Is it me, or is Carruthers rather enjoying his sojourn on dry land after three weeks trapped on a small boat at sea with Davies?
First, he heads off on the train for a night at luxury hotel in Amsterdam. The next day he returns to the region to breakfast in Esens, explore the Bensertief and sleep al fresco on a lighter. On October 25, he heads for Dornum for what becomes, as far as I can see, an extended pub crawl towards the sea. Quite what Lloyd notDavies is going to get up to whilst I replay this section of the book is anyone’s guess.
I’m not meant to do the pub crawl on my own, though. A local ‘dockside crimp’ should be joining me – first in beer and then in gin. So what kind of people would have been knocking around in a Dornum pub in 1898? The answer may surprise you…
This footage (above) is of ‘Mr Gallagher and Mr Shean’ a very famous U.S. vaudeville double act of the 1910s and 1920s. Mister Shean is none other than Al Shean – or rather Adolf Schönberg, born in 1868 in… Dornum!
Now, apart from contributing one half of this *very* popular song at the time, Al Shean was also uncle to another successful vaudeville family act: the Marx Brothers. You see, Adolph had a sister called Miene, who became ‘Minnie’ when she arrived in America and married Sam ‘Frenchie’ Marx. It was Minnie’s idea to form her sons into a troupe, and it was Minnie who managed the act, negotiated the contracts, got the gigs and generally kept the boys in order.
Adolph and Miene emigrated to the U.S. in 1880, just 18 years before Carruthers would turn up in a bar in Dornum. Their mum was a ‘yodelling harpist’ and dad was a ‘ventriloquist’, so I think it’s fair to say show business was in their blood. On October 25 1898, the Marx family would have just finished celebrating Gummo’s 6th birthday across the Atlantic (Groucho would have turned 8 a few weeks earlier).
One has to assume, surely, that Dornum would still have been the home of several Marx family relations, no? And, as that great film ‘Duck Soup‘ shows, the Marx Brothers were clearly interested in the absurdities of spying and the machinations of European superpowers.
Carruthers supping at the bar with a Marx cousin – now isn’t that an appealingly odd image?
After weeks of sailing and suspense, ‘The Riddle of the Sands’ explodes into action on October 25.
At last we discover what the ‘Riddle’ is. Sadly, as you will hear, Lloyd notDavies and Tim notCarruthers fall out quite badly – and loudly – about the basic credibility of Erskine Childers’s premise in describing the imminent German threat.
We start the podcast, though, by plotting out the day for Carruthers, starting with an extended pub/gin bar crawl in Dornumerland, followed by an arduous cross-country walk to Hage, a fair deal of train travel in heavy disguise, and finally a bold act of sabotage on a galliot, and a confrontation with, of all people, the Kaiser.
We quickly descend into chaos when Lloyd notDavies becomes aerated by the presence of ‘lighters’ in Bensersiel harbour (05:43); a heated discussion of the canal vs ditch issue ensues (07:50); Club Member Ian provides useful information about riverine vessels of the period (10:18); Club Member Tony sides with notCarruthers (12:37).
Lloyd notDavies then turns his attention to the viability (or not) of amphibious warfare and invasion by rowboat, using Gallipoli as his main case study (16:21). Tim notCarruthers changes the tone by referencing the Marx Brothers (23:04), and talking about the use of disguises in late Victorian literature. (24:44)
Finally, we address the pub crawl in Dornum and how to recreate it (or not) in modern times (30:03); a connection is made back to the Marx Brothers (34:03), and the true story of Groucho’s one visit to Dornum is revealed (36:14). As if the tone couldn’t get any lower, we then discuss the 1970s sex comedy The EastFriesland Report (39:07), filmed on location in exactly the same places that Carruthers visits on October 25.
