‘Sapper’ : From Realism to Melodrama

This paper was originally delivered at the conference of Les Amis du Roman Populaire in Amiens, in 2014.



Bulldog Drummond. He was large, he was ugly, he was tough, he drank copious amounts of beer. He was a figure of fantasy, dispensing justice rough justice with his fists, combating the most devilish of criminal masterminds, and acting quite outside the law when he felt it necessary. Bulldog Drummond was the great English action hero of the nineteen twenties. He appeared first in novels, but speedily arrived on stage and in the cinema; the character was still appearing in films in the 1960s (though by now rather re-fashioned in the style of James Bond.)


A poster for a 1960s Bulldog Drummond film – not a very good one.


This paper will discuss the paradox that ‘Sapper’, the author of these wild melodramatic fantasies, began his career during the Great War as a writer of war stories that were hailed as realistic revelations of the truth about war. It will show that, while his early writing is very different from his later thrillers, there is a definite continuity.

Who was ‘Sapper’?


He was born Herman Cyril McNeile, in 1888. He began his military career at the Royal Military Arsenal in Woolwich in 1905, and became an officer in the Royal Engineers in 1907. He had therefore been a regular officer for seven years before going to France as a subaltern in 1914. He earned a Military Cross during the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915, in which he was gassed. Later he would fight in the battle of Loos, and on the Somme in 1916. Early in the War, he began to send stories and sketches of military life back to England, where editors seized them eagerly.

During the first months of the war, it was difficult for newspapers to print accurate accounts of what was happening. Not only was there strict censorship of military matters, correspondents were not even allowed near the war zone. Philip Gibbs, later one of the most distinguished of British official war correspondents, was once threatened with a firing squad for coming too close to the British lines.

Newspapers had to make the most of bland and uninformative official communiqués. The editor of the Daily Mail was therefore delighted when he began to receive fictional sketches of military life that were written with assurance, in the voice of the confident, competent professional soldier.

Because McNeile was a serving officer, he could not publish about the War under his own name. It was apparently Lord Northcliffe, proprietor of the Daily Mail, who chose the name ‘Sapper’ for him, since he was in the Royal Engineers, colloquially called the Sappers.

These early writings adopt a downbeat, deliberately realistic tone: “Those who still look on war as a romance will be sadly disillusioned when they get out there,” he writes. The influence of Kipling is evident in his desire to show that soldiering is hard and difficult work, and that the culture of the Army is markedly different from that of the comfortable civilian world.

In these writings, McNeile seems to have been aiming at two audiences. The first was the civilian at home. In ‘Over the Top’, for example, he imagines such a reader coming across this brief newspaper report as he eats his breakfast kipper:

On the afternoon of the 21st we gained a small local success. Our line was advanced on a front of six hundred yards, over an average depth of a quarter of a mile. All the ground gained was successfully consolidated.’ [….]
It’s all so simple; it all sounds such a ridiculously easy matter to those who read. [….] And the vast majority remark gloomily to the other members of the breakfast table that there is nothing in the paper as usual. Nothing, my friend! I wonder….
The story goes on to describe in detail the effort and the courage needed for such a relatively small military achievement, an operation co-ordinating infantry, planes and artillery.

The other implied audience for these stories is the volunteer soldier, the man who has responded idealistically to Kitchener’s plea for men. McNeile was a professional who had fully internalised the culture of the Army, but he knew that many New Army officers were entering a world vastly different to the one they knew. He wrote in a newspaper article:

To the new officer the mess is not, as a matter of course, the happy club of a set of men of similar tastes, bound together by a common link – the regiment. For him it is, in many cases, the gathering together of a number of civilians, who, finding themselves in novel surroundings, instinctively retreat into the air of defensive neutrality [….] In addition, they bring with them civilian habits…

The early ‘Sapper’ stories show such newcomers how soldiers need to think and behave. The new officer’s defensiveness in the mess is a sign that he is not integrated into the regiment, and total integration is for ‘Sapper’ is the true meaning of discipline. This is not what is produced when you ‘cow delinquents into a state of tear-stained acquiescence.’ :

[T]hat’s not discipline; that’s fear – a very different thing. You, my friend, are following all the dictates of Prussian militarism.

True discipline comes when each man defines himself as part of the regiment, and therefore acts for the good of the regiment ‘not through fear of being found out – but because it’s the thing to do.’
The thing to do is what a soldier would do – and several of ‘Sapper”s stories make it clear that soldiering is more than obeying orders, and can mean disobeying them.

A 1916 story, ‘The Lieutenant’, offers a model of how a civilian becomes a soldier. Before the War, Gerald Ainsworth was the spoilt child of a wealthy family: ‘He did nothing and was generally rather bored with the process. In fact, he was a typical product of the twentieth century.’ He enlists, and ‘Sapper’ tells us little of the months of training (‘Bar the fact that he’d been worked till he was just about as fit as a man can be, I really know nothing about them.’)
Ainsworth begins naively, heading towards the battle zone with a clutter of equipment, largely supplied by his devoted aunts. An experienced officer that he travels with does not even carry a revolver – just a walking-stick.
In Flanders, he finds not the drama he had been expecting, but a banal normality:
“No one seemed to feel the slightest excitement at being within half a dozen miles of the front. The officers over the way were ragging much as they did at home.”
The story follows Gerald’s progress towards the firing-line. In the reserve trenches, carelessness brings German artillery fire on to his battalion. Afterwards, a Sapper captain asks him: ” What do you propose to do where the parapet has collapsed ?”

