“Percy couldn’t have been at the Mutiny in Etaples because that month he was on the troopship, Orontes 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 New Zealand 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 Orontes (often misspelled 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)? And there’s another mystery to clear up too. According to Dennis Brook’s history of RMS Orontes, Occasional Troopship of the Great War the liner appears to have been handed back to the Australians by the British Admiralty in August 1917. It remained in the war effort, yes, but no longer as a troopship but as a merchant vessel transport dairy goods between the UK and Australia. Unless Toplis was masquerading an Austrialian dairy trader, it was hard to see how he could have been on that same boat heading to India.
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 Woodhall was enlisted into the 1st Scottish Rifles (Cameronians) in August 1914, transferred to the Military Intelligence Corps before eventually being seconded 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).
Woodhall’s account also seems to have rekindled interest in the Mutiny because within weeks of its publication the Manchester Guardian printed what appears to be the first press account of the Etaples Mutiny: The Mutiny at Etaples: An Incident of 1917 Fighting Soldiers and Red Caps (The Manchester Guardian, 1901-1959; Feb 13, 1930)
Intriguingly, the Guardian report appears to support Woodhall’s claim that some of the men were captured but escaped back into the darkness.
The War Chapters of Woodhall’s book can be read in full at the links below (two PDF documents). The chapter on Toplis is Chapter III, ‘Military Ishmaels’ (page 143). It is, however, worth reading in full to understand the full scope of Woodhall’s concerns about Toplis (the chapter on ‘Peter the Painter’ and the ‘Jules Bonnot’ Motor Bandits is especially revealing). Whether or not Toplis was a ‘ringleader’ is another matter.
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 (Blanford Press, 1934)
Military and Police Timeline
1904: Enlists aged 19 with the Scottish Rifles reserves (no.8559)
1906: Marries Isabella Jane Paterson (born Aberdeen)
1907: Joins Metropolitan Police
1914: Enlists with 1st Scottish Rifles (Cameronians) at Hamilton
1916: Transferred to Military Intelligence
1917 September: Seconded to Military Foot Police from Military Intelligence
Woodhall’s army service records can be viewed in full at the National Arvives (Wo 363 – First World War Service Records ‘Burnt Documents’) and Findmypast.co.uk (Edward T. Woodhall, born Fincheley Middlesex, 1885, service number: 8559).