What follows is one chapter in the book “Speeches that Should Have Been Made.” No. 3
Monday, April 3, 1939
On March 31, 1939 the British government sent a note to the Polish government which was revealed to the House of Commons by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain the same day, a Friday. The following three imaginary events take place on Monday, April 3. The first is at 10:00 AM at Buckingham Palace and involves King George VI and the Prime Minister. The second is also at the Palace, 20 minutes later. The third is in the House of Commons at 3:00 PM that afternoon.
The Prime Minister enters the Royal receiving room, bows and advances to shake the King’s hand. They shake hands and the King speaks.
“Please be seated.”
The Prime Minister sits on a chair facing the King.
“The reason I called you to see me this morning is your speech to the House of Commons on Friday relating to Poland, what has come to be called ‘the Polish guarantee.’ Since I want us both to be on the same page, I’ll read the relevant sentences. You said:
‘… in the event of any action which clearly threatened Polish independence, and which the Polish Government accordingly considered it vital to resist with their national forces, His Majesty’s Government would feel themselves bound at once to lend the Polish Government all support in their power. They have given the Polish Government an assurance to this effect.’”
“I wonder if you would explain to me what you mean by that.“
“I mean to establish a series of alliances with other countries, France, Poland, Greece, Romania designed to restrain German expansionism. By raising the cost of conquest, I believe we may be able to deter it.”
“But you also may not,” the King replied. “What will you do then?”
“Well,” the Prime Minister replied, “I would first issue a demand that Germany halt its aggression and return behind its own borders.”
“And if it refuses to do so?”
“Then I would regretfully declare war on Germany along with Poland, France and any other countries then in the alliance,” the Prime Minister said.
“So, you are contemplating war. Have you discussed this possibility with the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Viscount Gort?”
“No, I have not,” the Prime Minister replied. “The alliance is a diplomatic issue.”
“I believe it was a German, Carl von Clausewitz, who said, ‘war is a continuation of politics by other means.’ Indeed, that is what you just said yourself; if Germany does not respond to a diplomatic note, perhaps it will respond to soldiers with bayonets. So, the opinion of the head of the armed forces would be essential to that kind of diplomacy, no?”
The Prime Minister remained silent.
“It was precisely that question, or rather those two questions, that I asked Viscount Gort yesterday when I spoke with him, here, in this room, after church. He said ‘no’ he had not discussed war with Germany over Poland with you and ‘yes,’ the General Staff has an assessment of German and Polish military strength, as well as what will happen in the event of a conflict. He said the considered opinion is that Germany will defeat Poland in four weeks.
“I asked him how long it would take for the United Kingdom to come to the aid of the Poles, as suggested in your statement, ‘at once.’ He said to gather the available units into a British Expeditionary Force would take a week. To load the men and equipment onto ships and sail them across the North Sea and around the Skagerrak to the Baltic Sea and down to Gdyna would take a second week and to unload them, organize them into fighting units and deploy them would take a further week. In other words, they would arrive just in time to be killed or captured by a victorious German army 17 times their size.
“I asked if he would recommend this policy. He said no, he would not. He would instead recommend sending the same troops to France to reinforce the French army as we did in 1914. You realize what this means?”
“I’m not sure I follow you,” the Prime Minister said.
“It means either we lose Britain’s standing army in a fruitless and pointless attempt to defend the Poles, or we recreate the exact same situation that led to our participation in the Great War. Either way you would see all the men sent to the Content killed, either in a week, or a year. Tens of thousands of dead British soldiers. The same, all over again.”
“You’re putting a very negative construct on what may happen,” the Prime Minister replied. “My hope is to avoid all this, to end the bloodshed before it begins.”
“Yes, I can see you’re prepared to gamble hundreds of thousands of British lives. I am not. I want your resignation handed to me now, here, in the next ten minutes. There is a writing desk over there (pointing) with pen and paper. It needn’t be long. Just “I hereby resign my position as your Prime Minister” signed and dated. And please add the time.”
“But, your Majesty,” the Prime Minster sputtered.
“Ten minutes. I shall expect it put into my hand.”
With this, the King left the room. Ten minutes later he was back. The Prime Minister handed the King his resignation. He said he accepted it and bade him good day. The Prime Minister turned and left. When he got to the side door of the Palace, a London taxicab was there to take him back to No. 10. His ministerial limousine was no longer his to use.
The Palace Later
Inside the palace, the Foreign Secretary, Viscount Halifax was ushered into the Royal receiving room. He was greeted warmly by the King who shook his hand and asked him to sit.
