Chapter 4

Even in January the climate in Malta is rarely unpleasant: odd chill days, some rain, but nothing untoward to mar one of the most pleasant billets to be had in that middle year of the First World War, 1916.

But Private George Ward, RAMG, stationed with Military Hospital Company No. 1, was scarcely counting his luck. In the three months he had been in Malta he had been bathing once, and into the alluring citadel of Valletta not at all. The army took the view that there was a war on, and frivolous indulgence in matters of rest and recreation were not to be encouraged.

Walking the corridors of the rather draughty Malta General Military Hospital, Private Ward reflected that there was more life back home in No. 49 Colliery Row, Mansfield, than there was in exotic Malta, At least, back home, the Miners’ Club and a pint of Nottingham mild ale were just down the road.

Even the work was something less than glamorous: a tiny trickle of sick and wounded from Salonika on the Balkan Front, occasional accidents among the garrison, VD, of course, odd transfers from ships on their way out to obscure campaigns in Mesopotamia.

Private Ward was desultorily changing the bandages of an artillery man who had lost a finger in a gun-breech accident, when an immaculately dressed officer came striding down the ‘other ranks’ ward towards him. The man was in the full-dress uniform of a major, boots gleaming, cap nonchalantly under his left arm and a clutch of medal ribbons on his chest.

#12 ‘Ward, old chap. Got you a leave pass for tonight.’ Private Ward looked up to recognize his old neighbour from No. 52 Colliery Row, Mansfield.

‘That night the bizarre twosome of a private and a major, both of them in full army uniform, sampled a reasonable cross-section of bars in the Gut, ventured as far as the back streets of Sliema, and roared with laughter at how easy it was to baffle the British Army if only you were dressed as an officer and a gentleman.

Percy Toplis had emerged from Lincoln Jail in the midst of the patriotic hysteria of late 1914, White feathers, Lord Kitchener and the swagger of uniformed friends had moved him little. But when 1915 came round and there was talk of conscription and little hope of peace, Percy decided valour was the better part of discretion and volunteered for the army. Summer found him amid a familiar unlovely landscape: litters of slag heaps, pithead winding gear, squat miners’ cottages – the battlefield of Loos, archetype for all the scenes that were to follow of unconscionable sacrifices and imperceptible gain. Private Francis Percy Toplis, RAMC, was detailed for stretcher-bearing duties behind the first wave at Loos.

‘The chaos and confusion of Loos cured Percy of any smear of patriotic fervour once and for all. It was the first gas attack by the British on the Germans. Most of the gas drifted limply out of the crude cylinders in the front line and back into the British trenches; the wire of the German lines was left almost intact by the inadequate artillery barrage. When a breach was made and the first German line taken, the reserve troops had been left too far back and failed to exploit the advantage. Percy, toiling away under fire to extract some of the daunting mass of 15,000 casualties, saw nothing to ease his contempt for the unimaginative General Staff who had contrived this fiasco. General Douglas Haig, commanding one of the Loos armies, and Private Percy Toplis, stretcher-bearer, each then determined that, for them, there would never be a repetition.

Haig, who had fumed helplessly for three days waiting for adequate reinforcements to exploit what he thought to be a chance of a breakthrough, immediately began scheming to depose his Commander-in-Chief in France, Sir John French. Percy Toplis contrived leave on the compassionate grounds that his non-existent wife had died in childbirth  Haig wrote a sinuous letter denouncing French to Lord Kitchener, following it up with a conspiratorial lunch with Lord ‘Haldane, the War Minister, and even managing a few words of vitriol to George V himself when the King visited France. This first campaign of Haig’s was more brilliant and successful than, if equally as muddy as, any of his subsequent battles in the field.

Within three months Haig was invited by the Prime Minister, Mr Asquith, to be Commander-in-Chief of the forces in France.

By that time Private Toplis was in England on the only official spell of leave he was to have in his entire life.

