Wednesday, September 21, 2016

World War Wednesdays: Winston Churchill in Ottawa, Caught on Camera

     A special piece for all my Ottawa readers this week, or really anyone who can appreciate a good post about our nation's capital (and one of the best figures of modern history).

     This past Saturday I had the opportunity to visit the City of Ottawa Archives in Nepean, which is a  fancy new facility that holds multiple stories' worth of the city's history. Since the visit was part of an exciting research project with the Bytown Museum (where I'm a member of their Youth Council) I was supposed to be focused on the task at hand, but of course being in such a snazzy archives really made my brain and eyes start to wander! In the process, I stumbled upon a collection of photographs showing some infamous wartime leaders during their visits to Ottawa, and they really got my attention. It was fascinating to see the people I spend so much time studying be standing at or near such dear and familiar places!

     Since I didn't want to be that person and make a big deal of requesting those photos from the archivists during our consultation, I decided to look into finding the photos online to share with you this week with a specific focus on the visits from Winston Churchill. In the process, I came across even more interesting material, which really helped to shape what I hope is an engaging post!

     First, here are some of the photographs:
Churchill and Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King leaving the House of Commons on December 30, 1941. Library and Archives Canada
Churchill and Mackenzie King coming down the steps at Centre Block, December 30, 1941. Library and Archives Canada
Churchill addressing the House of Commons, 30 December, 1941. Library and Archives Canada
Churchill and King at King's beloved Moorside, Gatineau, 14 August 1929. Library and Archives Canada
Churchill addressing an attentive audience in the House of Commons, December 30, 1941. Library and Archives Canada
     An interesting anecdote for those of you who read my post about my visit to Laurier House two weeks ago: a colleague was telling me that once, during a visit to Mackenzie King at Laurier House, Churchill discovered the concealed elevator and expressed an interest in taking it for a ride. King protested, telling him he was far too large and would break it, but Churchill persisted and eventually just jumped in. If that doesn't give you an indication of their relationship, I don't know what would! They were so similar in so many ways, but differed in a lot of the important ones. In any case, their encounters would have been memorable experiences for both of them.

"Roaring Lion," Yousef Karsh,  Library and Archives Canada
     Chris Cobb, The Ottawa Citizen, December 30, 2011:
"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!" — Winston Churchill, Ottawa, Dec. 30, 1941

Look closely at the Karsh portrait of Winston Churchill and it's there, peeking from his left hand jacket pocket — a bunch of papers, partially concealed at the request of a photographer.

Some bunch of papers. Some photographer.

Seventy years ago Friday — on Dec. 30, 1941 — Britain's wartime prime minister delivered his historic speech to a hastily assembled group of Canadian MPs and Senators.

The 22-page speech, captured on a news reel, lasted 37 minutes and was constantly interrupted by cheers and applause.

After a scotch and water in the Speaker's chambers, Churchill reluctantly agreed to pose for the iconic scowling portrait taken by the talented but then relatively obscure Ottawa society photographer Yousuf Karsh.

"Some chicken, some neck" was a reference to the sneering comment by French Marshal Philippe Pétain, future leader of the collaborationist Vichy French government who was convinced that Germany would successfully invade Britain as it had done France. He told Churchill that in three weeks Britain would "have its neck wrung like a chicken."

"There is something about the phrase 'some chicken, some neck' that is utterly charming," says Ottawa Churchill scholar Ronald Cohen. "Churchill was a superb orator and his oratory played such a major role in keeping spirits alive and keeping the British confident in the fact that they could withstand whatever it was they had to meet.

"He put a considerable amount of time into writing his speeches and when this was done, he knew he had delivered a speech of historical significance. You could tell that."

After the speech, Churchill and Prime Minister Mackenzie King retired to the Speaker's chambers where King drank tea and Churchill his scotch.

King had chosen Karsh to take the photograph but hadn't told Churchill, even though the two had been in Washington together that same week.

Karsh had prepared his lights and camera and was waiting in another room while King asked Churchill to pose for a photograph. Churchill reluctantly agreed to "five minutes" and walked into the room with a cigar in his mouth.

