Wednesday 1 November 2017

It's One Hundred and One Years Since The Pennine Fusiliers Disappeared

Today sees the one hundred and first anniversary of the disappearance of the 13th Battalion of the  Pennine Fusiliers from the Somme. Popular myth has it that they were transported to another world although few today, outside of the community the battalion came from, have heard the story.
    Repeated representations have been made to the government by the Joanne Donovan, M.P. for Broughtonthwaite South, but the official response remains the  same, ‘It is not in the national interest to release documents relating to the Harcourt Event.’ Relatives and descendants of the missing have been waiting over a century to find out what happened to their family members and loved ones that fateful day.
- Broughtonwhwaite Mercury, November 1st, 2017
    The Harcourt Crater is one of the greatest mysteries of World War One, along with the Angel of Mons, the Phantom Archers and the Crucified Canadian. At nearly half a mile wide, it was reputed to be the largest man-made crater on the Western Front. The official explanation was that German mines dug under the British positions in the Harcourt Sector of the Somme were filled with an experimental high explosive before being detonated on the morning of November 1st 1916, resulting in the loss of over nine hundred men of the 13th Battalion of the Pennine Fusiliers.
    Indeed this was the accepted explanation until a decade later, when, in the mid- 1920s, a French farmer ploughing his field, dug up, amongst the unexploded shells, several mud-encrusted old film canisters and a package of documents. Inside the canisters were reels of film which, when developed, revealed silent, grainy footage of British Tommies seemingly on an alien world. The film itself was shown to great acclaim in Picture Houses around the world and it became a minor sensation. Although there were those who claimed they could identify faces in the footage, in the end most felt it to be it a hoax.
    The success of the film nevertheless engendered an appetite for Space Fiction among the general public that persisted for decades; the film’s grainy, iconic images inspiring thousands of lurid pulp sci-fi magazine covers and stories.
    The government of the day… officially declared the whole incident to be a “meticulously planned hoax” and it was consigned to the annals of British folklore. But the myth refused to die. In subsequent years, men occasionally came forward claiming to be survivors of the battalion, returned with fantastic tales to sell, but none were believed. The story inspired the film Space Tommies, released in 1951, featuring Richard Attenborough and Richard Todd and was the basis for a short-lived adventure strip in the boy’s comic Triumph.
    However, it has become apparent from extensive research that the mystery of the Harcourt Crater and the true fate of the men of the lost 13th Battalion constitutes one of the biggest cover-ups in British military history.
    No Man’s World is an attempt to set the record straight.

    -No Man’s World Book 1: Black Hand Gang, Preface “There was a Front, but damned if we knew where...”

Find out what happened for yourselves:

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Thursday 10 November 2016

Weird War One: Electric Weaponry

During the First World War, technology advanced at a great pace with machines and devices rapidly becoming obsolete as they were superseded by events or enemy technology.

The War Office was always open to new ideas for weapons that might give them an edge over the German army and many periodicals of the time were enthusiastically filled such with proposals, although a great many proved impractical.

There were persistent rumours that Nikolai Tesla was working on a death ray and, in England, Harry Grindell Matthews claimed to have invented a remote-controlled anti-Zeppelin weapon, for which the Admiralty allegedly paid him £25,000. After the war, in 1923 he, too, also claimed to have developed a Death Ray.

In No Man's World, the Pennine Fusiliers manage to supplement their diminishing supply of ammunition by adapting alien Chatt technology to create a rechargeable electrical weapon of their own. It was partly inspired by a proposed real world application. The June 1917 issue of The Electrical Experimenter featured an article describing an electrically-charged weapon for use again the Hun on the battlefield.

Adapting the German idea of the flammenwerfer, or flame-thrower, the idea revolved around  electrifying pressurised salt water or a sulphuric acid solution. The liquid tank carried by the soldier was attached by cables to a generator and transformer in the trenches that would deliver up to 15,000 volts. It was suggested that the rubber-clad operator could then fire a stream of electrified water up to 100 feet, stunning or killing the enemy. Needless to say the whole enterprise was ill-conceived, not to mention dangerous, and was never actually put into service.

Strange but true.

