The Man In Ratcatcher

Sapper

Sapper was the pseudonym of Herman Cyril McNeile, whose father was Malcolm McNeile, a Captain in the Royal Navy and, at who was at the time, governor of the naval prison at Bodmin, the town where Herman was born.

McNeile was educated at Cheltenham College and the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich and was commissioned into the Royal Engineers in 1907. He went to France in 1914 when World War I broke out and he saw action at both the First and the Second Battle of Ypres where he displayed considerable bravery, was awarded the Military Cross and was mentioned in dispatches.

His first known published work was a series of short war stories based on his own experiences, and published under the name 'Sapper' in the Daily Mail and in the magazine 'The War Illustrated'.

These stories were immediately successful and later sold over 200,000 copies within a year when subsequently republished in book-form. His realistic writing proved most popular at a time of great stress and Lord Northcliff, the owner of the Daily Mail who recognised his talent, was so impressed by that he attempted, but failed, to have McNeile released from the army so he could work as a war correspondent.

After the War was over, in 1919, McNeile resigned from the army with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and became a full-time author, publishing his first novel, Mufti, in that year.

In 1922, he moved to Sussex and lived there for the rest of his life, having married Peggy Baird-Douglas with whom he had two sons.

He began the series for which he now best remembered, that of Hugh 'Bulldog' Drummond in 1920 and thereafter he wrote 10 novels featuring his eponymous hero. The public took to Drummond and McNeile had great financial success.

The first book was adapted for the stage and produced, to great success, at Wyndham's Theatre during the 1921-1922 season with Gerald du Maurier playing the main character. Films followed and the first talkie BullDog Drummond film in 1922 was reputed to have earned McNeile the vast sum of $750,000. There were 26 films made of his books.

As well as Drummond, he wrote about Ronald Standish but the majority of his work was short stories that were published in various popular monthly magazines and continued to earn him good money. Indeed, in addition to his novels, many of his books were short story collections.

He was reputedly an unremittingly hearty man, who even his good friend and collaborator Gerard Fairlie, who continued the Drummond series after McNeile's death with seven further books, described as "not everybody's cup of tea". He died on August 14, 1937 at his home in Pulborough, West Sussex.

His funeral, with full military honours, took place at Woking crematorium.

Gerry Wolstenholme
May 2010

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