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Invasion Literature

Riddle of the Sands

by Erskine Childers


(published 1903)

A record of Secret Service Recently Acheived

Edited by

Erskine Childers




1 The Letter
2 The Dulcibella
3 Davies
4 Retrospect
5 Wanted, a North Wind
6 Schlei Fiord
7 The Missing Page
8 The Theory
9 I Sign Articles
10 His Chance
11 The Pathfinders
12 My Initiation
13 The Meaning of our Work
14 The First Night in the Islands
15 Bensersiel
16 Commander von Brüning
17 Clearing the Air
18 Imperial Escort
19 The Rubicon
20 The Little Drab Book
21 Blindfold to Memmert
22 The Quartette
23 A Change of Tactics
24 Finesse
 25 I Double Back
26 The Seven Siels
27 The Luck of the Stowaway
28 We Achieve our Double Aim

Epilogue and Postscript

Maps and Charts

Map A -- General Map
Chart A -- Stranding of the Dulcibella
Map B -- East Friesland
Chart B -- Juist, Memmert, Norderney
Sketch -- Memmert Salvage Depot


Carruthers is a jaded but wealthy civil servant working for the Foreign Office in London in a late summer of the 1890's. He receives an unwelcome but intriguing invitation from an old schoolmate to go sailing in the Baltic. Carruthers is disdainful of the proposer, one Arthur Davies, whom he remembers as unremarkable, even boring -- certainly not one of the beautiful people with which Carruthers associates. However, all of his usual cronies have gone off on holiday, and he is concerned that they will think badly of him if he just stays at home.

As Carruthers joins Davies in Flensburg Fiord aboard the "Dulcibella", the mystery is already full-blown. Why would an old classmate, with whom he'd had no contact since college, decide suddenly to invite him sailing on his boat -- which was definitely not a yacht by Carruthers's standards -- in the Baltic at the end of September? Carruthers begins to doubt his judgment in accepting the invitation at all; but, sensing the mystery and the pleading attitude of Davies, he resolves to jump into the adventure and to try to enjoy himself.

From this point on, the two become a first-rate team of amateur spies. Davies has the nautical know-how from a life on the sea, and Carruthers has the sophisticated intelligence and culture to handle the inevitable confrontations with the Germans. Davies's strong sailing intuition has convinced him that the Germans are involved in some military project in the offshore islands of West Friesland in the North Sea. He is so sure of it, based upon the flimsiest evidence, that one must account it to intuition. Yet, he is able to convince the very cynical and cautious Carruthers of the reality of his suspicions.

The result is the two sailors exploring the Friesland islands, while playing cat and mouse with the German authorities and a mysterious gentleman named Dollman, whose daughter Davies has fallen for. The sailing experiences alone are worth the price of the book. Childers, the author, had to spend his early life in just such an environment to be able to speak with such authority and to demonstrate such realism. Davies's use of tides, currents, winds, and lee shores in a real setting speaks authentically. The book stands alone as an excellent sailing adventure.

The mystery is equally well done. Apparently Childers wrote the book as a wakeup call to the British government to look to their North Sea defenses. He was very patriotic, and with his extensive knowledge of the Friesland coast, he intended his fictional story to be taken as a serious possibility by the British Navy. In fact, a North Sea port for the Royal Navy was constructed in response to his book. The fact that Childers was eventually shot by a firing squad for treason (because of his support for Irish home rule, ultimately manifested as gun-running on his yacht) adds even more meaning to this tale. It is a classic, in that it is the first in a long series of British espionage stories. Its basis in and impact on the real history of Britain, and the tragic historical role of its author, make it all the more interesting.

The book is highly praised and still enjoyed for its accurate portrayal of cruising in a small sailing boat.

Containing many realistic details based on Childers' own sailing trips along the German North Sea coast, the book is the retelling of a yachting expedition in the early 20th century combined with an adventurous spy story.

It was one of the early invasion novels which predicted war with Germany and called for British preparedness. The plot involves the uncovering of secret German preparations for an invasion of the United Kingdom. It is often called the first modern spy novel, although others are as well, it was certainly very influential in the genre and for its time.

The book enjoyed immense popularity in the years before World War I and was extremely influential. Winston Churchill later credited it as a major reason that the Admiralty decided to establish naval bases at Invergordon, the Firth of Forth and Scapa Flow. It was also a notable influence on John Buchan.


