Chapter 10

The mutiny over, the first target in the sights of authority was Percy Toplis. And one of the crack agents in the British Secret Service was called in to track him down.

On 25 September a sharp-eyed dapper little man on a Triumph motor-cycle could be seen racing south down the Boulogne road to Etaples, driving past the long columns of newly arrived reinforcements from England marching towards the base, continuing victims of the one order General Thomson had not revoked.

The motor-cyclist drove into Etaples and stopped at the Grande-Place, where troops were now free to mix, propped his machine against the town-hall steps and sauntered across the cobbled square to the Sévigné Café. Apart from a few French civilians and the café waiters, he was the only person in the square not in uniform. As he took a seat at a pavement table and ordered a coffee, it began to rain and the café owner sheltered his customers by pulling down a red, white and blue striped awning, newly acquired as a welcoming sign to the army now permitted to pull a seat up to the table.

The motor-cyclist unbelted his black coat, hoisted his goggles on to the peak of his flat cap, removed cycle clips from the legs of a neat blue suit and, for ten minutes, surveyed the midday bustle as troop-laden trams rattled through the town centre.

He finished his coffee, remounted his machine and drove out of the Grande-Place, retracing the route taken by the trams by turning left into the rue o’Billiet, up the steep slope and then roaring down the rue Saint-Pierre through the rue Désiré Deboffé, past the tramway terminal and on into the wide Place du Gare. As always, the square was packed with soldiers waiting to leave for the front. The motor-cyclist dismounted and wheeled the machine through the glum, cheerless ranks to the entrance of the Hôtel des Voyageurs, where evergreen-filled window-boxes faced back across the square to the station entrance opposite.

Agent Edwin Woodhall of the Secret Service was going to lunch alone before taking over as the new chief of Etaples police, a force drawn from servicemen who had been policemen in civilian life. A former cavalryman, Woodhall, pre-war, had had the distinction of being the smallest officer in the Metropolitan Police, but he made up for his lack of stature in other respects. He was hard and tough, with a first-class army certificate in boxing, wrestling and gymnastics to prove it.

He had piercing blue eyes, neatly side-parted black hair and a sharp profile accentuated by a jutting chin. He had been selected for his new task because he had a brain that matched the sharpness of his expression. After only four years in the Metropolitan Police, he had been promoted to Scotland Yard’s Special Branch in 1910 when he was only 24, He had guarded members of the Royal Family as well as Winston Churchill and Lloyd George. In 1915 he had joined the counter-espionage department of the Intelligence Section of the Secret Police, based at Boulogne. Part of his job had been to guard the Prince of Wales during the period when the prince had been attached to the General Staff in France. His last task before arriving at Etaples had been to discover how so many prisoners of the élite German regiment, the Prussian Cavalry Guard, were escaping from prisoner-of-war camps around Le Havre.

During the day the German prisoners worked at Le Havre docks, and Woodhall hit on the idea of spying on their movements and contacts from the cabin of a crane. He had supplied himself with papers, which showed him to be a discharged English soldier married to a Frenchwoman and working as a civilian labourer. He taught himself to drive a crane and got a job in the docks. And from his position ten feet above the ground he spotted a Belgian labourer passing papers to a German officer. Further investigation showed that the Belgian was an essential link in a prisoner-of-war escape scheme organized from Berlin through Geneva and Paris.

Early in his civilian police career, Woodhalll had been forced to correct a tendency to be over-zealous, a fault pointed out to him in the London South-Western Magistrates’ Court by the defending counsel, the celebrated Sir Edward Marshall Hall, and the presiding magistrates. But he had not allowed a public rebuke to interfere with his initiative and enterprise, and that was why he found himself in Etaples with the capture of Toplis his first priority. For the teenage ringleader, still hiding in Etaples, Woodhall would be a formidable new adversary.

Most of the mutineers had been moved out of Etaples with the utmost haste once the rebellion was finished and the trains could be used again. By the time Woodhall arrived, many of them were already dead, killed in the new battle which Plumer had launched five days before on 20 September. But Haig’s officers were not going to leave it at that. There was going to be some retribution.

