Chapter 1

Percy Toplis was ambushed by three policemen near a country church on a hot summer’s evening in June 1920. Worshippers coming out from evensong scattered for cover among the gravestones to avoid being caught up in the exchange of gunfire. The jocal chief constable’s son, armed with an automatic pistol, roared up to join in. Toplis’s killing, at the age of 23, was brutal, and its manner unprecedented, but it also came as a great relief to the highest authorities in the War Office and the Secret Service. For with him were buried, for sixty years at least, some of the darker secrets of the First World War.

At the time the case aroused a small amount of adverse comment in the Manchester Guardian, slight praise in the Yorkshire Post, total approval in local newspapers, and some muted protest at Westminster. It took a jury just three minutes to record a verdict of justifiable homicide. The chief constable who, it was claimed, had authorized the operation was awarded the CBE and then, within weeks, mysteriously resigned. Even in death, Percy Toplis continued to blight the lives of the establishment.

Private Percy Toplis masquerading as a war hero.
Private Percy Toplis masquerading as a war hero.

Toplis had been handsome, debonair, a natural actor, a fair pianist, a renowned philanderer. He had a wild sense of humour.

Even when on the run for his life, he ostentatiously affected a gold:rimmed monocle. But, unknown to the newspaper readers who devoured the scandalous details of his post-war career, he was also the most extravagant anti-hero of the First World War.

At a time when he ought to have been dead, executed by firing squad in accordance with rough-and-ready wartime justice, he was re-joining the British Forces with arrogant ease, confident he would not be touched.

It was a very grateful authority that made quiet heroes of the men who finally gunned him down, and who then swiftly swept him under the sod into a pauper’s grave overlooking the hills and lakes of Ullswater. The cemetery register simply states: ‘Shot dead by police at Plumpton.’ But there are those alive today who still remember Percy Toplis with affection, respect and admiration. They include his closest childhood friend, Ernest Leah of Bilsthorpe, Mansfield.

Leah looked so like his friend that he was once actually arrested by police in a case of mistaken identity when the countrywide manhunt was on for Toplis. As Leah recalls: ‘He was my best friend. A lovely lad. Today he would have been regarded as one of those intellectual socialists. Then, he had no chance at all. Mind you, he was a bit of a tearaway, was Percy.’ Ernest Leah’s brother Raymond, a local councillor in Alfreton, Derbyshire, still keeps Toplis’s army belt as a treasured memento.

This, then, is the story of the monocled tearaway, Private alias Lieutenant /Captain /Colonel Percy Toplis, who made the biggest single-handed contribution to the almost unknown mutiny of the British Army in France in the First World War.

In June 1920, less than three years after that rebellion, the authorities no doubt excused themselves for the manner of his death with the thought that Toplis had been too dangerous to bring to trial. The country was not yet ready for regrets and recriminations. Or for a first-hand, eye-witness account of a mutiny which had officially never happened.

Even today, the Ministry of Defence shies away from the word ‘mutiny’. It prefers the word ‘disturbances’, which was the description used in a secret army record of the time. But mutiny t was, and it lasted six desperate days, involved thousands of troops and finished with the authorities surrendering and a brigadier-general being relieved of his command. Toplis’s control of another British army – an army of deserters behind the front line – was so complete that when the mutiny brought about a clean sweep of military police personnel, the first and most important task of the new commander, a secret service agent, Edwin Woodhall, was to track Toplis down. But Toplis, as he was to do so many times again, turned Houdini and escaped to thumb his nose at the military and the police through another three years of immaculate effrontery.

But then he had been doing that to authorities of every kind since he was 11 years old.