The Riddle of the Sands
by Erskine Childers
Those of you who heard Trevor’s talk on the Easter Rising will know of Erskine Childers as a gun runner for the Irish Nationalist Volunteers. This represented, however, a major conversion from his upbringing. He was born in London, but from age six, after the death of his father, he was brought up in Co Wicklow by relations who were part of the Protestant Ascendency in Ireland. He was educated in England at Haileybury College and Cambridge, and in 1895 became a parliamentary clerk to the House of Commons. During the Second Boer War, he joined the City Imperial Volunteers and spent nine months in South Africa in 1900. At the time of writing The Riddle of the Sands, he still supported the British Empire although now willing to criticise it when he saw the need.
Childers’ first book was unplanned. In the Ranks of the CIV was composed from the long descriptive letters he wrote to his sisters from South Africa. With the help of a friend who ran a publishing house, they edited his letters into a book and had the print proofs ready for his approval when he returned home.
The Riddle of the Sands had a more conventional origin. Started in 1901, it was published in mid-1903. It combines Childers passion for sailing with his conviction that the British navy was not ready to fight the European war which many people believed was coming. Late in the season, the narrator of the story is invited to join an acquaintance on his small yacht in the Baltic. From there, they make their way to the north German coast, and among the inlets and sand banks of the Frisian Islands, they uncover a plan for a German invasion of Great Britain.
Childers was a skilful sailor and had cruised this area several times with his brother. His descriptions of the scenery, the weather, and the intricacies and dangers of sailing there are based on personal experience. These descriptions and the detailed maps make the story easy to follow, even for someone with no knowledge of the Frisian Islands or the technicalities of sailing. The writing style is detailed but very readable and the story line is compelling.
As fascinating as the story itself, however, is the information it gives on attitudes at the turn of the century. The basis for the story is that a major European war was inevitable, that Germany and Britain would be on opposing sides and that both were preparing for this. I was surprised that, more than ten years before the outbreak of the First World War, these seem to have been accepted facts. Equally interesting is the criticism of British naval training and policy, carefully reasoned and explained by one of the main characters. This was clearly Childers’ own opinion and the book proved a very successful way to publicise his views. Winston Churchill is said to have credited the book with influencing the Admiralty decision to establish naval bases in Invergordon, Rosyth, Firth of Forth and Scapa Flow. It also helped ensure Childers’ skills were appropriately used when he joined the Royal Naval Volunteer reserve in 1914. His knowledge of coastal navigation was put to use as a navigation instructor for seaplane pilots. Later in the war he served with a coastal motorboat squadron in the English Channel. In The Riddle of the Sands, one character had explained the need for the navy to set up such squadrons.
Reading this book, I wondered to what extent the Howth gun running represented “fiction become fact” for Childers and his wife and friends. Certainly, the photographs they took of themselves and Mary Spring Rice’s diary of the trip suggest an element of amateurish melodrama. One cannot, however, doubt Childers’ dedication to the cause of Irish independence for which he worked and died after his return from the First World War. (Childers was shot in the Irish Civil War for possession of a gun, which ironically had been a gift from Michael Collins who by this time was on the other side, in charge of the new Irish army.)
Childers also wrote volume five of The Times History of the South African War, two books on cavalry warfare and The Framework of Home Rule and co-authored The HAC in South Africa. It is, however, his novel, The Riddle of the Sands, that has stood the test of time. I recommend this book both for its story and for the insight it gives into the thinking of the time.