And so, as a stowaway in a ‘small tug’ in the evening of October 25th, or perhaps the early morning of the 26th, Carruthers discovers the Riddle at last. The secret plan is not defensive one, but offensive:
To neglect obvious methods, to draw on the obscure resources of an obscure strip of coast, to improve and exploit a quantity of insignificant streams and tidal outlets, and thence, screened by the islands, to despatch an armada of light-draught barges, capable of flinging themselves on a correspondingly obscure and therefore unexpected portion of the enemy’s coast; that was a conception so daring, aye, and so quixotic in some of its aspects, that even now I was half incredulous.
Now, notCarruthers and I have been indulging ourselves in disagreements over the feasibility of towing lighters big enough to carry sufficient numbers of soldiers across the North Sea through the Tiefs of East Friesland. But let’s assume such a thing is possible. Is Childers’ conception one that makes any sense?
There is a long history of invasion from the water, as I don’t need to tell anyone in England, especially those in the East Sussex area. But like so much else at the period of Riddle of the Sands, the idea of putting men into barges and attacking up a beach is changing at this time, for reasons which will only become fully clear a dozen years after the publication of the book, in 1915, when a British plan to attack the Dardanelles Strait ended in disaster and extraordinary loss of life. I am talking, of course, of Gallipoli – at which my own great-uncle, Lloyd Jones, lost his life.
I won’t go into detail on the Gallipoli campaign – there’s a great deal of good material on it elsewhere. But I will point to one element of it: the scheme, allegedly that of one Commander Edward Unwin, to run an old ship aground on V Beach at the tip of the peninsula, inside which would be hidden hundreds of troops. Unwin anticipated a danger that the ship, the 4,000-ton cargo vessel River Clyde, might run aground before hitting the beach, and in case of this he suggested towing a steam hopper and three lighters behind the River Clyde which could be used as a kind of pontoon. Military History has a good article on this, and I urge you to read it, but the upshot is this: the River Clyde ran aground short of the beach, there was panic in the lighters, and the machine guns ripped apart the soldiers pouring out from within this nautical Trojan horse.
Such a picture was replicated across the Gallipoli campaign – sorties imagined by men who seem to have relied on the imaginations of novelists such as Erskine Childers as much on hard strategic thinking. Principal among these was Winston Churchill himself, and here’s where the story gets really weird. Jim Ring, in his book Erskine Childers, says that Childers himself had written a proposal for securing Borkum and Juist in 1906, and that Churchill had long been a proponent of this idea; in book The World Crisis, Churchill wrote:
In my earliest meetings with Lord Fisher in 1907 he had explained to me that the Admiralty plans at that date in the event of hostilities with Germany were for the seizure as early as possible in the war of the island of Borkum as an advanced base for all our flotillas and inshore squadrons blockading the German river mouths. I was always deeply interested in this view.
In fact, so advanced was the thinking over Borkum that the Cabinet and War Council considered it as one of two initiatives to open up a second front. The other was the Dardanelles. In other words, the British government decided that an invasion of the East Frisians was more dangerous than Gallipoli. This puts an interesting spin on the scheme in Riddle of the Sands.
Two further thoughts on this type of warfare. There are a chilling pair of paragraphs in the Military History article I linked to above:
The tows of the Dublins were scheduled to land at 05.30, but had been badly delayed by the complexities of transhipping into the rowing boats from the ships and the current pouring out of the Dardanelles. This was to cause considerable confusion as it became apparent that the River Clyde would run ashore first. The complicated circling manoeuvre that the Clyde was forced to adopt meant that she had lost almost all seaway when she ran aground with barely a shudder at 06.22 some 80yds from shore.
This seems to have acted as the catalyst for a storm of fire, which lashed across the Dublin Fusiliers in their open boats still rowing towards the beach. The Turkish riflemen could hardly miss such a target – and they began to wreak a horrifying slaughter. Trapped in the close confines of the rowing boats, the Dublins were utterly helpless and almost before they knew what was happening had been shot to pieces.
This summarises, horribly, why this form of invasion became impossible: the perfection of the rifle, and the invention of the machine gun. It was the British belief that Turkish firepower was limited that led to the horror of Gallipoli. You can’t attack a beach in rowing boats when the other side are shooting machine guns and rifles at you – and by the second world war, the ‘lighters’ of Carruthers and Davies had been replaced by ironclad barges which are, crucially, self-powered.
And finally, at Gallipoli, another odd little echo. Carrier seaplanes were employed by the British under Colonel Frederick Sykes to act as spotters for the naval batteries. The seaplanes were carried to the Dardanelles by the ship Ben My Chree, based first in Jero Bay, and among the men providing expert navigation and instruction in maps was none other than Erskine Childers himself.