The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers (subtitled, A Record of Secret Service) was published in 1903 and is considered to be the first modern spy thriller.
Childers had an interesting background; he was raised in Ireland, educated at Cambridge, and was a clerk in the House of Commons for fifteen years. During the First World War he did reconnaissance work in the Royal Naval Air service and served as an Intelligence Officer.
He spent time sailing in the North Sea and the Channel and also explored the shoals of the Dutch, Danish and German coasts.
Charles Carruthers, having had his carefully laid holiday plans upended by his superiors in the Foreign Office, had settled into a dismal routine in London. With his acquaintances and friends off on holidays, he had come to the humiliating realisation that ‘the world I found so indispensable could after all dispense with me.’
It was while he was in this depressing state that he received a letter bearing a German post-mark and marked ‘Urgent’. It was from Arthur Davies, an Oxford acquaintance from his student days, whom he had only seen on a few occasions over the past three years, asking him if he’d care to join him in a little yachting and duck shooting in the Baltic.
Carruthers’ memory of Davies was that of a dull type of chap who, unlike himself, took no care with his appearance, and had no money to spend on luxuries like a decent yacht. The thought of spending October freezing in the Baltic with an eccentric nobody like Davies did not appeal to him. Despite his misgivings, he felt a strange lightening of his spirits and there being no other alternatives, he telegrammed Davies to say he would join him.
Wilhelm II was Kaiser of Germany in 1903 when The Riddle of the Sands was published. He had begun to expand the German Navy with the intention of rivalling the British Navy and making the German Empire a global power.
When Carruthers joined his friend he discovered that Davies had something other than duck shooting on mind and their boat trip on the Dulcibella became a journey of intrigue and danger when they discovered German war ships among the Frisian Islands intent on possibly invading Britain.
An attempt had already been made upon Davies’ life and they discover that an Englishman turned traitor was responsible. Both men become involved in espionage which takes them around shoals and dangerous tidal areas.
Childers wrote an exciting narrative but there are many nautical terms that not everyone will appreciate. I don’t have much knowledge about this type of subject but the writing is excellent and quite humorous, especially in the first few chapters. It is a very atmospheric book that conjures up the desolate areas of East Friesland, its islands and tidal areas. The book includes maps/charts based on British and German Admiralty charts which are regularly referred to in the story.
The Riddle of the Sands was a wake up call for Britain to the threat of Imperial Germany and caused a sensation when it was first published. The book has been called a Yachtsman’s Classic and was a favourite of Arthur Ransome, the author of the Swallows & Amazons books. I read somewhere that the houseboat in Ransome’s books had a copy of The Riddle of the Sands on its bookshelves but I have been unable to find it in the two books pictured above. I did read in Chapter 7 of ‘We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea’ that John ‘went down to the cabin and took Knight’s ‘Sailing’ from the bookshelf‘ in order to look up the page on signals and fog. Davies had a copy of one of Knights’ books in his library on the Dulcibella.
Older readers who loved the Arthur Ransome books would probably enjoy Childers’ book, although my children had a mixed reaction to the book. My eldest son thought it was great and my youngest said it had too much information on sailing etc. Anyone who likes technical details, geography and a good spy story should enjoy it. It’s not high action but it does flow well and is quite suspenseful in places. If a book is well-written I can put up with technical details of which I’m mostly ignorant. The interplay between Carruthers and Davies and their individual characters adds to the interest and dynamics of the story.
Erskine Childers had a sad end. He was a supporter of Irish Republicanism and was executed ‘over possession of a pistol.’ His son, 16 years of age at the time of his death, was later the President of Ireland. See here and here for more about this.
Linking to Reading Europe 2021: Germany