Erskine Childers 1870-1922
(Full name Robert Erskine Childers) English novelist and nonfiction writer.
Childers is the author of The Riddle of the Sands, a novel which is widely recognized as inaugurating the literary genre of English spy fiction. Published in 1903, Childers's novel was intended to be a warning, in the guise of a light adventure story, about England's vulnerability to invasion by sea. The steady popularity of The Riddle of the Sands is reflected in numerous reprintings throughout the decades following its initial publication and its adaptation as a film in 1979.
Childers was born in London, the son of Anna Mary Henrietta Barton Childers and Robert Caesar Childers, a renowned Orientalist. Educated at Haileybury and Trinity College, Cambridge, Childers became a clerk in the House of Commons and spent weekends indulging his craving for adventure and love of the sea with solitary sails in the Thames estuary. In 1897 he made the first of six cruises along the Dutch, German, and Danish coasts and in the North Sea that provided intimate knowledge of the Frisian Islands, the setting of The Riddle of the Sands. Childers was among the first to join the City Imperial Volunteers for the Boer War. In the Ranks of the C.I. V, his first published book, was the personal record of his experiences. He coauthored, with Basil Williams, the official history of his company, The H.A. C. in South Africa, and edited volume five of "The Times" History of the War in South Africa He also wrote War and the Arme Blanche and German Influence on British Cavalry, two books arguing for modern weapons and training. Although of a unionist family, Childers came back from the Boer War with inclinations toward home rule for Ireland, a position which he argued in The Framework of Home Rule. After distinguished service in the British Army in World War I, Childers became immersed in the cause of Irish independence. A member of the Irish Treaty delegation to London in 1921, he renounced the treaty establishing the separation of Ireland into north and south and sided with Eamon de Valera in the civil war. He was captured by Free State soldiers and condemned to death. He was executed on November 24, 1922, before a Free State firing squad in Dublin.
The main characters of The Riddle of the Sands are Carruthers and Davies, two young Englishmen who, while on a sailing holiday in the Baltic, North Sea, and Frisian Sands, discover a plot on the part of Germany to invade England by sea. During the course of the narrative they struggle to solve the "riddle" of the title in order to forestall the Germans' scheme. In a long epilogue to the novel, Childers presents skeptical readers, who may fear that "a baseless romance has been foisted on them," with a half-burned "memorandum" in cipher that contains details of the German invasion plan described in the novel. "Perfect organization and perfect secrecy" underlie the riddle of the sands, writes Childers, "and no one should doubt the German capacity for executing the plan at the critical moment when Germany might have little to lose and much to gain."
To its author's surprise The Riddle of the Sands met with immediate public and critical approval. Convinced of England's vulnerability to an invasion launched by Germany from a desolate stretch of coastline that had seemingly no strategic importance, Childers had registered his concern in an adventure story based on firsthand observations set down in logbooks in the years he had cruised those shoals. For a decade The Riddle of the Sands helped fuel a national debate on England's supposed state of military unreadiness. For yachtsman it remained an excellent tale of men against the sea, and in its many republications the book has continued to attract readers who admire a good spy story.