Chapter 5

The man who was to confront, and be crushed by, Percy Toplis, had had all the privilege and protection denied to his adversary.

Brigadier-General Andrew Graham Thomson, Royal Engineers, Commandant of the base camp at Etaples, France, had been privately educated by tutors and moulded by the manners of mid-Victorian England. Where Toplis had been reared by the poverty of the coal-fields, tempered by his clashes with authoritarian justice in Nottinghamshire, and taught resource and resilience in the tempestuous years before the outbreak of the war, Thomson had sailed almost untroubled through the sheltered waters of an army officer’s career in that gallant era when the Empire was at its zenith.

In appearance, character and background, Thomson was not unlike his commander, Field-Marshal Haig. He had the same full-moustached, implacable expression. Like his Commander-in-Chief, he sprang from a Scottish upper-class family and displayed the same quality of stubbornness and inflexibility. Like Haig, he had served as a junior officer in the South African War, where it was so often said that the British Army consisted of lions led by donkeys. And he shared his commander’s love of the cavalry. But of the working classes, who were to form the bulk of the soldiers under his command in France in 1917, he knew almost nothing.

From the sympathetic obituary written about him in the Royal Engineers Journal of Tune 1926, it is evident that, next to officers and horses, Thomson had, earlier in his life, been most at case with natives. The obituary, or memoir as it was called, was, inevitably, written by a fellow general, Sir Elliot Wood, KCB. It is almost silent about Thomson’s service in the First World War, saying only that he had to come home after a serious breakdown in health, but is by contrast fulsome about his early career. The memoir reads:

He was commissioned R.E.,in January,1877.

In 1879, as 1st Lieut., he joined the 17th Fortress Company at Aldershot and proceeded to Malta the following year, ‘where he made his mark in work and sports.

He was one of the R.E. officers’ team which beat the combined garrison at football, and one of the three 17th Co. officers who beat all comers at Water Polo. He became a useful polo player, and had an uncommonly good barb which he ran in the races. Sir Elliot then lists a roll-call of the obscure glories of Queen Victoria’s soldiers: the Egyptian campaign of 1882, the skirmishes at Hasheen and Tai Mai, the victory under Sir Garnet Wolseley at Tel el-Kebir, the Suakin campaign in the Sudan.

The enemy were all around Suakin, and Thomson’s company had to look out for itself. Here he was equally as successful with the native labour parties as he was with the Egyptian.

On returning to Suakin from home in June, 1885, a crowd of Thomson’s old working parties clustered round him with every manifestation of delight at seeing him again – and, indeed, they had a name of their own for him.

Mentioned in Despatches, gaining a clasp, Thomson received the brevet of Major for his services, immediately on his being promoted Captain.

It is an almost idyllic picture of the dashing empire-builder. But ‘uncommonly good barb’ horses and a way with native labour were to prove poor accoutrements when, at the age of ‘59, it came to a contest with the tough young champion of new Politics and old resentments. And such lessons as the army had taught Andrew Graham Thomson were to make him even more aloof and inflexible, ill-suited material to face the fury of the new soldiers.

#17 For Thomson’s career had begun to go wrong nine years before. In September 1908 he had been given the coveted job of Commandant of the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, and the rank of full colonel to go with it. It was near enough to London to keep his gregarious wife Annie in touch with London society, and close enough to the War Office to keep them cognisant of his talents. Best of all, Thomson could play the experienced, heroic but warm-hearted father-figure to his young officer cadets. There is no doubt that he was respected, even held in affection, by his cadets.

‘The Thomsons threw parties and entertained widely. Within two months of her arrival at Woolwich, Annie Thomson was the star of the Academy’s play Our Boys, and won a rave review: ‘The hit of the evening was the rendering by Mrs Thomson, the wife of the Commandant, as Belinda, the loyal little lodging house slave.’ Her husband, too, basked in the company of these young cadets, mostly themselves sons of officers and ‘gentle- men’.

During the long, hot summer of 1911, he issued the unprecedented order that parades could be held in shirt-sleeves. He generally relaxed discipline, sponsored end-of-term dances and encouraged the Academy’s dramatic society.

But after three halcyon years at Woolwich, Thomson received, out of the blue, a mortifying public rebuke from which he was never to recover. The British Army too were to suffer for the few harsh words spoken that summer’s day in 1911. No less a person than the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir John French, had come down for open day at ‘The Shop’, as Woolwich was known. And suddenly, in the midst of the expected speech of platitudes about the loyalty and patriotism expected from the cadets, Sir John launched into a fierce attack on the conduct and discipline of ‘Shop’ pupils. With Thomson standing beside him, he demanded a return to proper standards of dress, more drill, an end to the hectic social life at Woolwich, and less leave.

The wounds of this onslaught went deep enough to be remembered even a generation later when the history of the Woolwich Academy came to be written. And the effect on Thomson was traumatic. Never again would he permit himself the smallest sympathetic indulgence for the troops under his command, nor the slightest deviation from King’s Regulations.

Before long, Thomson was replaced as commandant at Woolwich. He consoled himself in the company of family and old friends. His brother-in-law, Major Addison Yalden Thomson of the Cameronians, was a former tea planter in India, a director of several public companies and a master of hounds with a large estate at Thorncombe, Crowcombe, near Taunton. He also owned a small island off the northern shores of Scotland. Although Thomson owned a sixteen-room house in London, 72 St George’s Square, Westminster, and was a member of the Junior United Services Club, he spent most of his time with the major, riding and bunting.

Members of the family of Major Yalden Thomson are still alive, and retain memories of those long-ago house parties when they were children. They called Thomson ‘Old Chips’ because of his flinty personality. They also remember that, though they never met him, they had a cousin known as ‘Young Chips’ whose portrait hung on the drawing-room wall. The family snapshots show Yalden Thomson and Thomson together in the group of officers taken at Warminster Barracks, and the husband-and-wife team boating and picnicking together.

‘The Yalden Thomson governess, 93-year-old Hildred Vose, living on the Isle of Wight, distinctly remembers Old Chips: ‘A very forbidding, even rather terrifying, and certainly not a very talkative, man.’ ‘She cannot remember that he ever referred to Young Chips, but there does exist one very faded, sepia-brown photograph taken in the Orkneys in which Thomson looks relaxed and, though unsmiling, is to be seen gazing lovingly across the picnic hampers at a handsome-looking young man. Young Chips, his only child, was in fact killed early in the war while serving as a junior officer. This was a personal tragedy which so embittered Thomson that he forbade his wife ever to speak about it.

‘The profession of arms which had served Thomson well ‘until he was past fifty years old had turned to gall. It was to make him a brittle adversary for the young man who had shifted so artfully for himself in those years in the coalfields of Nottinghamshire.