For people of a certain age, today’s events will be vividly reminiscent of Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral 57 years ago.
On January 12, 1965, Winston Churchill suffered his last and most serious stroke. On the morning of Sunday, January 24, the 91-year-old warrior passed away.
Three hundred thousand people filed past his coffin as he lay in state in Westminster Hall – a tribute normally given only to members of the royal family – for three days.
Unprecedented, Her Majesty The Queen has suggested to Parliament that the country’s wartime leader be entitled to a state funeral. In 1852 and 1898 Parliament had asked Queen Victoria to grant state funerals to the Duke of Wellington and Mr Gladstone respectively.
In the latter case, because Victoria thought Gladstone was addressing her as a public meeting, she agreed only with extreme reluctance. While Victoria viewed Gladstone with distaste, she rather loved Wellington but chose not to attend any of the funerals.
Again, breaking with precedent, Victoria’s great-granddaughter attended the funeral of her first and perhaps favorite prime minister, as well as almost the entire royal family, in person.
On the penultimate day of January 1965, the naval coasts – as befitted a man who had been the first lord of the Admiralty at the outbreak of the First and Second World Wars – transported the coffin on a trolley from cannon from Westminster Hall through the streets of London to St Paul’s Cathedral.
Her Majesty The Queen has broken with protocol in two other respects. The Queen was among the first to arrive in St Paul, making her presence even before the coffin and the Churchill family arrived. It is customary for the monarch to always be the last to arrive.
Additionally, the convention is that the monarch is also the first to leave or end an event in progress. At the end of the funeral service, the Queen followed the Churchill family out of the cathedral.
The funeral service in St. Paul’s Cathedral was attended by 6,000 people. In addition to the Queen, the Kings of Belgium, Norway, Greece and Denmark, Queen Juliana of the Netherlands and the Grand Duke of Luxembourg were present. It was the same for the Heads of State of some fifteen nations. President de Gaulle, the man Churchill once dubbed his “Cross of Lorraine”, was present, but significantly President Lyndon B Johnson of the United States was not. Johnson was not an Anglophile and the “special relationship” was at a low point in 1965 – partly due to Harold Wilson’s refusal to commit British troops to the war in Vietnam.
The coffin was carried by barge along the River Thames, as riverside cranes were immersed in silent tribute, to Waterloo station. From Waterloo the coffin was taken by train to rural Oxfordshire and the parish church at Bladon, where Churchill was buried next to his parents, Lord and Lady Randolph Churchill, and within sight of Blenheim Palace where he was born two months early on November 30. 1874.
Clem Attlee, his wartime deputy and post-war successor, described Churchill as “the greatest Englishman of our time – I think the greatest citizen of the world of our time”.
Churchill became prime minister at our country’s worst hour, but he also made it our best. On the evening of May 10, 1940, the day King George VI invited him to form a government, Churchill wrote in his ‘History of the Second World’: ‘I felt as if I was walking with fate, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this trial.
As Ed Murrow, the American broadcaster and journalist, observed: “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.
There is probably no better example of this phenomenon than his speech in the House of Commons on June 18, 1940. Churchill said: ‘What Weygrand [supreme Allied commander in France] called the “Battle of France” is over. I think the Battle of Britain is about to begin. On this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. All the fury and power of the enemy must very soon be turned against us.
Faced with the prospect of an imminent German invasion, Churchill promised the British people: “We will not falter or fail. We will go all the way. We will fight in France, we will fight on the seas and oceans, we will fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we will defend our island at all costs. We will fight on the beaches, we will fight on the landing grounds, we will fight in the fields and in the streets, we will fight in the hills; We will never surrender.’
He urged the British people to rise to the occasion: “Let us therefore prepare ourselves for our duty, and thus bear ourselves that, if the British Commonwealth and its empire last a thousand years, men will still say, ‘It was their best hour”.’
At the time – and ever since – Churchill’s funeral was seen as a requiem for Britain as a great power. Lyndon B Johnson’s absence from the funeral underscored this perspective.
Fear of national decline haunted Churchill throughout his political career. Towards the end of his life, Churchill even confessed: “I achieved so much, only to have achieved nothing in the end.”
Such pessimism was and remains excessive. The UK’s decline has been relative rather than absolute. The UK is still one of the largest and fastest growing economies in the world and continues to be a major force on the international stage.