Home / Robert Farley / Seapower in Culture: The Riddle of the Sands

Seapower in Culture: The Riddle of the Sands


A British civil servant receives a cryptic request from an old friend, and immediately heads to Germany. The two embark on the tiny yacht Dulcibella to explore the north German coast. The stakes are uncertain; both suspect that there may be military and political happenings afoot, but neither has a solid notion of what precisely they’re looking for. Eventually, they discover the seeds of a German plan to mount a quick invasion of England, thus destroying British seapower and rebalancing global power. Fortunately, they escape in sufficient time to bring word of this plot to the British government, facilitating proper precautions.

So goes The Riddle of the Sands. This is very much a didactic novel of seapower, intended to put the lessons of Mahan into digestible form for the British public, and thence to have an effect on British policy. Riddle of the Sands was written by Erskine Childers, initially a firm believer in the British Empire who later became an enthusiastic Irish nationalist.  Childers served in the Boer War and in World War I, and died in front of an Irish Free State firing squad in 1922.  His son would later become President of Ireland.  When Riddle of the Sands was published in 1903, he remained a loyal subject of the Empire. The book was popular and influential; although the Royal Navy didn’t exactly pursue the small boat strategy Childers proposed, the novel helped elevate concern about Germany and public attention to naval affairs.

Mahan appears repeatedly in Riddle of the Sands, translated primarily through the figure of the mariner Davies.  Here’s Davies on the British government:

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. And yet, read Brassey, Dilke, and those “Naval Annuals”, and see what mountains of apathy and conceit have had to be tackled. 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. They have to go to an American to learn their A B C, and it’s only when kicked and punched by civilian agitators, a mere handful of men who get sneered at for their pains, that they wake up, do some work, point proudly to it, and go to sleep again, till they get another kick. By Jove! we want a man like this Kaiser, who doesn’t wait to be kicked, but works like a n—– for his country, and sees ahead.

This is a great sailing novel; I haven’t done much sailing myself, but the level of detail (supported by Childers’ own experience yachting in the North Sea and the Baltic) feels deeply authentic. Childers uses this experience to suggest an alternative vision of maritime warfare, although he doesn’t pursue this suggestion very far. Davies, our mariner, does not expect ever to serve in the Royal Navy, but hopes to contribute by carrying out a guerrilla small boat offensive in Germany’s North Sea littoral. In the novel this suggestion plays out as a red herring, with the threat of invasion emerging as the central plot difficulty. Carruthers on Davies:

It was Davies’s conviction, as I have said, that the whole region would in war be an ideal hunting-ground for small free-lance marauders, and I began to know he was right; for look at the three sea-roads through the sands to Hamburg, Bremen, Wilhelmshaven, and the heart of commercial Germany. They are like highways piercing a mountainous district by defiles, where a handful of desperate men can arrest an army.

Follow the parallel of a war on land. People your mountains with a daring and resourceful race, who possess an intimate knowledge of every track and bridle-path, who operate in small bands, travel light, and move rapidly. See what an immense advantage such guerillas possess over an enemy which clings to beaten tracks, moves in large bodies, slowly, and does not ‘know the country’. See how they can not only inflict disasters on a foe who vastly overmatches them in strength, but can prolong semi-passive resistance long after all decisive battles have been fought. See, too, how the strong invader can only conquer his elusive antagonists by learning their methods, studying the country, and matching them in mobility and cunning. The parallel must not be pressed too far; but that this sort of warfare will have its counterpart on the sea is a truth which cannot be questioned.

Davies in his enthusiasm set no limits to its importance. The small boat in shallow waters played a mighty rôle in his vision of a naval war, a part that would grow in importance as the war developed and reach its height in the final stages.

