Take Away That Bauble 2/7: The Display of War Ordnance in Walsall 1850 – 1940.


The Crimean War: A Walsall View

While not involved in European conflict since 1815, local soldiers served abroad,[1] and fought in a series of localised conflicts.[2] The public were aware of such wars and, as Elphinstone’s defeat at Kabul in 1842 demonstrated, news was not always good.[3] Britain entered what is called the Crimean War in 1854, however, hostilities had broken out between Russia and the Turkey in the Balkans and Asia Minor in 1853. The British coalition government under Lord Aberdeen,[4] fearing Russian expansion, became embroiled.

Public opinion would feature significantly in the war and was for the first time being shaped by news that could reach London within twenty-four hours,[5] before finding its way into increasing numbers of newspapers.[6] The circulation and influence of the newspapers in Britain is a moot point: if Walsall is taken as an example, then education in the town was increasing and while a newspaper may be considered a luxury item, their contents could be disseminated to a wider audience than the primary readership through such means as the pulpit, the tavern literate and the dame school pupil. While likely fed an establishment narrative, the population of Walsall were not completely ignorant of the causes of the war. When an outmatched Turkish squadron was destroyed by a Russian fleet at Sinope the Times described the Russians as the ‘real aggressors’.[7] Sinope was portrayed as a massacre and swayed public opinion against Russia.[8]

Official news came through campaign despatches sent by field commanders, which the press disseminated to the public. Unofficial news came through letters from serving soldiers – which could influence public opinion as they may be published in local papers or quoted indirectly in other articles.[9] Newspapers also employed officers to act as war correspondents and would station their own correspondents in cities, like Constantinople,[10] where they could be near to sources of information.

The Crimean campaign would be different: the army would be accompanied on campaign by William Henry Russell, a Times correspondent, and through Roger Fenton, it would be the first to be photographed. Reports supplied by Russell, Thomas Chenery and others, copied in local newspapers, ‘scandalized Victorian public opinion’ on issues such as hospital care, sickness rates and the inadequacy of military logistics and supplies that led to the winter deaths of men ‘not singly but in tens’.[11] Disease was the scourge of armies:[12] cholera, dysentery and typhus were not understood in 1854,[13] but their causes were beginning to be appreciated.

Russell’s reports show the power of the emerging press: they supplied the ammunition for John Roebuck to seek a committee of enquiry into the conduct of the war, which brought down Aberdeen’s government in January 1855.[14] Charles Forster voted against Aberdeen.[15] Under Lord Palmerston, General Simpson was sent to help with administration and things improved.[16] The disastrous start to the Crimean campaign in 1854 was not balanced by three victories in the field, despite the enthusiastic reception of the news at home, as the newspapers reported the casualty lists, Tennyson and Russell highlighted failings, and an opportunity to assault Sevastopol,[17] the expedition’s purpose, was missed.[18] Lord Raglan, target of Russell’s venom, succumbed to cholera in June. He was replaced by Simpson, who later resigned due to press criticism.[19]

Had Sevastopol fallen quickly in 1855 then public fury may have been abated and, frustrated, the correspondent for the Illustrated London News wrote on 8 September 1855, that if the latest attack failed ‘it is difficult to suppose that Sebastopol can fall this autumn.’[20] Sevastopol was evacuated by the Russians the following day. The Crimea fell into an uneasy truce as the Austrians and Prussians exerted pressure on Russia and an armistice was agreed in February. On 30 March the Treaty of Paris formalised the agreement. Walsall, like Britain, celebrated the peace with a national Thanksgiving Day on 4 May and the town contributed to the plethora of road and pub names associated with the Crimea that followed.[21] Within months the Walsall newspapers would be covering Britain fighting the Persian War, the Second Opium War and the Indian Mutiny.[22]

The government war aims were sated: the Russians left Asia Minor, the Black Sea was closed to them, they were checked economically and politically – and the perceived threat to India lifted.[23] Walsall had supported the war at home: observing the Day of Humiliation on both 26 April 1854 and 21 March 1855, closing shops and public houses and attending church services.[24] Saint Mathews’ church bells were rung for the Alma victory and the fall of Sevastopol:[25] to ‘manifest its sympathy with the brave troops whose patriotic courage and unquestionable bravery have at last received their reward.’[26]

