When the Crimean War started in 1853 it was just another of the countless wars of empire waged by European nations in their constant maneuvering for power, influence and glory. It was a war in which "the angel of the lamp" Florence Nightingale became famous. It was a war that produced the "balaklava" hat which helped British soldiers endure the harsh Russian winter of 1854-55. It was a war of military ineptitude and senseless slaughter immortalized by Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem "Charge of the Light Brigade". It was also a war with significant local economic impact.
Unlike the Imperial wars, there were no local men among the British forces fighting in Russia but the war raised the prices of produce in Canada to an unusually high level. An observer of the local scene reported that in the Galt area "farmers became wealthy; property went up in value; building lots, on back streets, sold at fabulous prices; new enterprises, both public and private, were freely entered into, and the people generally were seized with a spirit of enterprise, progress and it must be added, of extravagance, which subsequent events did not justify".
The war ended in 1856 a few months after the Russians were forced to evacuate the city of Sevastopol which had been under siege by the forces of Britian, France and Ottoman Turkey for a year. The Russians destroyed the fort of Sevastopol before they evacuated but apparently not all of the city's cannons were destroyed and a number fell into British hands. These were shipped to England where they remained for a number of years until it was decided to distribute them to municipalities throughout the Canadian colonies.
Galt, as a strong supporter of the Empire and as the largest municipality in Waterloo County, was chosen to receive one of the "Russian guns". In November 1864 Galt Council received a letter from the Governor General Viscount Monck" ordering that one of the Crimean Guns be presented to the Town of Galt".
Such a gift, of course, could not be refused and Council was grateful when the manager of the Great Western Railway offering to transport the cannon with a six inch bore from Hamilton wharf to Galt free of charge. The cannon was not long arriving and the local press announced on December 2, 1864 that the "Russian gun has been removed from the railway station and now stands awaiting its carriage in the centre of Queen's Square. It attracts considerable attention".
It is not clear what part, if any, the "Russian gun" played in the Victoria Day celebrations of 1865 but plans for the 1866 celebrations to mark Queen Victoria's 47 birthday called for quoits, boat races, an Art Exhibition sponsored by the Mechanics Institute and at 12 o'clock "a Royal Salute of 21 guns will be fired from the Russian gun".
According to a contemporary account of Victoria Day, May 24, 1866 "dawned must auspiciously. The weather was delightful and everything betokened a day of amusement such as Galt never before witnessed". The Town bells began pealing of 6:00 am and soon people were gathering for the day's activities. Quoits began at 9:00 am and the boat and horse races went off well.
As noon approached final preparations were made for the firing of the cannon which had been moved from Queen's Square to the Cricket Ground" near the face of the hill overlooking the dam". The firing of the cannon had been delegated by the Bun Committee to Mr. William Boge who had served for several for several years as an infantry soldier in the British Army. He lacked direct experience in the use of field artillery but felt himself to be fully acquainted with artillery practice and had convinced the authorities that he had sufficient knowledge to manage to the cannon properly.
Mr. Boge was assisted by Mr. James Armstrong, who attended to the ramming of the muzzle loading the gun and by Mr. David Galletly who was working the vent of the gun. Three rounds had been safely fired when the powder for the fourth round was placed in the muzzle. Next came the wadding, which consisted of sod, with Mr. Boge and Mr. Armstrong ramming it home. Suddenly and unexpectedly a fearful roar rent the holiday air as the powder exploded prematurely. Perhaps the report of the contemporary press best expresses the shock and horror which descended upon the spectators as the smoke cleared. "The body of Boge had been driven about seven yards to the front and a little to the right. Armstrong's body was blown about the same distance to the left side close up to the fence. Both were rightfully disfigured, the upper portions of the bodies were entirely denuded of closthing a blackened and charred almost out of human resemblance. From Mr. Boge's body one arm had been blown off at the elbow and the other hand was missing. Armstrong's right arm was torn out at the shoulder blade and left hand was also gone".
Mr. Galletly who had been attending to his duties at the vent when the accident occurred had this thumb badly lacerated and his hand burned. The only other injuries were to boys who had been watching the firing of the gun. One unnamed boy suffered a slightly scratched cheek from the flying splinter. Another boy, John Laraik, 7 years of age, received an ugly cut on the cheek when he was struck by a small piece of ramrod. His wound was speedily treated and soon healed.