Club Business (45:14) – Adrian on why submarines were considered to be underhand and ‘unEnglish’ (45.26); Brian & John correct us on what a submarine engineer actually is (46:31); the status of marine engineers generally in 1903 (47:25); we find a real-life German diving/wreck engineer – living in Lambeth (48:39); Nick on TS Eliot and Baedecker (51:20); Ian on ejaculation(52:27); Ben and Fiona support us on Unbound (52:54); Peter finds us a Munich beer house in London (53:24).
Missions for next week – members assistance required.
‘Better to dodge in behind Rottum Island’ – Really? Experienced sailors please tell us – should we be going outside or inside Rottum? Please share your knowledge of Rottum generally.
‘He must have slipped over quietly’ – share your tales of going overboard, how to cope with it, how to survive, the basic dos and don’ts of falling in the water.
‘we anchored off the little hamlet of Ostmahorn’ – is it possible to sail directly to Ostmahorn these days? And why Ostmahorn?
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.
Calling Böhme a German submarine engineer in 1903 is a bit like calling him a North Korean nuclear scientist or a Premiership football club owner today. Immediately, he has the whiff of corruption and danger.
Club member Adrian sums it up nicely in a recent comment:
“It might not be clear to us now, but Bohme’s choice of career would have told the Edwardian reader much about his character. A common view at that time was that because they were difficult to detect, these machines constituted an ungentlemanly and underhand way of doing battle and so were not suitable for civilised nations.
This idea had been doing the rounds since the American Civil War, but it appears that many British newspapers during the First World War, including relatively high-brow broadsheets such as The Times, often referred to German submarine crews as ‘pirates’ or ‘criminals’ and urged the country to deny them the protection afforded by the laws of war.
Interestingly, Duncan Retford’s book on the cultural history of the submarine (more compelling that it sounds) provides some of examples of how this opprobrium wasn’t just restricted to caricatures of the enemy, but was also applied to submariners on one’s own side. He cites an example from 1915, so still quite early in the war and before the sinking of the Lusitania, in which Player’s cigarettes (the Royal Navy brand) chose to withdraw an advertisement depicting a British submarine sinking two German warships because of the unpopular, unheroic (and thus it was thought, thoroughly unBritish) nature of the action.”
Certainly, the submarine business was a dodgy one around the time of ‘The Riddle of the Sands’ (as I’ve mentioned in a previous post). But I also wonder whether Erskine Childers (the author of the book) may have had a more personal reason to throw in submarine engineering as yet another shifty ‘unBritish’ pursuit.
The so-called father of marine engineering is a man called John Philip Holland, an Irish-American whose first submarine project – the Fenian Ram – was actually funded by Irish Republican money. Childers, we know, became more and more embroiled in Irish Republicanism fromabout 1907 onwards.
In 1903/4, Childers was in Boston – the heartland of Irish-American politics – getting engaged and married to Molly Osgood. Just down the roadin Quincy, Massachussets, was one of the main yards for pumping out Holland-designed submarines – mainly for the Japanese Navy at this point in time.
Is it too much to speculate that Childers must have known of Holland, perhaps even have met him? There seems little doubt that Childers would have known of Republican ambitions to use submarines against the British.
The naysayers amongst you will point out that ‘The Riddle of the Sands’ itself was written around 1900-1901, so the description of Böhme preceded Childers’s visit to the US and his public supportfor Irish Home Rule. But, just as Childers is capable in this book of divining, in part, the terrors to come in World War One, perhaps, in this one reference to submarines, he’s divined something about his own tragic future too.
The book tells us to look for the ‘very humblest Gasthaus’ in Esens on October 24, where we can partake of beer, bread and wurst. But we’re not allowed to stay the night. Instead, we have to go walking with Carruthers along the Bensertief in the dark, and then snuggle down for the night in a ‘lighter’, under a large sheet of tarpaulin.
This is a shame because a little light research has revealed a rather nice hotel in the middle of Esens called Wietings Hotel. TripAdvisor suggests that this a suitably humble place to stay– we’re told that one has to bring one’s own soap, and there’s a description of a “vast, serene” white cat used for mousing. (Bond’s nemesis Blofeld had one of these, though, perhaps not used for mousing.)
