considered one which would be used only by persons qualifying for a lunatic asylum. We


have been reduced from a position of safety and power -- power to do good, power to be generous to a beaten foe, power to make terms with Germany, power to give her proper redress for her grievances, power to stop her arming if we chose, power to take any step in strength or mercy or justice which we thought right -- reduced in five years from a position safe and unchallenged to where we stand now.

When I think of the fair hopes of a long peace which still lay before Europe at the beginning of 1933 when Herr Hitler first obtained power, and of all the opportunities of arresting the growth of the Nazi power which have been thrown away, when I think of the immense combinations and resources which have been

neglected or squandered, I cannot believe that a parallel exists in the whole course of history. So far as this country is concerned the responsibility must rest with those who have the undisputed control of our political affairs. They neither prevented Germany from rearming, nor did they rearm ourselves in time. . . . They neglected to make alliances and combinations which might have repaired previous errors, and thus they left us in the hour of trial without adequate national defence or effective international security. . . .

We are in the presence of a disaster of the first magnitude which has befallen Great Britain and France. Do not let us blind ourselves to that. It must now be accepted that all the countries of Central and Eastern Europe will make the best terms they can with the triumphant Nazi Power. The system of alliances in Central Europe upon which France has relied for her safety has been swept away, and I can see no means by which it can be reconstituted.

. . . If the Nazi dictator should choose to look westward, as he may, bitterly will France and England regret the loss of that fine army of ancient Bohemia [Czechoslovakia] which was estimated last week to require not fewer than 30 German divisions for its destruction.

. . . Many people, no doubt, honestly believe that they are only giving away the interests of Czechoslovakia, whereas I fear we shall find that we have deeply compromised, and perhaps fatally endangered, the safety and even the independence of Great Britain and France. . .[T]here can never be friendship between the British democracy and the Nazi Power, that Power which spurns Christian ethics, which cheers its onward course by a barbarous paganism, which vaunts the spirit of aggression and conquest, which derives strength and perverted pleasure from persecution, and uses, as we have seen, with pitiless brutality the threat of murderous force. That Power cannot ever be the trusted friend of the British democracy. . . .

. . . [O]ur loyal, brave people . . . should know the truth. They should know that there has been gross neglect and deficiency in our defences; they should know that we have sustained a defeat without a war, the

consequences of which will travel far with us along our road; they should know that we have passed an awful milestone in our history, when the whole equilibrium of Europe has been deranged, and that the terrible words have for the time being been pronounced against the Western democracies:

Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting.

And do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.


Source: From Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons (London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1938) vol. 339, 12th vol. of session 1937-38, pp. 361-369, 373.



From Hilde Marchant's Women and Children Last: A Woman Reporter's Account of the Battle of Britain

Mr. Smith is not a big man, not a handsome man, not a strong man. Mr. Smith is a little man. He is rather narrow across the chest, his face is deflated of its youth, his hair is as thin as the grass in a London park. First of all, Mr. Smith would describe himself as a Cockney, and secondly he would describe himself as a Londoner. For his affection and civic patriotism is for those tightly packed miles of wavering roof tops that make a shabby border for the South side of the river Thames. He has lived there all his life and when he goes West for a Saturday night treat with his wife he is like a provincial on the loose. And Mr. Smith would tell you that he loved every one of those narrow, suppurating streets that miraculously bulge with life. Though looking at the blackened mortar, and ruptured walls you might wonder why.

So just before the war Mr. Smith decided to express his fervent love for these homes and people who dwell there and became one of the war's new soldiers -- a warden of Stepney. His uniform is a pair of blue

overalls, a tin hat and a gasmask and he is a veteran member of the civilian defence force that has defended and saved the citizens of London. Mr. Smith would not regard himself as a particularly brave man, because in his peace time life there was never any occasion to be brave. It was just a routine, unnoticed fight, to survive such things as unemployment, rent and a fourth child.

At first Smith was very uncomfortable about his chosen job as nursemaid to the streets. Khaki broke the everyday street scene and he had to take a lot of unpleasant remarks about dodging the army and taking £3 5s 0d. for sitting by a telephone that never rang and polishing a whistle that never played a tune. He was either a comedian or a coward. Until one day in September when he fell flat on his face in a road. He was covered with bricks and dust.

From that day it was Smith's war. From that day Mr. Smith was the hero of the streets to everybody but Mr. Smith. He regards himself as a "trained officer of incidents" -- that delightful piece of under-statement that so fits his character. For an "incident" can mean climbing into fires, burrowing under crushed homes, or comforting a broken spirit.