‘The heavy battle fleets are all very well,’ he used to say, ‘but if the sides are well matched there might be nothing left of them after a few months of war. They might destroy one another mutually, leaving as nominal conqueror an admiral with scarcely a battleship to bless himself with. It’s then that the true struggle will set in; and it’s then that anything that will float will be pressed into the service, and anybody who can steer a boat, knows his waters, and doesn’t care the toss of a coin for his life, will have magnificent opportunities. It cuts both ways. What small boats can do in these waters is plain enough; but take our own case. Say we’re beaten on the high seas by a coalition. There’s then a risk of starvation or invasion. It’s all rot what they talk about instant surrender. We can live on half rations, recuperate, and build; but we must have time. Meanwhile our coast and ports are in danger, for the millions we sink in forts and mines won’t carry us far. They’re fixed—pure passive defence What you want is boats—mosquitoes with stings—swarms of them—patrol-boats, scout-boats, torpedo-boats; intelligent irregulars manned by local men, with a pretty free hand to play their own game. And what a splendid game to play! There are places very like this over there—nothing half so good, but similar—the Mersey estuary, the Dee, the Severn, the Wash, and, best of all, the Thames, with all the Kent, Essex, and Suffolk banks round it. But as for defending our coasts in the way I mean—we’ve nothing ready—nothing whatsoever! We don’t even build or use small torpedo-boats. These fast “destroyers” are no good for this work—too long and unmanageable, and most of them too deep. What you want is something strong and simple, of light draught, and with only a spar-torpedo, if it came to that. Tugs, launches, small yachts—anything would do at a pinch, for success would depend on intelligence, not on brute force or complicated mechanism. They’d get wiped out often, but what matter?

But of course there are problems. First, the novel as novel isn’t that impressive; think a David Foster Wallace level of detail without any of the humanizing characteristics found in Wallace’s work. The narrator (Carruthers) is reasonable well drawn, but the rest of the characters (even Davies, Carruthers’ host) are somewhere between one and two dimensional. A romantic subplot helps drive part of the main plot, but is otherwise awkward and unnecessary. While the sailing account provides some dramatic moments, there’s never really any sense that our heroes are in physical danger; Davies is too good a seamen to have any serious trouble with the waves, wind, and sand. Plotting is poorly paced, with the central stakes revealed, then resolved, only a few pages from the end. Finally, a major hole stands athwart the plot; we are asked to believe that Germany would prepare, in secret, a major invasion of England, but would bother so little with operational security to allow a pair of Englishmen to wander about the staging grounds. I appreciate that the national security state of the early twentieth century wasn’t what it would eventually become, but I suspect that anyone acting as suspicious as Carruthers and Davies would simply be shot, with the Dulcibella suffering an unfortunate “accident.”

For all its attention to strategic issues, the operational and strategic assumptions made in The Riddle of the Sands don’t hold water. First, while it might well be possible to use small boats to land an infantry force by surprise on the English coast, it would be virtually impossible to keep that force supplied for any extent of time. Landings would of necessity be poorly coordinated, with nothing in the way of modern communications technology to link disparate positions together. The British Army wouldn’t have to be large in order to fix such positions, and indeed the Germans would be largely immobile in the face of even minimal British defenses. The British Army, relying on railroads for transport and supply, would destroy the Germans in detail. Childers gets around this problem a bit by suggesting that Germany would only attack as part of a three power coalition, the others parts of which would attack and sufficiently exhaust the Royal Navy to give the Kaiserliche Marine the ability to achieve local dominance. Childers doesn’t tell us who these coalition partners might be; perhaps Italy and Austria-Hungary, but neither could challenge the supremacy of the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean, much less the North Sea. Slightly more plausible (from an operational point of view) possibilities include France and the United States, but it’s difficult to envision why either might have an interest in sacrificing its fleet for German imperial aims. If we think of Riddle of the Sands as a fantasy of unpreparedness, then we can make some productive parallels with modern fearmongering. Indeed, an alliance between France, the United States, and Imperial Germany is altogether more plausible than the Sino-Russo-Indo-Persian coalition proposed by the Heritage Foundation.

Childers’ disinterest in the mine and the submarine, not to mention his ignorance of the aircraft, are forgiveable.  These developments, especially the latter, would help make operations of the sort envisioned in the novel impossible.  They would also tend to render coastlines considerably more defensible.  Nevertheless, the vision of the strategic effectiveness of small boats operating in the littoral still carries some weight.  The appeal to maritime capability as the center of national power, and to the seafaring spirit of a people (personified in Davies) also remains a key subject of discussion.  It’s hard to say exactly what kind of modern work would awaken the same public interest in maritime affairs that Riddle of the Sands apparently evoked, but I’m pretty sure the answer isn’t Battleship.  Riddle succeeds, to the extent that it succeeds, by combining an appreciation of the strategic logic of seapower with a concrete tactical reality.  This is a difficult task; it’s difficult to imagine a Hollywood film selling the importance of the Littoral Combat Ship.  Then again, the early novels of Tom Clancy were remarkably detailed and popular, indicating that inquiry along these lines might be profitable.

