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The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers
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Jan 06, 2010

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bookshelves: thrillers
Read in January, 2010

Childers, Erskine. THE RIDDLE OF THE SANDS. (1903; this ed. 1992). ***. I remember trying to read this book about thirty years ago. I gave up, then, mostly because of its extensive use of language of the sea and ship – language that I call salinese. This time, I chose to ignore those parts of a ship or sailing operations that I didn’t know about and plow on to see what the story was really about. It quickly becomes apparent that the author sprinkles the text liberally with this naval lexicon in order to provide verisimilitude for his English reader – a class that, at the time, was much more prone to understanding what he was talking about. If, like me, you are interested in the plot being bared, you will likely view this novel much like the early radio broadcast by Orson Welles of “The War of the Worlds.” The atmosphere in Europe at the time was one of anticipation; an anticipation of war. The nations of Europe were building their armies and arsenals, especially Germany. The British public believed that something was happening, and alarmists in the streets were preaching that we (the English) should be preparing for the worst. There was still the strong insular feeling of invulnerability by Britain that governed the leaders of the country. Britain was an island. They were the greatest naval power on the Earth. The sea was their defense. Now here comes Mr. Childers with this story about two yachters, one a devoted seaman and zealot, the other a part-time sailor who worked full-time for the Foreign Office. Together, these two men, Arthur Davis, the owner of the small yacht, Dulcibella, and Mr. Carruthers, take off on an exploration of the island system in the North Sea, off the coasts of Germany and Holland, the West and East Frisian Islands. These seven major islands are typically large humps of sand in the North Sea, surrounded by sand beds through which channels have formed that are suitable for small shipping, but are dangerous in that the channels keep shifting as the sand base below them shifts. Our yachtsman, Davis, believes that something is afoot in these waters, and is determined to find out what it is. He calls on his friend Carruthers to take his holiday with him and help him in his mission to sail and plot the channels in the sands. What they ultimately learn, however, is that Germany has recognized the strategic importance of these islands as a staging post for an invasion of England, and is busily preparing sea routes through the sands for the transport of land troops in barges towed by tugs. If this plan could ever come to fruition, then the East Coast of England would be the obvious target, primarily the coastline between the Humber and Yarmouth – mostly undefended territory in those days. The British navy would be essentially useless in such a plan since there was no North Sea armada component to the Navy, and most of Britain’s ships were out patrolling their various colonies or commonwealths. The book, once published, caused a great stir amongst both the people and administrators in England. This commotion forced the Admiralty to begin the construction of the North Sea fleet. It was instrumental in starting the Home Defense Organization, and was a key driver for the institution of war strategy planning along such lines by the Foreign Office. This was very much a book of its times, and has lost a lot of its impact for today’s reader, but it is none the less important to read to see how books can have lasting effects on government policies – even books of fiction.

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