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Erskine Childers and The Riddle of the Sands

Literary Themes

Erskine Childers and The Riddle of the Sands

Erskine Childers

Erskine Childers (1870-1922 )

By God, I’ll give you five minutes to be off to England and be damned to you, or else to be locked up for spies!

~ Erskine Childers, The Riddle of the Sands, 1903

While spies have a long history stretching back to biblical times, espionage fiction is a relatively recent invention oftentimes attributed to the 1903 publication of Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands, “the first spy novel” (Ambler 8). Set against the backdrop of a yachting trip to the German coast, the story weds a tale of adventure with the reality of Britain’s imperial overreach thus beginning a genre that – as continued by the likes of Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, and John le Carré – has matured into one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the literate world.

The period leading up to World War I witnessed a complex series of strategic alliances among most European countries, as well as major economic and territorial rivalries between Great Britain, France and Germany resulting from the empire building in the last half of the nineteenth century. It was an era marked by technological advances evidenced by the appearance of the internal combustion engine and the sharp upward curve of the destructiveness of improved weaponry. These new technologies and imperial rivalries brought about a quickening of tempo in international relations with an increased capacity and willingness to wage war.

While most major European powers accepted these technological advancements with some reluctance, Germany embraced them and integrated technology into a professional, general-staffed military doctrine centered around scholarly research, meticulously detailed planning and a thorough indoctrination in a logical concept of war (Dupuy 821). By late nineteenth century, this integration had successfully manifested itself in the Prussian victories over Austria (1866) and France (1871) that caused Prussia to be acknowledged as the leading land military power of the world, a position that Prussia still held at the beginning of the twentieth century.

In contrast to Prussian doctrine, Britain had long resisted the introduction of a general staff system and other military reforms because to many people in Britain this appeared to be a step toward militarism. But embarrassing evidence of military inefficiency drawn from Britain’s efforts in the second Boer War (1902) clearly indicated that the British military was unprepared to counter any national security threat. To deal with this lack of preparation, numerous agencies within the British military establishment, as well as special inquiries – those of the Esher Committee and Lord Richard Haldane held particular sway – moved to address the problem (Knightley 9-11).

But even as these formal evaluations were proceeding, a previously unknown writer, Erskine Childers, himself a veteran of the Boer conflict, published his solitary espionage novel The Riddle of the Sands. Its release held a twofold significance: primarily it brought to the attention of the general public the troubles of Britain’s dwindling military capability; but, secondly, it marked the advent of the modern espionage novel by embracing the proposal of plots and themes being set astride existing geopolitical scenarios.

Prior to Childers, the adventure story was the dominant genre in the popular fiction for men in Victorian England, ranging from the boys’ stories of Mayne Reid, G.A. Henry, and R.M. Ballantyne to the tales of more established writers like Charles Kingsley, H. Rider Haggard and Robert Louis Stevenson (Denning 38). Still, there existed a certain “external enemy” mindset that continued to thread through the fundamental themes of imperialist culture at the time. It was the escalation of this “external enemy” premise that served to facilitate the transition from the self-assured, expansionist themes of adventure fiction to the increasingly insular, even paranoid, espionage genre that stressed vigilance and protection against invasion (Blanch 119).

As a result of this perception, the spy as agent either of defeat or victory became a prominent fear figure in governments around the world and the accompanying threat of conspiracy fueled the espionage fiction genre (Palmer 85-6). It was this very fear of the spy and the conspiracy he or she represented that Childers played upon in The Riddle of the Sands. The book’s threat – a German conspiracy to invade Britain – was even convincing enough for calls to be made within the British establishment to review the specific plot (Andrews 37).

For the British, the transition from being an imperialistic to becoming an increasingly xenophobic society was surprisingly fluid, emerging a simply another aspect of the British social imperialist crisis which occurs between the 1880s and the 1920s. During this period there was not merely a shift in the relations of forces, but a reconstitution of the terrain of political struggle itself (Hall 229). In this respect, Childers’ novel emerges as a symptom – as well as a vehicle for resolution – of this crisis in that it was, for the first time, a direct public pronouncement of the decline of British imperialism and of the sense of vulnerability spawned by the perception of Britain’s waning political and military preeminence (Denning 38).