Tuesday 1 November 2016

Centenary of the Disappearance of the Pennine Fusiliers

Today marks the one hundredth anniversary of the disappearance of the the 13th Battalion of the Pennine Fusiliers. A century ago today the 'Broughtonthwaite Mates' went over the top and vanished, leaving only the enduring mystery of the Harcourt Crater, a fog of myths and a web of conspiracy theories in their wake.

Everson lifted his gas hood and blew his whistle before clumsily shoving the cloth back into his collar. Waving with his pistol, he watched his men scale the ladders. To his left, one fell back into the trench, immediately cut down. From beyond the parapet came cries and screams. He grabbed a rung and hauled himself up, cleared the sandbags, stepped out onto the mud and began to run, slogging through terrain the consistency of caramel, seeking to lead his men forward. He’d seen them all over the top with none left for the Battle Police to round up, which was no more than he’d expect of them. Another man fell in front of him. Everson stepped reluctantly over the body. It was not his job to stop and see if he were wounded or dead. The stretcher bearers would follow. Over to his left, he saw one of the tank machines as it nosed down into a shell hole and then reared up to clear it and rumble onwards along its terrible trajectory as spumes of earth exploded around it.

Atkins heard the whistle from far away, as if underwater, then another and another; some fainter, some louder. Up and down the line, dozens of subalterns blew their whistles or shouted their men forwards.This was it. Under the tidal pull of fear he felt the swell of vomit and bile rise, burning a tide mark in his throat and felt a growing urge to piss. He didn’t want to go over the top. You’d be mad to.
Someone hit him on the shoulder. Twice.
Shitohshitohshitohsh –
Atkins screamed in rage and terror, which wasn’t clever because it fogged up his eye pieces. He could barely see where he was going as it was. He scrambled up the ladder and over the parapet, He looked around. There to his left he saw sergeant’s stripes. Hobson was walking resolutely forward. Somewhere amid the explosions he caught the rolling tinny snap of the marching snares and the harmonious wail of the bagpipes playing as the Jocks advanced over on their left flank.

Around Atkins, men were marching forward into the clouds of gas; a rising tide of asphyxiating death. The ground was soft and treacherous underfoot. Muffled by his gas hood, the crump and boom of shells assumed a continuous roar that made his ear drums crackle. He glanced to his left. Pot Shot and Mercy were striding forward. He could make out the weak sunlight glinting off the tin triangles on their backpacks. 

It was nearly quarter of a mile to the forward German lines. Running with full pack through this mud would tire you out before you got there and you’d have no puff left for the fight. Already he could feel the muscles of his legs begin to ache from pulling against the mud. It was better, so they said, to walk and conserve your strength. Fair enough. But that bollocks about carrying on and not seeking cover? Stuff that.
Following the tape he reached the British wire. He could hear the insistent stuttering of the British machine guns, while above them shells burst, leaving lazy black woolly clouds hanging in the air as shards of hot metal ripped down through bodies below.

Ahead of him now, men began to drop, some hanging on the wire as if they were puppets whose strings had been cut. He walked on past the fallen, some dead, some wounded, crying and begging for help. Most still wore their gas hoods and Atkins was grateful that he could not see their faces. You weren’t supposed to stop for them. You weren’t allowed to. Carry on. Forward. Always forward. He walked on aware that every step could be his last. Was it this one? This one? This?
The great bank of greenish grey fog, a mixture of chlorine, cordite and smoke rolled over them, enveloping them like a shroud. Atkins lost sight of his Section. He stepped aside to avoid a shell hole that loomed up out of the ground before him and found his leg caught. He looked down; a hand had grabbed his mud-encrusted puttee. A man, maskless, green froth oozing slowly from his mouth, gagged and struggled, tearing at his own throat with a bloodied hand, drowning on dry land as the chlorine reacted in his lungs. Atkins tugged his ankle free and marched on. Shell holes were death traps now. The gas was sinking to the lowest point it could find, settling in pockets like ghostly green rock pools, where the weary and wounded had sought shelter.
As he walked on, he began to experience a light-headed feeling. Around him the gas cloud seemed to glow with a diffuse phosphorescence. The noise of battle, the rattle of machine guns and the constant crumpcrumpcrump of artillery, the zing of bullets seemed somehow muffled and distant. He stumbled as he missed his footing. He looked down. His body seemed to be longer that it should, stretching and undulating until a wave of vertigo overwhelmed him. Letting go of his rifle, he dropped to his hands and knees. The small area of ground before him seemed to swim and ripple gently and, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t bring it into focus. Sweat began to prickle his face, he felt a pressure in his head, something trickled from his ear and he could taste the iron tang of blood running from his nose. The whole world seemed to tilt and from the periphery of his vision an oozing darkness spilled inwards until he could see no more than a few square inches of the Somme mud before his face. What remained of his vision filled with bursting spots of light as the world began to slip away…