Childers was born in London to a Protestant family originally from Glendalough, Ireland. His father was English and his mother Irish, but he was orphaned as a child and raised by an uncle in County Wicklow.

He was sent to Haileybury College and then studied at Trinity College, Cambridge and after graduation took a job in 1895 as a clerk in the House of Commons. He was an enthusiastic yachtsman, owning several boats during his life and sailing them regularly. At this point in his career he was a supporter of the British Empire.

Military career

On the outbreak of the Second Boer War in 1899 he volunteered for action, serving as an officer in the City Imperial Volunteers, part of the Honourable Artillery Company in the British Army. He was wounded in South Africa and invalided back to Britain. On his return he wrote the novel The Riddle of the Sands which was published in 1903. Based on his own sailing trips along the German coast, it predicted war with Germany and called for British preparedness.

It has been called the first spy novel (a position challenged by Rudyard Kipling's Kim, that came out two years earlier), and enjoyed immense popularity in the years before World War I. It was an extremely influential book: Winston Churchill later credited it as a major reason that the Admiralty decided to establish naval bases at Invergordon, the Firth of Forth and Scapa Flow.

In 1903, Childers visited the United States. There he met and married Mollie Osgood, who shared his love of sailing.

He wrote Volume V of the Times' History of the War in South Africa (1907), which drew attention to British errors in that war and praised the tactics of the Boer guerrillas. He also wrote two books on cavalry warfare based on his experiences, War and the Arme Blanche (1910) and the German Influence on British Cavalry (1911). Both books were strongly critical of the British Army.

Home Rule

Around this time Childers became increasingly attracted to Irish Nationalism and became an advocate of Home Rule. He resigned his post at the House of Commons in 1910 in order to campaign for this cause, writing The Form and Purpose of Home Rule in 1912. In July 1914 he and his wife even smuggled German arms to Howth, County Dublin, in their yacht Asgard - days before the outbreak of World War I. These weapons would later arm the Irish Volunteers during the Easter Rising of 1916. This had been organised in response to the Larne gunrunning of the Ulster Volunteer Force.

With the start of war, Childers joined the Royal Navy as an Intelligence Officer and was active in the North Sea and the Dardanelles. He was awarded the DSO and promoted to Lieutenant Commander in 1916.

However the violent suppression of the Easter Rising had angered Childers, and after the war he moved to Dublin to become fully involved in the struggle against British rule. He joined Sinn Féin, forming a close association with Éamon de Valera and Michael Collins.

In 1919 he was made Director of Publicity for the First Irish Parliament and represented the Irish nationalists at the Versailles conference in Paris. In 1920 Childers published Military Rule in Ireland, a strong attack on British policy. In 1921 he was elected to the Dáil as member for Wicklow and published the pamphlet Is Ireland a Danger to England?, which attacked the British prime minister, David Lloyd George. He became editor of the Irish Bulletin after the arrest of Desmond FitzGerald.

Civil War and Death

Childers was secretary-general of the Irish delegation that negotiated the Anglo-Irish Treaty with the British government, but he was vehemently opposed to the final draft of the agreement, particularly the clauses that required Irish leaders to take an Oath of Allegiance to the British king.

The Treaty bitterly divided Sinn Féin and the IRA, and Ireland slipped into civil war. Soon Childers was regarded as a traitor not only by the British, but by the pro-Treaty Free State government in Dublin.

Said to be the inspiration behind the Irregulars' propaganda, Childers was hunted by Free State soldiers and had to travel secretly. In November 1922 he was arrested by Free State forces at his home, Glendalough, in County Wicklow, while travelling to meet De Valera. He was court-martialled because he was carrying an automatic pistol, which, ironically, had been a gift from Michael Collins, and was one of the first to be sentenced to death under the Free State’s Emergency Powers legislation. He was executed by firing squad at the Beggar's Bush Barracks in Dublin. He was 52 years old.

His last words were a joke at the expense of his executioners: "Take a step or two forward, lads. It will be easier that way."

Winston Churchill, on hearing of his capture, expressed the British establishment view of Childers: "No man has done more harm or done more genuine malice or endeavoured to bring a greater curse upon the common people of Ireland than this strange being, actuated by a deadly and malignant hatred for the land of his birth."

His son, Erskine Hamilton Childers, was president of Ireland in 1973-4.

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