‘Sending goods by the tief

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:

canal in east frisia

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.




4 thoughts on “‘Sending goods by the tief

  1. I think there needs to be more of an exploration of German inshore vessels in the 19th century.

    There’s a useful 1971 article in Mariner’s Mirror (behind a paywall, but you can see the abstract at https://snr.org.uk/sailing-vessel-types-german-merchant-marine-1869/) looking at German merchant marine vessels in 1869 – so almost in our time period. This categorises the type of vessels in German service into 5 groups, most interestingly a category covering vessels of Dutch origin primarily used in canal navigation, but there’s also a category for riverine vessels.

    In Aurich, in East Friesland (geographically germane) there were 98 vessels, all suitable for use on inland waterways, and ranging from 3 to 50 tons, mainly flat bottomed, narrow, and quite possibly the sort of things Childers might have been thinking about. Presumably these vessels need to sail on something, and maybe the tiefs were their natural habitat.

    A chap called Szymanski seems to have written quite extensively on this during the 1930s (in German) – might be worth a look…

    Perhaps more accessible (but also in German) there seem to be some pearls of wisdom in here. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=2MARBgAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=inauthor:%22Herbert+Karting%22&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjymMLr26HLAhXLVhQKHYvcCXgQ6AEIQDAF#v=onepage&q&f=false

    Suspect this one could run and run.


    1. Thanks Ian – will check those links out. One point to make about Aurich, though – it’s a town on the Ems-Jade Canal, which most certainly was built for navigation. I’m not arguing that those canals don’t exist – but they don’t seem to north of the Ems-Jade, and any connection between that canal and the East Frisian islands is torturous, at best!


  2. I must agree with notCarruthers about the feasibility of using narrow and shallow waterways to move substantial loads. Consider many of the canals in the north of England: only 3 or 4ft deep and barely the width of 2 narrow boats, yet huge tonnages of cargo were moved with very little effort.
    I think a more worrying factor, from the point of view of the troops, is the seaworthiness of the barges/lighters for crossing the North Sea. Narrow beam and shoal draft make for instability. Unless, of course, the plan was to embark them onto ships once clear of the coast, but then how would it work on arrival at the shoals of East Anglia. With weather forecasting in its infancy at that time the entire enterprise would depend on luck and a spell of calm weather.
    I suppose a modern comparison would be with landing craft: shoal draft and not very seaworthy, although self-powered.


    1. Hi Tony – surely the point about the canals in Northern England is that they were designed for transport, with consistent widths and depths and some mechanism for ‘powering’ the boats (a towpath!). These ‘tiefs’ are not designed with such innovations.

      And yes, the seaworthiness of these boats is a question. I remember a story of friends of mine who were incompetently navigating a longboat around canals in and around Glasgow. Dropping down a series of bigger and bigger locks, they eventually found themselves in the Clyde estuary, and needed to be rescued. A possibly apocryphal story that nevertheless makes my point!


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