 -No Man's Land Book One: Black Hang Gang, Chapter 3 "The World's Verge"

Monday 31 October 2016

100 Years Ago Today...

The Somme, Harcourt Sector, October 31st, 1916

Night Raid
Wearing leather jerkins, their faces blackened with burnt cork, Atkins, Gutsy and Porgy, made their way past scurrying rats to the fire bay, where Hobson and Ketch were waiting for them.
There was a faint fwoosh as an enemy flare went up. It burnt a stark white, casting deep shadows on the wall of the trench that wobbled and tilted as the flare drifted down, until at last they ate up the last of the light and filled the trench again.
‘Gazette’ Otterthwaite and ‘Pot Shot’ Jellicoe were on sentry duty. Even in the dim light it was hard to miss Pot Shot. He was a large man, a shade over six foot, tallest man in the Battalion; the only man who had to crouch when stood on the firestep less his head present a tempting target for German snipers.
Gazette was up on the firestep on sentry duty, Pot Shot was sat on the step beside him, slumped against the side of the bay snoring gently, his rifle clasped to his chest like a loved one. Gazette glanced down at them and kicked Pot Shot awake.
“All right, lads?” he yawned.
That helped ease the queasy feeling in Atkins’ stomach. Gazette was the best sharp shooter in the platoon. If anyone was going to have your back on a Black Hand job you’d want it to be him.
There was a pile of equipment on the firestep by his feet.
“Right,” said Hobson, “take these.” He handed out pistols; Webley revolvers, usually reserved for officers but more practical in situations such as this, that called for stealth. They each had their own bayonet and there were two sets of long-armed wirecutters. Atkins and Porgy got those. Hobson also gave them each a grey military issue blanket that he instructed them to wear across their backs in the manner of a cloak.
“It’ll help disguise your outline against German flares. If a flare goes up, don’t move. You’ll want to throw yourself on the ground but don’t, they’ll spot the movement and you’re a goner. If you freeze you could be tree stump, a shadow or a body on the wire,” he told them. “We’re goin’out to cut the German wire in preparation for tomorrow. So we make sure we do the job properly or it’ll be us and our mates paying the price if we don’t. We also want to take a shufti and make sure Fritz isn’t planning any nasty surprises. Don’t worry, I’ll have you all back in time for the big show.”
“Thanks, Sar’nt. You’re a real pal,” said Gutsy.
“Time for a fag, Sar’nt?” asked Hopkiss, trying to delay the inevitable.
“No. Follow me. Stick to me like glue. No one talks but me. Make sure you stay within an arm’s length of the next fellow. If you get lost make your way back here. And make sure you dozy ha’porths don’t forget the password: Hampstead.”