A capable writer with a penchant for politico-military intrigue, in many respects Erskine Childers was perhaps an appropriate figure to launch a literary genre. He was born in London in 1870 to Robert Caesar Childers, a scholar of Oriental languages, and his wife, Anna Barton. After the early deaths of both parents from tuberculosis, he was brought up in comfortable circumstance by maternal relatives at Glendalough House, in the Wicklow hills south of Dublin, and attended Haileybury boarding school in rural Hertfordshire, then Trinity College, Cambridge. While at Cambridge, Childers became a noted debater; however, when not engaged in serious discussion, he was a quiet, often preoccupied young man and during vacations he learned the art of sailing in the waters of Wicklow harbor. His first boat was the Vixen, a shallow-draft, gaff-rigged, 30-foot sloop. The Vixen would become the model for the Dulcibella, the fictional yacht in The Riddle of the Sands (Donaldson xiii).

A cousin of Hugh Childers – who served Prime Minister William Gladstone as First Lord of the Admiralty and Minister of War – Erskine was an ardent Anglophile and totally committed to the concept of the British Empire. In 1895, he left Cambridge to become a committee clerk at the House of Commons, where the lengthy vacations afforded him the time for extended yachting trips of just the kind his novel portrays: exploration of the North Sea waters off the German coast. It was during this time that Childers first contemplated writing the novel that would eventually become The Riddle of Sands. However his plans were interrupted by the outbreak of the Boer War in 1899.

British power and influence was at a high point in 1899. But in South Africa there was still ground to be gained: the gold and diamond deposits in the Dutch Boer republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. To obtain control over the mineral wealth the British High Commissioner of Cape Colony in South Africa, Alfred Milner, precipitated a war with the Boers, only to suffer a series of humiliating military defeats in December 1899 that forced the British to abandon their original offensive strategy in favor of a more defensive posture. The turn of events stunned British imperialists who found it incomprehensible that a meager band of Dutch farmers could possibly challenge the might of the British Empire. In England, volunteers flocked to enlist and fight the Boers, one in particular being Erskine Childers who joined the City [London] Imperial Volunteers, Honourable Artillery Company.

Service in South Africa is seemingly a benchmark in Childers’ life. While the British were already winning the war by the time he arrived in South Africa, he nonetheless served in combat until invalided out by an infected foot. Unlike the majority of his fellow Englishmen, Childers appears to have developed a certain measure of respect for the independent-minded Boers, a feeling reflected in his 1901 war memoir, In the Ranks of the C.I.V.:

As for De Wet [Boer general C. R. De Wet], the plucky Boer who is fighting down here, now that his cause is hopeless, we have sworn to get him to London and give him a dinner and a testimonial for giving us the chance of a fight. (Childers 102)

But while Childers, at least at this early juncture, never openly questioned the rectitude of British imperialist attitudes, it is entirely possible that his conversations with Boer prisoners first led him to ponder the fundamental dichotomy between his own love of freedom and the nature of empire (Knight xi).

After the war, Childers returned to London and the House of Commons where, in addition to his normal duties, he continued to write. In 1903, after a season of sailing in his new and bigger yacht, the Sunbeam, he published The Riddle of the Sands, subtitled A Record of Secret Service Recently Achieved, his narrative of yachting and espionage off the northwest coast of Germany. Still, his experiences in Africa, in the intellectual sense, continued to trouble him, and while his devotion to England remained absolute, he found his earlier colonialist views slowly being tempered by a new sympathy for those who, like the Boers, were fighting for their independence. This would later prove to be a prophetic change of heart.

The Riddle of the Sands concerns two young Englishmen who sail the yacht Dulcibella into the North Sea and, upon reaching the Frisian Islands, discover the Germans rehearsing plans for an invasion of Britain. Carruthers, a Foreign Office man with a taste for sailing, and Davies, his former schoolmate, are drawn in the best traditions of English amateur spies confronting a difficult and dangerous situation. Atkins notes:

The characterization, especially of Davies, is controlled and consistent. Carruthers loathes discomfort, in an unadventurous way, and displays great charm when the need arises. Davies, on the other hand, is gauche and at times boorish, but he is humanly presented and is not treated as a kind of mechanical contrast to Carruthers. The writing is taut and the reader is credited with intelligence and powers of concentration. (Atkins 23)

Johnson further comments on the relevance of Childers’ book in his comparison of The Riddle of the Sands to more contemporary fictional spy stories:

The resemblances are in the stress on technical details: Childers describes the philosophy, theory and practice of inshore sailing with loving care…the areas he describes, the Baltic coast of Denmark and Schleswig-Holstein, and the low-lying sandy coast between the Elbe and the Ems, he knew intimately. In fact, the geographical structure around which the novel is built is not invented at all, the course taken by the two English heroes could be followed by any skilled yachtsman, and Childers even included maps to help the reader, together with timetables of tides. Writers of modern spy fiction follow this pattern of providing expert technical background, though rarely with the degree of knowledge and skill Childers commanded. (Johnson 46)

