“The book and the subsequent television series The Monocled Mutineer caused so much controversy – the idea that British troops had mutinied in the First World War was anathema to the military establishment – that new readers are perhaps entitled to an account of how the book, and the story in it, came about.
History, the jibe runs, is something that did not happen, described by people who weren’t there.
When Bill Allison and I were researching The Monocled Mutineer we found a then untrodden path to uncovering the events at Étaples in 1917. We actually talked and corresponded with the participants. In 1976 these men were mainly in their seventies, their memories of desperate times consigned to irrelevancy by the intervention of a second war and relayed only to old comrades and the sporadic interest of grandchildren.
The principal official record of the Étaples mutiny which survives is the war diary of its most exalted victim, the Commandant, Brigadier-General Andrew Graham Thomson, Royal Engineers. Subjective as it is, it makes alarming enough reading: ‘Disturbance in Reinforcement Camp between military police and troops, Corporal Wood, 4th Gordons being accidentally shot …. a crowd of about 1000 gathered in Étaples town, and about 7.30 pm tried to break into the Sevigne cafe where two policemen were hiding.’
Thomson goes on to describe further riots and breakouts for four days, accompanied by increasingly desperate attempts to have troops sent back from the front to restore order. As an official document of an event which was effectively to end Thomson’s career, the diary is astonishingly frank. It could hardly, however, be expected to paint a full picture. We determined therefore to seek direct evidence. We suspected that many veterans would still be chary of speaking about what they regarded as an ignoble episode. Our letter to local newspapers was thus carefully worded: Do any veterans of the First World War have recollections of the events at Étaples in September 1917?
This letter was published in newspapers in the areas where we knew that regiments which were involved were recruited – Dundee, Manchester, Glasgow, Yorkshire, the East Midlands – and in several newspapers and journals in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Nearly 60 years had elapsed. We had no notion of what to expect. But then, day after day, for three months or more, there arrived through my letter box from all over the world, sharp, bitter accounts of events long ago, but far from forgotten. Inevitably they were careful, handwritten stories in old men’s script, teased out without any other prompting than the brief query in their local paper.
Some were brief and to the point. M. Cordy wrote from Chaucer Gardens, Sutton, Surrey: ‘I was at the camp in 1917. It was like prison and the Red Caps were worse than bastards. Even the officers were scared of them. There was a provo sergeant. We called him Black Jack. The Aussies swore they would get him. They did. He was tied to the railway lines and that was his lot. When the trouble was over we were sent into the firing line at Passchendaele Ridge. It was hell let loose and half of us never came back.’ Cordy had been 15 when he joined up and was at Étaples on his way back from England, having ben gassed at Ypres.
Scores of letters described the dreadful conditions at Étaples which fuelled the mutiny. A. J. Notley wrote from New Costessey in Norwich: ‘My memories of the Étaples base are chiefly of the abuse which was heaped on the rank and file and even now, in my 80th year, I wonder at times what comradeship means.’
George Horn, a Highlander then living in Prescott on Merseyside wrote: ‘What I remember of “Etaps” was harshness, bullying, poor rations and intolerance, an unnecessary breaking in process to the pitch of human endurance.’
In the Imperial War Museum, the large-scale maps of the Étaples camp and the Bull Ring still survive. It is possible to trace the purgatorial obstacle course which our correspondents remembered, the trial gas chambers, the assault course, the bayonetting, and always and repeatedly, the sand. A Seaforth Highlander wrote from Bacup in Lancashire recalled seeing men wounded and killed on the assault course. Sergeant C.J. Jellie wrote from Takapuna, near Auckland in New Zealand, recalling seeing the Aussies cut down a Tommie who was bound to a wagon wheel doing field punishment.
But it was the detailed accounts of events during the mutiny, unprompted except by our newspaper letter, which fascinated most in that early correspondence. W. Breffit wrote from Cadboro Bay, British Columbia, that after the mutiny started ‘we all started to walk into town. The MP tried to stop us. He was rushed and thrown over the bridge.’
Several men recalled the shooting of Corporal Wood. Private A. Lumley, Royal Scots, wrote from Bramcote, Nottingham: ‘I think I am the only living person who saw the start of the mutiny at Étaples in 1917. It started with the firing of the pistol of the Red Cap on the bridge. I stood near the bridge with Private Cairns of the Scottish Rifles when we noticed a Scottish soldier and an Anzac talking to a WAAC girl. We saw the Red Cap say something to them, and then he shot the Scot dead. My companion had no love for the English, and he simply went mad and raced through the Scots camp shouting “An English bastard has shot a Jock.”’ Several writers identified the Red Cap as Danny Reeve, a well-known ex-welterweight boxer.
