Imperial fiction: The Riddle of the Sands

‘I say, Davies,’ I said, ‘I’m a white-livered cur at the best, and you mustn’t spare me. But you’re not like any yachtsman I ever met before, or any sailor of any sort. You’re so casual and quiet in the extraordinary things you do.’
Erskine Childers, The Riddle of the Sands (1903)riddle-sands-3

‘This is a book that makes you late for things.’
Sheffield Daily Telegraph (1903)

Carruthers is bored. Three years out of Oxford and he’s doing rather well, ‘a young man of condition and fashion, who knows the right people, belongs to the right clubs, has a safe, possibly a brilliant, future in the Foreign Office’. His job isn’t overly stressful – it ‘consisted chiefly at present in smoking cigarettes’ – and the whole world lies before him. Everything should be very agreeable. But here he is, stuck in London, in September, and everyone else is out of town. As they have been all summer, ever since the Season ended. And he’s bored.

He has tried to revel in the role of martyr, the slave to duty, but the appeal of that soon faded. He has sought amusement in writing light satires of the City Out of Season, and sending them to his friends – but his friends were on shooting holidays and they didn’t seem much interested in his wit. He’s even tired of pursuing the pleasures of the flesh in Soho and the East End, his thirst for such self-indulgence having been ‘finally quenched one sultry Saturday night after an hour’s immersion in the reeking atmosphere of a low music-hall in Ratcliffe Highway, where I sat next a portly female who suffered from the heat, and at frequent intervals refreshed herself and an infant from a bottle of tepid stout’.

He’s due to take a month’s leave (a month! really, his job isn’t too onerous), but he doesn’t have anywhere to go or anyone with whom to go, since all his friends will just be coming back. And then, two days before his leave starts, he gets a letter from an old university acquaintance, Arthur Davies, who’s over in Schleswig-Holstein, inviting him out for some sailing and perhaps a little duck-shooting. ‘Yachting in the Baltic at the end of September!’ Carruthers reflects. ‘The very idea made one shudder.’ Anyway, he hardly knows Davies:

The truth was that we had drifted apart from the nature of things. I had passed brilliantly into my profession, and on the few occasions I had met him since I made my triumphant début in society I had found nothing left in common between us. He seemed to know none of my friends, he dressed indifferently, and I thought him dull.

On the other hand, the sheer awfulness of the prospect seems an ironically appropriate way to end what’s been an appalling summer. So, on an absurd whim, he wires his acceptance to Davies, packs a large trunk full of white flannels and smart blazers, and – with Carruthers as our narrator – we’re off on what John Buchan said, in 1925, was ‘the best story of adventure published in the last quarter of a century’.riddle-sands-1

Sailing, as far as Carruthers is concerned, should involve being ‘a pampered passenger on a “fine steam yacht”, or even on “a powerful modern schooner”, as the yacht agents advertise’. But Davies’s boat is unlikely to turn up in a magazine feature or a glossy advert; ‘a scrubby little craft of doubtful build and distressing plainness’, it’s too small for there even to be any crew. And Davies himself is the antithesis of that social stereotype, ‘the Cowes Philanderer’; he’s a fanatical sailor who hates sleeping on land and has acquired some eccentricities from long periods at sea alone. ‘It was a weakness of his,’ Carruthers notes, ‘to rejoice in throwing things overboard.’

Nor is this even to be a holiday on the Baltic, as promised, but an exploration of the North Sea, specifically the less-than-picturesque area between the East Frisian islands and the German coast. Because Davies has an ulterior motive in inviting Carruthers. He believes that an attempt has been made on his life.

It happened a couple of weeks back, when he was sailing eastwards to Cuxhaven in bad weather. Another boat had deliberately lured him into a dangerous channel, and then abandoned him to his fate, with the expectation that his vessel would be wrecked and he’d be drowned. Davies has been stewing over the incident ever since, and now he wants to investigate the scene of the supposed crime.

The man who did the dastardly deed was someone he’d met just off the Frisian Islands, a German named Dolman, though Davies strongly suspects that he’s not actually German at all, but an Englishman in disguise. Why does he think such a thing? ‘It was something in his looks and manner; you know how different we are from foreigners,’ he tries to explain. ‘I felt we understood one another, in a way that two foreigners wouldn’t.’

It’s his conviction that Dolman tried to kill him because he was too close to stumbling upon a naval secret in the seas around the islands. These are very shallow waters and when the tide goes out, large expanses of sand dunes are uncovered, with treacherous and largely uncharted channels running through them, a maritime maze on which only the most confident would attempt to sail. Davies is convinced that there’s a military dimension to the secrecy surrounding these sands. He doesn’t know what’s going on, but – with the help of Carruthers – he’s determined to find out.riddle-sands-4

The quest, as they call it, to solve the riddle of the sands is the main subject of the novel. And a very fine quest it is too. The riddle – not so much…

Childers meant his book to serve as a warning to Britain that its North Sea flank was dangerously exposed. As Davies puts it: ‘We’re a maritime nation – we’ve grown by the sea and live by it; if we lose command of it we starve. We’re unique in that way, just as our huge empire, only linked by the sea, is unique.’ But, and this is a common theme in the fiction of the era, the nation has grown complacent and apathetic:

It’s not the people’s fault. We’ve been safe so long, and grown so rich, that we’ve forgotten what we owe it to. But there’s no excuse for those blockheads of statesmen, as they call themselves, who are paid to see things as they are.