The villain of the novel is a former British naval lieutenant named Dollman who has turned traitor and is working for the Germans, and the story’s factual basis was the result of Childers’ own sailing experiences in the yacht Vixen off the coasts of Germany, Holland and elsewhere. It was fiction based on fact, but fiction with a set purpose: to draw attention to German militarism at a time when nobody else had taken up the theme, and to garner public opinion in support of a stronger British navy. However, in addition to novel’s unmistakable propagandism, there were also other, more subtle, factors at play. Wark observes:

At the novel’s heart there is something much more didactic. Carruthers’ slow awakening to the German threat and to his own manhood, as he shakes off the corrupting skin of London society, is an emblematic device that drives the novel’s action. His personal regeneration operates as a call for the regeneration of Britain, for the renewal of patriotism, individual action, and a keen-eyed appreciation of the German threat. (Wark, 1200)

The Riddle of the Sands was a remarkably successful novel. In the prevailing climate of fear concerning a potential surprise German attack, it became an instant bestseller. It also precipitated significant changes in the somewhat dilatory British Naval Intelligence Division. After being alerted to shortcomings in their naval charts, naval intelligence gave permission to two officers to be sent on a tour of the German seacoast defenses and the Frisian Islands. The officers found that the existing Admiralty charts of the area and the general intelligence information on the localities were hopelessly out of date and that their only knowledge of the Frisian Islands was in fact that obtained from The Riddle of the Sands.

The two British officers who undertook this “spying expedition” were both detected and arrested by the Germans, finally being sentenced to a term of imprisonment before being pardoned by the Kaiser on the occasion of King George V’s 1913 visit to Germany. It was shortly after this that the Naval Intelligence Division was given a drastic overhaul with Winston Churchill later admitting it was The Riddle of the Sands that was largely responsible for Britain’s decision to establish naval bases at Invergordon, Firth of Forth and Scapa Flow (Knightley 17).

During a visit to the United States in 1903, the year his novel was published in London, Childers met and married Mary Alden Osgood, the daughter of a prominent Boston physician, and a direct descendant of one of America’s oldest families. Though disabled by a spinal injury at an early age – she normally required the use of two canes for support – Mary Osgood loved the sea, was an accomplished helmsman, and would prove to be Childers’ principal source of strength later in life. As a wedding gift, the Osgoods presented the Childers with a 50-foot gaff ketch, the Asgard, built for the newlyweds in Norway. Once back in Europe, the couple would sail out of Southampton and explore Childers usual North Sea and Baltic haunts (Donaldson vi).

As he matured, Childers continued to write, although shifting his attention to military affairs. He contributed to Volume V of the Times’ History of the War in South Africa (1907) under the general editorship of L.A.S. Emery. In it he covered the period of guerrilla warfare, some of which he had himself seen first-hand. Over and above the vivid accounts of the forays of de Wet and Smuts and the other Boer leaders, there is down-to-earth criticism of British errors that makes the book one of the most valuable of the series of six. His analysis of Boer War operations led directly to his next publications: War and the Arme Blanche (1910) and German Influence on British Cavalry (1911) both of which were also extremely critical of the British army, particularly its traditional training methods (Wilkinson 75).

But during this time, Childers again found himself searching for some measure of intellectual balance between the competing perceptions of colonialism and independence, the same thoughts he had worried upon his return from South Africa years earlier. By 1908, during a tour of Ireland’s southwest counties, he finally came to the conclusion that colonialism – and indeed the very notion of British imperialism – was fundamentally wrong. He applied this new understanding to Ireland – where he had grown up and for which he still retained a certain fondness – and began to espouse Home Rule in the orthodox sense, therein going far beyond what most Englishmen were then willing to accept. Characteristically, and with his wife’s unreserved collaboration, he gave himself completely to his new cause, resigning his House of Commons clerkship to write The Form and Purpose of Home Rule (1912), a thoughtfully reasoned case for giving Ireland, like Canada, dominion status that would permit its independence in internal affairs while still remaining under the British flag (Donaldson vi).

Childers aligned himself with the Irish in the south and, in support of his convictions, even engaged in a bit of gun running for the Irish Volunteers. On July 12, 1914, as the rest of Europe was poised on the brink of World War I, Childers, his wife, and a handful of other Home Rule supporters, boarded the Asgard to meet the German Tug Gladiator on the high seas. At the rendezvous, they loaded 900 Mauser rifles and 29,000 rounds of ammunition onto the Asgard and set a course toward Howth Harbor, just north of Dublin. After fighting the worst costal storm in 32 years and sailing through the British fleet – which was unexpectedly being inspected by George V off Spithead – Childers reached his destination and the cargo was unloaded by members of the Irish Volunteers. With the cargo delivered, Childers and company sailed back to England and into World War I, which had begun just a few days after the Howth excursion. The weapons would be later used to arm the Irish republicans for the Easter uprising of 1916 (Wilkinson 99-120).

