Train-Spotting: Churchill’s Reputation in the First World War

Train-Spotting: Churchill’s Reputation in the First World War

Will Boris Johnson’s polit­i­cal career sur­vive “Pincher­gate” and “Par­ty­gate”? Will Don­ald Trump’s rep­u­ta­tion out­last Jan­u­ary 6th, 2021? Who knows? Mr. John­son likes to chan­nel Churchill, whose reha­bil­i­ta­tion after the Great War took 20 years to com­plete. We should dep­re­cate sil­ly com­par­isons, but Churchill did make his share of come­backs: 1906, 1917, 1924, 1939, 1951…

Tim Ben­son of the Polit­i­cal Car­toon Gallery asked for help puz­zling out two obscure car­toons attack­ing Churchill’s rep­u­ta­tion. Both are over 100 years old. The first was “Promis­ing,” by Charles Crom­bie, pub­lished 30 Octo­ber 1915. Churchill’s art, reads the cap­tion, “lacks some­thing in the exe­cu­tion.” Artist Churchill is shown with three sketch­es lam­poon­ing his pugna­cious pro­nounce­ments and unwar­rant­ed optimism.Neither Tim nor I could at first grasp the point they were mak­ing. Andrew Roberts came to our res­cue with key pointers.

This exer­cise is the kind of thing a crit­ic of Churchillians once labelled as “train-spot­ting.” Who cares? It teach­es things about how low a polit­i­cal rep­u­ta­tion can sink and still come back. All this, yet he was prime min­is­ter by 1940.

“Study of Rats”

Churchill and Fish­er. (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

On 26 May 2015, betrayed by the res­ig­na­tion of First Sea Lord Admi­ral Fish­er, Churchill was sacked from the Admi­ral­ty. One rea­son was the grow­ing deba­cle of the Dar­d­anelles and Gal­lipoli. Those oper­a­tions were regard­ed, inac­cu­rate­ly, as Churchill’s inven­tions. He had been among their strongest advo­cates. His words, before and after his depar­ture, attached to him like limpets.

Mar­tin Gilbert wrote: “The crit­i­cisms lev­elled at Churchill cov­ered, as he knew, every aspect of his work at the Admi­ral­ty; even the phras­es which he had used in his speech­es.” [1] An ear­ly exam­ple came in Sep­tem­ber 1914, when Churchill addressed a loud, par­ti­san crowd in Liverpool:

The navy can­not fight while the ene­my remains in port [laughter]—but despite this we are enjoy­ing the com­mand of the sea as ful­ly as if the Ger­man navy had been destroyed. Although we hope that a deci­sion at sea will be a fea­ture of this war, although we hope that our men will have a chance of set­tling the ques­tion with 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. [2]


Despite cheers from the audi­ence, the Estab­lish­ment thought his words undig­ni­fied. Worse, the very next day, the Ger­mans sank three British cruis­ers, HMS Aboukir, Hogue and Cressy, near the Dog­ger Bank. The King’s pri­vate sec­re­tary observed, “the rats came out of their own accord.” Churchill was blamed for the deaths of 1459 sailors. [3] Iron­i­cal­ly, four days ear­li­er, alarmed at the risk the old cruis­ers were tak­ing, he had ordered their with­draw­al. But the “main­stream media” of the time pre­ferred to engage in “dis­in­for­ma­tion.” Noth­ing new under the sun….

“Promis­ing. Mr. Churchill’s Art is promis­ing, but lacks some­thing in exe­cu­tion. —Vide Dai­ly Press.” (Charles Crom­bie in “The Pass­ing Show,” 30 Octo­ber 1915 (Polit­i­cal Car­toon Gallery)

By late 1915 Churchill’s rep­u­ta­tion was already low over the Dar­d­anelles and Gal­lipoli. So it was not hard to asso­ciate Crombie’s “Study of Rats” with WSC’s “rats” speech and the loss of the war­ships. But what about the oth­er two Churchill sketches?

“The Hornet Swarm”

I searched for “hor­nets” in the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project’s scans of Churchill’s words. By sheer chance, one of the first quotes asso­ci­at­ed hor­nets with Zeppelins—the Ger­man air­ships which began attack­ing Lon­don in 1915. Mar­tin Gilbert explains that Churchill once referred to the British fight­er pilots as hor­nets: “This descrip­tion had sub­se­quent­ly been crit­i­cized as deroga­to­ry to the pilots.” [4] The crit­i­cism stuck to Churchill for years. In 1916 he was still defend­ing himself:

My hon. Friend the Mem­ber for Brent­ford (Mr. Joyn­son-Hicks) has twit­ted me this after­noon with my phrase about “hor­nets.” I am very glad to come to the “hor­nets.” The main defence of Eng­land against Zep­pelins has con­sist­ed since the War began in that for­mi­da­ble “swarm of hor­nets” of which I spoke in 1913—that is to say, aero­planes with skil­ful pilots held ready with bombs and guns to attack any Zep­pelin which approach­es our shores. [5]

Churchill was angry that “Jix” had crit­i­cized his efforts to build up the Roy­al Naval Air Ser­vice, Zep­pelin raids were only suc­cess­ful at night, he insist­ed, “because it has proved very dif­fi­cult indeed, and almost impos­si­ble, to find the Zep­pelin in the dark.” [6] Dur­ing the war, 568 Britons were killed and over 1000 injured in Zep­pelin raids. Then came the incen­di­ary bul­let, which pierced air­ship gas­bags and ignit­ed their hydro­gen. Ger­many with­drew its air­ship bombers after June 1917. But Churchill, long blamed for the Dar­d­anelles, was easy to crit­i­cize, despite his efforts to thwart the Zep­pelins and even to bomb their base at Friedrichshafen.[7]

“The Ace”

Crombie’s third Churchill “sketch” was chal­leng­ing. A British offi­cer play­ing a win­ning card against a Turk, to the sur­prise of the Ger­man Kaiser? What could it mean? Andrew Roberts put us on track: “The card is the ace of spades—a key fort on the Gal­lipoli Peninsula….”

