As town and cities go, Bath – despite having been home until recently to several Ministry of Defence establishments – is known for its waters, its social history and its architecture rather than its bellicosity. There is no military museum in Bath and, when it came to the erection of a memorial to the fallen of the First World War, it was not unveiled until 5th November 1927 after much controversy and debate. It comes as something of a surprise, therefore, to discover that, almost exactly 160 years ago, Bath’s city fathers went to considerable trouble to obtain from the War Office a pair of bronze cannons captured from the Russians after the fall of Sevastopol on 9th September 1855.
The Crimean War of 1853-1856 was the first major conflict on the European continent to involve British troops since the Napoleonic Wars and it exposed brutally the sclerotic state of the post-Waterloo British Army. It also gave birth to the historical icons of the Charge of the Light Brigade, Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole. Without taking away any of the credit rightly garnered by those involved in the creation of these legends, the first was a gross act of command ineptitude, leavened only by the incredible bravery of the British light cavalry soldier; the second arose through the sheer bloody-mindedness of a largely untrained nursing manager, based in a hospital not in the Crimea but across the Black Sea on the Turkish coast at Scutari; and the last was a myth that a boarding (and, probably, bawdy) house keeper of Scottish-Jamaican ancestry, who opened the British Hotel at Balaclava and did indeed venture selflessly onto the battlefield to tend the wounded, was in fact an angelic black nurse.
Almost as misunderstood as the legends of the ‘Gallant Six Hundred’, ‘The Lady with the Lamp’ and ‘the Greatest Black Briton’ were the origins of the war, which were deliberately but thinly veneered with noble aims. The apparent causus belli was a dispute between the Russians and the French over the right to protect the Orthodox and Catholic Christians, and the Christian Holy Sites, within the Ottoman Empire. The real reasons were the ambitions of France’s Emperor Napoleon III to avenge his uncle and restore the grandeur of France; Russia’s determination to seize Constantinople and so open up the Mediterranean to its Black Sea Fleet; and the United Kingdom’s perennial obsession with Russian threats to the route to India and India itself. To further complicate matters, the French and British were determined that Russia should not gain territory in the Balkans and Near East at the expense of the moribund and decaying Ottoman Empire, otherwise known as the ‘Sick Man of Europe’.
The war started not in Russia’s Crimea peninsula but, after preliminary Russo-Ottoman skirmishes in the Balkans and the Caucasus, on the Danube river which marked the northern Ottoman border. In June 1854, an Anglo-French force under the command of General the Lord Raglan and Marshal Leroy de Saint Arnaud landed at Varna to block any Russian march south towards Constantinople. The invasion never happened and the following month the Russians withdrew north. This should have been the end of the matter, but war fever had been whipped up by the media in London and Paris with the result that the governments there were obliged to cast around for a further military objective.
Their eyes fell on the Russian naval port of Sevastopol. The politicians agreed that its destruction would be a worthy objective and get the jingo journalists off their backs. This decision set in train the second phase of the Crimean bellum with even less causus than the Iraq War of 2003 and without even the benefit of a ‘dodgy dossier’. In September the Anglo-French Armies, along with some Ottoman military units, were loaded back onto naval transports, which sailed across the Black Sea and landed them at the ill-omened Calamita Bay on the south-west coast of the Crimea peninsula some thirty-five miles from Sevastopol.
At the Battle of the Alma on 20th September the French and British launched an uphill frontal assault on well dug-in Russian positions and broke through, the Scots Fusilier Guards in particular covering themselves in glory and winning four Victoria Crosses. By nightfall the British cavalry could have been in the lightly defended port city and it would have been ‘game over’. But Raglan vacillated whilst his fifty-six-year-old French opposite number was dying of premature old age, the moment was lost and by October the Franco-British forces were facing two ways: besieging Sevastopol whilst defending themselves from Russian forces determined to relieve the siege and/or sever the only Franco-British line of re-supply at the fishing village of Balaclava. The battles which followed, most notably Balaclava on 25th October 1854 and Inkerman on 5th November during which the Grenadier Guards and the Coldstream Guards won five Victoria Crosses between them, were inconclusive in terms of ending the war. This only happened after an extremely harsh winter, in which thousands died of disease and hypothermia, followed by a protracted siege which finally ended on 9th September 1855 with the fall of Sevastopol, three further Guards Victoria Crosses and the consequent destruction of the Russian fleet and its docks.
In the weeks that followed, the Russian fortress and port were stripped of everything that could be moved and thousands of tons of serviceable cannons, mortars, munitions, granite blocks, grain and even the massive lock gates were meticulously recorded, divided between the victorious allies and shipped home, as evidenced by the papers of the British naval Commander-in-Chief, Admiral the Lord Lyons, which are now in the Arundel Castle archive. Although the location of the lock gates is unknown, some of the larger cannons and mortars were put on display at various British military establishments and in selected cities around the United Kingdom. Bath was not one of those cities, which accounts for the reason why the then Mayor, Robert Cook, had to lodge a petition for the cannon with the Secretary at War [sic], the Whig politician, Lord Panmure.