The war had to be supplied, and Walsall’s businessmen were more than happy to undertake government contracts for war material. On 24 March 1856, Chawner and Newman, a saddle and harness manufacturers, hosted a dinner for fifty of its workmen ‘to commemorate the impetus given to local trade by a large order for military appliances forwarded by the government to the firm’.[27] Henry Brace supplied saddles to the army through individual officer’s orders and, from 1855, directly through the government – a move that saw his business increase rather than diminish.[28]

It is known Walsall men fought in the Crimea but not the scale of recruitment;[29] whereas the Walsall Free Press stated that ‘400 individuals’ were recruited in Walsall for the Indian Mutiny.[30] The Walsall Free Press suggests another group embraced the army though likely to escape the drudgery of their lives rather than the patriotic fervour they presented it as: ‘On Monday and Wednesday, at the Police Court, the bench was engaged for a long time investigating charges against apprentices for neglect of work, most of whom had enlisted in the army for service in India. Who will say anything against the martial spirit of Walsall?’[31]

There is a surviving account from a Bloxwich soldier. James Wood joined the 46th Foot around 1839 and wrote to his family in Walsall in September 1855 giving his insight into the war. The letter was then printed in the Staffordshire Advertiser. Wood comes across as no warmonger, more simply doing a job – which after sixteen years is how he may have seen it. His letter opens and closes on a human note to his family hoping ‘dada’ will return to see his son and that he would give ‘freely give all to return to old England’.[32] He talks of the fall of Sevastopol, recalling the ‘hardships that I and my poor comrades had to endure last winter’, praising the bravery of the French and making no derogatory comments about the Russians. His description of the attack on 8 September is powerful: ‘I was there myself, and the shot and shell of various sizes flew, and I did not know the moment I would fall, as I saw so many around me fall both killed and wounded; but thank God I have escaped the slaughter, for I must say it was an awful sight to witness next morning, for the Russians and our own fellow-countrymen lay in heaps one on top of the other.’ What Wood shows is that for every soldier facing their destiny, an extended family at home was facing it too.

Soldiers needed twenty-one years of service to qualify for a full pension. There was no state welfare other than the poor-law so charity was a way of the establishment showing support usually for local regiments or soldiers,[33] and ‘various charitable funds’ had been established during the first winter to send warm clothes and ‘comforts ranging from whiskey… [to] a street potato-baking machine’.[34]

Local town councils, like Walsall and Wolverhampton, also collected subscriptions for the wives and children of the soldiers as a part of the newly created Patriotic Fund. On 24 March 1854, Walsall’s mayor held a launch meeting: ‘[I] could not conceive a much greater affliction than for a soldier to be compelled to go… leaving behind him his wife and family, with only the parish to look to for their support… but if the same soldiers should hear that their wives were being assisted… their breasts would be inspired by gratitude, and their spirits would be exhilarated.’[35] The fund had difficulties: a meeting in October ‘was not numerous’ and the working classes asked to ‘subscribe according to their means’.[36] When the fund closed in January 1855, it had raised eight hundred and forty-four pounds – Stoke-upon-Trent had raised seven hundred by that time.[37]

Concluding, the local establishment showed genuine philanthropy, organizing funds for the families of service men, as well as operated business concerns that benefited from the war. The working population attended days of humiliation, contributed to the Patriotic Fund, and were more likely to have relatives in the war zone. They both supported the war effort and yet, saying that, the miners of the Black Country had no qualms about rioting over conditions in March 1855 (in the wake of the winter crisis), and, with ‘Bilston boys’ descending upon Walsall, the magistrates had no qualms setting the Yeomanry on them.[38]

[1] Private James Wood served in the 46th foot in Ireland, Corfu, Gibraltar, West Indies, Canada, the Crimea and India. Discharge papers available at: https://www.fold3.com/image/586982487

[2] For example, the Ashanti War (1823-1831), the First Burmese War (1824-1826), the First Afghan and First Opium War (both 1839-1842), the Sikh Wars (1840s) and the Second Burmese War (1852-1853).

