History: Essex heroes of the Crimean War

PUBLISHED: 10:00 27 January 2016

'Sgt William McWhiney took the wounded man on his back and carried him to sanctuary'

'Sgt William McWhiney took the wounded man on his back and carried him to sanctuary'


As we approach the 160th anniversary of the end of the Crimean War, Stephen Roberts shares the tales of some Essex heroes involved in this conflict and explains the impact it had on our county

One of his sharp-shooting party was dangerously wounded and his men were being repulsed by overwhelming numbers. Eschewing any thoughts of personal safety, Sgt William McWhiney took the wounded man on his back and carried him to sanctuary under heavy fire. The date was October 26, 1854 and the conflict was the Crimean War (1853-56).

Britons fought with Frenchmen, Turks and Piedmontese; an alliance withstanding Russian expansion into Europe at Turkey’s expense. For Britain, it was about maintaining the ‘balance of power’. For some men of Essex it meant death and no homecoming.

Six weeks later the admirable McWhiney was at it again, when he saved the life of a corporal who had been severely wounded in the head. McWhiney brought him away from heavy fire and dug some slight cover with a bayonet, where the two remained until after dark and then retired to safety. Unsurprisingly, McWhiney was one of the first recipients of the VC, presented to him personally by Queen Victoria in June 1857. He was a man of the 44th (East Essex) Regiment of Foot, the so-called Fighting Fours with the nickname taken from its regimental number.

The 44th had been one of the earliest units into the field in the Crimea and saw action at the Battle of the Alma, Inkerman and the Siege of Sevastopol, whose successful prosecution effectively ended the war in favour of the allies. The 44th was among three regiments pressing home an attack on the fearsome fortress of the Malakoff (part of Sevastopol’s defences), reaching buildings on the edge of the city for the first time. The regiment came under heavy fire and attack for 18 hours, until it retired under cover of darkness, losing three killed and four injured among its officers, plus, from the ranks, one drummer and 23 men killed, with 11 sergeants, two drummers and 96 men wounded. In one of the 44th’s hottest engagements, seven men would be mentioned in dispatches, including two assistant surgeons.

The 56th (West Essex) Regiment of Foot came to the Crimea later, in 1855, but was also awarded its Sevastopol ‘battle honour’. Dark purple collars and cuffs gave this regiment its nickname of the Pompadours, the colour becoming fashionable in the 18th century, courtesy of Louis XIV’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour. The two regiments (44th and 56th) merged in 1881 and further mergers eventually led to them becoming part of the Royal Anglian Regiment.

The former Camp (Garrison) Church in ColchesterThe former Camp (Garrison) Church in Colchester

William Hope, of Dagenham, distinguished himself at Sevastopol on June 18, 1856, when rescuing two wounded soldiers while under fire from the Russians, running across open ground with a stretcher. Also awarded the VC, Hope ended up working on land reclamation schemes (the Dengie Flats and Maplin Sands) back in his native Essex, which sadly foundered.

William Dunn of Ingatestone was ‘brought up to the forge’ and went to the Crimea aged just 16 to work as a shoeing smith. He would later receive a pension for volunteering for active service and spending time in the trenches at Sevastopol and Balaclava, which became synonymous with The Thin Red Line and The Charge of the Light Brigade.

Private Nehemiah Eastoe spent time in the workhouse, but ended his days in a house on the corner of Wanstead High Street, where, no doubt, he regaled visitors with the story of how he survived that infamous charge. The penchant for telling old war stories also applied to Forest Gate’s William Perkins, a bugler with the 8th Hussars, who allegedly ended his days as a toilet attendant.

Captain George Lockwood, from Abridge near Romford, was aide-de-camp to Lord Cardigan, who commanded the Light Brigade. No-one knows what happened to Lockwood as his body was never found and there was no record of him being taken prisoner.

At the outbreak of the war, Joseph Peer volunteered to take out a pair of horses for removal and burial of the dead. They would have been kept busy as Britain suffered an appalling 45,000 casualties, as many victims of disease as Russian action. Peer would stay two years before returning to work on Essex’s railways, finally dying in Hornchurch in 1925, aged 90. Thomas York, of Woodham Ferrers, spent his 14th year serving as a Boy 1st Class on HMS Aeolus in the Baltic campaign and would live to 1930. The Last Post was played at his funeral.

The Siege of Sevastopol (Franz Roubard)The Siege of Sevastopol (Franz Roubard)

As well as the fighters on the frontline, there were impacts back home in Essex. The county’s two militia (non-professional) regiments served abroad, the majority of militias ‘volunteering’ for overseas service in order to free up regular units from garrison duties in the likes of Ireland and the Mediterranean.

Shoeburyness also saw numerous experiments on different guns, the 1854 Lancaster being tested here and proving capable of launching an 88lb oval-shaped projectile some three miles. It was described as having a greater range than any Russian gun of the time. The revolutionary shape of shell also gave large guns greater accuracy, some being mounted on gunboats heading for the Crimea.

Colchester garrison also saw rapid expansion during this war, with infantry barracks for 5,000 constructed on Ordnance Field from 1855-56 and the government purchased the 167-acre Middlewick Farm for use as a training area and rifle range. There was even a foreign legion based here, 10,000 troops of the ‘British’ German Legion, which was raised for the Crimea as a foreign corps in British service, although it didn’t see action.

As the 160th anniversary of the end of the Crimean War comes around in March 2016, it is an appropriate time to remember these Essex heroes of a distant conflict. The lament inscribed on a memorial at St Leonard’s church at Beaumont cum Moze stating, ‘The land shall mourn, every family apart’.

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