'The Riddle of the Sands' by Robert Erskine Childers Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

'The Riddle of the Sands' by Robert Erskine Childers

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'The Riddle of the Sands' is a novel set on the North Sea coast of Germany prior to the outbreak of the First World War. The preface clearly tells us it was written in March 1903. The author, (Robert) Erskine Childers, also tells us that the names of all the principal characters have been changed to avoid embarrassment to some prominent families.

This story has often been cited as the first 'spy novel'. It evolves from a simple private holiday adventure to uncovering a plot that might topple the British Empire. While much of the adventure involves the technical navigation of a small sailboat in dangerous waters, our narrator is a simple passenger who has to explain what is happening in simple terms that can be understood by the average reader.

What makes this work particularly interesting is the biography of the author himself, who was executed for insurrection in 1922.

The Cast of Characters

Carruthers: A low level employee of the Foreign Office from a high class family.

Davies: An old school mate of Carruthers, although one of a lower social status. They knew each other, but were not intimate friends.

Bartels: The captain of a small trading vessel, a friend of Davies, whom he had met on the Frisian coast.

Herr Dollmann: A German businessman who has a home on Norderney Island, which he visits on his personal yacht, converted from a galliot.

Commander Von Brüling: A German naval captain commanding a local gunboat.

Clara Dollmann: Herr Dollmann's daughter, with whom Davies is secretly in love.

The Beginning

With little seniority at his office, Carruthers is forced to remain at his desk in London during the autumn holiday season. He receives several invitations from his friends to attend parties at their country estates. He has to decline each one, as he must remain at his desk until the others return to their duties. He receives a letter from his old acquaintance, Davies, inviting him to join him on his yacht that is undergoing repairs in a German port. The letter also includes a list of strange nautical items that he should bring if he decides to accept the invitation. He also mentions that as they might have some sport in hunting ducks, he is encouraged to bring his shotgun. As an afterthought he is asked to include a large iron paraffin stove.

As the holiday season comes to an end and the senior staff return, Carruthers is allowed to take his own leave. With the party season over, Carruthers decides to accept his friend's offer and travel to the bleak Baltic coast. He hopes that a few of his acquaintances will at least feel a little sorry for his forlorn situation.

Remembering the large yachts he had visited at Cowes, he packs his large portmanteau with several sets of white flannel outfits and a few yachting caps. With several parcels of the requested items he departed for Flensburg, a port near the Baltic Sea.

The Dulcibella

After a voyage across the North Sea on a packet steamer, then taking the train to the east coast of the peninsula, our narrator meets Davis at the railway station. His worst apprehensions are realized when Davies greets him in shabby, paint-spattered clothes, he muses that the grey flannel trousers might once have been white a long time ago. The two men greet each other uneasily. Davies is taken aback by the large pile of supplies that are unloaded from the baggage wagon. When he complains, Carruthers is quick to mention the large number of supplies Davies himself had requested. Davies thanks him for bringing the supplies, but is concerned that the large portmanteau might not fit into his small yacht. When Davies hires the train porter to help them carry the pile to the dinghy landing, Carruthers asks him why he did not bring along a few of his paid crew. 'Oh I never have any paid hands', he replied, 'it is quite a small boat...'

Later Davies rows them down the length of the fjord with each man crammed into opposite ends of the small boat, separated by a ponderous pyramid of supplies and luggage. At last they reach the yacht. After transferring the stores to the open cockpit, Davies decides to show his companion his new home before they stow the cargo into the cabin.

They enter the main cabin, or saloon, through a small 'companionway' hatch. There are two settees, one along each side of the cabin. A narrow, triangular box divides the space along its centreline. Davies encourages Carruthers to sit down, as the roof is too low to stand under. In one corner there is a niche that contains an older, battered model of the very stove he has carried all the way from London. There are drawers and cupboards - across one side of the forward bulkhead is a shelf holding a dishevelled array of books. Next to this is a small scuttle leading into the forward sleeping cabin, or fo'c'sle. A pair of bunks ran along each side with a thin mattress and blankets, Carruthers noticed there was no sign of bed sheets. Each bunk is above several drawers. Davies allows him to use all of the drawers on his side for his clothing, but tells him he must unpack the portmanteau on deck and pass his items below. It may be possible to force the empty suitcase below.

The new day dawned and it was time to set sail. In the morning light the Dulcibella revealed herself to be a small yacht of about eight tons1, she was a bit over 30 feet in length, and about nine feet across. She showed none of the pride of maintenance that was expected in Cowes, but here and there were signs of recent replacements, especially around the small mast near the rear of the boat, which looked to be completely new. They set sail and proceed up the Baltic coast. Davies sails the boat by jumping from place to place, ignoring Carruthers. When his guest complains about being ignored he is asked to perform simple tasks such as checking the chart and starting lunch - all of which end in minor disaster.

As they anchor each night our narrator begins to ask his host about his adventures on the earlier parts of the voyage. Davies only briefly mentions the crossing of the English Channel, and a brief passage through the inland canals of the Netherlands. When he once more emerges into the North Sea he tells him about his adventures on the Frisian coast, a series of barrier islands separated from the main-land by a shallow area of the sea that was often reduced to vast tracts of dry sand when the tide went out. This part of the coast extends from the northern border of Belgium to Denmark. He had spent weeks exploring the area and mapping the various channels along the coast of the Netherlands. Almost as soon as he had gotten to the part of the story where he had crossed the German border he grew quiet and found excuses to drop the subject. Carruthers is thankful that he has missed this part of the cruise, a fact that he shares with Davies. The captain seems a little troubled by this announcement.

As they continue to sail along the Danish coast Davies begins to instruct Carruthers about sailing the boat, and he learns to become a useful assistant. They decide to head south towards the German border, in hope of finding a suitable place for hunting ducks. They stop at a harbour which contains several sailing barges called 'Galliots' that trade cargoes along the coast.

A thick fog has rolled in by morning. As they are finishing their breakfast, steps are heard on the deck. A pair of boots on the ladder announces the arrival of Bartels. He is the captain of one of the galliots and is fond of Davies. As he speaks it becomes clear that he had rescued Davies and the Dulcibella from a very dangerous area on the sands. After Bartels returns to his own boat, Davies decides to tell Carruthers the full tale about his voyage - and why he decided to ask him to join him on the yacht.

The Threat

After arriving at Norderney, the third of the German Islands, Davies found Dollmann's yacht at anchor. He put on his best clothes and rowed his dinghy over to make a social call on a fellow yachtsman. He said he was received rather coolly, but the next morning Dollmann himself rowed over to the Ducibella, requesting to share breakfast. They spent the next three days together.

Dollmann explained that he was getting ready to sail to his home in Hamburg. He suggested they sail together until their courses diverged near the entrance of the Keil ship canal. A gale was blowing across the North Sea, but Davies was anxious to prove that he, and his boat, could handle the weather. When they passed the shelter of the last island, the wind and waves became quite strong. Dollmann brought his yacht back to the Ducibella and offered to guide him on a short-cut through the sands. As they reached the critical turn Dollmann's yacht surged ahead, leaving Davies to find his way as best he could. After touching the bottom once, damaging her rudder and smashing his dinghy, the Ducibella carried over into deep water. It was there that Bartels found him. Bartles helped Davies make the necessary temporary repairs and accompanied him into the Baltic.

Davies concludes that he is convinced that Dollmann intended to kill him, and there is an important secret that the Germans are trying to hide along the Frisian coast. He also tells Carruthers that he is convinced Dollmann is actually an Englishman in disguise.

Intrigued by the possibility of an international secret, and determined to prevent Davies from acting too rashly, Carruthers agrees to join Davies on his return to the Frisian coast.

The Sands

Once they enter the sands there are several possible mysteries to be solved. Is it only an effort to conceal the salvage attempt of an old shipwreck, just a suspicion of meddling foreigners, or could it be a threat to both King and Empire?

The investigation will involve long walks across the dry sands, an almost impossible voyage in the dinghy and listening to private meetings through an open window. When Carruthers disguises himself for a long trek along the coast we get a few more clues.


The information here is actually taken from the preface of the novel.

Erskine Childers tells us that 'Carruthers' himself had arrived at his chambers to relate the story told above. He said that all their observations had been reported to the proper government authorities, and proper steps had been taken. Childers agreed to publish the story, with consultation from both men. 'Davies' supplied his charts.

After reading the author's biography, it is almost certain that he, himself, was the character known as 'Davies'.

The publication of the novel showed the British public how important it was to have information about the situation in Germany. Funds were made available for espionage in the area. We will never know how much influence this had on the actual conduct of the First World War.

The Author

Perhaps the most interesting aspect story is the author's own biography:

(Robert) Erskine Childers - Born 25 June, 1870, - Executed 24 November, 1922, by the Irish Free State for insurrection.

He was born in Mayfair, London, where his father was a translator. His mother came from a family which owned land in Ireland. His father died when Erskine was only six years old, and his mother was confined to hospital soon afterwards. The children, five in all, were taken in by his mother's family at Annamoe, Ireland. After becoming interested in Irish politics he obtained a law degree at Trinity College, with the intention of eventually standing for Parliament.

Erskine became interested in sailing, and purchased a number of small boats, each increasing in size. He and his brother Harry sailed the cutter Vixen (a yacht very similar to the Dulcibella in size and comfort), to the Frisian coast in 1897.

He spent most the year of 1900 in South Africa, serving as an artillery soldier in the Boer War.

In 1903 he married Molly Osgood, an American. His new father-in-law commissioned a 28-ton yacht to be built as their wedding present. The Asgard was a fine yacht that Erskine and his wife would sail for many years.

In June 1914 he used the Asgard to carry 1,500 rifles from Germany to the Irish rebels at Howth. Such a large shipment could not be concealed, and became widely known, though not officially recognized.

It is no surprise that Erskine found himself working for Naval Intelligence during the First World War. He even proposed a plan to invade Germany through the Frisian Channels. He served in the Gallipoli Campaign and was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for his actions there.

The Easter Rebellion of 1916 put the Howth rifles to use. In 1918 he gave up his London home and moved with his wife to Dublin. He became involved with the Sinn Fein movement and served as their MP in the 2nd Dáil, but lost his seat in 1922.

The Army Emergency Powers Act was passed by the Irish Dáil in 1922, providing the death penalty for anyone caught carrying an unauthorised firearm. Childers was found carrying a .32 calibre pistol, which had been gift from Michael Collins in the days before their friendship was split by disagreement over the Irish treaty movement. The rift of Sinn Fein was not over the partition of Northern Ireland (although that resulted in many decades of unrest), but the requirement that all Irish MPs sign a 'loyalty oath' to the British government.

He was convicted by a military court and sentenced to death by firing squad.

The author's son, Erskine Hamilton Childers, went on to serve as the fourth President of Ireland. Elected in 1973 at the age of 67, he passed away the following year. His death was almost certainly caused by the strain of his office.

Excerpt from the book
1A boat's tonnage is based on a formula of how many square feet are available for cargo, not the actual weight of the boat.

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