Tuesday, 22 April 2014

The Death of Percy Toplis

The tale of this individual had right wing press screaming in outrage at the portrayal of British soldiers in World War One.  A case of "We do not do this because we are British!"  The outrage centred around a mutiny by the a large section of the British Army, that was denied by the Government for 60 years, just before the battle at Passchendaele.  The subsequent TV drama had them screaming of left wing bias.  It was also claimed that this individual was one of the leaders of the mutiny.  So who was this danger to the country?

    Francis Percy Toplis was born in South Normanton, Derbyshire, on August 20th 1896, but spent most of his time being raised by his grandparents.  At school, it seemed that he was a bully, and not surprisingly, at the age of 11, he was birched for obtaining clothes by deception.  He left school at 13, becoming a Blacksmith`s Apprentice.  He was not a good time keeper and so drifted around Scotland, where he found himself in jail for days, at Dumfries for fare dodging on the railways.  He went back home, and received two years jail for the attempted rape of a girl in Mansfield.  He was 15.  He was released in 1914.  With the Great War raging on, he enlisted in 1915, serving in the RAMC, the medical core, as a stretcher bearer.  He found himself at Loos and then Gallipoli, contracting dysentery.  He was then put to work in a munitions factory for a short time, then was posted to Salonika and then to Egypt, where he caught Malaria, then after that, he was posted to Bombay.  Later he returned to his home village dressed as an officer.  He was to make a regular habit of posing as officers and also deserting, a crime punished by firing squad.

    Toplis deserted whilst in Blackpool in 1918, then found himself jailed for two years for fraud, being released in 1920.  He then had the nerve to re-enlist under his own name, joining the RASC, and was stationed at Bulford Camp.  His criminal streak remained as he quickly immersed himself in the Black Market, selling clothes, petrol, forged papers, etc.  He went AWOL again in April 1920.  Nearby, in Andover, a taxi driver named Sidney Spicer was found shot dead.  An inquest was held in a nearby barn, and the jury returned a charge of "wilful murder" against Toplis.  He hightailed it to London, then on to South Wales, as ever, posing as an officer.  He then made his way right up to Scotland, and it was in Tomintoul, a farmer spotted smoke coming from a gatekeepers small home, so alerted Police. He and a constable approached, but were shot at by Toplis, wounding them both.  He then escaped by bicycle to Aberdeen, then caught a train to Carlisle.

    It was now June 6th, and a PC Fulton stopped and spoke to a man dressed in army clothes in Cumberland.  Satisfied with his answers, he let him go.  Back at his station, he checked circulating orders and realised the man he let go was Toplis.  He hurried back to arrest him but Toplis fired shots at him, making him retreat.  Then Inspector Ritchie and Sgt Bertram arrived, armed.  Accompanying them, was the Norman De Courcy-Parry Jr, son of the Chief Constable.  He was riding a large motorcycle.  The officers then disguised their uniforms - one of the puzzles of the incident.  De Courcy-Parry was carrying a firearm.  Versions vary as to what happened, but Toplis was shot dead.  He was buried in an unmarked grave in Beacon Edge Cemetery in Penrith.

    So what was the controversy about?  It was claimed that Toplis was involved in the mutiny at Etaples in 1917, but his army records put him elsewhere when the mutiny occurred.  But Toplis had an urge to keep deserting, and it MAY be possible he found himself at Etaples, but this has been said to be false.  What upset the right wing press and even the Daily Mirror, was what good old British soldiers were said to have done.  A book was published in 1978 by Fairley & Allison about the mutiny and Toplis.  Military Police shot a soldier dead and this caused the troops to mutiny.  Some MPs were said to have been killed, but this was one of the "Inaccuracies".  Brutal treatment was dished out by MPs & NCO`s but the good old British Tommy running rampage would not kill any MPs.  Women were depicted as being raped by soldiers.  It was said that no women were raped - another falsehood - but Fairley & Allison spoke to surviving soldiers who said different.  No doubt they invented these old soldiers or the soldiers were out & out liars.  The TV drama depicted the Police chasing Toplis in a car, standing and firing from the running boards.  Fairley & Allison claimed they hid and then ambushed him.  The four claimed in an inquest that they fired in self defence. When the book came out in 1978, the only person still alive was De Courcy-Parry, who on TV remarkably gave a completely different account of the incident.  He claimed that Toplis took his own life.  The Daily Mirror chose to ignore this point.  Then why did the four lie through their teeth at the inquest?  Why did they need to lie if he committed suicide?  It was said that De Courcy-Parry threw his gun into Lake Ulverston.  Why?  Changing stories usually means truth is a stranger.  So just whose version is the truth?  Did they kill Toplis in self defence?  Was he ambushed?  Did he commit suicide?  Fairley & Allison believe the Police were given orders that he was not to be taken alive, to keep the story of the mutiny quiet.  The facts may be very mundane and not out of the ordinary, but being British does not make us any better than anybody else.