H.C. McNeile (“Sapper”)

SapperHerman Cyril McNeile (1888-1937), normally known as Mac by his friends, had a distinguished career in the army, serving from 1907-1919. He began publishing fiction while serving in France, under the nickname Sapper, in 1915, and in 1920 published Bulldog Drummond, the first of a series of books featuring this gentleman-adventurer. As the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction notes, several of the Bulldog Drummond books are borderline science fiction. Among his other stories, The Island of Terror (1931) features a race of ape-men; and among the stories told in The Dinner Club (1923) there is a story of trained, murderous giant spiders “about the size of a big kitten”.

McNeile was born in Bodmin, Cornwall, the son of a naval captain who would become governor of the royal naval prison, and he was educated at Cheltenham and the Royal Military Academy. He joined the Royal Engineers in 1907. He married in 1914; his wife came from a military family too. Little is known of his military service during the Great War, but he was a lieutenant-colonel when he left the army in 1919, and had been decorated with the Military Cross.

His health was poor for the rest of his life: a legacy of the War. But he resolved to write, and was hugely successful. He wrote ten Bulldog Drummond books, several books about a detective called Richard Standish, and numerous short stories. Bulldog Drummond had a successful stage run in London and New York, and was filmed several times: he was working on a sequel to the play when he died (of throat or lung cancer which might betrayed back to being gassed on the Front). His friend Gerard Fairlie, on whom he allegedly based the character of Drummond, wrote another seven Bulldog Drummond books after his death. Fairlie (1899-1983) was in the Scots Guards during the war: he was an army boxing champion, and after the war was on the British bobsleigh team in the Winter Olympics.

The Drummond saga starts with an advert that placed in the papers:

 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 his services. Reply at once Box X10.

Captain Hugh Drummond, DSO, MC, of the Royal Loamshire Regiment, did not stay bored for long. He found himself a succession of foreign villains (dagos, Jews and others) to fight. As Richard Usborne said in his hugely entertaining book Clubland Heroes, “rough-housing was his hero’s only real enthusiasm” (136).

In the Bulldog Drummond books Sapper tapped a head of steam that was waiting for someone to tap just after World War I. He glorified, in peacetime, the comradeship, leadership and bravery of the days in the trenches. Perhaps when Englishmen (in the light of the newspaper headlines of the period) were dividing themselves into strikers and world-weary decadents, it was salutary to read of sportsmen with money and guts, and still ready to fight for England. Sapper made hay while the sun still shone on the British Empire, and before the cold wind of overdrafts blew through London’s clubland (Usborne, 148-149).

There is a good discussion of Sapper’s fiction in Richard Usborne, Clubland Heroes: A Nostalgic Study of Some Recurrent Characters in the Romantic Fiction of Dornford Yates, John Buchan and Sapper (London: Barrie and Jenkins, revised ed., 1974). The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry is by Jonathon Green. The various Wikipedia articles are helpful, particularly for the war years.

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