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  • My great-grandfather, Eoin MacNeill, was a member of the Free State government at the time of Childer’s execution – argued fervently for his release.

    • Ed

      Childers was tried on an absurdly trumped up charge and the execution was purely vindictive. As a nice irony, the pistol found in Childers’ possession was a gift from none other than Michael Collins.

  • I read Riddle years ago. It’s kind of a required footnote to Irish history. I always thought it was a bit of a pity for Childers that as extraordinary a character as he was, Casement was even more colorful. And even though Frank O’Connor doesn’t quite say so in his memoirs, the Childers execution was surely one of the inspirations for “Guests of the Nation.”

    As for the book itself, a while ago in regards to something else I wondered if part of its impact at the time had something to do with the cultural insecurity of the British alliance with the French. But then I couldn’t remember anything about how the French come off in the novel.

    • And yes I know the Entante was the next year. That is central to my point.

  • Snarki, child of Loki

    I agree completely with your assessment with the novel, as a novel. A modern bestseller, it isn’t.

    And from my own experience sailing, Childers really did a very accurate job.

    BTW, the boats weren’t “yachts”, they’re “sailing dinghys”, common in the British Isles.

    • ajay

      BTW, the boats weren’t “yachts”, they’re “sailing dinghys”, common in the British Isles.

      I don’t think Dulcibella is a dinghy: we normally use the word to mean an open rowing boat or small single-masted sailing boat. Swallows and Amazons. Anything that’s big enough to have beds on board is too big to be a dinghy. Dulcibella is a yacht and is described as such in the book. She has her own dinghy.

      • Pseudonym

        She has her own dinghy.

        Get your freak on, girl!

  • JoyfulA

    The plot puts me in mind of the Iranian speedboats of a few years back.

    And speaking of one-dimensional characters and gigantic plot holes, Tom Clancy?

    • witless chum

      Speak no ill of my favorite author as a preteen, at least before I discovered Stephen King.

  • Mark Centz

    It’s available at Project Gutenberg. One of several unread books on my iPhone.

  • BonnyAnne

    One of my all-time favorite sailing novels! Granted, the spy work is pretty bad, the politics are arcane and the romance is completely uninteresting, but the sailing is remarkably well written. The intricacies of working a small boat in and out of shallow tidal waters, shoals, sand bars and managing it all with bad charts and a lead line is a very impressive feat, and Childers manages to capture it nicely. But then, I’m an enormous sailing geek. YMMV.

    • grouchomarxist

      But then, I’m an enormous sailing geek.

      I think your web handle already clued some of us in on that. ;-)

      And yes, I agree: It’s the details of sailing in those waters that make the novel readable. Except for that, I seem to remember the rest of it was a bit of a slog.

  • Lurker

    You know, the “operational security” was a very vague concept before the first world war. Basically, if there were fences around garrisons, they were to keep the soldiers in, not to keep outsiders out. Anyone who looked respectable and had a good explanation could walk past the guards to a fort or a military port.

    First, it must be remembered that the speed of communications had been very slow. Even if an unauthorised person would see something of military importance, that would not be conveyed out of the country before several weeks had passed. Even though the telegram and the phone had changed this at some extent, the thinking had not adjusted.

    Second, the general staffs of different countries would have been quite unable to handle such information even if they had received it. It is well known, how primitive the British military intelligence was at the time. The same applied also to Germans and the French.

    • ajay

      You know, the “operational security” was a very vague concept before the first world war. Basically, if there were fences around garrisons, they were to keep the soldiers in, not to keep outsiders out. Anyone who looked respectable and had a good explanation could walk past the guards to a fort or a military port.