Immediately following the accident the bodies of Mr. Armstrong and Mr. Boge were taken to the old school house on Dickson Street where an inquest was held at the direction of coroner, Dr. Phillips. Several witnesses were called, including David Galletly but none were able to give a satisfactory explanation of the direct cause of the premature firing of the gun. It was speculated however, that the firing was too rapid and that the cannon muzzle had not been adequately sponged after the third round was fired. It was thought that burning ambers remained in the cannon and had ignited the powder charge too soon. The jury ruled "that said William Boge and James Armstrong came to their deaths through accident caused by inexperience of the parties to whom the firing of the 24 pound gun was entrusted".
The games that had been scheduled for the afternoon were cancelled as the Town's joy turned to sorrow and Galt prepared to bury its two sons. The coroner ordered that the bodies be buried without undue delay so the funeral was held at 8:00 pm that same evening at the old School House. Both deceased men had been members of the Galt Fire Brigade which turned out in force to honour their fallen comrades. The bodies were placed on Fire Engine No. 1 and after a short service conducted by the Rev. Mr. Campbell, were taken for burial to St. Andrew's Cemetery.
William Boge was 27 years old when he was killed, a native of Roxboroughshire, Scotland. He and his wife had immigrated to Canada two years previously and for some time he had worked for Turnbull and Deans, the predecessor of Charles Turnbull Co. Ltd. Mrs. Boge was a well known local vocalist and a woman of frail health. She was in the crowd watching the cannon and witnessed the accident. The shock was such that we fainted "and it was only by the most unremitting attention that she was brought out of the heavy swoons that rapidly succeeded one another". She was taken home and remained in serious condition. For some time it was feared that she might not survive but eventually she came around and "strong hopes" were held for her full recovery.
James Armstrong had been born in Havick in Scotland and was about 32 years ago. He was not married, had lived in Canada for about nine years and was employed as a wool sorter in the Robinson and Howell Woollen Mill. Both men were described as "steady and industrious and much respected by their acquaintances".
For some time the accident scene was avoided by the Town's people and a full week after the accident "the old cannon still stood on the brow of the hill as no one made any effort to move it to its old resting place in Queen's Square. It was almost as if the horror of the accident continued to hang over the cannon and few seemed willing to approach it. The gun was eventually returned to its resting place in Queen's Square but thereafter suffered a certain amount of neglect. In 1885 it was reported that the old cannon was "resting close to the sod" as the carriage upon which it rested was rotting away. It was thought that the gun rested on another wooden frame until May 1910 when the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire had the cannon remounted on a cement base. In the base was embedded the plaque:
"Taken by the British at Sevastopal September 10, 1855. Given by Great Britian to Canada and brought to Galt."
At about the same time the Defense Department is reported to have given the various municipalities which possessed cannons and some 60 cannon balls. These were stacked in six pyramids of 10 cannon balls each which flanked the cannon. The cannon balls were removed in the years following World War II because it was feared that the local children who insisted on playing with them might be hurt.
The cannon itself was not threatened with removal along with the cannon balls but this had not been the case a few years earlier when in 1942 the Galt City Council received a letter from the Department of Munitions and Supply requesting that "every available piece of scrap metal" to be salvaged and made available to the Department in an effort to keep war industries operating at peak production. The letter specifically requested ther donation of the 105mm, gun a relic of World War I, which had been positioned on the front lawn of the Galt Soldiers Memorial Home since the end of the war. Also requested were any war "trophies you may have stationed in your parks, square or public places". In an editorial reporting the request, the local newspaper concluded that "the bronze veteran of Crimean days is now to go into the fray for the Russians once more, but this time also for the British.
Apparently Galt's Council did not believe that the federal government's request included the "Queen's Square relic" for they agreed to make available only "the guns at the Memorial Home and in Soper Park" as well as the City's old Sawyer-Massey road roller. Although another order of the City Council required that "all war relics owned by the City of Galt, be turned over to the Department of Munitions and Supply", the Crimean cannon was not included in the shipment.
It has been suggested that the "Russian gun" was not sent because of strong local sentiment attached to the gun. Zit seems unlikely, however, that mere "local sentiment" could win out over the call for an "All Out" war effort that had resulted in the rationing of gasoline and sugar and in the regular salvage collections which were gathering copper wire, piping and tubing, roofing, boiler bottoms, brass valves, aluminum wire and cables and even typewriter ribbon spools and the metal ends on light bulbs for the war effort. At a time when housewives who hoarded sugar were thought unpatriotic, it can not be doubted that similar condemnation would fall upon the Council tht refused to transfer an old cannon merely for sentimental reasons.
It can be concluded that Council assumed that since the letter from the Department of Munitions and Supply mentioned war trophies of World War I vintage, only those trophies, and not the older ones like the Crimean War cannon were needed.
Whatever the reason, the "Russian gun" escaped the scrap pile and remains in Queen's Square, a witness of Cambridge's history and a gun with something of a history of its own.