AN EPISODE IN THE HISTORY OF THE LOOE DIE-HARDS.
Maybe you have never heard of the East and West Looe Volunteer Artillery– the famous Looe Die-hards? “The iniquity of oblivion,” says Sir Thomas Browne, “blindly scattereth her poppy, and deals with the memory of men without distinction to merit of perpetuity.”
“Time,” writes Dr. Isaac Watts–
“Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away!”
And this fine hymn was a favourite with Captain AEneas Pond, the commanding-officer of the Die-hards. Yet am I sure that while singing it Captain Pond in his heart excepted his own renowned corps. For were not the Die-hards an exception to every rule?
In the spring of the year 1803, when King George had to tell his faithful subjects that the Treaty of Amiens was no better than waste-paper, and Bonaparte began to assemble his troops and flat-bottomed boats in the camp and off the coast by Boulogne with intent to invade us, public excitement in the twin towns of East and West Looe rose to a very painful pitch. Of this excitement was begotten the East and West Looe Volunteer Artillery, which the Government kept in pay for six years and then reluctantly disbanded. The company on an average numbered sixty or seventy men, commanded by a Captain and two Lieutenants of their own choosing. They learned the exercise of the great guns and of small arms; they wore a uniform consisting of blue coat and pantaloons, with scarlet facings and yellow wings and tassels, and a white waistcoat; and the ladies of Looe embroidered two flags for them, with an inscription on each–‘Death or Victory‘ on the one–on the other, ‘We Choose the Latter.‘
They meant it, too. If the course of events between 1803 and 1809 denied them the chance of achieving victory, ’tis at least remarkable how they avoided the alternative. Indeed it was their tenacity in keeping death at arm’s length which won for them their famous sobriquet.
The Doctor invented it. (He was surgeon to the corps as well as to its senior Lieutenant.) The Doctor made the great discovery, and imparted it to Captain Pond on a memorable evening in the late summer of 1808 as the two strolled homeward from parade–the Captain moodily, as became a soldier who for five years had carried a sword engraved with the motto, ‘My Life’s Blood for the Two Looes,‘ and as yet had been granted no opportunity to flesh it.
“But look here, Pond,” said the Doctor. “Has it ever occurred to you to reflect that in all these five years since you first enlisted your company, not a single man of it has died?”
“Why the devil should he?” asked Captain Pond.
“Why? Why, by every law of probability!” answered the Doctor. “Take any collection of seventy men the sum of whose ages divided by seventy gives an average age of thirty-four–which is the mean age of our corps, for I’ve worked it out: then by the most favourable rates of mortality three at least should die every year.”
“War is a fearful thing!” commented Captain Pond.
“But, dammit, I’m putting the argument on a civilian basis! I say that even in time of peace, if you take any seventy men the sum of whose ages divided by seventy gives thirty-four, you ought in five years to average a loss of fifteen men.”
“Then,” murmured Captain Pond, “all I can say is that peace is a fearful thing too.”
“Yes, yes, Pond! But my point is that in all these five years we have not yet lost a single man.”
“Good Lord!” exclaimed Captain Pond, after a moment’s thought. “How do you account for it?”
Professionally the Doctor was the most modest of men. “I do not seek to account for it,” said he. “I only know that you, my old friend, well deserve the distinction which you have characteristically overlooked–that of commanding the most remarkable company in the Duchy; nay, I will venture to say, in the whole of England.”