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Drummer Boy

Drummer Boy

Firstly I would like to thank Pete for taking the time and trouble to email me this story from Princetown.

Back in Napoleonic times when the prison ships used to be docked at Plymouth it was general practice to march the French prisoners of war across the moor to Princetown. All of these prison details were accompanied by a military escort for obvious reasons. The journey was long and arduous but was made even harder in the winter as often or not sudden snowstorms would blow across the moor, catching the soldiers and prisoners in the open.

It so happens that exactly this happened to one such party and legend has it that they were somewhere near the Devil’s Elbow when the storm struck. Within minutes the snow blanketed the moor and the white-out brought the visibility down to a few feet. The party knew they were somewhere near to what was then the small village of Princetown and its formidable prison but exactly where it was impossible to say.  By now the prisoners in their flimsy clothes were beginning to freeze and so the soldiers led them to the shelter of a small gully which afforded some shelter from the winter onslaught. It soon become clear that this was no passing storm and the blizzard had well and truly set in. So those soldiers on horseback were sent to try and find the prison and return with a rescue party. In order for any rescue party to find the stranded travellers, a little drummer boy was told to remain in the gully and to keep drumming a tattoo so the sound of the drum would led the rescuers back to the refuge. That being decided the mounted soldiers set out, by now even the horses were having a problem wading through the rolling snowdrifts and it didn’t take long for the swirling flakes to envelop the troopers.

As night approached the French prisoners and the few remaining guards began to despair, the relentless snows swirled around the gully but the brave little drummer boy continued to beat out his call for rescue.

It soon became obvious that for whatever reason the rescue party was not going to come in time, two prisoners had already frozen to death and the rest were near to exhaustion. The remaining soldiers decided that as the prisoners were in such a weak condition they were not going to try to escape which meant they too could try to reach Princetown and summon help. Once again the little drummer boy was ordered to remain with the Frenchmen and continue beating out his call. By now his little fingers were blue with cold but bravely he continued with his rhythmic drumming. The last thing the soldiers heard as the curtain of snow swallowed them up was the steady rat-a-tat-tat of the brave drummer’s drum beats.

When the snow storm eventually abated the rescue party was finally dispatched from the prison to find the young boy and his French charges. Eventually the gully was found and the rescuers was faced with the pitiful sight of a huddled bunch of frozen French corpses, just to one side was the pathetic remains of the brave little drummer boy, his body stiff and icy. The poor lad still held his drumsticks in his tiny , ice-blue hands as if he had bravely drummed right up to the final seconds of life – above and beyond the normal call of duty.

The legacy of this sad tale is that today, when the heavy snows come to Princetown there are those that say any storm is always heralded by the slow, steady sound of a military drum beat. Die hard moor farmers, prison warders, and locals alike all have reported hearing the ghostly rat-a-tat-tat beating out from the gully where the little drummer boy perished. And then, without fail, the snows will begin to fall, blanketing the moor in a white shroud of silence.

Over the years there have been many accidents on the ‘S’ bend as it sweeps down into the Devil’s Elbow. The road has been altered to try and improve the steep camber of the road which has always been named as the cause of the accidents – but still they happen. Is it really the road surface or maybe there is  some supernatural force lurking in the gully?


About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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