” I really hadn’t thought about it,” answered Ainsworth, looking at the collapsed trench. ” I haven’t had any orders.”
” Orders ! On matters of that sort you don’t receive them ; you give them.”

Step by step Ainsworth comes to understand that soldiering is not a matter of doing as he is told, but of knowing how to think and behave like a soldier. He sees death, he kills, he experiences intense fear, he carries on.
The crisis of the story comes when he is leading an attack. Some German soldiers are trapped in a traverse, and call out: ‘We surrender.’ A sergeant goes to investigate, and the Germans shoot him before throwing down their rifles. Their leader says:

‘Ah, well, […] we shall no doubt meet after the war and laugh over the episode. All is fair in love and ‘
He shrugged his shoulders. ” And now we are your prisoners.’

The rules of war say that prisoners should not be harmed, but Ainsworth knows that his men need to avenge their sergeant. He calls for grenades with a short fuse, and ignores the prisoners’ grovelling for mercy. ‘Sapper’ implies that by committing this war crime, behaving according to the unwritten rules rather than the official ones, Ainsworth has properly become a soldier. This story greatly diverges from the standard wartime portrayal of the English officer as a paragon of correct morality, but it found a receptive audience. The book The Lieutenant and Others sold 139,000 copies between 1916 and 1918.
‘Sapper’ does not shirk the moral difficulties of soldiering. Several stories deal with the question of executions for cowardice, the most difficult aspect of Great War military life for civilians to accept. ‘Sapper’ acknowledges that running away may be caused by a weakness that the man cannot control, but for him, the Army must come first.

That James Dawlish was made that way may have been his misfortune, but if that were taken as an excuse a good many men might find themselves sitting quietly in villages with unpronounceable names, while their pals lost their lives further east.

‘Sapper’ had begun with a desire to present the public with a realistic picture of war, but his habit of idealising the strong tough ruthless soldier who never fails in his duty led him into the creation of a stereotype that became less convincing with repetition, and was sometimes mocked. A.M. Burrage, in his memoir War is War, writes of his own undignified experience at Passchendaele, when he loses a button and his trousers start falling down in the middle of the battle. He comments : ‘Only men with very strong chins, such as “Sapper’s” heroes can keep their trousers up by will-power alone.’
After the Armistice, ”Sapper” wanted to continue writing, but his expertise was all in military matters. He wrote a novel about civilian life – Mufti of 1919 .


The hero is a wounded officer, who returns to an uncaring civilian world that lacks the unity of purpose found in wartime. An unpleasant capitalist argues with an unpleasant socialist, and there is little hope for the future. It is a depressing book that displays the literary weaknesses of ‘Sapper’ as a writer. He cannot write with understanding of people he dislikes; he cannot write convincing female characters. His prejudices become glaringly obvious.
The novel was a commercial failure and, he must have realised, an artistic failure too. His theme was the disparity between civilian and military values, but, while he could write about military matters with expertise, when it came to civilian life he produced clichés.
In his next book he solved the problem. Instead of a solemn middlebrow problem-novel, he followed the example of John Buchan, who had rejuvenated the thriller genre in wartime with The Thirty-Nine Steps and Greenmantle. In Bulldog Drummond the weaknesses of Mufti became strengths. In Mufti, as in so many novels of the twenties,the ex-officer was a figure of pathos, unvalued and unable to fit into civilian life. Captain Hugh Drummond is the opposite. He shows no symptoms of post-war distress. This was not a man who had been horrified or demoralised by the war; on the contrary, he had relished it:

The ordinary joys of the infantry subaltern’s life – such as going over the top, and carrying out raids – had not proved sufficient for his appetite. He had specialised in peculiar stunts of his own: stunts over which he was singularly reticent; stunts over which his men formed their own conclusions, and worshipped him accordingly.

After four punishing years of war, Drummond still displays the sort of boisterous enthusiasm with which Julian Grenfell, writing home in October 1914, had greeted the beginning as ‘the best fun one ever dreamed of,’ because: ‘The uncertainty of it is so good, like a picnic when you don’t know where you’re going to.’

Fifty years later, the poet Philip Larkin would look at a photographs of men queuing to enlist in August 1914, and write, ‘Never such innocence again’, yet a kind of enthusiastic innocence was precisely what Drummond offered his readers in the early twenties. He faced the post-war world, not tired and disillusioned, but full of bright cheerfulness and a simple sense of right and wrong. He is one of the least conflicted characters in literature; he marries Phyllis at the end of the first novel in the series, after which his relationship with her is utterly uncomplicated. (The only problem that ever threatens their marriage is the frequency with which she is kidnapped – for which she always blames the villains, and not her husband.)
Drummond’s one problem in peacetime is boredom, which he alleviates by putting a notice in The Times:

Demobilised officer, finding peace incredibly tedious, would welcome diversion. Legitimate if possible; but crime, if of a comparatively humorous description, no objection. Excitement essential. Would be prepared to consider permanent job if suitably impressed by applicant for services. Reply at once Box X10.

