Monday, April 14, 2008

Military History and Warfare: 55 days at Peking: the Seige of the Foreign Legations

During the summer of 1900 full-scale warfare erupted in China triggered by the emergence of the Boxer movement as a force of popular resistance against the encroaching foreign powers. The ‘Boxers United in Righteousness’, as they called themselves, began to emerge in the northwest Shandong province in 1898. They drew their name and their martial rites from a variety of secret society and self-defence units that had spread from the southern Shandong during the previous years. Some Boxers believed they were invulnerable to swords and bullets in combat and they drew upon spirits and protectors from popular myths and folk beliefs. They aimed to rid China of all foreign influence and as such were responsible for the murder of Christian missionaries, Chinese converts as well as the destruction of Western owned property.

By May 1900, groups of Boxers were appearing on the streets of Peking. On the last day of the month an international force of 365 marines reached Peking with troops from the United States, Britain, Russia, Italy, France and Japan. Two weeks later the Boxers entered the city, destroying most of the foreign-owned buildings that were not within the protective zone of the foreign legations. The city’s Roman Catholic Church was burnt to the ground and Chinese Christians living near it were murdered. By June the threat to foreigners was so series that Britain sent a force of 2000 men under Admiral Seymour to protect the legations in Peking. However, the Boxers cut the Tianjin-Peking railway line and forced Seymour to withdraw. In retaliation the Western powers seized the coastal Degu forts.

Intent on frightening the representatives of the foreign powers in Peking into submission, the Chinese government sent word that a Boxer force of 80,000 men would attack the legations on the 27th June. The legation ministers were informed on the 19th that all foreigners were to leave to leave the city by 4:00 pm the next day as their safety could no longer be guaranteed. On the 20th June the German minister, Baron von Kettler was assassinated in the street. His murder convinced the other ministers that staying in the capital was safer than heading south in open country with limited protection. At 4:00 pm the Chinese opened fire on the Legation Quarter marking the opening shots of a siege that was to last for the next 55 days.

Despite being heavy outnumbered, the foreign nationals in the legations quickly drew up plans for the defence of their compound. 8000 bushels of new wheat recently brought from Human were found in a shop on the corner of legation street. The ministers elected the British Minister to take overall command of the available legation forces. Sir Claude Macdonald had started his career as a solder serving in Khartoum before eventually becoming a diplomat. His military background made him the natural choice for leadership of the legations. However, the forces available to him were limited. From the end of May 1900 until the 14th August, the garrison consisted of little more than 400 marine guards. There were 82 officers and men from Britain, 81 from Russia, 35 from Austria-Hungary, 48 Frenchman, 51 Germans, 53 Americans, 29 Italians and 25 Japanese. In addition, the North Cathedral (the ‘Peitang’) was protected by small force of 42 French and Italian marines along with 13 French fathers, 20 sisters and 3,200 Chinese converts. A group of civilian volunteers, calling themselves ‘Thornhill’s Roughs’ also served on the barricades.

Apart from rifles and personal firearms, the only major weaponry available was an Austrian Maxim gun, a British Nordenfelt gun, a 1-pdr quick-firing gun supplied by the Italian contingent and an American colt machine gun. On the 7th July an 1860 vintage British 3 inch calibre smoothbore gun was discovered in an old junk shop. The Italians provided a 1-pdr mount and the Russians supplied some shrapnel and common shell for ammunition that had initially been discarded down a well. The shells were recovered, dried and used as ammunition throughout the battle. Two American marines volunteered to fire the gun.

From the outset of the battle, a major consideration was the difficulty of defending the large perimeter of the foreign compounds with the limited resources available. It was therefore decided to move all civilians (apart from the defenders of the Peitang Cathedral) into the British Legation, which was the largest and commanded a good field of fire for the defenders. The British compound consisted of 3 acres and normally housed around 60 people. It became the central redoubt of the defence with loopholes, sandbagged emplacements on the walls and a barricade at the gateway with space for 900 combatants and civilians, along with sheep, horses and other animals that were gradually slaughtered as the food supply began to shrink. To improve the field of fire, Chinese houses around the Legation were burnt, along with the Belgian, Austrian, Dutch and Italian Legations which were deemed indefensible. For the first ten days following the start of the siege the Foreign Legation compound and Peitang Cathedral faced constant attacks from Boxer fanatics, whilst the Chinese government and its army stood on the sidelines.