“Did you see the Prime Minister on your way in here?” the King asked.
“No, I did not,” Viscount Halifax replied.
“Well, even if you had seen him, you wouldn’t have,” the King replied. “I asked for, and received, his resignation a few minutes ago.”
“Was it over the Polish guarantee?” the Foreign Secretary asked, perceptively.
“Yes, it was,” the King replied. “As reckless and disastrous policy I have never seen before in my lifetime. It would have allowed Poland to dictate to us whether or not we should declare war on Germany. I, personally, was aghast, but the response in Parliament was, dare I say it, quite the reverse, enthusiastic even. And I believe you support that policy.”
“Yes, I do,” the Foreign Secretary replied.
“Well, as your Sovereign, I want you to do something before you resign. I want you to send a diplomatic note to Poland clarifying the Prime Minister’s statement. Specifically, I want you to say three words were inadvertently left out of the statement. The words are “short of war.” This would make the operative sentence read: “His Majesty’s Government would feel themselves bound at once to lend the Polish Government all support in their power, short of war.”
“But, that would completely change the intent of the statement,” the Foreign Secretary protested. “It waters it down to nothing.”
“Precisely,” the King replied. “If you will do that for your Sovereign, and then resign, I shall be deeply appreciative. If you would rather not, you may resign now. I give you the choice.”
The Foreign Secretary’s face twisted in consternation as he made the most difficult decision in his life. There was a lot of potential benefit to him personally in the phrase ‘deeply appreciative.’
“I accept your offer,” he said at last.
“I would like a copy of your communication on my desk within the hour. I would also like you to issue a press release describing the communication. You can follow that by making a statement in the Lords announcing your resignation.“
“You’re a tough man, George,” the Viscount said.
“Better tough than dead,” the King replied.
The House of Commons
The Speaker of the Commons was interrupted at lunch in the members’ dining room and handed a note. It was from the palace, requesting that time be made available for a brief speech by His Majesty the King to the Commons at 3:00 o’clock, precisely. He folded the note and told the messenger “yes, I’ll see to it.” He then returned to his meal, chewing his roast beef reflectively.
The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police was told the King was traveling to the Palace of Westminster at 2:50 and would require an escort. Also, he was requested to close Whitehall at 3:30 to all traffic for half an hour. The Commissioner ordered up 100 extra policemen to be in position at 2:45 at either end of the street leading to the House of Commons.
There was also action at the headquarters of the Army, Navy and Air Force. Their respective heads, as well as the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, had all been told to meet the King at the door of the Palace of Westminster at 2:55 PM, and to accompany him to the House of Commons. Since this had never happened before—the king always speaking from the throne in the House of Lords—all four men were surprised. The request noted they should be in formal dress.
As a precaution, the Army chief doubled the guard on the Palace and put the Horse Guards Regiment on alert for a possible rapid deployment. His aide asked what he thought was going on. The Army chief said he had no idea. In fact, he had a good idea. His sources at the Palace said the King had just fired the Prime Minister.
By 2:00 o’clock, Parliament was buzzing. The Prime Minister had resigned. The diplomatic note to Poland had been made public and rumours were that the Foreign Secretary, who had sent it, was about to resign.
After calling the Commons to order, after Prayers, the speaker called for Ministerial Statements. The Parliamentary aide to the Foreign Secretary was recognized. He stood, holding a piece of paper.
“The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Viscount Halifax, is making the following statement in the Lords, and has asked me to repeat it here in the House. ‘I have to tell the Speaker and the House; I have today resigned my position as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. My reason for this action has to do with the guarantee issued to Poland on Friday by the Prime Minister and amended by me in a diplomatic note earlier today. Since both he, and I, were supporters of a military response to any incursion into that country, and since this policy has not been, and will not be, approved by His Majesty the King, I feel as one of the authors of that statement in its original form, the only honourable course for me is to resign, which I have now done.’
“That is the entirety of the statement by the Foreign Secretary.”
As you might expect, this caused an uproar in the Commons; two principle Ministers resigning within hours of each other! Amazing. The speaker rose, signaling Members to be quiet.
“You have just heard a reference to His Majesty the King. I was notified during the luncheon break, his Majesty has requested time be set aside for him to speak to the Commons at 3:00 o’clock this afternoon. This is unprecedented, but I am going to make an exception. Three o’clock is 40 minutes from now. Accordingly, I am adjourning the House until 2:50 precisely.”
