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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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