As the darkened locomotive pulled out of St Pancras Station, Percy Toplis settled back secure in the knowledge that his exploits at Loos would not be underestimated by his admirers back home. It had not been difficult to remove a captain’s uniform from the sad detritus of the clearing station behind the Loos lines. Persuading Hawkes & Co., Military and Civilian Outfitters of Savile Row, to grant a gallant officer a small credit ‘on a new dress uniform was child’s play to a fellow who had tried his very first confidence trick on a tailor at the age of 11.

But the Distinguished Conduct Medal had been a more subtle stroke. Its coveted ribbon sat well above his left pocket; an at once discreet but unmistakable badge of heroism, and an unspoken rebuke to any who might detect the slightest hint of an East Midland accent or pit-village manners beneath the Polished ‘Sam Browne belt and the gleaming riding-boots. The bandage ‘on his left knee was an insurance policy, with the RAMC professional touch, just tight enough to produce a limp. A wounded officer would be immune.

Toplis need not have worried. Blackwell colliery had found its first decorated, wounded, home-grown hero, who had made it to a commission too. The very first night the colliery manager, John Thomas Todd, so far forgot the profit of his coal-owner ‘and his own past quarrels with Toplis as to order up champagne for a toast at the Miners’ Club. Ralph Ward, George Ward’s nephew, from two doors up in Colliery Row, vividly remembers the handsome young charlatan accepting the glass of bubbly as though it had been his constant refreshment in ‘the brief intervals between his glorious feats of arms. As the night wore on, and the champagne was transmuted into plainer beer, the members of Blackwell Colliery Miners’ Club became familiar with the intrepid but hopeless assault on Hill 70; the #13 curtain of Boche machine-gun fire which had mown down the 24th Division in row after row; the diffident account of Captain Toplis’s encounter with a German pill-box; the lone return, through God’s good grace, with two wounded men, ten prisoners and a bullet wound in the knee to show for it.

Mr Todd made a gruff but affecting speech and invited the colliery’s most celebrated man to drill the local volunteers the following day. Toplis, when he woke up, dressed carefully for a visit to Mansfield’s only professional photographer. More than sixty years on, the portrait of the dashing captain still stares out in discreet confidence, a picture of a man sure of his background and role in life. The photographer put the picture on a little easel in his window with a carefully hand-printed notice, ‘Captain Percy Toplis, DCM, of Mansfield’, and sent a copy to the Nottingham Evening Post. It would be five years before it was to be printed – and then as a picture of ‘The Most Wanted Man in Britain’.

The evening of the great Blackwell Local Defence Volunteers’ drill in honour of Percy Toplis is a treasured memory to this day among those who had the privilege to see it. Ernest Leah met the hero and conducted him to the Blackwell Cricket Club ground: ‘He told us that he had been wounded on active service and that he was on sick leave. We believed his story, of course, about the wound, and he was given a chair from which to do his drilling. I can remember it as if it was yesterday, [him] sitting there about where the umpire usually stood.’ It was a motley crew which marched on to the field to greet the ceremonial drillmaster. Most wore their pit boots, the nurtured turf of the outfield having been willingly sacrificed to the exigencies of war. The odd khaki jacket was worn, acquired from returning relatives, and even, on this distinguished occasion, two full-dress uniforms with medals adorning two middle-aged Boer War veterans. They had both had their day at Ladysmith and drunk off it for fifteen years. But even they were subdued by the aura of more present dangers. Each man carried the long wooden handle used on miners’ shovels.

Toplis started gently. ‘Order arms. Stand at ease.’ (Page three of the Infantry Training Manual, 1914.) Not a flicker of inappropriate amusement as a man in the middle row promptly dropped his shovel handle.

‘Atten-shun. Slope arms. By the right, dress. Form, fours.’ Fully half a minute of hopeless muttering and muddle as the military men sorted themselves out. Ralph Ward got a shovel handle in the eye, but thought better of complaining in the Presence of a veteran of Hill 70.

‘Right tu. Quick march.’ Toplis sent them away towards the square-leg boundary. ‘Left wheel.’ ‘Away they went across the far end of the ground against the skyline dominated by the main Blackwell colliery spoil heap.

