Some time ago notDavies & I made an attempt to track down real-life von Brünings and Dollmanns – or rather we speculated wildly on who Childers might have been thinking of when he invented these characters.
We’re told he’s ‘a distinguished engineer’ from Bremen. He’s suspicious of Carruthers and Davies, and definitely of a sinister bent. You could well see him as the archetypal German baddie, if it wasn’t for the fact that ‘The Riddle of the Sands’ came out before we really started thinking of the Germans as ‘baddies’. Are we witnessing, in fact, the birth of an archetype, that leads all the way to Herr Flick in ‘Allo Allo’ and Alan Rickman (RIP) in ‘Die Hard’?
Were there any real-life German military engineer types knocking around in Childers’s world of 1898? Well, yes and no. There were German railway engineers, but not in the Frisian Islands. The big rail project of the late 1890s and early 1900s was in Turkey and beyond, and it was called the Baghdad Railway. The two main Böhme-candidates are Wilhelm von Pressel and Colmar Freiherr von der Goltz.
If you’re looking for a bona fide engineer, von Pressel’s your man. Creating a direct rail link from Berlin to Baghdad via Istanbul and Aleppo was von Pressel’s dream, and he worked tirelessly for years lobbying both the Kaiser and the Sultan, schmoozing bankers and industrialists like Krupp (another interesting character btw), living and working for many years in Turkey far from home. But he never saw his dream come true, and he certainly didn’t get involved in the kind of nefarious activities that Böhme associates himself with in the book.
Von Pressel died in 1902. The railway wasn’t completed until 1940. By all accounts, von Pressel wasn’t even that much of a baddie. He was kicked off the project near the end of his days, because the German financiers thought he was ‘too humanitarian’.
A much more likely candidate is von der Goltz. Not only was he an eminent military historian, whose works Childers would have known well, von der Goltz would certainly have been active in the Frisians in the late 1890s, carrying out his duties as head of the Engineer and Pioneer Corps and Inspector-General of Fortifications.
And he has real baddie credentials later in life, becoming military governor of Belgium in 1914, where his ruthless way of ruling was praised by none other than Adolf Hitler.
Neither of these two characters ever worked in Bremen, however, where we’re told Böhme hails from, and this information about his place of work is telling. If you’re an engineer of any sort working in Bremen at the beginning of the 20th Century, you’re almost certainly working for AG Weser (another Krupp subsidiary btw). And the kind of work you’d be doing would be shipbuilding, both commercial and military.
AG Weser thrived mainly on producing large passenger ships, profiting from the huge flow of Germans emigrating to the United States at the time. The company also built warships, and, for our purposes, also did very good business in barges, pontoons and floating docks. In others words, the company was making exactly the type of vessel Carruthers finds in the yard on the banks of the Bensersiel on the night of October 24 .
Just a few years later, AG Weser was also to become well known for producing U-boats, so it’s interesting that we are told on October 24 by Carruthers that he knows Böhme as a submarine engineer too.
“A submarine engineer I knew him to be before”
It’s somewhat prescient of Childers to pick up on this point, since the first U-boat didn’t actually appear in Bremen until 1906, three years after the publication of ‘The Riddle of the Sands’. And the lead engineer on that project wasn’t even German – he was a Spaniard.
I can’t find any records of the other senior engineers working at Weser in 1898, but it is interesting to note that one of the main shipbuilding rivals in the area at the time was Blohm & Voss. Mr *Blohm* was alive and well in 1898, working in nearby Lübeck, not only building boats, but also specialising in new-fangled *flying* boats. I can’t help thinking Childers would have known about this.
So we have a Blohm, not a Böhme. We have a Spanish submarine engineer, not a German. And we have a ruthless inspector of fortifications who spends most of his time fraternising with Young Turks in Istanbul, rather than co-ordinating an invasion plan in the Frisians.
We have not, it’s fair to say, found an exact match. But at least here’s a cast of characters that would have been on Childers’s radar. In the case of submarine engineers, there’s a couple more characters to add to the mix, too, who I think Childers would have known about. They’re not German – they’re Irish. But I’ll save that story for another post…