Sir Winston Churchill died on January 24, 1965. Five years ago the present author, who is old enough to have been a boy during Churchill’s final premiership, hosted a small dinner party on the fiftieth anniversary of the great man’s passing, and did so again this year on the fifty-fifth. It is a small affair: five couples, black tie, plain 1940s English fare of roast beef, sprouts, carrots and potatoes, leavened with champagne and claret. A Union Jack hangs in a window, and strewn on the coffee table are yellowed press clippings preserved from the day.
I was living in Europe at the time, and one of those cuttings is from the old New York Herald Tribune, European Edition, which on January 25 gave the sad news the full broadsheet, seven-column headline: “Sir Winston Churchill Dead; to Be Given State Funeral; Tributes Pour In; Elizabeth Says He Saved Britain.” (On the inside pages that day, other headlines read “The Great Society Officially Inaugurated” and “Integration Moves in South Provoke Violence, Arrests.” It was indeed a long time ago.)
Churchill was only the third prime minister, after the Duke of Willington and William Ewart Gladstone, to be given a state funeral. It began with the lying in state at Westminster Hall. Then came the procession to Trafalgar Square and up the Strand and Fleet Street to St Paul’s Cathedral; the cortege to Tower Pier; the dock workers’ famous “dipping of the cranes” salute as the Royal Navy barge pushed up the Thames to Waterloo Station; the steam train to Blenheim; and the burial at St Martin’s Church in Bladon. Today, of course, you can watch it all with a click of your mouse, and still it thrills—though no more so than it thrilled those of us who read about it then.
As Anthony Lewis reported for The New York Times, Wednesday, January 27, was bitter cold in London. The line of those waiting to walk past the bier in Westminster Hall stretched back a mile along the Embankment, over Lambeth Bridge to the South Bank. At St Stephen’s Gate they separated into two streams to walk the hundred yards of the great medieval Hall (which, unlike the Houses of Parliament and most of the original structure, survived the conflagration of 1834). They passed the catafalque at a rate of four thousand an hour. Peers, politicians, and diplomats were admitted first, at nine o’clock in the morning, Prime Minister Harold Wilson at the head of the line. First among the general public was a seventeen-year-old student, Nick Hutchings. He had waited all night and was wearing the pin of the Committee for Nuclear Disarmament, a strange emblem, thought Lewis, “for one paying homage to the great modern British warrior.”
Lewis sketched a memorable picture: “It was a scene of darkness and light, the black of mourning and the red and silver and gold of military ceremonial dress.” Great candles rose from each corner of the catafalque, and at the head a gold cross rose above all. Four guards, each “standing in funeral posture, head tilted forward, eyes looking down to the point where his bare sword touched the ground at his feet,” changed every twenty minutes. Outside, the sailors who would draw the gun carriage bearing the coffin to St Paul’s practiced the slow march.
Her Majesty the Queen, other crowned figures, and scores of present and past heads of state including Charles de Gaulle and Dwight Eisenhower (but not Lyndon Johnson) attended the funeral on January 30. The liturgy, presided over by the Archbishop of Canterbury, included the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” as a salute to Churchill’s honorary American citizenship bestowed in 1963 and to the Special Relationship that he had spoken into existence before it existed: “We are fighting by ourselves alone,” he broadcast after the fall of France, when the United States still stood far off; “but we are not fighting for ourselves alone.” When the obsequies finished at 1:30 in the afternoon, the whole nation and, as Churchill would have liked to think of it, “our empire and commonwealth beyond the seas” doffed hats in respect as the BBC went off the air for half an hour. Big Ben went silent from 9:45 in the morning until midnight.
At our little Churchill dinners, guests sometimes read from a speech or two and raise a glass to the KBO (“keep buggering on”) bulldog spirit of the great man to whom his country turned almost, but not quite, too late. Dinner finished, the ladies withdraw, and the fire and Churchills are lit. There is a loyal toast to the Queen and the President, and the port decanter slides clockwise around the table. This year, one gentleman sported a poppy on his lapel.
“Britain’s Wartime Leader with the Eloquent Voice and the Lion’s Heart” was how the Herald Tribune on that January 25, fifty-five years ago, bannered an inside spread devoted to the details of Churchill’s life story. At the bottom of the page, the editors quoted passages: “Ringing Words From Famous Speeches.” Phrases like “ringing words” are no longer used without guile as they were here, doubtless because our leaders can’t speak that way anymore and, even if they could, reporters would scoff if they did. With a better grasp of reality than we have today, millions back then heard Churchill’s “ringing words” more clearly. At a minimum, they received them as the best thing then on offer; when the shelf is bare, ringing words are not nothing. Spines still tingle today: “Do not let us delude ourselves” (1932, in opposition); “Blood, toil, tears and sweat” (on taking office in 1940); “We shall fight on the seas” (following Dunkirk); “This was their finest hour” (at the collapse of France); “So much owed to so few” (on the Battle of Britain).
Nineteen sixty-five is much longer ago now than the war was then. In those times, even the young (like the author and Nick Hutchings) still lived in its and in Churchill’s long shadow. In reporting, Lewis did not neglect to press Mr. Hutchings on why, as a ban-the-bomb pacifist, he had waited in line all night long to pay respects to the old imperialist. Hutchings explained that in his view “Winston Churchill was the greatest man the world has ever known.”
Such comity is unimaginable today, another measure of how long ago that really was.