With that he banged his gavel down and stepped down from his chair. The Commons? Well, you can imagine the hubbub this created. The King had never been allowed into the Commons, had never spoken to it, not just this King, any King since Charles I. What was going on? Was there a threat to the Constitutional order? Was the King about to dissolve Parliament and rule by Orders in Council? 1When members looked up, there were 38 minutes left. Many headed straight to the informal bars in the M.P.’s lounges on either side of the chamber. There was a sense the ground was shifting under their feet as they threw back glasses of whiskey.
There are only so many preparations to be made when there are only 40 minutes to make them. However, what could be done was done. The corded ropes that direct the public were rearranged to provide a direct route from the entrance to the doors of the Chamber. The Sargent at Arms put his men at key points. The Deputy Prime Minister walked with several members of the Cabinet to the entrance. They could hear the cheering crowds from Whitehall as the King’s procession came south to the river. And then, here they were; a whole fleet of cars with the country’s military leaders, their aids and His Majesty. Onlookers noted he was wearing an army uniform and a long cloak, lined with red silk.
“I haven’t seen that before,” the Deputy P.M noted.
“Nor I,” said his companion.
“Welcome, your Majesty,” he began. “Perhaps I could show you the way.”
“Indeed, you could; I have not been this way before,” the King replied.
With that, the Deputy Prime Minister preceded a phalanx of uniforms; the King leading, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff behind, and the three service chiefs behind him. Behind these individuals were an assortment of aids who were planning to sprint to the public gallery or the members’ gallery to watch the action.
When they arrived at the Commons, the Deputy P.M. knocked three times and the door was opened by the Sergeant at Arms.
“Who goes there?” he cried.
“His Majesty the King,” was the reply.
“I’ll have your sword, if you don’t mind,” the Sergeant said as the King entered.
The King handed over his sword, hilt first. The Sergeant bowed. The party proceeded past the clerks table to the Speaker’s chair. The King stepped up one step, the Speaker stepped down one step and they shook hands. The King then preceded to the top level and turned around and sat down. His service chiefs stood at the bottom facing the M.P.s.
“Please be seated,” the King said, rising. “I have come here today to explain the events of the past few hours, particularly the resignations of my Prime Minister and my Foreign Secretary. The precipitating cause was the Prime Minister’s speech to the House on Friday, now known as the ‘Polish Guarantee.’ As you know, neither I, nor my predecessors are or were in the habit of interfering in public affairs, although we have always held, as I currently hold, the reserve right to act in defence of the realm.
“I have wondered, since I assumed my role as your Monarch, whether I would ever be called to take that extra step contemplated by the Constitution but feared by many democrats and even some of my people. On Saturday, when I read the wording of the Polish guarantee, I felt a tremor in my heart; a feeling the moment had come, whether I was prepared or not.
“Accordingly, I called on the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, who you see before you, to confer with me yesterday. Had he, I asked, been consulted by the Prime Minister before he issued the Polish declaration. No, he had not. Did the General Staff have an appreciation of what would happen if Germany invaded Poland? Yes, there was such an appreciation: Germany would win the war and occupy the country in four weeks.
“I then asked how long it would take the United Kingdom to assemble an expeditionary force to rush to the aid of Poland, as contemplated by the ‘guarantee?’ “His answer was that it would take a week to assemble three and a half divisions, and their equipment and to load them on ships, a week to cross the North Sea and Baltic Sea to Poland, and a further week to unload these assets, organize them and transport them to the battlefield. In short they would arrive just in time to be killed or captured by a victorious German army of 58 divisions, nine of them armoured.
“For this reason, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff—Viscount, I’m sorry to speak of you so often in the third person—for this reason he said he would decline to send ground troops to Poland, and would, instead, ship them to France to reinforce their frontier with Germany. He would be forced, by logistics and circumstances, by my Government, to recreate the exact British response to Germany in the Great War.
“Well, we all know how that went: 888,000 military casualties, 7,000 civilian; a river of blood, mud and tears that deeply affected us then, and continues to affect us all to this day.
“But this is only one possible scenario, there are two more. A second scenario could play out if Comrade Stalin noticed that almost all Polish forces were now on the country’s northern, western and southern frontiers. Would this not provide the Soviet leader with an irresistible opportunity to invade Poland from the East? Soviet Russia fought a war with Poland in 1920 which ended inconclusively. Here, now would be an opportunity to end it with finality.
“Under the Polish Guarantee, if Poland defended itself, they would call on the United Kingdom for support. We would issue a threat with a deadline and when Soviet forces failed to withdraw, we would be forced to declare war against the Soviet Union!