Meanwhile, as the British lion sleeps, the German eagle is spreading its wings. Germany has imperial ambitions but is frustrated by its lack of sea-power: its coast, split by Denmark, is severely restricted compared to that of Britain or France. So it will have to be more creative if it is to compensate for this handicap. And Childers thinks he’s spotted a possible option it might pursue.

To be honest, all this stuff about how German forces might invade Britain is a little absurd, both in the book and in reality. The main historical interest in this side of the novel is the absolute assumption that a war between the two countries is coming. ‘They’ve licked the French, and the Austrians, and are the greatest military power in Europe,’ Davies says of the Germans. Conflict is inevitable.

But the ‘solution’ to the riddle really doesn’t matter a great deal. The appeal of the book lies elsewhere, in the literary aspects of the piece, and particularly in the account of sailing in this odd part of the North Sea. My own interest in sailing is negligible to non-existent, but even I can appreciate some great writing on the subject, and can understand why there are those who love this book to bits.

At its best, it generates an atmosphere of sheer weirdness out of the bleak, alien landscape and its sparse human population, the latter being descendants of wreckers and pirates who haven’t quite shaken off their lawless heritage. It’s not so much the action that gets you, as the gradually ratcheting tension. The sequence where the two men make a long, strength-sapping trip in a dinghy across the sands in thick fog is rightly celebrated:

I found the fog bemusing, lost all idea of time and space, and felt like a senseless marionette kicking and jerking to a mad music without tune or time. The misty form of Davies as he sat with his right arm swinging rhythmically forward and back, was a clockwork figure as mad as myself, but didactic and gibbering in his madness. Then the boathook he wielded with a circular sweep began to take grotesque shapes in my heated fancy; now it was the antenna of a groping insect, now the crank of a cripple’s self-propelled perambulator, now the alpenstock of a lunatic mountaineer, who sits in his chair and climbs and climbs to some phantom watershed.riddle-sands-2

As the hallucinatory tone (not dissimilar to that of John Silence) suggests, much of the heavy work is now being done by Carruthers. He’s conquered both his ennui and his horror at the spartan conditions to which he’s been exposed and, like a John Buchan character, he’s found his true self in physical exertion, battling a hostile environment far removed from his normally cossetted environment. Richard Hannay would certainly approve of his enthusiasm for exercise. On one occasion, he’s obliged to sleep under a sheet of tarpaulin, exposed to the elements in an open barge, but still wakes up refreshed.  ‘I wanted breakfast badly,’ he notes. ‘A brisk walk of six miles brought me, ravenously hungry, to Dornum.’

Hannay would also have recognized the reliance on chance: ‘The crisis, I knew, had come, and the reckless impudence that had brought me here must serve me still and extricate me,’ says Carruthers. ‘Fortune loves rough wooing. I backed my luck and watched.’

For me, this shedding of affectations, this discovery of a rugged spirit within the breast of the effete civil servant, is even better than the sailing episodes. It’s also very funny at times.

Davies, on the other hand, is more delicately sketched. Carruthers remembers him from Oxford as having a ‘physical energy combined with a certain simplicity and modesty, though, indeed, he had nothing to be conceited about’. He has tried to enlist in the Royal Navy and been rejected, tried to join the Indian Civil Service but failed the exams. Now he’s training to be a solicitor, though even if he sticks with it, one can’t help but feel he won’t be much of a success there either; he’ll move to a quiet country town, where he’ll earn next to nothing, neglecting his clients in favour of his boat. It’s a nice bit of observation that when writing he makes spelling mistakes that we’d now recognize as symptomatic of the dyslexic brain: ‘clews’ for ‘clues’, ‘querry’ for ‘query’.

The key to Davies’s character, Carruthers learns, is ‘devotion to the sea, wedded to a fire of pent-up patriotism’. This latter – reflected in Davies’s wish to render service to his country – explains his obsession with uncovering what he believes to be a German military secret.

He’s a tortured, conflicted soul. And his condition is hardly improved by the fact that he’s fallen in love with the daughter of Dolman, the man he’s convinced had tried to kill him. It’s not something he wants to talk about, and nor does Carruthers, who feels they don’t know each other well enough for such confidences: ‘Two men cannot discuss a woman freely without a deep foundation of intimacy.’ But as the weeks wear on, and they’re thrown ever closer together, the anguished lover goes as far as he can:

‘I find it very difficult to tell people things,’ said Davies, ‘things like this.’ I waited. ‘I did like her – very much.’ Our eyes met for a second, in which all was said that need be said, as between two of our phlegmatic race.