Advertising in this way is presented as an amiably eccentric act, but not only does Drummond almost immediately find a task worthy of his efforts, he also quickly assembles a group of friends of the same mind, bound by the kind of loyalty to each other that he had seen as essential for an officer.
Opposed to his team is a disparate array of villains. Like many thrillers of the 1920s, Drummond novels generally contain a scene where anti-social elements gather for a meeting and offer the reader a cross-section of the enemies of society. The exact composition of the group sitting round the table varies from book to book, but it will usually include a foreign capitalist (often American, sometimes Jewish), some Germans resentful about losing the war, some socialist agitators (with ‘a greedy, hungry look, a shifty untrustworthy look – the look of those who are jealous of everyone better placed than themselves’), a Russian or other foreigner who is manipulating the deluded socialists, and some ordinary criminals. In Bulldog Drummond, this group is joined by the intellectual aesthete, Lakington.
The presence of the socialists and Russians in these imagined conspiracies reflects middle-class anxiety aroused by the Russian revolution and by the industrial unrest in Britain itself at the end of the war. Myths of Bolshevist conspiracies and the duping of otherwise decent men by paid propagandists allowed readers to reconcile their wartime belief that Tommies were essentially decent (if not always bright) with the fact of the current unrest. Typically such conspiracies have a chain of duping going on, with Trades Unionists duping the workers, revolutionaries duping the Trades Unionists, and a master-criminal at the top. As Agatha Christie puts it in The Secret Adversary, an early novel that owes a great deal to Bulldog Drummond): ‘The Bolshevists are behind the labour unrest – but this man is behind the Bolshevists.’
Drummond, in this a typical hero of the post-war thriller, is dogged, uncomplicated, patriotic and amateur; he often presents himself as stupid, and he is lucky. These characteristics reflect the self-image of many British soldiers, who had defeated a German army which at the beginning of the war had been manifestly superior, in weaponry, manpower and strategy. British resilience and improvisation had won the day. Humourless cleverness is reserved for villains; Carl Peterson is a ‘genius’, and Lakington, the aesthetic secondary villain, is both a connoisseur of art and ‘one of the most brilliant scientists who have ever been up at Oxford’.
By Drummond and his imitators, stupidity was borne almost as a badge of honour, and stupidly facetious language could even be used as a weapon – ‘this particular form of baiting invariably infuriated Peterson’ we are told. It is the self-mocking language of the British officers, varying understatement with the mock heroic and the deliberately absurd. It is the facetious slang of a closely knit group of friends, and part of the appeal of the appeal of Bulldog Drummond was that readers were admitted to this charmed circle.
When Bulldog Drummond was adapted for the West End stage in 1921, with Gerald du Maurier in the title role, the show-business newspaper The Era reported him as telling the first-night audience:

[W]e want to give you a change, – and here’s what ‘Sapper’ and I think is best described as a ‘thick-ear’ play!’ And the audience cheered lustily, evidently quite pleased with said change.

Unlike the villains, the theatrical audience was in on the joke about stupidity, as were the hundreds of thousands who read the novels. The thriller is a boisterous literary game, whose playful nature is signalled by the gusto of its excesses and the extravagance of its coincidences.
The Drummond novels can hardly be taken with complete seriousness by an adult reader. A reviewer in The Bookman identified two kinds of reader – the ‘impressionable young soul who takes it in earnest’, and the ‘practised reader’ who enjoyed the skill with which the author was taking him for a ride. But perhaps both types of reader could exist within one person, who might use the excuse of enjoying the game, while (perhaps unconsciously) still responding warmly to the book’s prejudices.
The Bulldog Drummond novels display the same prejudices as Mufti, but in way that allows the reader to dissociate himself or herself from them. The trick worked. Bulldog Drummond sold 396,302 copies between 1921 and 1939, and its sequels had a similar success.
‘Sapper’ might seem to have come a long way from those early stories designed to show readers that “Those who still look on war as a romance will be sadly disillusioned when they get out there,” but despite the change in genre, his core values are the same. Bulldog Drummond demonstrates the essential values of the soldier, values which readers are invited to admire and to share.

Works by ‘Sapper’ (H.C.McNeile) cited in this article:
‘The Lieutenant’ and ‘The Coward’ in The Lieutenant and Others (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1916)
‘Over the Top’ in No Man’s Land (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1917)
Mufti, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1917)
Bull- Dog Drummond: The Adventures of a Demobilized Officer Who Found Peace Dull (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1920)
McNeile’s series of articles, ‘The Making of an Officer’ appeared in The Times between 8 June and 14 June, 1916 under the pseudonym ‘C.N.’. They were collected as The Making of an Officer (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1916).

michael cassidy

%d bloggers like this: