With the latest James Bond to hit our screens this month, I delved back to what is known as the first English spy novel, to see where it all began. Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands was published in 1903 and written by Childers, (33 years old at the time) as a wake-up call for Britain about German Imperialism. It established a formula that included a mass of verifiable detail, which gave authenticity to the story – the same ploy that would be used so well by John Buchan, Ian Fleming, John le Carré and many others*.
It is a boys-own adventure featuring self-appointed amateur spies, Curruthers, a minor official in the British Foreign Office and Davies, a yachting enthusiast and old university acquaintance of Curruthers. Davies asks Curruthers to join him on a yachting holiday in the Baltic Sea on a small sailing boat where Davies reveals to Curruthers his suspicions of something sinister going on in the German Frisian islands. The story kicks off from there and slowly reveals a German plot to invade Britain.
According to the book’s Wikipedia entry, the whole genre of "invasion novels" raised the public's awareness of the potential threat of Imperial Germany and as a result the Royal Navy developed several bases (Scapa Flow, Invergordon and Rosyth) on the North Sea coast of the British Isles to prepare for the possibility of war with Germany. Winston Churchill later credited the book as a major reason why the Admirality had decided to establish the new naval bases. When war was declared he ordered the Director of Naval Intelligence to find Childers, whom he had met when the author was campaigning to represent a naval seat in Parliament, and employ him**. Well that is a bit of a legacy for one book.
Childers lived an interesting life. He fought in the Boer War (1900 – 1902), and then worked as a clerk for the English House of Commons. At this time he became a keen yachtsman. After he wrote The Riddle of the Sands (his only novel), he became more and more political and became an advocate for Irish Home Rule. He even used his own boat to smuggled guns to them in 1914. Childers fought in World War I, after which, he volunteered in the Royal Navy and served in Naval Intelligence, raiding Cuxhaven and flying in a seaplane to the North Sea coast of Germany. He received a Distinguished Service Cross. After the Irish Partition in 1920, Childers served the cause of Irish Independence until he was shot by an Irish Free State firing squad Nov. 24, 1922, after being convicted of having a small pistol. He had been one of the leaders, with Eamon de Valera, of the Irish Republican Army rebellion against the Free State leadership of Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith. His son, Erskine Hamilton Childers, was president of Ireland in 1973-4***.
The fact of the author’s life was certainly stranger than the fiction he wrote. The Riddle of the Sands is a great read, and I understand that it has been made into a film twice. A British film in 1979, starring Michael York, Simon MacCorkindale and Jenny Agutter and a German TV movie, Das Rätsel der Sandbank, in 1984 with Burghart Klaußner and Peter Sattmann. So if you do not want to sit down and read it, try and see one of the movies. It is a cracking yarn.
*Erskine Childers's log books from the UK National Maritime Museum.
**Knightley, Phillip. The Second Oldest Profession: Spies and Spying in the Twentieth Century. London: Pimlico. p. 17.