Esens itself doesn’t look like it has much to offer us – a church, a statue of an eminent Frisian pirate, and a windmill.A walk down the tief is, perhaps, the most interesting thing to do after all.
Generally, Esens is used mainly as a feeder town for tourists who want to holiday by the coast at nearby Bensersiel, or head out to Langeoog. The town is surrounded by holiday camps and caravan sites. Agriculture, of various sorts, seems to be the only other major line of business in this part of the world.
This would have been true in the time of Carruthers and Davies too. It was a boom time for hotels and wellness centres on the islands. Thenewly-built train lines and canals would have helped the farmers to distribute their goods to much wider markets. Naturally, Childers wants us to see all this ‘business’ as some kind of proof of nefarious German activity. It probably wasn’t.
Sadly, like so many of the towns & cities we’ve come across on the Adventure Club trail, Esens did not fare well during World War 2. It was bombed by the Allies in 1943 (even though it had little significance as a military target), the Jewish population was mercilessly persecuted. After the war, more than 20% of the population was made up of refugees and displaced persons.
It’s not just Carruthers, then, who’s experienced at least one night of sleeping rough in Esens.
It’s taken ’til October 24 in the book for Lloyd notDavies and I to fall out. We’ve done well to get this far. But how strange to find that the cause of our rift is, of all things,… canals!
Canals – or ‘tiefs’ – are important in this book. Without canals there are no barges, and without barges there is no – *SPOILER ALERT* – invasion of Britain. (And if you have got this far without knowing this book is about the prospect of Britain being invaded by Germany, then what the hell have you been doing?)
The disagreement with my fellow adventurer revolves around whether the Frisian canals or ‘tiefs’ of 1898-1903 were designed for transporting barges full of troops – or indeed whether they were navigable at all.
Lloyd has a view that German tiefs are not at all like British canals. The latter were (mostly) built for transportation and haulage. The former were basically large ditches, created chiefly for drainage & irrigation. The fact that you could sail a barge down them was incidental. (I’m paraphrasing Lloyd’s argument – I’m sure he’ll write his own blog on the subject soon).
We’ve talked about sluices and dykes before (it crops up on October 15), and observed at the time that Childers is very quick to see military build-upwhere there are just farmers at work, see invasion plans where there are only sea defences.
But I think, in the case of canals, the widening schemes, barge-building and general movement of raw materials that Carruthers sees when he walks down the Benser Tief on the night of October 24 is a little bit more than unplanned ad hoc usage of drainage ditches.
A brief consultation of The Oxford Encyclopaedia of Economic History (another book I never thought I’d read ’til we started this project), tells me the Germans went a bit mad for canals from the 1860s onwards, and extended the canal network from less than 750km of waterway to over 7000km in less than 50 years. For our purposes, the most important constructions were the Dortmund-Ems Canal and the Ems-Jade Canal.
The former allowed coal and other important raw materials from the Ruhr to reach the North Sea in bulk via a German port for the first time. The latter meant all those materials could make their way across Frisia to Wilhelmshaven, Germany’s primary North Sea naval base.
There’s little doubt that Germany was flexing its military and industrial muscles with these projects. It’s not a big mental leap, therefore, to see how making the Frisians tiefs navigable would add another dimension to the whole system, allowing materials and troops to get out to the coast and beyond very quickly.
To my mind, these tiefs *are* clearly navigable and designed to be so. It’s about this that Lloyd and I disagree. To prove my point, though, I have planned a route down the present-day ‘tiefs’, ‘leides’ and ‘schoots’ that can take us all the way from Esens to either Aurich or Wittmund, with the possibility of connecting directly into the Ems-Jade Canal.