On August 4, 1914 war was declared between Britain and Germany. Twelve days later, wearing the dark blue uniform of a lieutenant in the Volunteer Reserve, Erskine Childers reported to the Naval Air Station at Felixstowe. His reconnaissance skills – most specifically his in-depth knowledge of the German coast – had been urgently requested by the Admiralty and he was to be assigned as an observer on one of the fleet seaplanes carried by HMS Engadine, then based in Felixstowe. Although less than a month had passed since his exploit of running guns through this same British fleet, Childers seems to have felt no particular sense of contradiction. England was still his country and she was at war. Moreover, he was well aware that he was indeed an expert in seacoast reconnaissance and, as it had during the Boer War, a low-ranking job of danger and hardship continued to appeal to something in his nature.

Childers performed his assigned duties with distinction. He patrolled the waters around the mouth the Elbe River and at Wilhelmshaven, and participated in the bombing of the German airship facilities at Cuxhaven. In March, 1915 he transferred to the HMS Ben-My-Chree and contributed to the Dardanelles expedition by photographing the Turkish trenches, gun emplacements and submarine nets that crossed the Straits. In due course he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and promoted to Lieutenant Commander (Wilkinson 125-143). The armistice brought Childers’ discharge from the navy and soon thereafter he returned his attention to Irish politics, still quietly working for Irish home rule. But this was soon to change.

On Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, a force of Irishmen under arms estimated at between 1,000 and 1,500 men and women attempted to seize the city of Dublin with the ultimate intention of destroying British rule in Ireland and creating an entirely independent Irish Republic. The British quashed the uprising, but the costs were significant. Some 500 British soldiers and approximately 1000 republicans were killed, while Dublin itself suffered nearly $20 million in property damage. This incident galvanized Childers, who became completely disillusioned with British attitudes. He abandoned his commitment to peaceful change in favor of armed struggle, moved to Dublin, became an Irish citizen and joined Sinn Féin, working with the party to secure a hearing for Ireland at the upcoming Paris Peace Conference. Two of the political figures with whom Childers worked were Michael Collins, who provided him with a small revolver, and Eamon DeValera, who transformed Childers’ Home Rule philosophy into a quest for an independent Irish Republic. At this point, Erskine Childers, in the eyes of the British, was now considered a traitor (Knight xiii).

But regardless of British opinion, Childers remained committed to the cause of Irish autonomy. In 1920 he published Military Rule in Ireland – a broadside against Britain’s Irish strategy. In 1921 he was elected to the Dáil Eireann, representing Kildare-Wicklow, and published Is Ireland a Danger to England, a pamphlet that criticized British policy in general, and British Prime Minister Lloyd George in particular.

Childers totally immersed himself in the Irish political process, developing a high-pitched polemical style and serving in a number of key positions: editor of the Irish Bulletin, a republican newsletter; the Dáil Minister of Propaganda; and as Chief Secretary of the Peace Delegation that negotiated the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, which facilitated the formation of the Irish Free State in 1922 (Coogan 22). But, in the end, Childers – now committed more than ever to complete autonomy – found himself forced to vehemently oppose the treaty’s final draft that, among other provisions, gave Ireland only the status of a dominion and further required that the members of Dáil Eireann take an oath of allegiance to the English Crown. Ultimately, the treaty caused a split in the Sinn Féin party, and Dáil Eireann ratified it by only 64 votes to 57.

Upon the establishment of the Irish Free State, Childers, along with numerous other dissenters, turned their backs on the Dáil Eireann and joined the Irish Republican Army that set itself the task of opposing the new Free State Government in favor of total independence. But the years of constant struggle and political bickering were taking their toll. At age fifty Childers’ was losing his health. He was white-haired, pale and thin, and coughed constantly as he scribbled into the night the detailed memorandum to be used for the next round of political posturing (Donaldson vii).

Childers’ alliance with the Irish Republican Army placed him directly in the middle of the civil war that began between the pro-Treaty and anti-Treaty forces. Ultimately, he soon found himself branded a traitor not only by the British Government, but also the by the new Irish Free State Government. It was an untenable position and on November 10, 1922, Free State soldiers surrounded Glendalough House in County Wicklow, his boyhood home, where he was in hiding. Childers was armed with the ivory handled, miniature .32 caliber Spanish automatic pistol presented to him by Michael Collins, but did not fire, fearing that some of the noncombatants in the house might be injured. He was arrested and court-martialed in Dublin, but refused to recognize the authority of the court that tried him and was condemned to death (McCormick 48).