Once the War Office had agreed to release the Russian gun barrels, Bath’s elders had to decide on a suitable position for the guns and their eyes fell on the site of the Victoria Monument, an elaborate obelisk on the western side of the Royal Victoria Park which commemorated the opening of the park by the eleven-year old Princess Victoria (the future Queen Victoria) in 1830. At this time, the Royal Victoria Park was privately run by a committee, which readily agreed to the installation, and in due course Wednesday 9th September 1857 was fixed for the grand ceremonial no-expense-spared inauguration of the captured Russian pieces, accompanied – in keeping with the rest of the lavish arrangements – by the Band of the 2nd Life Guards, specially transported at significant cost from London for the day. The event, which happily fell on the second anniversary of the fall of the city from whence the cannon had been taken, was extensively reported and illustrated by The Illustrated London News.
In the gushing prose of the day, the ILN’s correspondent somewhat breathlessly recorded that:
‘The weather was remarkably fine. The bells rang out merrily from the various churches, while a running cannonade of feux de joie announced that a festival of no ordinary interest was at hand.’
The cannon barrels, which had been re-mounted on iron gun carriages made at Woolwich Arsenal and had been paid for the Pickwick Ironworks of Bath, arrived by river at Bath Quay (now the site of the Avon Street Car Park). Here they were slung onto two red cloth-covered brewer’s drays and decorated with laurel wreaths; the first dray was pulled by a team of eight grey horses and the second by eight bays, all of whose harnesses were decorated with tiny flags, rosettes and wreaths of flowers ‘in keeping with the holiday spirit and character of the day’.
Once the cannon had been safely attached to their low-loaders, the horse-drawn drays set off for the Royal Victoria Park (the precise route is not recorded) led by an elaborate ‘trophy’, comprising flags and shields bearing the names of the bloody Crimean battles and followed by a civic and military procession. This consisted of the Deputy Mayor (the Mayor was off sick) and the Aldermen; the committees of the Royal Victoria Park and the Hanoverian Band (which was also on parade); a phalanx of military and naval officers in Full Dress uniform; a party of Crimean War invalids in Bath to take the waters; the Band and a mounted detachment of the North Somerset Yeomanry; two Companies of ‘pensioners’ (presumably from the Royal Hospital Chelsea); the Staff and recruiters of the 2nd Somerset Militia with their Fifes & Drums; and a rear guard of a second mounted detachment of Yeomanry.
Mid-way along Royal Avenue the procession halted and the guns were formally handed over by the Deputy Mayor to the care of the Royal Victoria Park Committee, short speeches were made by Mr Williams of the Pickwick Ironworks and two senior veterans of the Crimean conflict, Major General Willes of the Royal Marines and Admiral Sanmurely. The guns and their vast escort then trundled on to the Victoria Monument, which had been flag-draped and garlanded for the occasion and was surrounded by soldiers of the Somerset Militia and the West Somerset Yeomanry. To the immediate east and west of the balustrading, which surrounded the column, two stone platforms had been constructed on which the guns were to rest. What followed next is best described by the ILN:
‘The ceremony of dislodging the guns from the cars and depositing them on the stone platforms… was performed … by the West Somerset Yeomanry, amidst the almost breathless silence of the multitude, who watched with no little admiration and interest this novel, and apparently difficult, operation and when it was accomplished the welkin rang with a hearty simultaneous shout of triumph.’
For those not familiar with nineteenth-century vernacular, ‘welkin’ means the sky or heaven. But this was by no means the end of the installation: gunners stepped forward and, in defiance of health and safety, fired the Russian guns, which were loaded with blanks. Whilst the flash, roar and smoke from the cannons filled the air, the pensioners and the Militia let off their muskets and the Band of the 2nd Life Guards played the National Anthem. As the final notes died away, the Parade Commander, Captain Haviland of the North Shropshire Yeomanry, called for three cheers for The Queen from the assembled thousands. So concluded the ‘inauguration of the Russian trophies at Bath’. Later in the day, there was a ‘magnificent’ floral fête at Sydney Gardens, where the Band of the 2nd Life Guards again played ‘and contributed not little to the general enjoyment.’
The Russian guns, and two neat stacks of cannon balls, remained in place in the Royal Victoria Park into the twentieth-century, as evidenced by a 1915 photograph of soldiers of the 2nd Wessex Royal Engineers posing on one of them. But, in the inter-war period, they might have become the victims of political correctness and been removed as being unsuitable adornments for a public park, as happened up and down the country in the pacifist Britain of the 1920s and ’30s.
However, despite the city declining the offer of a First World War tank, the Russian guns survived in situ until December 1941 when, with the Bath Parks’ Committee’s approval, they were dismantled and removed to a scrap metal yard, along with much of Bath’s irreplaceable Georgian architectural ironwork, prior to being melted down and converted into munitions to be used against the Germans.
However, it has recently emerged that the guns were not consigned to a furnace – but their actual fate remains a mystery. One Bath Chronicle account claims with some authority that they were dumped in the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal as part of the foundations for Sharpness Docks. Another account in the same newspaper avers that, in 1946, one of the cannon barrels was delivered by a gardener and his fourteen-year old assistant to a house ‘near the Hare & Hounds pub on Lansdowne Hill’, the second was taken by the same team ‘to a house on Widcombe Hill’ and the cannon balls were ‘delivered to a house in the Royal Crescent’. Given the size and weight of the cannons, this is an extremely unlikely explanation and can be accounted for by the delivery of some much smaller ordnance scrap. This theory is confirmed by an extensive leafleting of both Lansdowne and Widcombe Hills, carried out recently by the author, which achieved a nil return.
This article by Christopher Joll is adapted from a story about Crimean War trophies in his book, Spoils of War: Treasures, Trophies & Trivia of the British Empire.