Thriller writing is all about seeing the potential for certain personalities to cause or use events to trigger acts that threaten a person’s or society’s security. In 1903 the author Erskine Childers recognised the potential for events in Europe to conspire and bring about an invasion of Britain. Described by Ken Follett as the first modern thriller, the book weaves the intriguing plot in which a lone sailor, cruising the shallow waters of Germany’s Friesland Islands, concludes that Germany was conducting secret preparations for war. Childers’ hero then involves a low ranking civil servant, who has connections, to help him in exposing a traitor, and the preparation of a vast German invasion fleet of barges and with this revelation Britain is saved.
Childers’ book ‘The Riddle of the Sands’ became a best seller and very influential in the lead up to the First World War. The novel’s influence was in that it highlighted the poor state of the British armed forces at that time, particularly in terms of sea power. Winston Churchill was to later credit the book with the Admiralty’s development of three major North Sea naval bases, Scapa Flow, Invergordon and Rosyth.
Childers would go on write about battlefield tactics, but being a factual publication, with limited appeal, it failed to achieve the effect that he intended. A few years ago, I visited the First World War battlefields, focusing on the area in and around Albert, where my grandfather fought. Next year we commemorate the start of that terrible conflict, which did nothing to resolve the problems and challenges that faced Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Whether Erskine Childers’ book on battlefield tactics would have had greater impact if it had been written as a novel, and forestall or shorten the war, is impossible to accurately assess, but there is little doubt that ‘The Riddle of the Sands’ succeeded in adjusting the balance of naval power.
There have been many influential novels, and I often wonder whether the authors have set out to influence public opinion or whether the effect has purely been achieved by chance. Maybe it is simply that I have been unable to find the answer to that riddle.
Footnote:- Publicly know as Erskine Childers he was christened Robert Erskine Childers.