[3] See: https://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/articles/timeline-of-the-1842-retreat-from-kabul/

[4] A coalition with moderate Tories (Peelites) of which Aberdeen was one. Ironically, Palmerston, a former Tory, now Whig, was the most ardent to pursue the war – which eventually saw him replace Aberdeen after the winter crisis of 1854.

[5] Richards, D. 2006. pvi. Using the new telegraph system.

[6] Two newspapers were founded in Walsall in 1857, the year of the Persian War and Indian Mutiny.

[7] Staffordshire Advertiser. 24 December 1856. Turkish Defeat at Sinope. p6.

[8] Badsey, & Lambert. 1997. The War Correspondents: The Crimean War. p4.

[9] As an example, the Staffordshire Advertiser edition for 13 October 1855 carries despatches from William Codrington, then head of the Crimean forces, along with a letter of Private James Wood of Walsall to his wife, and several reports from war correspondents. Letters and the campaign diary of Private Richard Barnham of the 38th (South Staffordshire Regiment) are preserved at the regimental museum and are now in book form. See: Cliff, D (Foreword). 2015. Passages on the Crimean War: The Campaign Diary of Private Richard Barnham 38th Regiment South Staffordshire. UK: Lundarien Press.

[10] Chenery was in Constantinople, wring on conditions at Scutari hospital.

[11] Richards, D. 2006. p96. Richards quotes Lieutenant George Dallas.

[12] ‘Of the 18,058 fatalities in the Crimean War…only 1,761 were killed by enemy action, the rest of wounds or (much more commonly) disease. The vast majority of [the] 16,297 who died… were stricken in the first nine months of the campaign’. See: Judd, D. 1976. The Crimean War. p192. Lord John Russell’s resignation speech gave a figure of ’90 to 100 a day’, reported in the Staffordshire Advertiser. 3 February 1855. House of Commons. p7.

[13] John Snow’s investigations into the cholera outbreak in Soho, London, took place that year (the bacterial cause was only identified in 1883). Anachronistic blame can be aimed at the army not for effective treatment of something they did not understand, but over the lack of basic sanitation that allowed these diseases to take hold and the lack of humanity in caring for any of the sick and wounded.

[14] ffrench Blake, R. 1993. The Crimean War. p113.

[15] Walsall Free Press. 21 March 1857. The Electors of Walsall. p1.

[16] ffrench Blake, R. 1993. p113.

[17] Staffordshire Advertiser. 21 October 1854. The War. p6.

[18] ffrench Blake, R. 1993. p67.

[19] ffrench Blake, R. 1993. p113.

[20] Illustrated London News. 29 September 1855. The War in the Crimea. p17.

[21] Walsall had pubs called the Alma (the name carried to a new pub in 1932, which still exists) and the Charles Napier (the Admiral in the Baltic), and an Alma Street.

[22] Walsall Free Press Suppliment. 17 January 1857. Mr O’Neill On Our Hostilities With China and Persia. p1.

[23] Badsey, S. & Lambert, A. 1997. p10.

[24] Staffordshire Advertiser. 29 April 1854. Day of Humiliation. p5.

[25] Staffordshire Advertiser. 7 October 1854. Walsall. p5.

[26] Staffordshire Advertiser. 15 September 1855. Walsall. p5.

[27] Staffordshire Advertiser. 29 March 1856. A Remanet of War. p5.

[28] Evening Mail. 24 September 1858. Royal Commission on the Army Clothing System. p7. This Evening Mail was a London newspaper.

[29] Wood has been mentioned, William Purvis was in the Light Brigade.

[30] Walsall Free Press. 10 October 1857. Recruiting in Walsall. p4.

[31] Walsall Free Press. 7 November 1857. Martial Spirit of Walsall. p4.

[32] Staffordshire Advertiser. 13 October 1855, Staffordshire Soldier. p6.

[33] Staffordshire Advertiser. 4 March 1854. Provision for the Wives and Children of Absent Soldiers. p5. Generic newspaper report.

[34] ibid.

[35] Staffordshire Advertiser. 25 March 1854. Walsall. p5.

[36] Staffordshire Advertiser. 28 October 1854. Walsall. p5.

[37] Staffordshire Advertiser. 20 January 1855. Walsall. p5: and Stoke-upon-Trent. p4.