Sure, these days it’s a somewhat circuitous route, but it is on fairly wide stretches of water all the way – certainly wide enough for a small barge. I reckon we could kayak or canoe the whole thing on October 24 this year, no problem. And thus I would prove that Childers’s speculation about a possible invasion plan isn’t just paranoia or the mistaking of a ditch for a canal. You could get troops on barges out to the coast using these tiefs, I reckon, and certainly some of them were being modified during this period to take vessels of some sort.
Lloyd notDavies, I contend, is wrong. I look forward to his desperate counter-argument in a future blog post.
Finally, on October 24, with only two days to go in the book, we get to discuss the actual riddle of ‘The Riddle of the Sands’.
Lloyd notDavies uses his train timetables to get us to Esens. Minus a moustache, Tim notCarruthers points out the cultural highlights of this ancient Frisian town. And then both men argue at length about the proper use of canals. Finally, the talk turns to the significance of submarines.
First – our usual plug for our Unbound project – just £25 will get you a beautiful ROTS Handbook, an ebook, an audiobook and access to the month-long online adventure in September. (02:00)
We begin the podcast proper, as we often do, by referring to train timetables (05:19). We discover it isn’t as easy to get to Esens by rail as it was one hundred years ago. We find the humblest guesthouse in Esens where we can eat wurst and drink beer (10:29); Tim notCarruthers tells tales of the Frisian pirate Junkers Balthasar (16:35) and, friend of Wagner, Theodore Thomas (17:29).
A long conversation about canals ensues (20:35) including: memories of the newsreader Peter Sissons (21:32); the geological history of Frisia (23:20); a canoeing trip down the Bensertief (27:30); German enthusiasm for navigable canal-building (29:15); the plan to ‘kill’ Rotterdam (30:42); how to get from Bensersiel to Aurich by barge (the long way round) (32:43).
We return to last podcast’s subject – the villainous engineer Böhme (38:12). If he hails from Bremen and is a submarine engineer, he can only have worked at one place. Tim notCarruthers follows this clue back to West Norwood (41:58), and ends up talking about an American-Irish engineer who Childers must have known (43:03).
Missions for next week – members assistance required.
‘further potations elsewhere’: Carruthers goes on a pub crawl in Dornum with an ill-looking rascal. We need to plan a modern-day version of this. Can you help?
‘I took a fourth-class ticket to Wittmund’: what the hell is ‘fourth-class’? Is there still such a thing anywhere in the world?
‘for a minute or two we were all in a group’: Carruthers’s disguise at this point has to be so good that von Brüning doesn’t recognise him, even when he’s standing right next to him. Any advice about what get-up we might need is very much welcome from any masters or mistresses of disguise out there.
‘multitudes of sea-going lighters, carrying full loads of soldiers’: – about bloody time! – we finally get to discuss what this book is actually about. What we need, though, is some real-life examples of invasion by unpowered barge. Also, will it be safe for us to try this out? Anyone got a tug and a lighter they want to lend us?
I’m starting to think that October 23 might be my favourite day in the book. Why? Because I, as notCarruthers, get to abandon notDavies, the tiny boat and the foggy Frisians for a day, and, instead, travel to Amsterdam for one glorious night in a luxury hotel.
The book stipulates that the hotel needs to be hard by the Amstel River, and offer a ‘perfect’ bed with ‘glorious redundancies’. It also needs to be within strolling distance of the Jewish Quarter, where Carruthers will pick up his ‘German sea-dog’ disguise for the coming days.
For me, there’s only one obvious place to stay – and that’s the luxurious Hotel Amstel. It was there in 1898, and I’m happy to say it’s still there now. Carruthers rather tips his hand in terms of his taste for the grander type of hotel, when he telegraphs his boss to say, misleadingly, that he can be contacted at the Hotel du Louvre (Sherlock Holmes’s favourite Parisian hotel btw). In Amsterdam, at the time, there wasn’t anything grander than the Amstel.
