I recently had the pleasure of seeing Paul McGann’s return to Liverpool in Theatre6’s production of Gabriel at the Liverpool Playhouse. This was, surprisingly, McGann’s UK theatre tour debut, and playing the role of Von Pfunz, it reminded me of another uniformed role he played some thirty years ago: Percy Toplis in BBC’s 1986 production, The Monocled Mutineer.
The four-part serial was a dramatisation by Alan Bleasdale of a 1978 book of the same name by William Allison and John Fairley which recounted the story of one Percy Toplis, a deserter from the British Army during the First World War who, it was alleged, was a ringleader of the relatively unknown Étaples Mutiny in late 1917.
There had been some controversy when the book had been published – indeed questions had been raised in parliament – and when the television series came out, it all came to the fore again alongside allegations that the BBC was susceptible to left wing bias. Oh, those were the days.
Criticism from the right-wing press suggested that the Étaples mutiny amounted to nothing more than a few days of disorder involving a little disrespect to officers and loud demands for humane treatment. The army had responded quickly and brought in unaffected troops and replaced staff as necessary. Certainly, the available evidence suggests that it didn’t really take off: only one man was condemned to death and shot by a firing squad whilst three soldiers were sentenced to ten years’ penal servitude and others were jailed for up to one year with hard labour. Matters were compounded when the historical adviser to the series claimed it was riddled with errors, upon which he had not been consulted, and the book was nothing more than a sensational version of the mutiny and Toplis’ life.
The BBC, to their credit, were resolute that the series was a dramatisation of the book, the contents of which had never been formally challenged, and whilst demonstrating truths about the First World War, the series was not intended as a documentary. Fairley, by then Director of Programmes for Yorkshire TV, took legal advice on the allegations being made as everything became quite heated.
And then, like so often, the series was over and attention turned to other things. Although it was repeated once during 1988, despite numerous requests, the series has never been re-shown.
All of which leaves the question: who was Percy Toplis and what did happen at Étaples in 1917?
Francis Percy Toplis was born in 1896 near Alfreton in Derbyshire to impoverished parents and he was raised by his grandparents. Early school records indicate he was unruly and frequently punished. He left school at 13 to start as an apprentice blacksmith but poor attendance and an argumentative attitude led him to an itinerant life. In 1911 he was sentenced to ten-days imprisonment for non-payment of two train tickets and in 1912 he was sentenced to two years hard labour for attempted rape of a young girl. He was released in 1914 as war broke out. In 1915 he enlisted with the Royal Army Medical Corps where he served as a stretcher bearer although he had by now taken to impersonating officers and returned home to visit his parents posing in the uniform of an army captain resulting in a feature in the local newspaper.
He deserted at the end of the war, at the same time his father died, and was then sentenced for two years for fraud. On his release in 1920 he joined the Royal Army Service Corps in Bulford where he became involved in the black market selling rationed fuel, forging false papers, fiddling accounts, and dressing as a colonel when he visited women in the nearby town, often wearing a gold monocle as part of his disguise.
On 24th April 1920, he deserted again, apparently after a local taxi driver was found dead from a gunshot wound. Following an inquest, the jury returned a verdict of ‘wilful murder’ by Percy Toplis, which foreshadowed the possibility of his execution upon capture.
Toplis was for a while Britain’s most wanted man, and was sighted in London posing as an officer. As the police closed in he fled initially to Wales and then to Scotland where, when approached by a farmer and policeman, he fired his pistol wounding them both, and fled on a bicycle. Following further sightings, he was eventually apprehended in Cumberland, as part of an elaborate ‘sting’ operation led by the Chief Constable’s son and police officers in disguise, and was shot dead. Following a brief inquest, he was buried in an unmarked grave in Penrith with his belongings, including the monocle, being handed to Penrith Museum.
So, what did happen at Étaples and was Toplis even present?
Étaples was the base for thousands of allied troops who were being trained for the Passchendaele offensive. It is generally accepted that conditions were harsh and that the treatment meted out by military police and instructors, under the command of Brigadier-General Thompson, was brutal and inhumane.
In both the book and the television series, Toplis is portrayed as the Monocled Mutineer who leads the insurrection and confronts Thompson with demands for better conditions, the removal of the military police, and the closure of the feared Bull-Ring training ground. The General and his officers were bundled into a guardroom which was then surrounded with brushwood and given 30 minutes to agree to the demands or be burnt alive: they agreed within ten minutes only for the mob to throw them in the river. Six days of riots followed, immobilising 100,000 men and undermining the war effort at a critical time: violent insubordination was rife as thousands of soldiers rampaged through Étaples, raping women and slaughtering military policemen. By the time control was restored Percy Toplis had gone AWOL.
However there doesn’t appear to be any record of rampage, rape, and slaughter in Étaples.
And Toplis? Official records indicate that he was not missing from his regiment which at that time was en-route to India.
But that’s not to say he was with them.
Because if he was, why was he being actively sought in France following the mutiny with posters being issued for his arrest.
Was he one of the leaders that got away?
There was an internal Court of Inquiry into the incident but all the court records subsequently disappeared. Subsequent reports indicate that anyone involved in the rioting fell in battle at Passchendaele – well that bit is certainly believable and convenient – meaning there were no surviving witnesses as to what happened.
Apart from Toplis.
Was he, perhaps, innocent of the murder of the taxi driver? It was after all the first modern British inquest to declare a man guilty of murder in his absence.
And given the complexity of the operation that went into capturing Toplis that resulted in his death, were there other forces at play?
And what about the reaction from the establishment when first the book and then the television series re-opened the subject? Is there something to hide?
Toplis does not appear to have been a likeable person before the war, but is that factually correct or have records been altered? If true, did he remain a rogue or did he become a hero leading his fellow conscripts against the injustices being thrust upon them?
The official files regarding the mutiny are scheduled to be released into the public domain in 2017 but since we know all the records of the Étaples Board of Enquiry have been destroyed, I somehow think it unlikely that we will learn anything new.
And that means that there are very few definite facts other than what is captured on the plaque issued by the Penrith Civic Society: