Armistice Day 1918 in Nottingham was subdued compared with the wild scenes which took place in London, or even in the nearby towns of Derby and Leicester. Practical problems prevented, ‘as the local paper put it, ‘the repetition of the orgies associated with the relief of Mafeking’. Many of the pubs had no beer and shut their doors. The street lights were left shrouded and darkened along all but the main roads as the council did not have enough men to remove the anti-Zeppelin covers. The church bells rang out only intermittently, for many of the change-ringers were still in France. Northern Command announced that fireworks would be permitted. But fireworks were hard to come by.
For too many Nottingham folk, in any case, joy was not the emotion that first rose in their hearts that afternoon. An anonymous parent had reminded them in a letter to that morning’s papers:
It would be a gracious and kindly action on the part of the general public if, when peace is celebrated, they would modify their gaiety in consideration for the feelings of countless numbers who have been so sadly bereaved and for whom there will be no homecoming family reunion but only the memory of a nameless grave.
I am, sir, etc.,
Bereaved of our only child
Others were apprehensive of what the peace might bring. Two of Nottingham’s notable gentry made cautionary speeches. Lord Henry Bentinck told a large gathering in Pennyfoot Street that Nottinghamshire alone had 78,000 men serving in the forces, for whom there awaited few jobs, poor wages and scandalously neglected housing. A few streets away the Duke of Portland announced that there could be no mawkish sentiment towards those who had brought untold horrors upon the world, and that all of them, from the Kaiser downwards, should receive the retribution they deserved. He trusted the government would restrict the flow of undesirable foreigners. Great Britain should not be a dumping-place for those who – he was poised to use strong words – were ‘the scum of the Continent’.
At four o’clock, slight rain was dampening the gathering gloom at Nottingham’s Midland station as another damper on excessive excitement pulled into platform two. A full train-load of wounded from the final battle for Arras was lifted out and put on to the waiting ambulances. It was a slow business.
Many of the men were desperately ill and the stretcher-bearers were elderly. Nottingham had few able-bodied men left for the home front.
In the narrow front windows of the fifteenth-century Flying Horse Hotel in Nottingham, Percy Toplis sat watching the ambulances go past through the market square. Knots of people waved Union Jacks at them. Lighted shop windows and open curtains illuminated the soggy bunting wrapped around the lamp standards.
But Toplis was not to be depressed. On the contrary, 11 a.m. on 11 November marked the beginning of what he was confident was to be an extremely successful day for him. As from that moment he felt himself immune from the firing squad. Not that there had ever been any sign of the dullards in the Military Police looking in the army’s own records for the whereabouts of their ‘most wanted deserter’. For, on his arrival back in England, Toplis had taken the boldest course, gone straight to the army recruiting centre in Nottingham and joined another regiment, the Royal Army Service Corps.
He had been taken to Clipstone Camp, his new depot. It was comfortably near Shirland, a village close to Alfreton in Derbyshire where his mother had just moved, and the duties were hardly onerous. There were hardly any duties at all. The celebration of the Armistice had not been constrained at Clipstone by the solemn sentiments of Nottingham, When the news had arrived – a newsboy with a quire of Evening Post specials – Private Toplis had made immediately for his place of duty, the canteen piano.
He knew the favourite tunes, especially ‘The Old Hundredth’. But the singing had not lasted long. There were too many men who wanted to be off to girlfriends and families. And there were few enough among the soldiers present who knew anything of Mons and Ypres or Passchendaele and the Somme. There was little sentiment to be wrung from ‘the long, long way to Tipperary’. And the pubs were open in Ollerton. Toplis had realized that it was time to prepare for the imperatives of peace. He had gone back to his billet and carefully packed the equipment which was to provide him with a living: one full walking-out uniform of an officer in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, complete with Mons decoration and a number of chevrons on the sleeve; one chequebook drawn on the London County and Westminster Bank at Beckenham, Kent, originally the property of a certain Lieutenant Copeland Barker of London; and a revolver with twelve cartridges.
Toplis had tested the less violent aspects of his equipment a month before at Hucknall on his way in to a weekend’s furlough in Nottingham. He had called in at Frank Tweed’s jewellery shop in the High Street and looked at a number of gold bracelet watches. There was a fine Benson for £8 17s. 6d. But as Toplis started to write out one of Lieutenant Copeland’s cheques, he sensed that Mr Tweed was becoming uneasy, and that a Mons star might not be a total guarantee of creditworthiness. With a flourish he scribbled in the sum of £9. ‘The extra half a crown is the mark of a gentleman,’ he cried, and walked out with the watch. A fortnight before that, a bank at Mansfield Woodhouse had fallen for the same style.
Now that the fighting had stopped, Toplis felt he could abandon the army for the time being. In the post-war confusion he could find both security and opportunity in the outside world. The Flying Horse had not been difficult about honouring a cheque on this day of all days, and Toplis saw no reason to do his drinking anywhere else but in its comfortable lounge. As the evening set in, more revellers appeared, determined to overcome the atmosphere of sobriety. A lorry crammed with American soldiers, cheering wildly and flying the Stars and Stripes, tore through the market place. A stray aircraft dropped Verey lights, and parties of girls from the munitions factory marched up and down waving flags and singing. Toplis called for another black beer. As he turned round, two men walked in through the door and strode straight towards him. One was Detective Sergeant Hames, Nottingham Police. The other Toplis recognized immediately as Mr Frank Tweed, jeweller of Hucknall. Temporarily the peace had started badly for Percy Toplis.
For a fortnight, the police attempted to make inquiries into the background of their prisoner. There were two adjournments of the case for further investigations. This only served to encourage Toplis, and the police got everything wrong. His age was given as thirty – ten years too much; his occupation as miner – six years out of date: his army unit as the Royal Army Medical Corps stationed at Salonika.
Toplis, familiar with the ways of the magistrates, concentrated on diversions and sympathy ploys rather than contesting the charges. He told the Nottinghamshire Hall Bench that he had only tried the frauds because his war wounds affected him. When the magistrates proved unmoved, he coolly asked for the return of £7 which had been found on him. Their worships declined and dispatched him to six months’ hard labour. The army gave him a dishonourable discharge. It was to be the last time the law would catch up with Percy Toplis – alive.