Thursday, November 05, 2015

The Monocled Mutineer



The Monocled Mutineer
By John Fairley & William Allison
Published by Souvenir Press, 
September 2015 (2nd paperback edition)

I have been reading several books dealing with the First World War as I am tracing my great-grandfather's war service, but had not heard of the Etaples Mutiny nor of one of its ringleaders, Percy Topliss, the infamous "monocled mutineer", prior to reading this book.

Conditions during the Great War were generally grim indeed, but the training camp at Etaples in Norther France was particularly bad, and under a pretty brutal regime too. It is hardly surprising that there were murmurings of unrest, but British and Commonwealth troops were renowned for putting their heads down and toughing things out. Nobody ever expected that there would be a full-scale armed mutiny, which lasted for days and spread from the camp to the town itself.  Both military police and the camp's Commander, Brigadier-General  Andrew Graham Thomson were the targets, and it is the official war diary of Thomson which up until now has provided the main source of information about these four eventful days.

Most of the ringleaders were caught quickly, court-martialled and promptly executed for mutiny, but Percy Topliss escaped capture for three long years, and is believed by some to have been the Deus ex Machina of the mutiny. Topliss' career was one of deceit (posing as an officer when he was not)  ambition and ruthlessness; he had gone into the Army straight from jail and managed to deceive and charm people in equal measure.  He was deemed a dangerous man and when eventually caught in Cumbria, was shot dead. The Government wanted no 'loose cannons' fomenting unrest.

The authors have undertaken a huge amount of research with this book over many years, tracking  down surviving soldiers who had experienced conditions at Etaples, Topliss' friends, relatives and comrades. unearthing newspaper reports, the coroner's inquest and those sources which had not been officially sealed by the Government until 2017.

The question remains: was Topliss some sort of a hero for drawing attention to dreadful conditions at Etaples or just a deceitful, dangerous, manipulative rabble-rouser, capable of causing mutiny, mayhem and riots which could easily have been detrimental to the course and outcome of the War and undermined discipline amongst the troops?  Should the ringleaders have been executed or merely jailed? Should the mutiny at Etaples have been covered up by the Establishment or should it have been officially acknowledged much earlier? Would it have made any difference?

  It will be interesting to see what records will be released in 2017, but this is a fascinating book indeed.



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