[38] Willmore, F. 1887. p385.

‘Carrying Away the Guns’: The Legacy of the Crimea.[1]

War spoils can be split into two general types: those that have practical or intrinsic monetary value (captured stores, then used by the army) and those that do not (private keepsakes taken to adorn the home or mess).[2] On the first type, what is considered valuable? James Wood wrote to his wife that: ‘I have been in the town… The guns and warlike stores are immense.’[3] Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Kelly ‘heard a report that the Commission has valued the English share of the guns and stores taken at Sebastopol at a year’s pay for the whole army’,[4] while Russell conversely wrote that the Russians ‘carried off all his most useful stores and munitions of war’.[5] All three were interested in the practical, but practical value does not exclude an item being of symbolic value. Of the second type, Kelly wrote to his wife that: ‘Any rubbish coming from Russia is now prized’; he himself: ‘had amassed… a soldier’s helmet, an officer’s shako, three swords of different sorts… and lots of bullets, grape‐shot and buttons’.[6] Russell wrote that: ‘Russian relics were being offered for sale in the camp before the Russians had marched out of [Sevastopol]’.[7]

After Sevastopol fell two large bronze church bells were packed off to Woolwich where they were displayed for a while. They were not melted down and remained trophy symbols; one was given to Queen Victoria (currently at Windsor Castle) while the other was sent to Aldershot barracks (since relocated).[8] Codrington, the last commander-in-chief of the British forces, also sent home the brass and bronze cannon,[9] which were more expensive to produce than the more numerous iron ones.

The fact the iron ordnance, numbering over one thousand, ever got back to Britain is incredible as there was a lack of interest within the communications between Lord Panmure, Secretary of State for War, and Codrington.[10] During the period of truce Codrington sought clarification from Panmure on them, for he felt that retrieval ‘would tear the horses about, which are more valuable than the guns’.[11] Panmure’s instruction was to ‘destroy them and throw them into the harbour. If you can save any of the best you may, but it is of no great consequence’.[12]

Why Panmure was so dismissive of the guns maybe to do with technology: as Secretary of State for War he must have known of William Armstrong’s experimentation into a breech-loading, shell-firing, lighter alternative to the muzzle-loading, ball-firing, heavy ordnance deployed in the Crimea.[13] Cannon, as the musket had, would be soon be eclipsed – and having no longevity they simply became a logistical problem.

The saving of them may have been down to a combination of factors, initially driven by what was happening in the Crimea. First, Panmure’s mistrust of the Russians meant that he ordered Codrington to remain on a war footing despite the state of truce; Codrington, therefore kept ordnance, some Russian, in the field should the conflict resume. Second, when peace was declared suddenly, something had to be done with the cannon in order to strip Sevastopol of its military threat and just spiking them left them open to repair or using the metal to recast them. Third, while Codrington was originally concerned for the horses, he may have later thought differently as a road had been built to facilitate the removal.[14] Codrington either had a change of heart or he was sufficiently unsure as to pass the problem on to London at the rapid conclusion to the war by sending the cannon, damaged or not, to the arsenal at Woolwich.

The other factors were home ones, and the first was also indecision. Panmure and Woolwich had no real plan of what to do with the cannon on their arrival; there was nothing stopping Panmure from either ordering Codrington to cease sending them or destroying the them on arrival but he elected not to do this – while he was decisive when the cannon were in Russia, he became indecisive when at Woolwich and so they simply sat there.

The second factor was the emerging trophy concept. What suggests that Codrington had a change of heart is that in October 1857 he wrote to Panmure over the now stagnant issue, displaying sentimentality over the guns: ‘We who were engaged in the Crimea naturally feel that they were of value – that they are not lumbering old stores – and that there is something more in them than the metal of which they are composed.’ [15] He also pleaded the special case of two guns taken in battle at Alma, which he felt elevated their status: he saw the Sevastopol cannon as trophies of a successful but hard fought war, whereas the Alma cannon were linked with blood and won in battle. Codrington’s final appeal was over how the Russians would make use of the cannon they won at Balaclava (also taken in battle).[16] Panmure agreed to preserve the cannon.[17]