The walls of the Tarter City presented a constant problem for the besieged as it directly overlooked the Legation quarter and offered the Chinese an excellent sniping position. On June 23rd, American marines charged along part of the wall clearing the enemy almost as far as the burnt-out Ch’ien Men gate. The next day, the Americans started to construct a barricade but were forced to retreat. German defenders were also pushed back on the 1st July, but a precarious position on the wall was held. The defenders managed to maintain their positions between the Chien Men and Hatu Men gates throughout the siege.

As the fighting continued it quickly became clear that the Imperial Army had now been committed to support the Boxers. A heavy bombardment continuously rained down on the Legation quarter, where living conditions began to grow steadily worse. ‘Bomb proofs’ were constructed as shelter from the incoming shelling. However, on the 14th July, the Chinese attached a sheet of paper to a bridge announcing in large letters by telescope that they had received orders to protect the foreign ministers. The Chinese had called a truce at the very moment that they could have taken the Legation Quarter. The garrison was losing men and ammunition at an alarming rate. It is likely that the Chinese were aware of the increasingly difficult situation inside in the foreign compound. Aware of the recent success of the allied relief forces on the coast, the Chinese decided to make friendly overtures. A small supply of melons, vegetables and other food was sent into the allied quarter. The truce allowed the besieged to replenish their food supplies and husband their remaining strength. More fruit was sent in on the 25th July by order of the Empress Dowager.

During the truce period the Chinese continued to build fortifications, including a six-foot barricade over a bridge at the foot of the Imperial City wall just north of the British Legation. The Chinese also continued mining operations in an attempt to undermine the foreign defences. On the 29th July fighting re-erupted as the Chinese attempted a final effort to break the morale of the defenders. Fortunately for the besieged, a letter arrived on the 2nd August from Lieutenant-Colonel J.S. Mallory of the 41st US infantry stating that a combined allied relief column of 10,000 men was on its way to Peking.

During the latter part of the siege, the intensity of the fighting varied depending upon different parts of the perimeter. Those manning the Fu and opposite the Mongol Market, or on the West part of the wall held by the French were subject to steady Chinese rifle and artillery fire. By contrast, the German sector on the eastern part of the seemed to be much quieter. It was only during the final days of the siege that Chinese attacks became as intense as they had been in early July. On the 13th August the Chinese launched six separate attacks on the western part of the compound. The attacks were repulsed with the help of the Nordenfelt and Maxim guns. On the 14th August, Indian troops from the British army finally entered Peking. They were the first units of the allied relief expedition to arrive. American, Russian, Japanese and Italians troops all arrived on the 14th lifting the siege. The French were delayed by a day as a result of increased Chinese resistance.

The besieged in the Legation quarter had sustained a robust defence during the 55 days since July. Thanks in part to the well constructed barricades and defences, casualties had been surprisingly low. The civilian volunteers had lost 67 killed or died from wounds and 167 wounded. The eight nation marine force had lost four officers and 40 men killed with nine officers and 136 men wounded. This represents roughly a third of the serviceman available at the beginning of the siege. Of the 42 Italian and French sailors who had helped to defend the Cathedral, six Italians and four Frenchman (along with their officer) were killed as well as a one officer and 11 men wounded.

Martin Gilbert, History of the Twentieth Century (London, 2001)

Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China (New York, 1999)

J.A.G. Roberts, A History of China (Harvard, 1999)

Peter Harrington, Peking 1900: Boxer Rebellion (Oxford, 2001)

Peter Zarrow, China in War and Revolution 1895 – 1949 (Abingdon, 2005)

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