“Rats in a Hole”: Churchill’s Apology

“Rats in a Hole”: Churchill’s Apology

Imag­ine if the Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States declared, “We will dig out ter­ror­ists ‘like rats in a hole.” Many would applaud and think maybe they had mis­judged him. Or would they?

A col­league sends an exchange in the House of Com­mons on 7 March 1916. “Colonel Churchill,” recent­ly returned from the Front but still a Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment, was speak­ing about the naval war with Ger­many. British naval plan­ners must pro­vide, Churchill was saying,

against what will be a con­tin­u­al­ly increas­ing ele­ment of the unknown. I must also just point out anoth­er argu­ment which shows that, great as were the anx­i­eties with which we were faced in the first four months of the War, they have not by any means been removed, or, indeed, sen­si­bly dimin­ished by the course of events. The House will remem­ber the old argu­ment I used to feed them with, that of the aver­age moment and the select­ed moment….

George Denison Faber CB DL (1852-1931), First Baron Wittenham, 1918, Conservative MP 1900-18. Caricature from Vanity Fair, 1900.
George Deni­son Faber CB DL (1852-1931), First Baron Wit­ten­ham, 1918, Con­ser­v­a­tive MP 1900-18. Car­i­ca­ture from Van­i­ty Fair, 1900.

Mr. G. Den­ni­son Faber (Cons., Clapham) inter­rupt­ed: “What about ‘dig­ging them out’?”

Churchill red­dened: “I agree with the Hon. Mem­ber. It was a very fool­ish phrase, and I regret that it slipped out.”

Mr. Faber kind­ly replied: “I am sor­ry I said it.”

What was all that about, my col­league asked?

Faber was allud­ing to, and Churchill was regret­ting, Churchill’s remark on 21 Sep­tem­ber 1914, with World War I less than two months old.

Address­ing a recruit­ment ral­ly in Liv­er­pool, impa­tient and frus­trat­ed at the Ger­man High Seas Fleet remain­ing in port, refus­ing to ven­ture into the North Sea, Churchill told an audi­ence of 15,000:

“Although we hope the navy will have a chance of set­tling the ques­tion of the Ger­man Fleet, yet if they do not come out and fight in time of war they will be dug out like rats in a hole.”

Tut-tut! King George V thought Churchill’s out­burst “undig­ni­fied and ungentle­man­ly.” Sev­er­al crusty Con­ser­v­a­tives said Churchill had an unbal­anced mind!

It remind­ed me of what Churchill wrote about the “Phoney War” between Sep­tem­ber 1939 and April 1940, when the French and Ger­mans eyed each oth­er across the border:

This idea of not irri­tat­ing the ene­my did not com­mend itself to me.…Good, decent, civilised peo­ple, it appeared, must nev­er them­selves strike till after they have been struck dead….On the one side end­less dis­cus­sions about triv­ial points, no deci­sions tak­en, or if tak­en rescind­ed, and the rule “don’t be unkind to the ene­my; you will only make him angry.” On the oth­er, doom preparing—a vast machine grind­ing for­ward ready to break upon us!

This idea of not irri­tat­ing the ene­my has its coun­ter­part today. Let us hope that in 2015 we don’t strike until we have been struck dead.




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