But perhaps the greatest battle of all in those early days was a personal one. Smith had to adjust his warm, sentimental, domestic nature to the grim agonising sights of the night. He loves humanity, in all its virtue and vice, and it was a shock for him to see the pain and distortion of life around him. Yet he corseted his sentimentality with the months of training he had had and became the handyman of the blitz.

Smith's post is in a basement on the corner of a street in Stepney. He was resting -- not sleeping -- when I met him. He can only sleep in the daytime now.

There were half a dozen other men at the post who, apart from their names, were no more distinctive than Smith. . . .

Smith began to tell me about that first night, the night he fell in the road and broke his glasses. A bomb just a few yards from him had hit a block of buildings, and there were eleven people trapped on the ground floor. "It was a noisy night, but every time we bent low we could hear the groans of the people underneath. I thought I'd be sick. I held a man's hand that was clear. It took us nine hours to get him out. An hour later we got a Woman out. They were in a bad way. There was dirt and blood caked on the woman's face. We wiped it off. She must have been about thirty. They both died. We were all a bit quiet. It was the first we'd seen. We couldn't have got them out quicker -- we'd torn our hands up dragging the stones away. But it was awful seeing them take the last gasps as they lifted them into the ambulance."


Smith was quiet, even retelling the story, and one of the men said: "It was the first, you see."

Then Smith told me about the next night -- the night when he was really "blooded". Incendiaries had started a fire in one of the smaller streets and high explosives began to fall into the fire. Smith approached the houses from the back and got through to the kitchen of one of the houses.

"I fell over something. I picked it up and it was a leg. I stood there with it in my hand wondering what I should do with it. I knew it was a woman's leg. I put it down and went to look for the ambulance. They had got the fire out at the front. The ambulance men brought a stretcher and I showed them the leg. Then we looked farther in and there were pieces all over. All they said was they didn't need a stretcher."

As Smith sat thinking, his whole body seemed to pause

"Funny, I don't seem to remember what I thought that night. Surprising how you forget things." It would be slighting Smith's imagination to say that the sight in the kitchen did not affect him. It did. "You see, how we look at things now is like this. If they're alive you work like the devil to keep 'em alive and get 'em out. We listen to their groans and know they have breath in them. If they're dead there's nothing we can do. Getting upset hampers your work."

So Smith learned not to over-indulge his sensitivity on seeing death, or torn limb and flesh. His job was with the spark of life that survived.

The next day he took me round his streets in a baby car, showing me the damage. Damage has been described over and over again, but I still like Smith's own description of a house:

"Cut in two like a slice of cheese, showing all the little holes where the maggots crawled in and out." It has a touch of that high-flown philosophising that the Cockney is so fond of twisting into his own flamboyant phrases.

The house was neatly cut. It was the usual scene -- the waxed flowers still on the mantelpiece, the portrait of Grandma still hanging from the bedroom wall, the clock still ticking on the wall. Yet in every house strange things remain intact. In this one there was a mirror hanging in a shattered hall and the glass had not broken, china cups hanging over the kitchen sink were still whole, the beer glasses on the sideboard were covered with plaster, but unbroken. I pointed this out to Smith.

"Same as the 'umans. Some of the skinniest get through all right and some of the big ones come off worst." As we wandered through these broken streets people called out to Smith.

"Any more bombs?" or "When do we get the roof mended?" They all knew Mr. Smith the Warden. He walked through the streets like the squire of a village, smiling and chatting to the people standing at their doors.

A woman came out of the huddle round the canteen.

"We looked for you on Wednesday and couldn't find you. My husband wants to say thank you and buy you a pint," she said.


Smith told me that story as we went back to his post They had discovered a D.A. bomb in a garden. They knew there were people in the house, so they went round knocking at the door, telling them to get out. At the end of the street a small high explosive had broken one house. They thought the house was empty until they were moving the others. Then one of the men said he had heard a sound from the back of the garden. With the delayed action bomb only a few yards away, the wardens began to investigate. They found that a huge piece of the wall had locked a man and wife in the Anderson. For two hours they worked, wondering all the time if the delayed action was going up. They got the man and wife out and then ran down the street. And an hour later the bomb exploded.

"Lucky to be alive," said Smith casually. Smith is a little man but only in his size.

We had a cup of tea at the post and Smith went over to a box marked "Biscuits". He shook it. There was no sound, so he cursed.

"If there's one thing I like it's a chocolate biscuit with my tea."  

Source: Hilde Marchant, Women and Children Last: A Woman Reporter's Account of the Battle of Britain, (V. Gollancz, 1941), pp. 115-119, 123-24, 125-26, 126-27.