‘Left wheel. Left wheel,’ again. And then, ‘Halt,’ in front of the seated hero, It was only now that the celebrated 18-year-old drillmaster realized that his two old foes were tucked away in the Fear rank. And a night of champagne was not sufficient to ‘anaesthetize the memories they brought back, or to buy off the months of victimization. As Emest Leah remembers: ‘Percy reckoned his old boss, the mine manager, Todd, and the under-manager, Johnson, had given him a hard time as a lad, So he singled them out for some very hard drilling that night.’ ‘Attention. Slope arms. About turn. Halt. Present arms.’ Inevitably, Toplis’s two victims, like most of their colleagues, ‘were hopelessly behind.

‘Step forward, Todd and Johnson.’ Flushed with the indignity of it all, the two managers took a pace out of the line.

‘Left turn, quick march, halt, slope arms, present arms, about turn.’ Toplis forced the unhappy pair into a ragged demonstration of the entire army drill-bDook. Finally, like a ringmaster with the big cats, he ordered, ‘Attack position. Down.’ Ernest Leah counted silently to twenty while the rulers of Blackwell lay prostrate in front of the new khaki khan from Colliery Kow: _ Hen be mace (hem run round the ground Gh they were €xhausted. Percy, of course, was laughing his head off all the time.’ ‘One evening had paid off a clutch of old scores.

King for a week at home, Percy Toplis left Mansfield determined that the real British Army would likewise bend a little more to his will. At the very least, France, its mud and its Diood, was definitely out.

At that time in 1915, the newspapers were happily diverting their readers away from the unglamorous carnage across the Channel to the exotic tale of a triumphant little ‘side-show’ half the world away in Mesopotamia, or what is now Iraq. Major#14 General Townshend, replete with pig-sticking cavalry and th  crack regiments of the Indian Army, was rolling up the dastardly Turks along the banks of the River Tigris. There had been a splendid old-fashioned victory in North-West Frontier style at Amara, and the papers carried tales of the troops basking in the sun and enjoying unspecified oriental delights in the bazaars of Basra and the Persian Gulf. To Toplis it seemed a sufficient contrast to Mademoiselle of Armentitres and December in the trenches. It was fortunate for him that he only got as far as Malta and his night out with Private Ward before the news came through of General Townshend’s defeat, his surrender at Kut, and a four-week march of degradation and death across the desert to a Turkish prison camp.

The troop-ship turned round and returned to England. In future, ‘side-shows’ would have to take second place to the immutable collision on the Western Front.

Toplis returned in early 1917 to an England of bitterness and unrest, of strikes by the police and engineers, of one Member of Parliament, Sir John Jackson, caught out collecting £80,000 a year for himself through inflated contracts to the War Office, and of another, W. C. Anderson, demanding conscription of wealth and property to match conscription of men. Anderson’s fellow socialists, hot with the news from Russia, were planning a conference of the Second International in Stockholm to try and stop the war. While 20 million men endured the winter of 1916-17 in trenches the length of Europe, the newspaper The Call wrote: ‘The nations are still pursuing the insensate path for race suicide. The insatiable war machine still shatters and annihilates with a fiendish regularity. Whole battalions of fathers and brothers, enter the inferno and melt away like summer snow. Our streets are filled with the halt and the blind. A load of sorrow is accumulating in every home in the land.

Yet London continued to flaunt the delights of peacetime.

The horse-racing fixtures continued, the clubs stayed open. Private Toplis, back from Malta and facing the inevitable return to France, once again got out his hero’s regalia and adjourned to the metropolis. Years later, after his spectacular death, an acquaintance remembered the consummate actor who had fooled them all in wartime ‘society’, and reminisced profitably about him to the World’s Pictorial News:

He would walk along the Strand with the air of a man with an important mission. I was with him one day when he stopped suddenly, turned round with a military air, and called cout ‘Corporal.’ The non-com he addressed walked back. ‘Why didn’t you salute me?’ asked Toplis in an imperious manner. ‘I didn’t see you, sir,’ replied the man, saluting. Toplis, with a wave of his stick, snapped out ‘Then keep your eyes open in future, corporal,’ and passed on. I never saw anything done more properly. Not a shadow of doubt concerning the bona fides of the officer could have entered the ‘non-com’s mind.