Buoyed by the success of his speech and fortified by his favourite Johnnie Walker Red Label, Churchill was in a jovial mood.

"But Karsh, to his immense credit, felt his mood wasn't right to portray this lion of the west," says Cohen. "He wanted to get a better look from him. I don't think he intended the scowl by pulling the cigar away, but he was of the view that there were already too many photos of Churchill with a cigar."

Karsh approached Churchill and said, 'Sir, I have an ashtray all prepared for you.'

Churchill had no intention of removing the cigar from his mouth, so Karsh did it for him.

"By the time I got back to my camera," Karsh recalled years later, "he looked so belligerent he could have devoured me."

Karsh had a growing local reputation, but the scowling image of Churchill would bring him international fame and become the single most famous photographic portrait in history. (Library and Archives Canada has six negatives from the session — one of the 'scowl', one of Churchill smiling, three of Mackenzie King and Churchill together and another with Churchill's back to the camera while his cigar is being lit by another person, probably Speaker James Glenn.)

King was delighted with the image and sent three copies to Churchill with a letter dated Jan. 9, 1942:

"I think that you will agree that the photograph is one of the best, if not the very best, ever taken of yourself. I, at least, am so inclined to view it."

King wrote Churchill that he could keep one copy for himself, present a second to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and asked that he enscribe another to King himself and return it to Ottawa

There is, says Cohen, no record of Churchill's opinion of the portrait.

Churchill decided to take the potentially perilous journey to North America on Dec. 8, 1941, the day after Japanese bombers attacked Pearl Harbor. He dismissed security concerns, especially about the return journey once German military commanders knew he would be travelling home. (The RAF flew him back to the U.K. from Canada).

He left London for Scotland on Dec. 12, 1941, boarded the battleship Duke of York and began the 10-day trip across the Atlantic.

When the boat arrived in U.S. territorial waters, Churchill wrote to his wife, Clementine.

"I feel I ought to go to Canada while I am over this side, but I do not quite know when or how I shall come back. I shall certainly stay long enough to do all that has to be done, having come all this way that so much trouble and expense."

Churchill spoke to the U.S. Congress on Dec. 26, four days after Roosevelt had telephoned Mackenzie King, who recorded details of the deliberately vague conversation in his diary.

"You probably know about a certain person who is on his way," said Roosevelt. "He will be arriving in about two hours' time. I will want you here while he is here. I will be having a talk with him tonight, and will let you know just as soon as I can, the exact time to come down." King left Ottawa on an overnight train on Christmas Day and arrived in Washington on Boxing Day. Churchill and King, two very different characters who had a cordial though not an especially warm relationship, took the same train back to Ottawa two days later but travelled in separate carriages.

King wrote that he tried to persuade Churchill to speak to an audience at the Château Laurier, but Churchill said the House of Commons would be "more dignified" and, to spread his message worldwide, asked that the proceedings be filmed and well-attended by the press.

Meanwhile, Karsh was busily preparing for his brief encounter with the British leader and the defining photograph of both of their lives."

     John G. Plumpton ( describes Churchill's December 1941 visit to Ottawa
"After the photo shoot came a small, informal dinner party hosted by Prime Minister King. Here Churchill had an opportunity to swap stories with Canadian Air Vice-Marshal Billy Bishop VC, who had shot down seventy-two enemy aircraft while serving with the Royal Flying Corps during World War I."

    If you're interested in reading more about Churchill's long relationship with Canada and its citizens, I highly recommend visiting the full entry, "As They Saw Him: Encounters with Canadians 1900-1955":

     Watch the "Some Chicken, Some Neck" moment here:

   I hope you enjoyed this indulgence of my affection for Winston Churchill, and that you recognize some of the scenery in the photographs. Sometimes it can be so easy to get bogged down in historical analysis and the fine details and forget that these are real people and events which took place in locations that are still very much a part of our lives, and I like to reinforce these reminders of the human element that goes along with history.
     Thanks for reading,
Delany (@DLeitchHistory on Twitter)

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