No more had been heard of the Army’s Board of Inquiry set up after the first day of the mutiny. If they did continue to sit, then they must have been overtaken and overwhelmed by the events that followed. However, on 13 September, Captain F. D. H. Joy and other members of the Intelligence Corps had been moved into the base, an indication that by the Thursday the bunt was on for political agitators who might have played a part in the mutiny.

The Secret Service followed within days. Once calm was restored, Thomson had started to retaliate by banning alcohol, and, remembering the part played by the New Zealanders, announced that the New Zealand Division alone would continue to be condemned to the rigours of the Bull Ring. For the rest, it was in part for the mutineers a pyrrhic victory, enshrined in the diary note: ‘Infantry Reinforcements in future to go straight up to the Front to complete their training.’

There was, of course, neither the time nor the facility for training at the Western Front. A wiser decision would have been to have reorganized the Btaples training schedules so that cruelty and brutality no longer played a part in them. There is no evidence that part of the conditions for a satisfactory end to the mutiny contained promises that there would be no punishment or reprisal. And even if Thomson had made such promises in his moments of extreme embarrassment, it is unlikely that Brigadier-General F. W. Radcliffe, his successor, or other British warlords would feel honour-bound to carry out pledges made by a man they had dismissed.

When assistance from outside reached Thomson and his beleaguered officers, they had started straight away to make street arrests among the mutineers, and the Honourable Artillery Company had helped to mount a guard on the prison compound to prevent a repeat of the Toplis raid. It is known that the mutineers were threatened with death by Lieutenant-Colonel Cooper of the Honourable Artillery Company. The published records leave unanswered questions of how many of those arrested actually faced the firing squad. Over 200 British soldiers had already been executed during the war, often for offences far less serious than those committed at Etaples. In the whole war only three men are publicly admitted to have been shot for the offence of ‘mutiny’. The implication from the records is that the executions took place in the wake of the Etaples rebellion. Against the scant official record, of course, is the evidence of Aubrey Aaransan who remembers an execution list totalling at least ten.

It is inconceivable that everyone escaped the fate threatened by the British Army at the height of its gravest internal crisis. But there is a Ministry of Defence ruling which forbids the release of information relating to wartime executions until a hundred years after those executions are carried out, a rule designed, it is claimed, to protect the interests and feelings of relatives who might still be alive. This lavish gesture towards the risk of remarkable longevity means that the last word on the subject of the Etaples mutiny will not be written until the records are opened in the year 2017. The one thing certain is that the man Edwin Woodhall was bunting was doubly at risk. Percy Toplis was not only a mutineer, but also a deserter, and both were capital offences.

Woodhall began to trawl through the underground hideouts of the deserters:

‘With a large covered lorry about an hour before dawn, and with about eight or nine picked men, we would proceed silently and swiftly to a prearranged rendezvous. Men would be stationed at each entrance of the chalk dugouts to prevent escape in the dark. Then at the point of a revolver I would enter the cave with a flash lamp, and arrest anyone I found.’

But Toplis was never among them.

Like Toplis, Woodhall favoured disguise in any form. At the time the officers’ quarters were still being raided, and when one particular set had been burgled repeatedly, he dressed up as an officer’s servant to keep watch. This method of detection led to him tracking down a deserter to a toolhouse near Paris Plage lighthouse. The toolshed had been turned, into an Aladdin’s Cave of goods, to the value of thousands of pounds, stolen from camps in the area.

But tracking down Toplis was to be a lot more difficult. It was well into October before, in the end, he resorted to the simple device of putting up posters offering a £15 reward for information leading to the capture of Toplis. Quickly a tip led twelve kilometres south to the village of Rang du Fliers.

