A collection of short stories called Wandering Heath was published in 1895 and contains the satire ‘The Looe Die-hards’. ‘Die-hards’ was the nickname for the ‘East and West Looe Voluntary Artillery’, a body of 67 men, under a captain and two lieutenants, as constituted in 1803 to resist a threatened French invasion following the collapse of the Peace of Amiens. It was issued with 70 muskets and two sets of cannon, the first for the embrasures at Church End overlooking East Looe beach, and the second for a redoubt on the cliff at the top of Tower Hill East Looe to command the bay. According to local legend, which Q appears to have accepted, the redoubt was ill-sighted and mainly commanded a line of rocks, ending in Pedn Rock. Curiously the intrusive consonant d in pen (head) to form pedn is a late Cornish form denoting a use of the language after 1500. Thomas Bond, who gave an account of the company in his History of Looe (1823), was elected captain, while Jonathan Couch was at one time a lieutenant. All voluntary companies were disbanded by the government in 1809. Q’s story relates to the imminent disbandment of the company and can be dated to 1808-9.
On November 3, 1809, a month before its disbandment, the East and West Looe Voluntary Artillery assemble for one of their final gunnery practices at Church End. Absent from the assembly is Sergeant Fugler, the finest marksman and the most accomplished smuggler of the company, who is sick at home. A year before, in 1808, the company surgeon and senior lieutenant had informed Captain Pond that since its inception, the company had not lost a single man, thus justifying the epithet ‘Die-hard’. The possible demise of Fugler opened the company to ridicule.
Having visited Fugler on the morning of the practice, the surgeon informs the company of Fugler’s terminal state and of his desire to have the Dead March played at his funeral. The company dejectedly march up to the gun emplacement on the eastern cliff.
On reaching the emplacement the company discover an intruder hiding in the ammunition store. This turns out to be M. Jean Trinquier, Director of Periodic Festivities to the Municipality of Dieppe, who had escaped from Dartmoor prison, having been captured previously aboard a smuggling craft. He had travelled to Looe in the hope of contacting the smuggler Fugler and arranging for a return to Dieppe via the smuggling entrepot of Guernsey.
Pond paroles Trinquier (Bond was a captain and a J.P.) on the condition that he instructs a group of local musicians in the Dead March. With the sounds of the music of the Dead March echoing across to his bedroom from the town hall, Fugler makes a remarkable recovery, thus rescuing the ‘Die-hard’ reputation.
Two months later, fully recovered, Fugler transports Trinquier to Guernsey, with Dieppe but a day’s sail away. On December 31, 1809, the company is disbanded. The reader is then invited to read about the Volunteers in Thomas Bond’s History of East and West Looe.
How Q Tells the Story
The narrative opens on November 3, 1809, with the Die-hards preparing for one of their last practices on the higher nine pounder battery. A number of characters are introduced, recognisable to the reader from I Saw Three Ships and The Mayor of Troy. The most important is Captain Pond, based on Captain Thomas Bond, author of the History of Looe. As in The Mayor of Troy Captain Pond is satirically presented, yet he is not without a certain natural authority and is more intelligent than the rest of the company, with the exception of the young doctor. The atmosphere of the story is established in the short opening paragraph where Pond is shown blowing up an air-cushion so as to soften his seat on the depressed muzzle of ‘Thundering Meg’, the 24 pounder gun positioned at Church End. The reader cannot but be aware of the contrast in treatment Q accords to the soft-soldiering Die-hards and the romantic adventuring privateers of the Cap’n Jacka stories. Q’s satire extends quickly inland from the Looe company to the fox-hunting St. Germans Cavalry and to the volunteer movement in general, where the nobility of the desire to serve is only mitigated in the freedom it provided from the general levy and the press-gang. This gently edged humour is then set against the historically authentic reactions of the citizenry, who at the commencement of the French War waited daily at the post-office for the French bulletins and nightly lit beacons on the cliff tops as a signal of preparedness, a contingency that fortunately was never put to the test.
Another central character in the story is a second lieutenant and doctor, of whom it is said that if he gave a man up then all hope was at an end – a truism the story actually refutes. This saying came from Polperro and related to Dr. Jonathan Couch, Q’s grandfather. In The Mayor of Troy the second lieutenant is also referred to as Couch. As Jonathan only went to Guy’s and St. Thomas’ in 1808 and probably only returned in 1810, his inclusion in the story during 1809 is gratuitous. However, the identification is clearly intended. What is disappointing is the poverty of characterisation. Captain Pond and Uncle Issey are better drawn. This reveals yet again the problem Q had in relating to the memory of his grandfather.
Uncle Issey, Israel Spettigew or Gunner Spetigew, as he is variously named, also appears in I Saw Three Ships and The Mayor of Troy. He is a sexagenarian, a resident of Polperro and the only member of Talland church band in the Looe Volunteers. Polperro had its own Sea-fencibles. As in The Mayor of Troy he assails the already depressed company with even more depressing memory of the threatening of Plymouth by the combined fleets of France and Spain in August 1779. Issey proclaims how he was then an ‘unsaved man’, denoting the possibility that by 1809 he had become a Polperro Methodist who had retained his links with Talland church. Human pretensions to salvation were ever the butt of Q’s humour. In fact, Spetigew is a rustic, a ‘rude mechanical’ of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream although with the Celtic dimension of doing the right thing in the wrong way. The audience laughs, but not unkindly. In addition to Spetigew there is Gunner John Oke, the parish clerk and possibly the son of Calvin Oke, the second fiddle of I Saw Three Ships. Sergeant Pengelly, no name is more common to Looe than Pengelly, is also a character from The Mayor of Troy, where he profitably guides the returning combatants to his own establishment, the ‘Sloop’ inn, after the thirst provoking encounter on Talland sands. The junior lieutenant is a Talland farmer called William George Clogg. Jonathan Couch had a Looe friend called Stephen Clogg.