Aubrey Aaronson, from Prestwich, Manchester, of the Border Regiment, said: ‘The troops ran into the Étaples village, chasing the WAACs out of their billets. Six military policemen were shot and buried outside Étaples with comical songs for their funeral. The troops in the Bull Ring downed their arms and went crazy and put sleepers on the railway track to stop them going up the line.’ The release of prisoners was described by Weber Todman from Wanganui, New Zealand; ‘We marched to the clink, which was half of the MP’s quarters, let the prisoners out, doused the place with kerosene, and set it on fire. This created a very dangerous situation as it was very near the ammunition dump.’
By now it was clear to Allison and myself that we were dealing with a much more dramatic array of events than Thomson’s war diary suggested. We wrote back to our correspondents, visited them, and solicited further letters from around the world.
We also paid a number of visits to Étaples itself. The square was unchanged, though the Hôtel des Voyageurs had seen better days. There is no sign of the great camp. But the war cemetery is reminder enough. Étaples seems the cruellest of cemeteries. There are more than 10,000 graves, the pitiful roll-call of those who lived long enough to endure the journey back from the front, but who could not hold on to life long enough to see England again. We found the grave of Corporal Wood.
Still in Étaples, too, were a number of people who recalled the violent events in Étaples town in September 1917. The town doctor, Pierre Durignieux, by then well into his eighties, told us: ‘I have seen myself the episode of that important English officer standing on his horse in front of the town hall and trying to compose with the screaming of hundreds of soldiers and who had the cheeks and mouth opened by the big knife of a soldier and of the consecutive fight of the soldiers with the military police.’
Monsieur F. Houigue, secretary of the Academic Society of Le Touquet drew our attention to accounts of the troops running amok. ‘Myself, I was 13 at the time, and I remember very well the troops (cortege bruyants is his phrase) in the streets of Le Touquet. I particularly remember a soldier at the head of one of the groups carrying a lance on which a cat was impaled.’
How many of the mutineers were executed? Aubrey Aaronson told us there were orderly-room notices recording that a number of executions had been carried out. Certainly troops had to be brought back from the line to restore order. Sergeant W. Harrop was with the 22nd Manchesters at Bullicourt in the Hindenburg Line: ‘We were suddenly moved to the nearest railhead in secret and entrained for Étaples. None of us knew where we were going. Only when we arrived were we told why we were there. By then all was quiet, but it must have created a great impression to see a full battalion arriving direct from the front.’ All this while the attack on Passchendaele was being prepared.
In these letters and conversations with veterans, the name of Percy Toplis was occasionally mentioned. Few thought of him as the main ringleader. Indeed few thought there was one ringleader. Rather there were a number of hardened soldiers who took advantage of the confused and riotous situation which was developing throughout the camp. But they remembered the name principally, 60 years on, because of the spectacular splash in the press which Percy Toplis enjoyed so soon after the end of the war. Ex-Gunner L. G. Charles from Weston-super-Mare wrote that the leaders were Percy and Black Jack, a six-foot black-bearded Australian from the bush. Private Musgrove, from Wallsend on Tyne, also thought Percy played a principal role, particularly during an incident when Thomson was confronted in his car. The General was surrounded by yelling troops. ‘Toplis demanded the Red Caps should be sent away from the IBD, which was granted.’
We knew something of Toplis from the memoirs of Edwin Woodhall, a noted Metropolitan policeman, seconded to the Secret Service, who described his capture of Toplis near Étaples in the aftermath of the mutiny, and then Toplis’s dramatic escape from the prisoners’ compound. Woodhall’s widow confirmed to me that he regarded Toplis as a key figure in the mutiny and that was why he had pursued him with such vigour. From further conversations with our correspondents emerged the characterful picture of his role in the mutiny which is detailed in the book.
We do know what sort of a fellow he was. There were, in 1975, a lot of people living around Blackwell and Mansfield in Nottinghamshire who remembered him well. The effrontery of Toplis, in officer’s uniform, drilling the local volunteers is exact. The story of his girl Dorothy and the baby is traceable through the records of Somerset House.
The mutiny at Étaples does not fit into the standard picture of the First World War. It is the story of common soldiers who rebelled against protracted insult and brutality, recorded in dozens of letters and personal memories.
Captain Jim Davis, the officer who had to abandon the Étaples bridge to the mutineers, appeared on a BBC television discussion in 1986 and confirmed that the picture of those events was accurate. ‘But,’ he said, ‘I would have paid more attention if I’d known that that they were going to make it into a TV series.’