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Riddle of the Sands


Last week at APSA I chaired a panel on IR Theory and Grand Strategy.  I discuss one of the papers in this week’s WPR column:

In 1903, the novel “Riddle of the Sands” was published to great acclaim in the United Kingdom. Written by Erskine Childers, the novel told the story of a secret German invasion flotilla prepared to overrun Great Britain. The best of a large genre of “invasion literature” warning in dire terms of the threat that Kaiserine Germany posed to the British Empire, “Riddle of the Sands” apparently helped convince First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill to reposition the Royal Navy to northern bases, safe from German attack.

In a paper presented at the 2011 American Political Science Association conference, Dr. Kelly Greenhill invoked the example of “Riddle of the Sands” in support of an argument about the impact of fiction on strategic thought. Greenhill’s paper, part of a larger book project, is one of a growing family of academic literature to study the interaction of popular culture and state policy.

I downloaded Riddle of the Sands to Stanza on my iPad during the presentation, and read most of it on the plane trip home. Recommend. On roughly the same subject, see Erich Simmers’ response to my short article on last semester’s COIN class.

Interestingly enough, Erskine Childers and Hugh Trenchard share a biographer (Andrew Boyle).  I haven’t had the opportunity to read Boyle’s bio of Childers, but the book on Trenchard is quite good, if more than a touch on the side of the airpower evangelists.

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  • charles pierce

    Childers is a fascinating figure. He eventually becomes an important Irish nationalist figure and works as the secretary to the Irish delegation to the Anglo-Irish peace conference. Some of the Irish delegates — especially Michael Collins — don’t trust him and Childers eventually sides with De Valera and the Irregulars in the ensuing idiotic civil war, ending up at the wrong end of a Free State firing squad.

    • rea

      He was shot for possessing a gun Michael Collins had given him.

  • witless chum

    As much as I think great men are overvalued in history, the world would be somewhat different in Wilhelm had been fascinated with gardens or something.

  • ajay

    Did you also mention “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”?

    “So you’re the little lady who started this great war…”

  • Patrick

    It’s a shame no one at the Bush Whitehouse read the Tom Clancy book (predating 9/11) that had a 747 kamikaze-ing the Capitol.

    “I don’t think anybody could have predicted that they would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile” except a bestselling hack author.

    • witless chum

      And that little shithead who shot up Columbine H.S. supposedly fantasized about it.

      In the novel “The Running Man” Stephen King has the hero (spoilers, I guess) fly an airliner into a skyscraper. (The plane is empty except for the hero and the skyscraper is the headquarters of the Network.) It’s slightly different than the movie version, which mostly sucked except for an Oscar-worthy Richard Dawson.

      • Hogan

        Hey, that movie has some of Jesse “The Body” Ventura’s best work.

      • skidmarx

        Neil Stephenson in “Snowcrash” has a character evade airport metal detectors by making his knives out of ice.

        • Malaclypse

          Neil Stephenson in “Snowcrash” has a character evade airport metal detectors by making his knives out of ice.

          The knives in Snowcrash were obsidian. You, sir, are no Hiro Protagonist.

    • Actually, “fly a plane into a building” (or into the WTC) featured in two very nerdy places: the pilot episode of The Lone Gunmen, the X-Files spinoff; and an adventure in the pen-and-paper supernatural RPG Unknown Armies (where a guy wants to hijack a plane and ram it into a building to become the avatar of Terrorism).

      It makes me think that we need even more science fiction and fantasy authors working with the US government, even beyond the Sigma think tank group.

    • “I don’t think anybody could have predicted that they would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile” except a bestselling hack author.

      Or the French military, who foiled an al Qaeda attempt to fly a jetliner into the Eiffel Tower by storming the hijacked plane while it was on the tarmac, after the hijackers demanded a suspiciously large amount of jet fuel. This happened in 1994.

      Or Time Magazine, which ran a cover story about the episode.

  • merl

    I just checked for that book at the library, the publication date is 1998

    • Hogan

      Please, for the love of Nyarlathotep, tell me this is a joke.

      • Walt

        I presume he means the Tom Clancy book.

        • Hogan

          Could be, although Debt of Honor was first published in 1996.

  • I hope Greenhill mentioned the granddaddy of British invasion literature, The Battle of Dorking. (I once taught a class on 19th-century sf and that was everyone’s least favorite book, so don’t take this mention as a recommendation for a fun time.)

    It’s probably also worth investigating the connection between Wells’s short story, “The Land Ironclads” and Churchill’s support for tanks in WWI. Though it’s probably also worth mentioning that Churchill was not a stranger to fiction-writing. (He has at least one short story/essay in the alternative history line, “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg,” which is an essay written by a historian in an alternate timeline.)

    And let’s not even get into the connection between science fiction and the nuclear bomb. OK, let’s get into it briefly: Leo Szilard pointed to Wells’s The World Set Free as one source of inspiration for his work on nuclear chain reactions. (Szilard himself went on to write sf.) And there are lots of other tales of sf inspiring scientists to try new things. But maybe we need to separate out the two cases of fiction/policy interplay:

    1) fiction inspires some particular person with power or skill (Churchill and Childers; Szilard and Wells);
    2) fiction changes the way people in general think about an issue (24 and torture; Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the humanity of slaves).

    • charles pierce

      Heh, heh.
      You said “dorking.”
      Heh, heh.

  • MikeN

    “Riddle of the Sands”is a good read in itself, complete with charts of the shifting sandbanks of the German North Sea Ccoast, though the denouement is botched- run out too hastily.

    And then there’s the German plan, which required an alliance betwen Germany and France in which the French Navy would allow itself to be destroyed by launching an all-out attack on the Royal Navy, damaging the RN enough to allow the invasion to go through.

    The actual invasion itself called for transporting thousands of horses in barges pulled by tugs across the North Sea in order to unleash a cavalry attack on East Anglia.

    This makes the planning for Operation Sea-Lion look like D-Day.

    • Snarki, child of Loki

      It is a good read, particularly resonant if you have a bit of experience with small-boat sailing in Britain. The ‘thriller’ elements aren’t as well done.

      • Scott P.

        Childers was an expert yachtsman and made use of his personal experience in setting the scene for the novel.

  • Jon H

    Radio 4’s In Our Time did a show on Riddle Of The Sands:


    Melvyn Bragg and guests discusses the prescient thriller ‘The Riddle of the Sands’ about the decline Anglo-German relations before the First World War.

    In 1903 an Englishman called Charles Caruthers went sailing in the North Sea and stumbled upon a German military plot. The cunning plan was to invade the British Isles from the Frisian Islands using special barges. The plucky Caruthers foiled the plot and returned to his sailing holiday.

    This is not history but fiction, an immensely popular book called ‘The Riddle of the Sands’ by Erskine Childers. It was a prescient vision of two nations soon to fight the First World War but it went against the spirit of the previous century. Brits and Germans had fought together at Waterloo and had influenced profoundly each other’s thought and art. They even shared a royal family. Yet somehow victory at Waterloo and the shared glories of Romanticism became the mutual tragedy of the Somme.

    With Richard Evans, Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge; Rosemary Ashton, Quain Professor of English Language and Literature at University College London and Tim Blanning, Professor of Modern European history at The University of Cambridge

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