The plot revolves around the ailing Sergeant Fugler, who is noted as a smuggler and drinker. His likely demise within a month of the disbandment date of the company, in December 1809, threatens the accuracy of the appellation. It was the doctor who in the late summer of 1808 had informed Pond of the Volunteers’ lone stand in not having sustained a single fatality during five years of service. Pond foolishly makes a boast of this. Interestingly Q appears to be associating his grandfather with the ‘Die-hard’ motto. On the morning of November 3, 1809, the company make their way from Church End up to the cliff battery for target practice – a futile procedure owing to the misplacing of the guns. On attaining the battery, the doctor arrives with the distressing news of Fugler’s decline. As if searching for inspiration the doctor casts his eyes to the whale-like form of Looe island, at that time owned by his mentor Sir Harry Trelawney and inhabited by Hamram Hooper and his daughter Elizabeth, two of Looe’s most notorious smugglers. Adding insult to injury the Doctor then informs Pond of Fugler’s request for the Dead March at the funeral.
At this point Lieutenant Clogg is presented with the key of the store by Pond, only to discover the absence of the lock. The Volunteers panic at the possibility of a French ambush from within, arguably an unlikely and contrived episode to the story, but only a bedraggled escapee appears at the door. He gives his name as Monsieur Jean Alphonse Marie Trinquier, instructor of music at Dieppe. On being proudly informed of his capture by the ‘Two Looes’. Trinquier imagines this as ‘Toulouse’. (This repeats a humorous incident related in Bond’s History of Looe, where a distinguished D.D. fell into the same indiscretion to the hilarity of the assembled guests at a town dinner in the 1770s.)
The Frenchman gives the story of how he had made his way to the town based on the information that an address would effect his transit back to France. The address was that of the ailing Fugler. This prompts the instructor of music to agree to train a body of instrumentalists, most of whom must have come from the church band of St. Martins, the parish church of East Looe, in the harmonies of the Dead March. The discordant practices echo across the street to Fugler’s bedroom. This stimulates his interest. Within days he is insisting on attending the practices for his funeral in person. Thus the ‘Die-hard’ reputation rose from the grave, as the Doctor later affirmed during the banquet given to celebrate the Volunteers’ casualty-less service. Shortly afterwards Monsieur Trinquier, the Volunteers’ solitary capture, is given up to Fugler to be spirited away across the channel to Guernsey.
At first sight ‘The Looe Die-hards’ is a light and attractive satire of amateur soldiering, a mode probably achieving its greatest popular success in the BBC television series of the 1980s and 1990s called Dad’s Army, which satirised the Home Guard during the Second World War. Yet, as with the military burlesques of Gilbert and Sullivan, a serious point lies below the buffoonery.
The story illustrates the folly of hatred and war, the essential goodness of ordinary people, and the ability of culture and trade to transcend the artificial boundaries of nation states, even at a time of military and political conflict. In fact, the conflict was based on ideology and dogma from the French and the British side, and such constructs bred Q’s deepest ire. It is a profoundly subversive text, but one founded on Q’s liberal principles, and which in a few years will flower in staunch anti-Boer War activism. It is difficult to think of another English language writer who is able to pack such a punch from such a light hand. Herein lies something of Q’s uniqueness.
The East and West Looe Voluntary Artillery
- Captain Pond is the commander of the East and West Looe Voluntary Artillery, 1803 to 1809. In the story he is separated from Mr. Thomas Bond, the writer of the History of East and West Looe. In fact, Captain Thomas Bond was the commander of the Voluntary Artillery and the writer of the History. Bond was the clerk of East and West Looe, a J.P., and an alderman. He published Topographical and Historical Sketches of East and West Looe in 1823. In The Mayor of Troy he appears as Captain AEneas Pond. Quite remarkably, he is included in the Dictionary of National Biography.
- The Senior Lieutenant, who is also a local doctor, is based on second and then first lieutenant Jonathan Couch, although he was not officially a doctor until the conclusion of his medical training in London in 1810. He is also included in the Dictionary of National Biography.
- Second Lieutenant William George Clogg is the Senior Lieutenant in The Mayor of Troy.
- Sergeant Fugler is the best marksman in the company and a local smuggler.
- Sergeant Pengelly of the ‘Sloop’ inn in Looe appears as Pengelly in The Mayor of Troy. Pengelly is a traditional Looe name. Sir William Pengelly F.R.S. was born in Looe.
- Gunner John Oke. There is a Gunner William Oke in The Mayor of Troy and a Calvin Oke in I Saw Three Ships.
- Jean Alphonse Marie Trinquier, Director of Periodic Festivals to the Municipality of Dieppe, conductor, key-bugle & cornet-a-piston. A widower whose wife was called Philomene.
- Peter Tweedy, 1st fiddle
- Matthew John Ede, 2nd fiddle
- Israel Spettigew or Uncle Issey, bass viol. He plays bass-viol in the church band at Ruan Lanihale in I Saw Three Ships. He also appears in The Mayor of Troy.
- Butcher Tregaskis, key-bugle
- Thomas Tripconey, serpent and scorpion
- Archelaus Phippin, triangle
Prisoner of War
- Jean Alphonse Marie Trinquier of Rue de la Madeleine quatre-vingt, Dieppe.
- Mrs. Fugler
- Miller Penrose
- William Henry Phippin, father of Archelaus
- Browne of Troy. Historically, Captain William Browne of the Fowey Artillery.