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H. C. McNeile

Herman Cyril McNeile, MC, was born on September 28, 1888. He was a British soldier and author commonly known as Cyril McNeile and publishing under the name H. C. McNeile or the pseudonym Sapper. Drawing on his experiences in the trenches during the First World War, he started writing short stories which were published in the Daily Mail. As serving officers in the British Army were not permitted to publish under their own names, he was given the pen name Sapper by the owner of the Daily Mail, Lord Northcliffe; the nickname was based on that of his corps, the Royal Engineers. McNeile later confided that he had started writing through “sheer boredom”.

During his time with the Royal Engineers, McNeile saw action at the First and Second Battles of Ypres—he was gassed at the second battle—and the Battle of the Somme. In 1916 he was awarded the Military Cross; in November that year he was gazetted to acting major. On 13 June 1919 McNeile retired onto the reserve officer list and was confirmed in the rank of major. His brother—also in the Royal Engineers—had been killed earlier in the war.

McNeile had a quiet life after the war; his biographer Jonathon Green notes that “as in the novels of fellow best-selling writers such as P. G. Wodehouse or Agatha Christie, it is the hero who lives the exciting life”. Although he was an “unremittingly hearty man”, he suffered from delicate health. He had a loud voice and a louder laugh, and “liked to enliven clubs and restaurants with the sight and sound of military good fellowship”; his friend and collaborator Gerard Fairlie described him as “not everybody’s cup of tea”, and commented that “he was loud in every possible way—in his voice, in his laugh, in his clothes, in the unconscious swagger with which he always motivated himself, in his whole approach to life”. McNeile and his wife had two sons.

After the war, McNeile continued writing, although he changed from war stories to thrillers. In 1920 he published Bulldog Drummond, whose eponymous hero became his best-known creation. The character was based on McNeile himself, his friend Gerard Fairlie, and on English gentlemen generally. McNeile wrote ten Bulldog Drummond novels, three plays, and a screenplay. McNeile interspersed his Drummond work with other novels and story collections that included two characters who appeared as protagonists in their own works, Jim Maitland and Ronald Standish. He was one of the most successful British popular authors of the inter-war period. McNeile’s stories are either directly about the war, or contain people whose lives have been shaped by it. His thrillers are a continuation of his war stories, with upper class Englishmen defending England from foreigners plotting against it. He had first written Drummond as a detective for a short story in The Strand Magazine, but the character was not successful and was changed for the novel.

In 1937 McNeile was diagnosed with terminal cancer; he died on 14 August 1937 at his home in West Chiltington, West Sussex. Although most sources identify throat cancer as the cause of death, there are suggestions that it may have been lung cancer, attributed to damage sustained from a gas attack in the war. His funeral, with full military honours, was conducted at Woking crematorium.

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