One curious quirk of the place is that it’s a hotel that didn’t just offer a huge luxurious bed for the night and a sumptuous dining room. It also gained a worldwide reputation as a centre for ‘physical therapy’. Johan Mezger, the inventor of the ‘Swedish massage’, worked out of the hotel for many years, and all the royal families and nobility of the world flocked there for treatment.
I’m sorry to say that the Jewish Quarter has not survived as well as the hotel. There is still a museum and the Portuguese synagogue, but a lot has disappeared. The reasons? Well, the same ones that have accounted for the devastation of several urban areas along the route of ‘The Riddle of the Sands’. Between 1940 and 1945, through a combination of persecution, execution, starvation and Allied bombing, the Jewish population in Amsterdam was reduced from 80,000 to just 5,000, and most of the buildings had been destroyed.
The Jewish Quarter now is dominated by the tourist-infested flea market of Waterlooplein, so finding a marine slop shop offering a basic sailor disguise is not going to be easy. A Swedish massage, on the other hand, is probably still quite easy to find.
At the end of October 23, Carruthers talks about reading the German newspapers and describes them thus:
‘in hate of a wrong not theirs’, were one and all seething with rancorous Anglophobia.
It took me a while to track down the line in quotation marks, but I take it to be a reference to an Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem called ‘A Court Lady’:
“Each of the heroes around us has fought for his land and line,
But thou hast fought for a stranger, in hate of a wrong not thine.
“Happy are all free peoples, too strong to be dispossess’d:
But blessed are those among nations, who dare to be strong for the rest!”
This rather begs the question as to what fight the Germans were supposedly getting involved in against the English that wasn’t their own.
The most obvious answer is South Africa and the build-up to the Second Boer War. Following the infamous Kruger telegram of 1896, the German press would have been publishing a lot of anti-English articles about goings-on in the Transvaal and its surrounding areas (although by 1898, the Germans may have cooled off a bit, maybe?).
Within a year of Carruthers browsing his journals by the river, Britain would be at war with the Boers, and Childers, the author of ‘The Riddle of the Sands’, would be out there playing his part. All in all, this might be a quiet and luxurious day for Carruthers, but the signs of impending doom – so much a part of the atmosphere of this book – continue to linger on all around him.
And so we come back – at last! – to the matter of train timetables. It is a subject, as notCarruthers well knows, of which I am inordinately fond.
So, it seems, was Erskine Childers, judging by the detailed thinking behind the journeys of October 23rd (and the 24th, of which more at another time). The scene is this: Carruthers is leaving Davies in Norderney, intent on travelling back to London to see what he can dig up on the nefarious Dollman. As it happens, he never makes it to London, because during the journey he decides to double back and do some clandestine investigating of his own. But that is a story for another day.
Davies gives Carruthers pretty clear instructions in a note, which also contains some rather charming misspellings (‘Von Brooning’) which are not commented upon. Here’s the outline of the trip that Davies makes:
(1) Your journey. Norddeich 8.58, Emden 10.32, Leer 11.16 (Böhme changes for Bremen), Rheine 1.8 (change), Amsterdam 7.17 p.m. Leave again via Hook 8.52, London 9 am.
(2) The coast-station–their rondezvous–querry is it Norden? (You pass it 9.13)–there is a tidal creek up to it. High-water there on 25th, say 10.30 to 11 p.m. It cannot be Norddeich, which I find has a dredged-out low-water channel for the steamer, so tide ‘serves’ would not apply.
So how far does the Davies timetable match the timetable provided by that reliable supplier of transport information to the Edwardian gentleman, Bradshaw’s Guide to Continental Railways? Well, I was only able to find an 1888 edition of Bradshaw’s, so although the departure and arrival times are a little different, the actual time taken to travel is pretty much spot on.
First, a map of Carruthers’s journey:
According to Google (and according to the relevant modern timetables, too – yes, I looked), it takes between five and six hours to reach Amsterdam from Norden. It took a good deal longer in 1898.
