Erskine Childers, an important life and a shocking death (part 1)

November 30, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

Erskine Childers was an English-Irish author and adventurer. As both an author and an adventurer, he lived a life that could be envied. As an adventurer, he began as an English imperialist but became involved with Irish Republicanism and helped the Irish fight against the English. As a writer, he penned a novel that is credited with beginning a modern genre.

But what stays with you the most is the manner of his death, which was both shocking and tragic.

Childers was born in London in 1870 the son of Robert Cesar Childers, a translator and Oriental scholar. His mother, Anna Mary Henrietta Barton, was from an Anglo-Irish land-owning family, and when Childers was six years old, he was sent to live with relatives in Ireland. That’s when he fell in love with the place.

Childers attended Trinity College in Cambridge where he studied classics and then the law.  There he was editor of the Cambridge Review. Armed with a law degree, Childers went to work for the House of Commons, hoping one day to begin a political career. Like many other young Englishmen of the time, Childers took part in the Boar War in South Africa. 

One of the hobbies that Childers took up after leaving Cambridge was sailing and soon he had his own small yacht. Throughout the decade of the 1890s, Childers acquired larger boats and became more adventurous in his sailing trips. One cruise is he made during this time was to the Frisian Islands.  This cruise became very important to him in writing his first and only novel.

That novel was titled The Riddle of the Sands, and it was published in 1903. The novel tells the story of two young men who sail into the Frisian Islands and discover that there was a German plot to invade England. The Riddle of the Sands was a huge best-seller, and it had implications far beyond just being another popular novel. 

While the novel was published 11 years before the start of World War I, there had been at the turn of the century a growing feeling among many in Great Britain that the Germans, whose militaristic tendencies were obvious, constituted a threat to the English. Many of those same people believed that England was unprepared for a war with Germany, and that the much-vaunted British Navy had become lax in protecting the shores of that island nation.

The Riddle of the Sands was an important contribution to the debate about British security and what sacrifices should be made to prepare for war. The book demonstrated to many that a German invasion of the east coast of England was indeed feasible. 

In addition to its political importance, The Riddle of the Sands is thought to be the first modern espionage novel. Its realistic settings and the details of German army’s Invasion plans give the reader the idea that it is no mere game that the characters are playing. Instead, what they are doing has serious International implications. Novelist Ken Follett has called it “the first modern thriller,” and it has influenced authors such as John Buchan and Eric Ambler.

The Riddle of the Sands has been in print continuously for more than a hundred years.

For Erskine Childers, however, the novel was simply a starting point to a much more exciting life– a life that with end tragically two decades later. 

Next: Life after The Riddle of the Sands.

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