“And finally, there is a third scenario, scenario C. This would be a combination of scenarios A and B, with the one following the other by a week. First Germany invades and we declare war on Germany, then after a delay, the Soviet Union invades, and we declare war on Russia. Yes, I know, this sounds like an Alice in Wonderland nightmare, the United Kingdom at war with the largest country in the world and the most militarized country in the world.
“My government was like a child about to run into the road and be hit by a bus. Let me mix my metaphors; my government was like a woman about to light her hair on fire. I look around this Chamber in dismay; were there no adults in the room when this mad plan was envisaged?
“I expect better of my government, better of the House of Commons. These are real lives, real people, you were considering as canon fodder.
“My actions, you now know. I asked the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary to resign. Before he did so, I asked the Foreign Secretary to add three words to the Prime Minister’s statement of Friday. Those words, you have also read by now, “short of war.” It means this country will aid Poland, but not with troops, aircraft, ships and a declaration of war.
“We are, morally and legally, off the hook.“
“Let me go further. It has been the policy of successive British governments to ally ourselves with European minor powers against the rising power on the Continent. We did this against the Spanish, the Dutch, the French and more recently the Germans. That experience, which most of us well remember, should have taught us a lesson; the lesson that the policy was no longer valid. The price of restraining the major power was too high, too much, too painful for this country to initiate.
“And so, here today, I make this pledge. I will not allow this country to fight another war on the continent as long as I live and continue to be your King. They will have their wars, as they have always had them, but we will not be a part of any future continental bloodletting. If, despite this statement, you are determined to go to war in Europe, you will have to depose me as your King, and to do that, you will have another Civil War just like the first one because I will not be moved without force. If there must be blood spilled, let it fall on English soil.”
Shouts of “No, no” from the Members.
“I go now, with the service chiefs, to the cenotaph to pray for a moment with the hundreds of thousands of souls that rock represents. I have not forgotten them. I will not, voluntarily, subject another generation to the Hell of Flanders. I will make that pledge to them, as I have just done to you.
This time there was applause, mixed with negative gasps from some members. The King stepped down from the dais, shook hands with the Speaker again.
“A great speech, your Majesty,” he said. “It brought tears to my eyes.”
“Thank you,” was the reply.
On the way out, the King spied the Member for Epping red in the face.
“No war for you, Winston,” he called out, to gasps from the Conservatives. Then, the King crossed to the opposition side and shook hands with the Labour leader, Clement Attlee.
“Now I know why we have a Monarchy,” he said.
“Now, I know why we have an opposition,” the King replied.
Then the party of five left the Chamber to applause in the corridor, applause which followed them out to the entrance and to the crowd waiting beyond. The King waved as the service chiefs entered their cars and then got into his own. These vehicles were let through the lines that had been drawn across Whitehall and north to the Cenotaph. There the King got out and walked to the stone monument where he knelt for a full minute before rising, and saluting. He then turned to his service chiefs and chatted with them briefly.
“I didn’t ask any of you before I made my statement, because I thought your loyalty went without saying.“
“God save the King” the group replied in unison.
“Very good,” the King replied.
A few moments later the King was back in his car, and four minutes later back in the Palace.
The headline in the Daily Mirror the next day: “King Spanks MPs,” asks if there were “any adults in the room” when the Polish guarantee was approved, says he “expects better of the Government and the House of Commons.”
The next day the headline in the Times is, “Chamberlain Commits Suicide, shoots self, leaves note apologizing to the nation.” The Queen asks the King if he feels any sense of guilt for the suicide. He says he does not.
“Chamberlain was about to commit the greatest crime in English history,” the King remarked. “I stopped him.”
“What about the threat of Civil War,” the Queen asked. “what of that?”
“War is so much easier to consider if it’s happening somewhere else, to someone else. I was trying to get the Members’ heads around the idea of war right here in England. When it’s you in the firing line, the issue appears quite different.”
“And would you have fought the Parliamentarians?” the Queen asked.
“Oh, yes,” the King said. “This time they wouldn’t have a Cromwell.”
“What about Churchill?”
“He’d be the first one up against the wall,” the King replied.
A week later Poland and Germany announced a treaty in which Poland would return Danzig to Germany and permit a road and rail corridor across Polish territory to East Prussia. The treaty was signed just as a state funeral was held for the former British Prime Minister.
Months later, Sept. 1, 1939 passed with fine weather in England and Germany, and Poland where work on a new east-west autobahn was well underway.