Atkins checked his bayonet in its sheath. He checked the chambers of the Webley revolver. They were full. The pistol had a loop fastened to the handle, which he slipped round his wrist.
There being no sally port available, Hobson put a ladder up against the revetment and was about to step on the bottom rung when another flare went up. He stopped, waited for the flare to die out, before rolling over the sandbag parapet with practised ease. His arm appeared back over the bags signalling the next man up. Porgy was already on the ladder and climbing. Gutsy stepped on below him and began his climb. It was Atkins’ turn next. As he stepped on the bottom rung, he felt a hand pat this thigh.
“Good luck, mate,” said Gazette. Aktins smiled weakly. He could feel his heart lifting him fractionally from the ladder with every beat as he lay against the rungs. He hadn’t felt a funk like this since that last night with Flora.
“Cheers. I’ll be back for breakfast.”
Another flare.
Above him, Gutsy froze, waiting for the light to die. Atkins looked up. All he could see was Gutsy’s big, round khaki-covered arse eclipsing everything. Blood let one rip and looked down between his legs, grinning.
“Fuck’s sakes, Gutsy!” hissed Gazette. “At least with the yellow cross we get a warning. Where’s me bloody gas helmet?”
A hiss rasped from over the parapet. “Get a move on, you two!”
Puffing, Gutsy rolled over the sandbags with as much grace as a carcass in his old butcher’s shop.
Atkins reached the top of the ladder. The nightscape before him never failed to chill him to the core. No Man’s Land. It was a contradiction in terms. You were never alone in No Man’s Land. During the day it was quiet, with generally nothing but the odd buzz of a sniper’s bullet cutting low over the ground or the crump of a Minniewerfer to disturb it. At night, though, it became a hive of activity; parties out repairing wire, laying new wire, digging saps, running reconnaissance, conducting trench raids. Both sides knew it. It was the most dangerous of times to be out and never dark for long, as flares burst in the air, momentarily illuminating bleak Futurist landscapes that left hellish after-images in the mind’s eye.

He saw Hobson and Porgy about four or five yards ahead, crawling along on their bellies. Gutsy was to his left. Atkins inched forward using his elbows and knees. The mud was cold and slimy and within a minute his entire front, from chin to toes, was soaked. He and Gutsy made their way to where Sergeant Hobson and Porgy were waiting. About twenty yards ahead, they could make out the vague unearthly shapes of their own wire entanglements. Sergeant Hobson indicated a piece of soiled, white tape in the mud that led them to the gap in their own wire.
Now they truly were in No Man’s Land.

- No Man's World Book 1: Black Hand Gang, Chapter 2 "All the Wonders of No Man's Land"

Saturday 11 June 2016

The Monocled Mutineer Part 4 – Controversy and Conspiracy

After Toplis had been buried in secret, rumours began to circulate in Penrith that there was more to the shooting than the police admitted and that there was information in their possession that they had not made public.

Hasty calls to London on the night of the shooting were coming to light and there was a suggestion that the Chief Constable had acted under considerable political pressure. Whatever the case, within a year he had resigned to be replaced by someone unconnected with the incident.

In 1978, William Allison and John Fairley published their book, The Monocled Mutineer.  It suggested that the Establishment conspired to cover up a mutiny by soldiers at the Etaples Training Camp in 1917, which the official War Diary refers to merely as ‘a disturbance’. 

Believing Toplis to be a ringleader, the authorities put considerable resources, including the Secret Service, into finding and silencing him and any co-conspirators. Many of the men involved in the mutiny were later killed in a bloody offensive at Passchendaele.

Allison and Fairley go on to imply that the Government, to keep the Etaples mutiny secret, issued discrete orders that Toplis was not to be taken alive. After persistently evading the authorities for several years, Percy Toplis’ luck finally ran out in June 1920 when he was shot and killed by police of the Cumberland Constabulary.

Whatever the truth about Toplis, Allison and Fairley's book raised questions in Parliament that resulted in the Government’s first public acknowledgement of the Etaples mutiny.

In 1986, when the book was made into a TV series for the BBC, the transmission was a source of controversy. Ill-advisedly advertised as ‘based on true events’, right-wing press and politicians criticised its left-wing bias and revisionism as ‘a tissue of lies’. However, the bloody depiction of the trenches did much to puncture cherished ideals such as ‘patriotism’ and ‘duty’ that pervaded much of WW1 history as it was taught.  Then, as now, the BBC was under fire from a right-wing government and the programme contributed to the resignation of then Director General Alasdair Milne.

Paul McGann, star of 'The Monocled Mutineer' in conversation at Liverpool John Moores University with Professor Gary Sheffield, Professor of War Studies at University of Wolverhampton and chair Professor Frank McDonough, April 2015

In recent years Michael Gove, as Minister for Education, rounded on the ‘left-wing myths’ being perpetuated about the Great War, citing Oh What a Lovely War, Blackadder and The Monocled Mutineer along with ‘Left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths by attacking Britain’s role in the conflict.’

Today, the debate over Toplis' participation at Etaples still continues. Government documents pertaining to the mutiny, if any still exist, are sealed until 2017. There is hope that their disclosure next year might settle the question of Percy Toplis' involvement once and for all.

