Dorchester’s Warr in Crimea
A long-time Dorchester resident was one of the ‘noble six hundred’ who took part in the Charge of the Light Brigade. Colin Trueman tells the story of Thomas Warr, a 19th-century hero forgotten until the 20th.
Published in October ’16
Crimea, that strange-shaped peninsula which protrudes into the Black Sea, has been the cause of trouble for centuries, even before its annexation by the Russian Empire in 1783. Since then, it has been a focus for many conflicts, most of them violent, and its sovereignty is disputed up to the present day. It has always been a desirable property – particularly to the Russians, primarily because the warm-water ports of the Black Sea do not freeze over like their few available ports in the north of the country – but many other nations wanted it in order to exercise control over the eastern Mediterranean. It is only ten times the size of Dorset, but its importance on the world stage is a thousand times greater.
So it is perhaps strange that a Dorset man played a part in one of the more notorious moments of its history. During the Crimean War of 1853-56, the alliance of France, Britain and the Ottoman Empire fought off an attack by Russia on one of its supply bases at Balaclava. The battle is particularly remembered for a charge by the Light Brigade of cavalry, immortalised in the poem written shortly after the event by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who was the Poet Laureate at that time. Taking part in the charge were five regiments: the 4th and 13th Light Dragoons, the 17th Lancers, and the 8th and 11th Hussars. One of the survivors was a soldier of the 11th Hussars: Thomas Warr, Dorchester born and bred.
We know little about his early years, other than that he was born on 28 August 1830 in the Grove Buildings. These were in a part of Dorchester known at that time as West Fordington, to differentiate it from what was then the town’s most densely populated area, which is the Fordington of today. The Grove Buildings were demolished long ago; in their place are modern flats, at which the statue of Thomas Hardy looks from his position on the grass bank on the opposite side of the road – the road itself is now known simply as The Grove. Thomas Warr was the son of William and Jane Warr, and they had him christened at St George’s Church in Fordington on 30 January 1831.
His early life was apparently uneventful, although he himself claimed to have been the first patient at Dorset County Hospital, being admitted for treatment after the effects of a gunpowder explosion. He is said to have stated that this was in 1848, but since the hospital opened its doors in 1841, he may have been embellishing the truth for dramatic effect. The story emerged at the end of his life, by which time he had become something of a celebrity in Dorchester; the hospital’s admission records make no mention of his name. But since his father was a cooper, in other words a barrel-maker, and since gunpowder was stored in barrels, there may have been an element of truth in the tale. At all events, gunpowder certainly played a part in his later life.
Like many a youngster before and since, he went to London in search of opportunity and adventure. At the age of twenty, he found it – but not, perhaps, in a way he might have imagined. One evening in August 1850, he went to a pub in Charles Street, Westminster, called the Hampshire Hog. As a young Dorset man who could hardly have been street-wise, he was probably unaware that the recruiting sergeants for the army regarded pubs as a happy hunting ground. There were several of them there that evening, and they spotted him as a potential recruit. Tom had noticed them, too, particularly the representative of the 11th (Prince Albert’s Own) Hussars in his smart crimson uniform, which reflected the livery of Albert’s royal house, Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. The recruiters approached him, and he told them that he was happy to enlist as long as he was in the same regiment as ‘the man in the red trousers’. Thus he joined the 11th Hussars – or, as contemporary slang put it, he ‘swallowed the Queen’s shilling’.
Tom joined the regiment at Norwich, but from 1852 it was stationed at Portobello Barracks in Dublin (Ireland being then still part of the United Kingdom). It was still there when the Crimean War broke out in late 1853. Britain officially declared war on Russia in March 1854, and in May of that year the regiment sailed from Kingstown, the port for Dublin known since Ireland’s separation from the UK as Dùn Laoghaire. In June 1854 they landed at Varna, a port (now in Bulgaria) 350 miles from the Crimean peninsula. The regiment finally reached Crimea in September, landing at Calamita Bay. Tom saw action very soon: he was present at the battle of the Alma and never forgot seeing a gunner’s head blown clean off his shoulders by a Russian cannon ball.
A month later, the battle of Balaclava began when the Russian forces attacked the Allied base there. The British heavy cavalry won the engagement with the Russian cavalry despite being outnumbered and surrounded, but the ensuing charge by the light cavalry was a disaster, because badly phrased and ambiguous orders resulted in the Light Brigade charging uphill directly into a Russian artillery battery instead of into a different artillery battery which was being forced to retreat. Of the 666 men known to have ridden in the charge, 110 were killed, 130 were wounded and 58 taken prisoner, according to the casualty return now in the National Archives: a loss of some 40% of the brigade’s strength. Tom Warr was one of the survivors; years later, he described how they continued riding at a trot despite the Russian artillery opening fire on them, not breaking into a gallop until they were within a short distance of the guns. When the survivors rallied after the charge, Tom’s horse had been badly wounded and he had to lead it back to the rear, where it had to be shot.
The interpretation of the order to attack has been the subject of intense speculation. What is beyond doubt is the bravery of the soldiers involved in it. The charge soon took on the status of heroic myth, thanks to the reporting of William Russell, the war correspondent of The Times, and even more so to Tennyson’s poem, published a mere six weeks after the event. Very soon schoolchildren were learning it by heart, and several phrases from it have entered the national consciousness.
Tom Warr’s own version of events, as related to Harry Pouncey sixty years after the charge, is poetry of a different kind, for Pouncey notated it in Warr’s Dorset dialect:
‘We charged right droo the guns, and then retired upon ’em. The vust man I cut down was a gunner in the artillery. I was right in among ’em. I was very nearly the vust in and last out – not the last in and vust out! While we were formin’ up after the charge, the Rooshun infantry opened vier on we. They was jist round the carner out of zight. They let drove at we and we had to hook it, I can tell ’ee. Lord Cardigan galloped off, and I volleyed ’en. That’s wer’ it catched my hoss Tom. He had six shots in his near rump and I can’t tell ’ee how many in the hams, he wer fairly hamstrung. ’Twer a near shave for myself. There was a hole droo the rear spoon o’ my saddle. I got off Tom and led him on back by the bridle rein up the hollow. It took I ’av an hour to get ’en howme; and then he were so badly hurted we had to shot ’en.’
Tom was awarded the Crimea Medal, with four clasps for the battles at Alma, Balaclava, Inkerman and Sebastopol, but he lost his medals somewhere in Dorchester in 1863, having left the army in August 1862. He found employment as a basket maker and lodged at the Mason’s Arms in Glyde Path Road, close to the centre of Dorchester.
In 1881 he married Amelia Wareham, a widow from Shroton, and they moved to Pease Lane (now Colliton Street), but she died in 1886. Eventually Tom was admitted to the workhouse, still working at his chosen trade, but in 1913 he was awarded a duplicate of the medal he had lost, with much ceremony and adulation. He died three years later and was given a grand funeral which brought the town to a halt.
Dorchester has not forgotten him: there is a tablet to his memory in Fordington Cemetery, where he rests in well-earned peace.