“Percy couldn’t have been at the Mutiny in Etaples because that month he was on the troopship, Orantes heading to India with his regiment”. Or so the story goes. It was used to undermine the whole pretext of John Fairley and William Allison’s book, The Monocled Mutineer and it’s been repeated by journalists ever since. ‘There’s no evidence to support that he was anywhere near the camp at the time of the mutiny”.
But there is.
In his book, Detective & Secret Service Days (1929), Edwin T Woodhall describes how he was transferred from Intelligence Police to Military Police at Etaples in an effort to restore order in the immediate aftermath of the ‘riots’. Starting his days in London’s Metropolitan Police Force, Woodhall eventually became attached to the CID at Scotland Yard before a swift transition to the Special Political Department, the Secret Service Department and the Special Central Department. By trade he was a spycatcher, a specialist in Counter-Subversion. Upon his arrival in Etaples in September 1917, he was tasked with rounding up the ‘Sanctuary’ deserters who had organized themselves into group around the wells, woods and tunnels of Camiers, and who formed a boisterous rear-guard to the Scottish and Canadian soldiers barring the bridges with machine-guns. And it was here that Woodhall encountered one ‘singularly ferocious character’. His name was Percy Toplis.
If Percy was on the Orantes heading to England at this time, then how could Woodhall encounter Toplis in the camps around Camiers during this very same period (October 1917)? Who are we to believe?
There’s little reason to doubt the account by Woodhall. Jarrolds of London was a reputable publisher with dozens of respected authors. John Gilbert Bohun Lynch, celebrated journalist and biographer of essayist, Max Beerbohm wrote for them, as did Sir Henry Lytton, Donald Featherstone (editor of the War Game Digest), Mi6 officers Henry Landau, Baroness Carla Jenssen (society girl and former spy), J. C.Lawson and Marthe Cnockaert (Belgian spy recognised for her work by Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig and whose 2-page foreword was written by Winston Churchill) They were also the first to publish Black Beauty.
What reason do we have to dismiss Woodhall’s first-hand encounter with Percy Toplis, a man who had faded from the news some ten years before? The detective’s military records back-up his claims that he was enlisted into the 1st Scottish Rifles (Cameronians) in August 1914, seconded to the Intelligence Corps before eventually being transferred to the Military Foot Police during the period in which the army was rounding-up deserters in and around Etaples (he was also recalled to handle recruitment at the War Office in July 1939).
The War Chapters of Woodhall’s book can be read in full at the links below (a PDF document). The chapter on Toplis is Chapter III, ‘Military Ishmaels’ (page 143). It is, however, worth reading in full.
Republished by Mellifont (1937)
Woodhall’s second book, Spies of the Great War was serialised in Al-Ahram, an Egyptian broadsheet. You can read an account of the serialisation by Professor Yunan Labib Rizk:
other titles by Woodhall
Spies of the Great War (Adventures with the Allied Secret Service) – 1935
Secrets of Scotland Yard (John Lane, 1936)
Guardian of the Great (Blanfrod Press, 1934)