So, Davies had Carruthers leaving Norddeich, the harbour stop at Norden, at 8.58am in the morning. According to our calculations, if we’re right about 1898, October 23 would have been a Sunday, which gave me rather panicked pause until Bradshaw reassuringly informed me that Continental railway services did not alter their timetables on a Sunday.
Here is the first problem – Norddeich does not feature in Bradshaw in any form, for the simple reason that this branch line did not open until 1895. So the first thing to say is that the route I’m looking at here is only an approximation. If anyone has a Bradshaw for 1898, do let us know – but for now we’ll have to start from nearby Norden, where there is a train here heading south in the right direction, but it’s the train from Esens.
So, at Norden, there’s a train in 1888 leaving at 9.29am. Here’s the relevant page in Bradshaw:
As Davies says, this train heads south towards Emden, arriving (according to Davies) at 10.32am. Our Bradshaw train reaches Emden a little later, at 11.15am.
Here Davies changes trains, and train systems. He has been travelling to date on the Ostfriesische Küstenbahn (East Frisian Coastal Railway), which only opened fifteen years before Davies took his journey. Much of the route is now closed – of which more tomorrow – but you can still take the train along the same line as Carruthers, from Norddeich/Norden to Emden.
At Emden, Carruthers changes onto the Emsland line, which runs all the way to Soest. Carruthers tells Davies to get on 10.32 at Emden to Rheine – the nearest train to this in the 1888 Bradshaw is 11.29 from Emden. It reaches Rheine two hours later – and Carruthers changes here, having rid himself of Böhme at Leer. Here’s the relevant Bradshaw page again.
At Rheine, says Davies, Carruthers should get onto the 1.08pm to Amsterdam. We’ve already missed that, and Bradshaw tells us that the next Amsterdam train leaves Rheine at 1.51pm, getting us to the Dutch city by 7.22pm. We probably would catch Carruthers up because, as he says, his train was particularly slow.
The train crept like a snail from station to station. I might, so a fellow-passenger told me, have waited three hours at Rheine for an express which would have brought me to Amsterdam at about the same time; or, if I had chosen to break the journey farther back, two hours at either Emden or Leer would still have enabled me to catch the said express at Rheine. These alternatives had escaped Davies, and, I surmised, had been suppressed by Böhme, who doubtless did not want me behind him, free either to double back or to follow him to Bremen.
Carruthers finds himself sipping coffee outside his rather swanky Amsterdam hotel at 8.30pm – and we’d easily be doing the same with our Bradshaw route. So, in summary – the Childers timeline feels spot on.
But this does raise the question – why add in so many details about train timetables? However much I enjoy these things, I recognise they are an acquired taste (if you’ve reached this point in this article, you have acquired it as well). But it seems pretty clunky detail in an adventure novel.
Or does it? As we’ve said, multiple times, Childers is pretty adept at signalling danger and paranoia, at demonstrating just how mighty Germany is becoming, not just at sea, but everywhere. And to the Edwardian mind, train timetables are a key aspect of military strategy. It’s a theory that AJP Taylor outlined – that in the days before mechanised road vehicles, troop mobilisations could only be done in significant numbers by train. Which meant masses of organisation to ensure that hundreds of thousands of troops could be sent out to the front quickly and efficiently – and because there was so much planning involved, when you thought you were going to war, you had to move fast and you had to move immediately before the other side mobilised or started blowing up your railways. Here’s Taylor himself outlining the theory more elegantly and knowledgeably than I can.
Who knew? Railway timetables as causes for massive global war. Bit more interesting than you thought, eh?
Some time ago notDavies & I made an attempt to track down real-life von Brünings and Dollmanns – or rather we speculated wildly on who Childers might have been thinking of when he invented these characters.
We did the same with Clara Dollmann too. But it isn’t ’til now – on October 23 – when Carruthers is forced to share a train carriage with the man – that we’ve bothered to think about Böhme.
