M’learned colleague notCarruthers has thrown down the gauntlet in his post on the Benser Tief. He argues for the navigability of the East Frisian ‘tiefs’ – the stretches of water which are in fact drainage channels, not designed for navigation at all, though Tim does point out in his post on the subject that some of them are accidentally suitable for navigation.
So, PLOT SPOILER – look away now if by some extraordinary feat of will you have managed to avoid the answer to the ‘riddle’ of Riddle of the Sands.
The plot surprise is this: that the German army plans to take to barges (or ‘lighters’, as they are also called) inland in East Frisia. These barges will then be dragged out to sea via the seven ‘Siels’ along the coast, which are outlets for the water carried away from the marshes inland, and from there across the North Sea to England. That, in essence, is the secret of the book.
So, is this geographically feasible? Tim argues that it is – I would argue that it isn’t. Because these ditches of water are not canals at all – they are, as I said, ditches of water. And there are a great many of these ditches in Germany. As David Blackburn points out in his great book The Conquest of Nature, very large parts of Germany had to be reclaimed from the marshy swampland of the North German Plain, which is what was left behind when the Ice Age glaciers stopped and began to head home.
A German of 1915 or 1940, transported back to 1750, would have been astounded at how different the ‘natural’ landscape looked – much less of it was cultivated, much more of it dominated by sand or scrub and especially by water. The visitor from the twentieth century would not have needed to journey far before stumbling upon pools, ponds and lakes long drained and forgotten.
And nowhere was this more true than East Frisia. This is a landscape entirely reclaimed from the marshy swamplands, some of it polders within dykes, some of it fenland colonies where water has been drained to exposed the peat. To do that, you need drainage – lots and lots and lots of drainage.
Here’s a modern Google Maps image of the East Frisians:
It’s worth clicking through to the full version, and seeing the blue capillaries running through the landscape, each of them carrying water down to the ‘tiefs’ like the Bensertief, which carry the water out to the ‘siels’, and thus out to sea.
In other words, these are not waterways built for transporting anything other than water. Which is not to say, of course, that the waterways can’t be used for boats, as they are in fact used in Tim’s own part of the world – Norfolk. The Norfolk Broads are the result of medieval peat excavations later flooded by rising sea levels.
I love this idea of ‘accidental’ navigable waterways – but could you really organise an invasion of Germany from the Norfolk Broads? Tim says in his post that he’s organised a route from inland to the coast which is ‘certainly wide enough for a small barge’. Well, perhaps – but what’s tugging that small barge? And is that going to get through as well? And are the ‘siels’ really suitable outlets for oceangoing vessels?
There’s another way to prove my point. Look at pictures of the modern East Frisian waterways, and you’ll notice the complete absence of boats, apart from a few clusters on the widest and deepest ‘tiefs’. You’ll see a lot of stuff like this:
Here’s a video I found of a guy kayaking around the ‘canals’. It gives you a great impression of the feel of the place – and you won’t see another water vessel anywhere:
All of which begs a somewhat mournful question: did Childers just get this very wrong? Did he even go inland to check out these waterways? One thinks he must have done – the description of Carruthers’s walk down the Bensertief is clearly drawn from life. So, for me, this is not a novelist getting it ‘wrong’. It’s a novelist imagining what could be, what is. Perhaps, thinks Childers, German engineering could turn these waterways into channels for war, and perhaps that’s why Böhme features so strongly in these sections. And there’s no doubt that people were terrified of German might when it came to building canals; even New Zealand’s press was worried about it.