On November 24, 1922, the morning of his death, he wrote a short note to his wife Mary: “It is 6 a.m. You will be pleased to see how imperturbable I have been this night and am. It all seems perfectly simple and inevitable, like lying down after a long day’s work.” Accompanied by the Reverend Edward Waller, the Anglican dean of Kildare, who he had known from childhood, Childers was then taken to the courtyard of Beggar’s Bush Barracks in Dublin, a fortress-like building with long battlements of stone and turrets at the comers. As they reached the courtyard, he turned and said to Waller, “I am at peace with the world. I bear no grudge against anyone and trust no one bears any against me.” He then shook hands with each member of the firing squad, several of whom showed that they were under great strain. Then the Officer-in-Charge marched him to a wall, saluted, and left him there. The squad took up their positions across the prison yard. “Come closer, boys,” Childers called to them. “It will be easier for you.” Neither blindfolded or bound, he stood with perfect composure against the wall as the volley echoed out with military precision and ended his life (Wilkinson 234).

In the final analysis, Erskine Childers emerges as a clever, complex and arguably tragic figure. But perhaps the most accurate description of him is that offered in Costello’s history of Irish independence:

He was capable of the most rigorous analysis of political and economic problems, but when it came to action he became the romantic adventurer…He was alleged to have blown up Mallow viaduct and destroyed Valencia transatlantic cable, and to have conducted other raids, all of which he never did. He was not a gunman, but a publicist, a writer…He stamped on the Republican papers he edited a high-pitched, high-minded and cutting style that persists in some of them to this day…Like Dollman in his novel, he had changed his allegiance, but found he was mistrusted by those he wanted to help. In the end, this was the death of him. (Costello 210-211)

His political beliefs aside, after Childers’ death the literary impact of The Riddle of the Sands, particularly the experiment of combining fact and fiction, continued to gain in popularity. And “faction” – as the deceptive blending of fact and fiction came to be known – has been unconditionally embraced by the countless number of espionage novelists who have adopted the genre in the years since The Riddle of the Sands. Accordingly and when considered in this context, the popularity of today’s espionage fiction can be directly linked to Erskine Childers, to the fictional Dulcibella, and to the cold, North Sea waters off the German coast.


Works Cited:

Ambler, Eric. “Introduction.” To Catch a Spy, edited by Eric Ambler. New York: Bantam, 1965.

Andrews, Christopher. Her Majesty’s Secret Service. New York: Viking, 1986.

Atkins, John. The British Spy Novel: Styles in Treachery. London: John Calder, 1984.

Blanch, Michael. “Imperialism, Nationalism, and Organized Youth.” In Working Class Culture, by John Clarke and others. London: Hutchinson, 1979.

Childers, Erskine. In the Ranks of the C.I.V. London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1901.

Coogan, Tim Pat. The IRA: A History. Niwot, Colorado: Roberts Rinehart Publishers, 1993.

Costello, Peter. The Heart Grown Brutal: The Irish Revolution in Literature from Parnell to the
Death of Yeats, 1891-1939
. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1977.

Denning, Michael. Cover Stories: Narrative and Ideology in the British Spy Thriller. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987.

Donaldson, Norman. “Introduction.” The Riddle of the Sands, by Erskine Childers. New York: Dover, 1976.

Dupuy, Ernest R. and Trevor N. Dupuy. The Encyclopedia of Military History. New York:
Harper & Row, 1986.

Hall, Stuart. ‘Notes on Deconstructing “the Popular”.’ In People’s History and Socialist Theory, edited by Raphael Samuel. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981.

Johnson, Paul. Quoted in Donald McCormick, Who’s Who in Spy Fiction. New York: Taplinger, 1977.

Knight, Ian. “Introduction.” In the Ranks of the C.I.V, by Erskine Childers. Staplehurst, England: The Spellmount Library of Military History, 1999.

Knightley, Phillip. The Second Oldest Profession. New York: Penguin, 1988.

McCormick, Donald. Who’s Who in Spy Fiction. New York: Taplinger, 1977.

Palmer, Jerry. Thrillers. New York: St. Martin’s, 1979.

Wark, Wesley K. “The Spy Thriller.” In Mystery and Suspense Writers, edited by Robin W. Winks. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1998.

Wilkinson, Burke. The Zeal of the Convert: The Life of Erskine Childers. Sag Harbor, New York: Second Chance Press, 1985.

Brett F. Woods received his Ph.D. in Literature from the University of Essex, England. Celebrity Net Worth and Bio's

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