      This changed radically, of course, after the start of the war. By 1915 the entire north half of Scotland was out of bounds to anyone who didn’t have a pass. This is a major plot point in one of John Buchan’s books, I think Mr Standfast.

  • Lurker

    The “Riddle of the Sands” presents a bolt-out-of-blue-attack scenario. I believe that the author was realistic in his assumption that once landed, the German army would have been able to take London before British counteraction.

    The militaries of the belle epoque were not “rapid reaction forces”. They had, in many cases, very impressive mobilization speeds, but they did not have training and doctrine to respond to such an attack in the 48 hours that Germans would have needed to enter London. And once in London, the Germans would have
    1) been able to live off the land
    2) won the war, according to the 19th century military-political thinking

    • ajay

      48 hours from landing to entering London is very optimistic indeed. Have a look at the map and measure the distance from the Kent and Essex coasts. Then think about how far you can march formed troops in a day.

      • John

        How far can you march formed troops in a day?

        • stickler

          The Schlieffen Plan mandated about 15 miles a day for the right flank armies in 1914, I think, and for the most part the Germans did it (with, of course, the support of land-based infrastructure which the Channel sort of precludes).

          In 1880, General Roberts got 10,000 men from Kabul to Kandahar (320 miles) in 20 days, just living off the land. But when he got to Kandahar he had to fight Afghan tribesmen — he didn’t have to subdue and patrol a metropolis of millions, as the fictional German strike force in _ROTS_ would have.

          • Lurker

            Again, I’d like to note the difference in mentality. For us, the idea of starting spontaneous resistance against an invader seems natural. It has been done over and over, for us and against us: the Boers, the resistance movements of WWII, the Vietnamese, the Afghans, the Iraqi etc. Some of these we regard as heroes, some as bad guys.

            In the mental world of ROTS, none of these existed. The war was strictly a state business, and a respectable Englishman would not start a guerilla movement, at least not without King’s commission to do so. The idea was that when there would be a German guard standing on the door of Buckingham palace, it would be a time to sue for peace. The civilian citizen would need but to read the newspaper. The mentality of “We will fight on the beaches” came only a generation later.

            • rea

              In the mental world of ROTS, none of these existed.

              There were plenty of examples of guerrilla resistance at the time. The Boer War was just finished. Think also Spain vs Napoleon, or the American Revolution. Heck, even Childers’ character Davies is taking about a naval form of such resistance by “free-lance marauders.”

              • Also, the German OPLAN in the book has them landing at the Wash, 70-80 miles from London (incidentally in country you could defend by just opening the sluice gates and turning off the drainage pumps).

                However, their objective is also given as being the Midlands and Northern industrial cities.

    • Hektor

      The biggest problem with living off the land is that the Germans couldn’t grow cartridges (let alone shells for their artillery). Sure they can capture British ones, but then they’d be forced to use captured Lee-Enfields as the Mauser used a different standard cartridge (and that has problems of its own). There are only so many cartridges a soldier can carry, and only so many a rapid strike invasion force could bring. Reinforcement and Resupply would be seriously hampered by the Royal Navy. It’s very hard to march rapidly on an enemy capital if you have ammunition constraints and the enemy does not (at least in a relative sense).

  • chris y

    How far can you march formed troops in a day?

    According to Barbara Tuchmann, the Germans marched 40 km in a day on their initial push into France in 1914, and it was regarded as extraordinary. Somewhere like Canvey Island, which is probably the closest realistic landing point (but very risky) to London on the Essex coast – you don’t want to have to cross the lower Thames – is just under 50 km from the centre of London. I wouldn’t want to have to fight for my position with troops who had just done that, but it might be possible…

    • The proposed southern landing area in the book is further away, in the area of the Crouch river estuary. Quite a bit further, and not at all far from the major army garrison at Colchester.

  • At one point Davies argues that the two battle fleets might wear each other down by attrition until both parties are roughly equal and also much weaker in absolute terms, and that’s Germany’s opportunity.

    This is an accurate statement of Wilhelmine naval doctrine, which was meant to gradually reduce the British advantage via mines, submarines, and gun-line action when an opportunity to attack part of the British fleet presented itself, and eventually get to a position where they would either have a chance of winning the last big fight, or where the two fleets would be mutually deterred and therefore the Brits would be out of the game.

