The Riddle of the Sands

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.

The Story


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.

The Island of Memmert

The Riddle of the Sands is available on Gutenberg.

Linking to Reading Europe 2021: Germany

18 thoughts on “The Riddle of the Sands

  1. Happy Thanksgiving! this is a wonderful post… even tho i did a lot of sailing when i was young, this book was a delight! they made at least one movie out of it as well. it’s not, or wasn’t fair at all that EC had that unfortunate end; i’ve always felt bad about that…

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    • It all sounded quite unjust. I was talking to my cousin in Scotland who has a boat (not sure if it’s a yacht) and he is planning to circumnavigate the British Isles. He’s just sold the boat he has and will get a larger one when he does his big trip.
      I tend to get motion sickness – or did when I was younger so I wouldn’t be much good in a boat. One of the worst experiences I’ve had was in Milford Sound in NZ on a very rough trip.

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    • Hi Reese, hope your Thanksgiving holiday went well. Christmas is the big event over here and just about everyone has holidays over Christmas & New Year. I read once that if anyone wanted to invade Australia the best time would be over this period.

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      • Right, whoops! I knew you were in Australia. Though I grew up in the US, I live in Canada now myself so our Thanksgiving was a while ago, actually. But everybody was doing Thanksgiving wishes it seemed, so I just went with the flow. 😉 How about Happy Black Friday! That seems to have become pretty universal…

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  2. Such interesting information, Carol. Arthur Ransome’s books are favourites of mine so I will definitely be looking for Childers book. I thought Ransome’s books were somewhat technical and found them interesting so I think I can handle more nautical knowledge.

    Like Mudpuddle, I feel badly about Childers end too. So sad ….

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    • Ransome’s books are very popular and widely read. Just goes to show how a good story can contain all sorts of material we may not be interested it but it is still able to sweep us up in it anyhow.
      Nevil Shute’s books with his details about planes & aviation in general do that for me even though I have zero knowledge of the subject.

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  3. A friend of mine who wanted to read the Swallows series to her children, decided they should have some first-hand nautical knowledge beforehand, so the family got a trimaran and took sailing lessons! Her thorough preparations made me think twice about reading the books without any such preparation, so — we never read them!

    Do you think a history-loving homeschooling boy of 12 would be old enough to enjoy Riddle of the Sands? (He has no nautical knowledge to speak of.)

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    • Maybe I’m lazy but I just read the books and if my children wanted to go on tangents and learn more that was up to them. Imagine the cost involved if you did that for every book you read!

      I think my eldest son was about that age when he read Riddle of the Sands and he enjoyed the historical context of pre-WWI. If he’s used to reading older books with slower plots he should be fine. My son also really liked anything by John Buchan who was a contemporary, if that helps. 🙂

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  4. I have been meaning to look this one up for ages but have still not gotten to it; my impression was of a spy novel and I had no idea this was also based around sailing and ships.

    I am not over fond of seafaring novels for mostly I’m lost with the technicalities and dialect. But I do mean to pick up Ransom at some point and give him a try and also this one

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  5. Pingback: Ambleside Online Year 6 with a 13 year old | journey & destination

  6. Hi Carol
    I’ve been re-reading the Swallows and Amazon’s series. I’d often wondered if there was some connection with Riddle, once I was introduced to it as an adult. I’ve also been struck by the common threads in the two authors’ lives.

    It turns out there is a reference to Riddle being on the shelves of the houseboat. It’s in Winter Holiday. (Chapter 14, Nancy Takes a Hand. Page 183 in my mother’s 1935 hardback edition.) If you’d like a photo of the page, you’re welcome to get in touch.

    I was pleased to find the reference there and ended up at your blog as a result of chasing up posts about the books and authors.

    Thanks for your blog! Lots of fun.

    Paul

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    • Hi Paul,

      Thanks so much for the info & the offer of a photo. We do have Winter Holiday & I’ve found where The Riddle of the Sands was mentioned – Pg 190 in the Red Fox paperback edition.
      I love these connections & appreciate you taking the time to comment about it 🙂

      Kind regards,
      Carol

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