The Monocled Mutineer


Percy Toplis was, and remains, the spark of this story. A pitboy who tricked his way confidently through London high society, a womanizer, an outlaw, he was to be hunted by the Secret Service, to break his way out of prison under threat of a death sentence, and finally to be shot down by the police in what was as spectacular and preposterous an ambush as the constabulary have ever mounted in England.

But the pursuit of the story of Toplis was to lead us into history, into one of the central enigmas of the First World War: the manner in which millions of men apparently went obediently and meekly to the slaughter at the behest of the politicians and the generals. The French Army did rebel, and almost cast away the war. But hitherto the image of the British Army has been one of unquestioning obedience and unbending discipline. Our search for Toplis was to lead us through a succession of outrageous adventures into the centre of a huge mutiny of the British Army previously recorded only as tiny glimpses in memoirs of more glorious moments.

Even the most sceptical authors writing about the First World War make no mention of the six days during which a sizeable section of the British Army rebelled and threatened Field Marshal Haig’s autumn offensive against Passchendaele in 1917.

One author, R. H. Mottram, in 1929 condemned this omission as a disgraceful conspiracy to conceal an event which should not have been hushed up. He excused his own failure to write on the subject by confessing that he did not know the truth about the mutiny, adding that perhaps no one knew the truth. But sixty years later there are still, the length and breadth of Britain, ordinary men who remember with both pride and bitterness the time when thousands of Scots, Australian, New Zealand and English soldiers defied the Army High Command in the rebellion of Etaples – and won. If Toplis is occasionally submerged in the swell of this secret history, which the military authorities are still at pains to suppress, then that is no more than he might have wished, or expected.