    Interesting stuff about ROTS beyond that: weird lapses into sinister scientific racist stuff. That whole “is civilisation really bad for us” trope., and its flip, “wouldn’t a war be kinda fun?” (Childers was a volunteer cavalryman in the Boer War and volunteered again for WW1, during which he volunteered for quite a lot of stuff, having volunteered to smuggle guns to what he didn’t believe was the IRA before that, and then volunteered again to take part in the Irish civil war.) The Kiel Canal – reshaping the landscape with electric! power! (A question – is this sci-fi?) A huge obsession with the Spoiled Biography (see both Dollmann and Davies – Childers at least once tips the hat to the idea that they are two sides of the same character). You can make a case that expert dinghy sailor Clara is a New Woman.

    Oh, and no small amount of homo-erotics, as well as the Anglo-German love/hate relationship, Carruthers’ fight to overcome his own snobbery. It’s a handbook of Edwardian tropes.

    • what he didn’t believe was the IRA before that

      Uh, it wasn’t. Perhaps (he says politely) you meant the IRB.

      • To be precise, it was the Irish Volunteers…

  • Halloween Jack

    By Jove! we want a man like this Kaiser, who doesn’t wait to be kicked, but works like a n—– for his country, and sees ahead.

    Oh, my.

  • Hmm, I didn’t know Childers took part in the RNAS raid on Cuxhaven!

  • Hogan

    a fantasy of unpreparedness

    Also comes in the Wodehouse version:

    As Clarence walked down the road, the excited voice of a newspaper-boy came to him. Presently the boy turned the corner, shouting, “Ker-lapse of Surrey! Sensational bowling at the Oval!”

    He stopped on seeing Clarence.

    “Paper, General?”

    Clarence shook his head. Then he uttered a startled exclamation, for his eye had fallen on the poster.

    It ran as follows:—

    Clarence flung the boy a halfpenny, tore a paper from his grasp, and scanned it eagerly. There was nothing to interest him in the body of the journal, but he found what he was looking for in the stop-press space. “Stop press news,” said the paper. “Fry not out, 104. Surrey 147 for 8. A German army landed in Essex this afternoon. Loamshire Handicap: Spring Chicken, 1; Salome, 2; Yip-i-addy, 3. Seven ran.”

    • Dave

      They’d had 30 years of this before ROTS, the Battle of Dorking was published in 1871; this isn’t just “a handbook of Edwardian tropes” as above, it’s a veritable trope in itself by this time. Given the 1900 ‘Khaki election’, German pro-Boer sentiment, and raving jingoism in the popular press, it must all have gelled in a very funny way with a Europe in which one needed no passport… but then of course the Aliens Act came along in ’05…

    • Dave


      “I say I am England. I am the Chief Scout, and the Scouts are England. Prince Otto, you thought this England of ours lay prone and helpless. You were wrong. The Boy Scouts were watching and waiting. And now their time has come. Scout-Master Wagstaff, do your duty.”

      Excuse me, I seem to have something in my eye…

  • rdale

    I just read The English Channel by Nigel Calder (New York, NY: Viking, 1986), which is a travelouge/history of the Channel; he refers quite frequently to Childers from the sailing point of view.

  • MikeN

    Been quite a while since I read it, but doesn’t he specifically refer to the second-largest naval power indulging in a death-match with the RN, thus opening the way for Germany?

    Though why exactly the French would want to do that is another question.

    Again, IIRC he also refers to German cavalry sweeping across England; transporting horses on barges across the North Sea would have been…interesting; would make a Certain Marine Mammal seem almost plausible in comparison.

    But yea, the nautical parts are great, especially the description of their rowing their way through the fog.

    As well, give him credit for mocking at least some parts of the standard spy novel- the scene of Carruthers’s frustration on eaves-dropping on the plotters but them failing to expound the entire plan in one conveniently-timed Dr. Evil exposition is pretty good.

  • I read the book maybe 35 years ago and my most vivid memory was (and is) the author’s viscous anti-Jewish rants.

    Then again, the Irish were neutral in WW2.

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