The newspaper continued: At this time Toplis was ‘carrying on’ in the West End. And he was ‘carrying on’ with a vengeance. To have heard him talk one would have believed him to have been a veritable hero.

He was a frequent visitor at a house in Maida Vale – a house that stands in its own grounds, and is owned by a wealthy clay merchant. The lady of the establishment was strongly ‘smitten’ by the charms of the ‘noble and gallant’ British officer who had achieved so much. She introduced him to her daughters and he took them out for motor rides and to theatres. The tale that he told her was that he had been trained at the Camberley School for Officers, from which he went out to India, and came back for the war. He further ‘stated that he was the only son of a retired army general, who had fallen out with him, and that he found it necessary for the present to ‘exist’ on his pay. The name which served him on this occasion was Major Williams, and he frequently declared his intention of ‘going back to France and winning his spurs’.

There was none who knew better than he the art of disguise. He was fully as skilled and adept as Charles Peace, ‘whom he copied in many ways. Then he always went about fully armed. Once at a London night club he had a dispute at cards and drew a revolver, which he declared he was quite #15 prepared to use, He terrified everyone, and one man after  wards described him as ‘a fellow who stood with tilted chin  and blazing eyes, the very picture of animated fury’.

‘Again, in a house off the Euston Road, when challenged  by a man who threatened to rob him, he fired two shots at a  mirror which stood over the mantelpiece. Indeed, there never  was a time when he was not prepared to shoot.

The boy from Blackwell was now just 19, and doing well. But though he had been absent without leave for weeks on end, he was not yet ready to risk the firing squad and to desert his unit.

The assembled might of military justice still seemed a formidable deterrent, the twin sirens of ‘society’ and ‘socialism’ not yet loud enough for him to dare everything. All that was to change in March 1917. And it was the vast British Army base camp at Etaples in France, later his scene of triumph, which was first to be his education  Despite his truancy, the army considered a draft to France sufficient retribution for his absence without leave. Toplis and his detachment of the RAMC marched the twenty miles from Boulogne to Etaples through a doleful and unbroken colonnade: hospitals, cemeteries, prisoner-of-war camps – sentinels of death, signposts to the fate that awaited the new detachments.

At Etaples, however, he found a new tense and aggrieved atmosphere among the 20,000 troops. The lingering, subservient, patriotic acceptance of the crusade against the Boche which Toplis had known at Loos had given way to mere endurance of a war that might not only not end wars, but would, apparently, never end itself. On the first day there he saw Australians rampaging through the camp after a drinking bout, insulting the Military Police and cutting free the victims of field punishment, tied to gun wheels by their wrists. In the Salvation Army hut there was talk of front-line pacts with the Germans. One story from the Somme told of a sentries’ truce: ‘We were in a sap,’ went the tale, ‘with a German observation post only five to six yards away when we heard some shouts of, ‘English, / English.’ We talked and agreed to a form of armistice – so we shot to the right and they to the left’ And then there was a seductive encounter with a deserter, brazenly queueing up for his food from the hospital mess: ‘Oh, there’s dozens of us round here. They haven’t got a clue who’s real and who isn’t. There’s food on tap, plenty of blokes with money in their pockets, and always a chance of wriggling your Way back on a boat to Blighty.’ Astonished, Toplis learned that there were whole communitics of deserters in the woods and sand-dunes between Etaples and the once genteel watering place of Le Touquet.

‘They make a few sorties, but they hardly ever catch any’one, Safest place is right here in the camp, of course. Providing you’re carrying a chit of paper!’ When, in March 1917, Private Toplis left Etaples for the doomed attack at Arras, he was already set on a new and extraordinary path which was to lead him to challenge the invisible panoply of the British Army, its caste system and tradition, and ultimately to threaten even its ability to launch one of the great battles of the war.