So now he’s torn between the two things that mean the most to him in the world – the woman he loves, and the country he also loves – and ‘the pity of it, the cruelty of it, was that his very qualities were his last torture, raising to the acutest pitch the conflict between love and patriotism.’


Although the book got decent reviews and fair sales – and is claimed to have influenced British government policy – it was never followed up. ‘Mr Childers has a very facile pen, and will be heard of again,’ said one reviewer. He was, but it wasn’t through thrillers. His only other works were non-fiction, including an unsuccessful attempt to convince the British army that it needed to change its cavalry tactics: he’d served in the Boer War and identified what he considered to be the key problems.

At the outbreak of the Great War, he was charged by Winston Churchill with devising a plan to invade one of the Frisian Islands, but it wasn’t a successful endeavour. ‘It is quite mad,’ read the report of Childers’s proposal. ‘I have never read such an idiotic, amateur piece of work as this outline in my life.’ He did go on, however, to serve with distinction in the naval air force, winning the DSO. He later became an active Irish Republican, who fought against and negotiated with the British, and was executed by Free State forces in 1922.

But despite his colourful life, this novel remains his great legacy.

Fairly early on, Davies outlines his theory that Dolman has taken him for a British spy, a concept that Carruthers finds laughable: after all, Davies is a thousand miles away from ‘those romantic gentlemen that one reads of in sixpenny magazines, with a Kodak in his tie-pin, a sketch-book in the lining of his coat, and a selection of disguises in his hand luggage.’ As that implies, there were spy stories around already, but The Riddle of the Sands took the genre in a whole new direction; it’s seen by many as being, in Julian Symonds’s words, ‘the first spy story with any literary pretensions’. (Unless you include Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, of course, in which case it isn’t, but I don’t think I do.)riddle-sands-5

I’m not sure, though, that it’s right to call this a spy story at all, even if some of the key ingredients are there. It’s true that our two heroes are amateurs, who find themselves tossed into an international plot that threatens their country, and that they respond with acts of daring heroism and physical endurance, whilst engaging in some odd-couple male bonding. All of that is in good order, but there’s a central, essential element missing.

In a proper thriller of this kind, the enemy should be a human organization of seemingly limitless resources, threatening our heroes at every turn. It’s the battle between the individual and the bureaucracy. Whereas here, the sea and the sands pose the threat. The real conflict is not with Dolman and his associates; it’s humanity’s eternal struggle against a hostile world. ‘What a race it was!’ Carruthers writes of their fog-bound journey. ‘Homeric, in effect; a struggle of men with gods, for what were the gods but forces of nature personified?’

A postscript: The book enjoyed an unexpected revival when two British men, Lieutenant Vivian Brandon of the Royal Navy and Captain Trench of the Royal Marine Light Infantry, were arrested on the island of Borkum in August 1910. The men were found to be in possession of photographs, maps and notebooks filled with information about precisely this bit of the North German coast, behind the East Frisian islands, and were charged with ‘trespassing for the purpose of espionage and attempting to convey military secrets to a foreign power’. Several Germans, said to have been ‘in constant communication with Brandon and Trench’ were also arrested, though none seems to have been charged.

Riddle Sands Illustrated London News 24-05-1913

Brandon & Trench in court (artist’s impression)

Brandon and Trench went on trial in Leipzig in December 1910, and the defence argued that the men had merely made observations that any visitor could have made. Nonetheless, there seemed little doubt that they were collecting information. Indeed, Brandon said as much, adding that he was sending their reports to someone named Reggie, ‘a personal friend of his, [whose] private telegraphic address was “Sunburnt, London”.’ That was as far as he was prepared to go – ‘I decline to give any further information about Reggie’ – but the prosecution suggested that Reggie ‘was clearly a personage of high position and very influential at headquarters’. They were right: according to Leonard Piper’s Dangerous Waters: The Tragedy of Erskine Childers (2003), he was Reginald Hall, a naval captain under whom both men had earlier served on HMS Cornwall when it visited Kiel.

Brandon and Trench were found guilty, and were lucky to get off rather lightly: the maximum sentence was fifteen years’ penal servitude, but they were given just four years in gaol, and served less than fifteen months; they were released in 1913, having been pardoned by the Kaiser. The following year, when Reggie Hall was appointed director of Naval Intelligence, they went to work for him.

And the relevance to Childers? Well, during the trial hearing, it emerged that this odd spying mission was inspired by The Riddle of the Sands, a novel which Trench said he’d read three times. The opportunity to reissue and re-promote the book was not missed by the publishers.

Riddle Sands Daily Telegraph 23-12-1910

see also:

Richard Hannay
Dickson McCunn
The Beetle



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