The trophy concept then began to take hold: British cannon were given to Sardinia as a token of alliance and Turkey sent a brass cannon to Britain for the same purpose;[18] the queen had allowed the public to view some displayed cannon and bells at Woolwich, otherwise out of public bounds; then, in the September,[19] news started appearing of how the French were displaying their captured ordnance to the public and later intended to make a Boulevard Sevastopol in Paris lined with cannon.[20]

It also has to be remembered that the voices of returning soldiers were adding first-hand accounts to the tales printed in the newspapers. Russell’s parting gift was a series of reports from the Crimea which ‘describe the military cemeteries and the old battlefields in moving tones.’[21] Russell’s despatch of 30 June quotes a nameless Hussar as he left the Crimea: ‘How happy I should be, only I’m thinking of the poor fellows we leave behind’ to which a comrade added: ‘we have no cause to be ashamed of them’.[22] When added to the public anger over the wasteful way they died, the running of the war and the calls for memorials to represent them at home, it is possible to see in Russell’s reports, and the sentiments they express over the dead, the power to turn scrap metal into war trophies.

Panmure was loathe to display trophies, which would: ‘keep open the sores of war after the healing hand of peace had been applied’,[23] but without any decision being taken, Panmure began to receive requests for ordnance. On 24 December 1856 Glasgow’s Lord Provost asked: ‘for the Hango mortar or “some such memorial of the great contest”… as he had observed other towns in the kingdom receiving “presents of the late war”, then Glasgow should have some too, “to lend interest and attraction to the Kelvingrove Park”’.[24] Such requests prompted Panmure into a compromise: from January 1857 the ordnance would be offered to individuals, military establishments and towns that could look after such items and any left could be disposed of at the discretion of the arsenal. Some cannon were later melted down, famously for the newly established Victoria Cross and the Guards Memorial erected in 1861.[25]

Glasgow’s approach to Panmure was prosaic. The war was ‘the great contest’ and the ordnance, with terms such as ‘presents’ and ‘interest and attraction’, an ornamental curiosity. Glasgow did have a clear intention, to place the ordnance in the park. It is tempting to use Glasgow as a benchmark for Walsall’s request, but this is perhaps unfair: Glasgow was requesting ordnance before the general invite, was larger than most cities, and by the time many towns were requesting the Indian Mutiny had broken out and symbolic patriotism may have been a factor.[26]

In her article, Rhynas Brown believes that on some occasions ‘one-upmanship’ lay at the heart of some trophy acquisition.[27] This is difficult to prove, and it seems more likely that the emphasis on the accrual of ordnance was more to do with just one’s own town rather than getting one over on the neighbouring town. While there was plenty of ordnance to go around – Glasgow only sought one piece, but were offered three – towns would not necessarily know that, and the reason Glasgow pointed out other, lesser places had been gifted guns may have been to pressure Panmure into granting the request.

The Hereford Times used a similar device to prompt their town council into approaching Panmure on behalf of the town,[28] as did Charles Mander when writing to Wolverhampton Town Council.[29] Indeed, when Walsall first debated the removal of its guns, Councillor Williams used the tactic to champion their retention: ’it should be remembered that at the time they got the guns Wolverhampton also made application, but only got one gun while Walsall had been presented with two’.[30] Wolverhampton had in fact been granted two, but due to spatial and funding issues opted for a single cannon instead (see  illustration).[31]

Wolverhampton cannon, circa 1862. An example of a local town centre cannon monument (now Queen Square), simply mounted on a plinth. The statue of Prince Albert replaced the cannon in 1866. https://www.expressandstar.com

Ordnance could be viewed as a triumph, but mostly the terminology used in the newspapers was something along the lines of a ‘trophy of the late war’.[32] The cannon were seen as a victory symbol and the Wolverhampton piece carried a plaque stating it was from the Crimea where ‘England, allied with France, in the interests of Western civilisation, successfully resisted the aggression of Russia upon the Turkish Empire’.[33] The plaque was the Council’s innovation, and while there is no evidence in Panmure’s papers to support the claim, it could be argued that between them they were presenting a narrative that, despite desperate failings, it was a justifiable war with a positive outcome.