Rang du Fliers straggles beside the rue de Montreuil for a distance of about half a mile, and at the centre of the village are level-crossing gates flanking the Boulogne-Paris railway which cuts across the road at this point. Just over the level crossing is a dull grey café, then part of the Liberty Hotel, which is now closed. On the bleak morning of the 15th, Woodhall borrowed a horse and approached the village via the cemetery at its western end, dismounted and led the animal along a pathway in the cemetery to a point behind the eight-foot-tall, five-foot wide sepulchre built by the Garson family to honour its dead.

Set into the vault about half-way down was a figurine of the Virgin Mary, protected by an iron grille above which was the inscription, ‘Famille Garson. Ici Repose Le Corps D’Emile Leboeuf. Age De 30 Ans. 7 Juin, 1878.’ Woodhall tethered his horse to the grid. In absurd theatrical fashion, he took from his saddle-bag a dog collar, a white shirt and a priest’s habit, and, shielded from view by the sepulchre, exchanged his clothes for these garments. He walked a quarter of a mile before turning left into a sugar factory opposite the Liberty Hotel just short of the level crossing.

He then climbed some wooden steps to join two of the newstyle Etaples military policemen who had been keeping watch on the hotel and the café on the other side of the street. They could hear the trains for the front rattling over the crossing as they waited for their quarry.

But of Toplis there was still no sign.

Woodhall had been standing by the window, concealed by curtains, for nearly twenty minutes before the penny dropped. His informer had said Toplis would be at the hotel at noon, not that he would be arriving then. Toplis was already there, as a resident in the hotel.

Woodhall arranged for the two policemen to wait and then follow him into the café. After a tense two minutes, they pushed in the door to find a group of bewildered French customers clustering round an English-speaking priest who was holding up a monocled British Army captain at gun-point.

Elated, Woodhall telephoned the Provost Marshal with news of his capture from the telegraphe poste next to the sugar factory. Immediate arrangements were made for a court martial to sit the next day to hear the twin charges of desertion and mutiny. But the charges were never levelled. The court never did sit. Again, the army failed to take Toplis’s ingenuity into its reckoning.

Toplis, of course, was already familiar with the inadequacies of the prison compound, and when he returned officially under armed escort he could see they still existed. The prison was a stockade erected from huge wooden stakes about ten feet in height, and inside this was a double row of barbed-wire entanglements surrounding several wooden guard-houses. The only armed guards on duty were stationed at the main gate. The compound overlooked the railway, and on the other side it faced the River Canche.

At about 3 a.m. the next morning, a searchlight suddenly picked up a figure in its beam. The shadow for a moment zigzagged to avoid the rifle bullets, and then was lost. With chagrin, Woodhall recounts the story:

‘Unfortunately, during the night, Toplis, with another notorious character who also had the death sentence against him, tunnelled down under the sand of the barbed wire compound and broke out. The escape was daring to a degree, for the compound was situated on the banks of a river, but, nothing daunted, they dashed down the slope of the foreshore, though it was high tide with a swiftly running current, plunged in the river and swam across to the other side and made good their escape into the woods in and around Le Touquet.’

‘Before the day was out, with a strong posse of armed men, I found the other man in an exhausted state near Berck Plage. But my real man got away, and although I scoured and combed the place for miles, he successfully eluded all the attempts at capture.’

Angry and frustrated, Woodhall turned out the army messenger dogs from the Etaples kennels in an attempt to pick up the trail. They were still barking and baying their way through the woods at noon the following day. By then, Toplis had reunited himself with the uniform of an RAMC private, his real #60 status, and was hitch-hiking his way towards Boulogne on army transport. The seriously wounded on the next troopship which pulled out of Boulogne harbour, heading back for dear old Blighty, were grateful for the kindness and attention of one particular ginger-haired medical orderly.

Left behind to die from his wounds in an Etaples hospital was the poet Leslie Coulson, who had written ‘But a short time to live’:

Our little hour-how short a time

To wage our wars, to fan our fates,

To take our fill of armoured crime,

To troop our banner, storm the gates.

Blood on the sword, our eyes blood red,

Blind in our puny reign of power,

Do we forget how soon is sped Our little hour.