Click to enlarge. (Google Maps)

The Nar­rows of the Dar­d­anelles were guard­ed by forts. On the Euro­pean side was a fort at Kilid Bahr, known as the “Tre­foil” or “Ace of Spades.” It was key to the Gal­lipoli invasion:

This was the plan: The British 29th Divi­sion, backed up by French troops, were to car­ry out the main land­ings at five beach­es on Cape Helles, with the Kilid Bahr Plateau as their main objec­tive. The plateau com­mand­ed the Kilid Bahr forts, over­look­ing the Narrows—the nar­row­est sec­tion of the Dar­d­anelles. If they could silence those forts, the navy had a chance of clear­ing the remain­ing mines and get­ting through the Dar­d­anelles, into the Sea of Mar­mara and on to Con­stan­tino­ple. This had, after all, been a naval oper­a­tion right from the start. [8]

On 20 May 1915, the Allies did silence the “Ace of Spades” and oth­er Nar­rows forts. Opti­mists includ­ing Churchill thought their cap­ture might enable the Nar­rows to be cleared of mines for a naval break­through. [9] It was not to be, and the inva­sion lan­guished with great loss­es for the ANZAC and British forces. Thus the car­toon: three Churchill “promis­es” that fell short in execution.

Iron­i­cal­ly, Lord Fish­er had already resigned when the “Ace of Spades” fell, and Churchill was sacked a week lat­er. By Octo­ber, Gal­lipoli was near­ing evac­u­a­tion. Churchill, his rep­u­ta­tion shat­tered, would soon leave the cab­i­net and report to the front. We may under­stand why he saw events as snatch­ing defeat from the jaws of victory.

“Taboo!”: Edward Tennyson Reed, 1917

“Taboo! Senior Mem­ber of the Air Board (as Win­ston is ush­ered in): ‘S-Sh! Here he comes!! Now do remem­ber what­ev­er you say, don’t men­tion ‘rats,’ ‘hor­nets’ or ‘wind­bags!’ [It has been rumoured in the Press that Mr. Win­ston Churchill is to be appoint­ed Chair­man of the Air Board.]” (E.T. Reed in “The Pass­ing Show,” 23 June 1917, Polit­i­cal Car­toon Gallery)
Under­stand­ing Crombie’s car­toon, it is eas­i­er to deci­pher Reed’s. Again, Andrew Roberts pro­vides the back­ground: “I think this refers to the time in 1917 when Lord North­cliffe rude­ly and pub­licly refused Prime Min­is­ter Lloyd George’s offer of the Air Board, forc­ing Lord Cow­dray to resign as its chair­man. The sto­ry is in my new biog­ra­phy of North­cliffe, The Chief.”

This opened a rift that found Lloyd George exco­ri­at­ing Northcliffe’s “dis­eased van­i­ty” in 1919. [10]

Lord Roberts adds that Churchill’s name was also men­tioned for the Air Board, owing to his inter­est in and found­ing of the Roy­al Naval Air Ser­vice. (Even­tu­al­ly there was an Air Min­istry, and in 1919 Churchill was appoint­ed to head it.)

Thus the “warn­ing car­toon” by E.T. Reed, well known for his many works in Punch. Air Board fac­to­tums warn each oth­er not to men­tion rats or hornets—dog whis­tle pejo­ra­tives when applied to Churchill. And WSC was con­stant­ly accused of being a windbag.

Train-spot­ters to the res­cue: Two obscure car­toons are deci­phered. With thanks to Andrew Roberts and Tim Benson.


  1. Mar­tin Gilbert, Win­ston S. Churchill, vol. 3, The Chal­lenge of War 1914-1916 (Hills­dale, Mich.: Hills­dale Col­lege Press, 2008), 764.
  2. Win­ston S. Churchill (here­inafter WSC), “Rats in a Hole,” Tour­na­ment Hall, Liv­er­pool, 21 Sep­tem­ber 1914, in Robert Rhodes James, ed, Win­ston S. Churchill: His Com­plete Speech­es 1897-1963, 8 vols. (New York: Bowk­er, 1974), III: 2336-37.
  3. Gilbert, Chal­lenge of War, 86.
  4. Ibid., 765.
  5. WSC, “An Air Min­istry,” House of Com­mons, 17 May 1916, in Com­plete Speech­es III: 2416.
  6. Ibid.
  7. In Octo­ber 1914 Churchill smug­gled Sir Osmond Brock into Ger­many to gath­er intel­li­gence on the Friedrichshafen Zep­pelin base. The infor­ma­tion led to the world’s first strate­gic bomb­ing mis­sion, on 21 Novem­ber. The dam­age was slight, but it did offer a pro­pa­gan­da coup. (Andrew Roberts points out that Churchill also referred to the Zep­pelin sheds as “a nest of hornets.”)
  8. The Chron­i­cle, Toowoom­ba, Queens­land, 11 April 2015, accessed 30 July 2022 on the Aus­tralian Press Read­er.
  9. “Allies Silence Kilid Bahr Fort: Impor­tant Dar­d­anelles Defense Appar­ent­ly Dis­abled…. Fall of Nagara Report­ed Immi­nent…. Fresh Allied Troops Dis­em­barked at Kum Kale…. Turks Hur­ry Big Guns from Adri­anople” The New York Times, 20 May 1915.
  10. “Alfred Harmsworth, First Vis­count North­cliffe,” in Wikipedia, accessed 30 July 2022.

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