Wolverhampton also promoted another narrative: the plaque also recognised the trophy was raised by public conscription and was ‘in honour of the heroic men, soldiers and sailors, who, in the midst of unexampled privation and suffering, bravely fought in the Crimea’.[34] The Hereford Times saw the cannon in this dual role as well – it deserved its trophy as the town had contributed to the war effort as many of its ‘gallant sons now sleep on that war-desolated peninsula’.[35] When Coventry’s Council took two guns, while debating a fitting site and overall monument concept, Councillor Hands believed it should be fitting for the ‘memory of the gallant men who had fallen in the war’.[36] Some communities were very insular, like Shrewsbury, which never sought ordnance as the Shropshire regiments were not represented in the Crimea;[37] for those that did seek ordnance, the cannon represented a victory symbol to many, but equally they also represented the dead.

To conclude, it is suggested that captured ordnance were deliberately salvaged when comprised of brass or bronze, whereas the iron cannon were retained due to the indecision of Codrington and Panmure, along with a growing military sentimentality attached to them by Codrington and the British public. With his decision to offer ordnance out, Panmure started a series of requests from cities and towns for trophies that were in part driven by local civic pride, but also by genuine feelings of victory in an honourable war and remembrance of the men that died achieving it. This tripartite purpose in a sense overburdened the cannon – and the degree to which each part was important was down to the individual’s perspective.

[1] The phrased used in Airey’s written interpretation of Raglan’s order which led to the fateful charge. NAM 1962-11-4-3

[2] There were no national, regimental or local authority museums at this time.

[3] Staffordshire Advertiser. 13 October 1855, Staffordshire Soldier. p6.

[4] Bartlett, R. &. Payne. R. 2014. ‘Britain’s Crimean War Trophy Guns: A Case of Ludlow and the Marches’. History: the Journal of the Historical Association, 99: p653. Available at: http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/1471065/1/Payne%2C%20R.%20Britain%E2%80%99s%20Crimean%20War%20.pdf

[5] Badsey, S. & Lambert, A. 1997. p250.

[6] Bartlett, R. &. Payne. R. 2014. pp 660-661

[7] Badsey, S. & Lambert, A. 1997. p253.

[8] See: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1156129

[9] Bartlett, R. &. Payne. R. 2014. p654.

[10] Some of Panmure’s correspondence is online (Crimean War Research Society). See http://cwrs.russianwar.co.uk/cwrs-crimtexts-panmure.html

[11] Bartlett, R. &. Payne. R. 2014. p654.

[12] ibid

[13] https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-669

[14]  Bartlett, R. &. Payne. R. 2014. p655.

[15] Bartlett, R. &. Payne. R. 2014. p658.

[16] Panmure papers. 6 October 1856.

[17] Bartlett, R. &. Payne. R. 2014. p658.

[18] ibid. p657.

[19] ibid

[20] Wolverhampton Chronicle. 17 Sep 1856. Russian Trophies in Paris. p4.

[21] Badsey, S. & Lambert, A. 1997. p273.

[22] ibid. p274.

[23] Bartlett, R. &. Payne. R. 2014. p658.

[24] See: http://www.glasgowsculpture.com/pg_images.php?sub=crimeanguns

[25] Borg, A. 1991. War Memorials. Leo Copper: London. p41.

[26] Problems began in March 1857, by May there was wide-scale revolt. See: Harris, J. 1973. The Indian Mutiny. pp 25-39.

[27] Rhynas Brown, R. 2014. p26.

[28] The Hereford Times. 20 June 1857. A Trophy from the Crimea. p9.

[29] Wolverhampton Chronicle. 9 Sep 1857. Russian Gun. p6.

[30] Walsall Free Press. 28 February 1874. The Russian Guns. p4.

[31] Wolverhampton Chronicle. 10 March 1858. Wolverhampton Council. p7.

[32] Wolverhampton Chronicle. 4 Nov 1857. Trophies of the Crimean War. p4.

[33] Wolverhampton Chronicle. 27 November 1858. The Russian Gun. p7.

[34] Wolverhampton Chronicle. 27 November 1858. The Russian Gun. p7.

[35] The Hereford Times. 20 June 1857. A Trophy from the Crimea. p9.

[36] Coventry Standard. 13 November 1857. Meeting of the City Council. p4.

[37] Bartlett, R. &. Payne. R. 2014. p663.