We’re told he’s ‘a distinguished engineer’ from Bremen. He’s suspicious of Carruthers and Davies, and definitely of a sinister bent. You could well see him as the archetypal German baddie, if it wasn’t for the fact that ‘The Riddle of the Sands’ came out before we really started thinking of the Germans as ‘baddies’. Are we witnessing, in fact, the birth of an archetype, that leads all the way to Herr Flick in ‘Allo Allo’ and Alan Rickman (RIP) in ‘Die Hard’?
Were there any real-life German military engineer types knocking around in Childers’s world of 1898? Well, yes and no. There were German railway engineers, but not in the Frisian Islands. The big rail project of the late 1890s and early 1900s was in Turkey and beyond, and it was called the Baghdad Railway. The two main Böhme-candidates are Wilhelm von Pressel and Colmar Freiherr von der Goltz.
If you’re looking for a bona fide engineer, von Pressel’s your man. Creating a direct rail link from Berlin to Baghdad via Istanbul and Aleppo was von Pressel’s dream, and he worked tirelessly for years lobbying both the Kaiser and the Sultan, schmoozing bankers and industrialists like Krupp (another interesting character btw), living and working for many years in Turkey far from home. But he never saw his dream come true, and he certainly didn’t get involved in the kind of nefarious activities that Böhme associates himself with in the book.
Von Pressel died in 1902. The railway wasn’t completed until 1940. By all accounts, von Pressel wasn’t even that much of a baddie. He was kicked off the project near the end of his days, because the German financiers thought he was ‘too humanitarian’.
A much more likely candidate is von der Goltz. Not only was he an eminent military historian, whose works Childers would have known well, von der Goltz would certainly have been active in the Frisians in the late 1890s, carrying out his duties as head of the Engineer and Pioneer Corps and Inspector-General of Fortifications.
And he has real baddie credentials later in life, becoming military governor of Belgium in 1914, where his ruthless way of ruling was praised by none other than Adolf Hitler.
Neither of these two characters ever worked in Bremen, however, where we’re told Böhme hails from, and this information about his place of work is telling. If you’re an engineer of any sort working in Bremen at the beginning of the 20th Century, you’re almost certainly working for AG Weser (another Krupp subsidiary btw). And the kind of work you’d be doing would be shipbuilding, both commercial and military.
AG Weser thrived mainly on producing large passenger ships, profiting from the huge flow of Germans emigrating to the United States at the time. The company also built warships, and, for our purposes, also did very good business in barges, pontoons and floating docks. In others words, the company was making exactly the type of vessel Carruthers finds in the yard on the banks of the Bensersiel on the night of October 24 .
Just a few years later, AG Weser was also to become well known for producing U-boats, so it’s interesting that we are told on October 24 by Carruthers that he knows Böhme as a submarine engineer too.
“A submarine engineer I knew him to be before”
It’s somewhat prescient of Childers to pick up on this point, since the first U-boat didn’t actually appear in Bremen until 1906, three years after the publication of ‘The Riddle of the Sands’. And the lead engineer on that project wasn’t even German – he was a Spaniard.
I can’t find any records of the other senior engineers working at Weser in 1898, but it is interesting to note that one of the main shipbuilding rivals in the area at the time wasBlohm & Voss. Mr *Blohm* was alive and well in 1898, working in nearby Lübeck, not only building boats, but also specialising in new-fangled *flying* boats. I can’t help thinking Childers would have known about this.
So we have a Blohm, not a Böhme. We have a Spanish submarine engineer, not a German. And we have a ruthless inspector of fortifications who spends most of his time fraternising with Young Turks in Istanbul, rather than co-ordinating an invasion plan in the Frisians.
We have not, it’s fair to say, found an exact match. But at least here’s a cast of characters that would have been on Childers’s radar. In the case of submarine engineers, there’s a couple more characters to add to the mix, too, who I think Childers would have known about. They’re not German – they’re Irish. But I’ll save that story for another post…