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.

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