Childers, E. (1903) The Riddle of the Sands

trots_coverThe Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers

This is the book that has probably introduced more current readers to Invasion Literature than any other. It has appeared in countless editions since its publication and remains popular today. It is, at one and the same time, a spy novel, a sailing adventure and a warning of the dangers Britain faced from Germany.

There are many online resources about this book including:

A BBC In Our time discussion of the book and its historical context:

A detailed description of the background to the book can be found in David Seed’s paper: ‘Erskine Childers and the German Peril’ (German Life & Letters 45:1 Jan 1992)

The definitive account of the background to the writing of the book is Maldwin Drummond’s The Riddle.

Further information about Childers and the book can be found in Leonard Piper’s The Tragedy of Erskine Childers.

Some background relating to Childer’s own sailing adventures is contained in his sailing log-books at the National Maritime Museum – some narrative is at:

Hynes comments that Riddle of the Sands ‘obviously belongs to an early stage in the German Invasion scare. The Germans are treated with respect and even affection: they represent a competitor rather than an enemy’. [Hynes, S. (1969) Edwardian Turn of Mind: First World War and English Culture, p.37]

A .pdf copy of the text (illustrated) can be downloaded here: The Riddle of The Sands

The text is also available online at: Project Gutenberg at

A free audiobook can be downloaded at: LibriVox –


A WORD about the origin and authorship of this book.

In October last (1902), my friend ‘Carruthers’ visited me in my chambers, and, under a provisional pledge of secrecy, told me frankly the whole of the adventure described in these pages. Till then I had only known as much as the rest of his friends, namely, that he had recently undergone experiences during a yachting cruise with a certain Mr ‘Davies’ which had left a deep mark on his character and habits.

At the end of his narrative–which, from its bearing on studies and speculations of my own, as well as from its intrinsic interest and racy delivery, made a very deep impression on me–he added that the important facts discovered in the course of the cruise had, without a moment’s delay, been communicated to the proper authorities, who, after some dignified incredulity, due in part, perhaps, to the pitiful inadequacy of their own secret service, had, he believed, made use of them, to avert a great national danger. I say ‘he believed’, for though it was beyond question that the danger was averted for the time, it was doubtful whether they had stirred a foot to combat it, the secret discovered being of such a nature that mere suspicion of it on this side was likely to destroy its efficacy.

There, however that may be, the matter rested for a while, as, for personal reasons which will be manifest to the reader, he and Mr ‘Davies’ expressly wished it to rest.

But events were driving them to reconsider their decision. These seemed to show that the information wrung with such peril and labour from the German Government, and transmitted so promptly to our own, had had none but the most transitory influence on our policy. Forced to the conclusion that the national security was really being neglected, the two friends now had a mind to make their story public; and it was about this that ‘Carruthers’ wished for my advice. The great drawback was that an Englishman, bearing an honoured name, was disgracefully implicated, and that unless infinite delicacy were used, innocent persons, and, especially, a young lady, would suffer pain and indignity, if his identity were known. Indeed, troublesome rumours, containing a grain of truth and a mass of falsehood, were already afloat.

After weighing both sides of the question, I gave my vote emphatically for publication. The personal drawbacks could, I thought, with tact be neutralized; while, from the public point of view, nothing but good could come from submitting the case to the common sense of the country at large. Publication, there-fore, was agreed upon, and the next point was the form it should take ‘Carruthers’, with the concurrence of Mr ‘Davies’, was for a bald exposition of the essential facts, stripped of their warm human envelope. I was strongly against this course, first, because it would aggravate instead of allaying the rumours that were current; secondly, because in such a form the narrative would not carry conviction, and would thus defeat its own end. The persons and the events were indissolubly connected; to evade, abridge, suppress, would be to convey to the reader the idea of a concocted hoax. Indeed, I took bolder ground still, urging that the story should be made as explicit and circumstantial as possible, frankly and honestly for the purpose of entertaining and so of attracting a wide circle of readers. Even anonymity was undesirable. Nevertheless, certain precautions were imperatively needed.

To cut the matter short, they asked for my assistance and received it at once. It was arranged that I should edit the book; that ‘Carruthers’ should give me his diary and recount to me in fuller detail and from his own point of view all the phases of the ‘quest’, as they used to call it; that Mr ‘Davies’ should meet me with his charts and maps and do the same; and that the whole story should be written, as from the mouth of the former, with its humours and errors, its light and its dark side, just as it happened; with the following few limitations. The year it belongs to is disguised; the names of persons are throughout fictitious; and, at my instance, certain slight liberties have been taken to conceal the identity of the English characters.

Remember, also that these persons are living now in the midst of us, and if you find one topic touched on with a light and hesitating pen, do not blame the Editor, who, whether they are known or not, would rather say too little than say a word that might savour of impertinence.

E. C.    March 1903