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The Chinese army joined the Boxer rebels against the allies

Posted in Historical articles, History, War on Thursday, 20 December 2012

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This edited article about the Boxer Rebellion originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 800 published on 14th May 1977.

Boxer Rebellion, picture, image, illustration

The Boxer Rebellion

Multitudes in the great land of China were gazing in fear and trembling at the eclipse of the sun. Clearly it foretold some dreadful calamity, said the soothsayers. And it was only a matter of time before their prophecies began to come true. This occurred when friction between the fanatical Chinese nationalists, known as the Boxers, and the “foreign devils” they hated and wanted to drive out of their country, flared into open warfare.

As the Boxer threat grew throughout the first six months of the year 1900, more and more of the foreign residents in China, most of them merchants or missionaries, sought refuge in the eleven foreign legations in the Chinese capital city of Peking.

Something had to be done to protect the people in the legations, and on May 31st, 1900, an international force of sailors and marines arrived in Peking from a mixed fleet of 17 warships lying off the mouth of the Pei-ho, the river on which Peking stands.

They travelled up the river by boat as far as the important rail and water transport town of Tientsin, and they went the rest of the way by train. At eight o’clock that evening, when they paraded along Legation Street with fixed bayonets, the occupants of the legation buildings, watching them pass, suddenly felt a lot better.

But the presence of foreign troops only increased the tension and the possibility of a major clash. The Boxers were out for blood.

Refugees, most of them missionaries, were still arriving in Peking with horrifying stories of Boxer atrocities. But, ironically, the flashpoint as far as the foreigners were concerned was relatively trivial – the Boxers’ burning of the grandstand on the private British racecourse outside the city.

How dare they! This “outrage” brought things to a head as nothing else could have done, with the result that in the second week of June an international expedition set out from Tientsin to relieve the pressure on the legations in Peking and teach the “unsporting” Boxers a jolly good lesson.

The expedition was led by British admiral Sir Edward Seymour, with a Russian, Colonel Vogak, as second-in-command. It consisted of soldiers, sailors and marines from eight nations numbering in all a little over 2,000, and it took with it seven field-guns, ten machine guns, rifles and ammunition, and rations for three days.

The expedition travelled in five trains. They left Tientsin at dawn in the confident expectation that they would be in Peking by nightfall.

They were not. Some distance from Tientsin, the Boxers had sabotaged the railway track. Fire was their favourite weapon, and they burned the sleepers, with the result that the rails had buckled.

The expedition had anticipated this and had brought along a gang of coolies and repair materials. The line was repaired, but the job took the rest of the day.

Next day, progress was slow. All along the route, stations and water-tanks had been destroyed, and it was suspected that the wells of drinking water had been poisoned. It was also necessary to keep a sharp look-out for ambushes.

It was clear that they were not going to be in Peking that night either. Colonel Vogak and Admiral Seymour had begun to earn the nicknames that the besieged in Peking had come to bestow upon them – “old Go-Back” and “See-No-More”.

On the third day things got really tough. A force of more than 200 Boxers mounted an attack on the trains early in the morning. This was followed by further assaults during the rest of that day and the next.

A further blow fell when the regular Chinese army joined in on the Boxers’ side. Tientsin, in the expedition’s rear, was now imperilled, and it became more important for the expedition to secure its base there than to relieve the legations in the capital. Peking would have to wait.

The expedition started sailing back with four junks carrying their supplies, equipment and wounded. The junks were towed downstream by teams of men on the river bank. The progress of the expedition was as slow in this direction as it had been in the other. The Boxers were a constant threat, and so, now, was the Chinese army.

They came to an enormous, fortress-like complex of buildings which was in fact a Chinese arsenal. They were taken by surprise by fierce fire from its walls, and in the ensuing confusion the junks were abandoned and drifted away down-river. A crowd of British sailors waded into the river and towed three of them back, but the vessel carrying arms and ammunition was lost.

With great bravery and resolution, the expedition stormed and captured the arsenal. In it they found vast stores of arms and ammunition, as well as rice and medical supplies.

But now they were at bay again, this time inside the arsenal. They needed help as much as their compatriots in Peking.

Ironically, it was a Chinaman on their side who got through to Tientsin with an S.O.S. message, which was answered by the Russians there. The spirit of the arsenal’s defenders soared suddenly when they spotted the fluttering pennants on the lances of a Cossack troop galloping towards the arsenal’s walls.

Reinforced by the Cossacks, the expedition managed to get back to Tientsin. Its casualties were 232 wounded and 62 dead.

There could be no doubt about it. The “foreign devils” had paid a high price for their daring, and their enemies were delighted. As the news of the Boxers’ success sped far and wide, it inflamed the whole of northern China. The foreigners in both Peking and Tientsin were attacked by fanatical mobs lusting for blood.

The Chinese were also working hard now to shut the door to Peking and northern China in the foreigner’s face. That door was the system of forts at Taku, at the mouth of the Pei-ho river.

There were four forts, two on either side of the river. They had been modernised by German engineers, and now boasted a large number of heavy, rapid-firing guns. There were also four new German-built destroyers in the naval yard near the forts. It was strongly rumoured too that the forts had been equipped with torpedo tubes, and that the entrance to the river had been mined.

If the foreigners did not command the entrance to the Pei-ho, then they could not hope to come to the aid of their compatriots in northern China. In particular, they would not be able to do anything for their unfortunate colleagues in Peking.

The only way in which they could hope to prevent an appalling massacre would be by capturing the river forts.

But was this possible? And if it was, would the foreigners be in time to save their countrymen from the fanatical and murderous Boxers?

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