Riddle of the Sands
by Erskine Childers
A record of Secret Service Recently Acheived
1 The Letter
2 The Dulcibella
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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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