I suspect there will remain more questions than answers, allowing the myth of the Monocled Mutineer to persist, along with the Angel of Mons, the Phantom Bowmen, and the Harcourt Crater.

Thursday 9 June 2016

The Monocled Mutineer Part 3 – The Burial

Ninety-six years ago today, on the morning of 9th June 1920, following an ambush by disguised policemen and a hastily convened inquest with unanswered questions, Percy Toplis was buried in Penrith.

But not even that was without its drama.

When a policeman arrived outside Penrith’s Beacon Edge hillside cemetery at 8 am, he informed the expectant crowd of Press that they had postponed the 9am funeral until 1pm because the coffin was not yet ready, so a disappointed press corps dispersed.

When they reconvened at lunchtime, they found a note on the cemetery gates informing them that that the funeral had already taken place. While their anger was directed toward the police for the deception, it was actually the Home Office and War Office that had decreed that Toplis should be secretly interred in an unmarked grave.

Penrith Police Station, where Toplis' body was kept

To that end, the police co-opted Harry Bartley, who owned a flatbed lorry. At 8.15 that morning, officers loaded Toplis’ coffin aboard the lorry from the Weights and Measure room of the Penrith police station, where his body had been kept, before covering it with rags, carpets and sacks. Bartley then drove up to the cemetery, half fearing that he might be followed or that the coffin would bounce off the bed of the truck.

He delivered the coffin to the cemetery chapel, where plain-clothes police officers intended to inter the body in an unmarked grave before anyone discovered their deception. However, cemetery parson Reverend Law insisted on conducting a full funeral service, arguing that the deceased had not actually be convicted of anything and any judgement should be left to Heaven, before leading the police in the singing of a hymn.

Only then was Toplis was then hastily buried in a grave plot  ‘listed as No. 7135… under a yew tree at the highest point of the graveyard’ according to Allison and Fairley’s book, ‘The Monocled Mutineer’.

Percy Toplis’ grave remains unmarked to this day, despite several campaigns to erect a marker.

However, despite the police and the authorities’ desire to bury the incident along with Toplis, he  continues to exert a fascination, even today, as fact and fiction meld into myth.

Next: The Monocled Mutineer – Controversy and Conspiracy

Wednesday 8 June 2016

The Monocled Mutineer Part 2 – The Inquest

Ninety six years ago today, on the 8th June 1920, the inquest into the death of Percy Toplis was held in Penrith, conducted by Colonel Halton, Coroner of East Cumberland.

Mortuary photo of Percy Toplis

23 year old Toplis, a deserter, petty criminal, racketeer, and possibly mutineer, accused of the murder of taxi driver Sidney Spicer, had been ambushed and shot two days before by three disguised policemen and the son of the Chief Constable for Cumbria who had tagged along. All were armed with revolvers.

The countrywide manhunt for Toplis had been the subject of much press sensationalism at the time and reporters and public flocked to the inquest. Toplis’ wheelchair-bound and widowed mother Elizabeth and his sister, Winifred also attended the inquest having travelled from Derbyshire. The police were represented by a lawyer during the proceedings ‘in view of certain possibilities’, while Toplis had no legal representation.

After Halton heard the police account of the shooting, to the point of overlooking several inconsistencies in their evidence, it took the jury only three minutes to decide that 'Toplis was justifiably killed by a revolver-bullet fired by a police officer in the execution of his duty' and to recommend that all three officers be honoured for their actions.

Even so, there were unanswered questions and papers like the Manchester Guardian queried the inquest’s verdict.

Although accused of Spicer’s murder in his absence by an inquest, Toplis had not been charged with the crime. Why was he the subject of such an concerted manhunt over a single alleged murder? Why had no attempt to arrest him been made?  Why did the policemen disguise themselves? Why did they not identify themselves as police? Why did they shoot to kill?  Which of them fired the fatal shot? Who ultimately made the decision to issue them non-regulation firearms? With the only other witness dead, there was no-one to challenge their account.

In the following weeks, the press ran ever more lurid and outrageous stories about Toplis and his time on the run, and the mythologising began.

However, Toplis’ story had one last chapter...