Great Britain, France, the United States, Russia, Italy, Germany, Austria and Japan. In the second decade of the twentieth century these nations would be embroiled in the most catastrophic War the world had ever seen. But just fourteen years before the outbreak of the First World War they would find themselves united in a struggle for survival in a small quarter of Peking City against a numerically superior Chinese force who were out for blood.
By the turn of the twentieth Century China was in a state of decline. The great world powers had encroached upon it bringing with them Christianity, secularism and a culture that was as alien to the Chinese as theirs would have been to anyone in the streets of London, Paris or Berlin. With discontent rife at all levels of Chinese society, armed rebellion was inevitable. At first it was the sporadic burning of Chinese Christian property but the Boxer movement soon evolved into a loosely organised armed rebellion with its sights set on Peking, capital of foreign influence in China.
This ‘foreign influence’ came in the shape of diplomatic, military and religious missions with its base of operations in the legations quarter of the city which housed the embassies of all the foreign powers. Under increasing threat of violence the foreign ministers, a force of 409 soldiers and around 3300 civilians began to barricade themselves in.
The Chinese force was comprised of both professional soldiers of the Peking Field Army and Rebel forces such as the Hushenying Bannermen and the Muslim Kansu Braves. However each force had its own identity and during the siege they often clashed with one another over differing loyalties and views of the foreign presence. The besieging forces under the overall command of General Rong Lu and numbering up to 20,000 fielded a variety of weapons from modern artillery and German Mauser rifles to swords, spears and halberds.
Opposing them was a small force of just 409 soldiers comprised of all eight nationalities. From red-clad British infantrymen to Japanese and US marines, the force was well trained and commanded by the British Minister Sir Claude MacDonald. Although jointly selected by all nations, he was only able to suggest as opposed to order foreign military personnel. The defenders could muster only three machine guns, one Italian cannon, a hastily constructed second cannon and small arms. The Americans were the only force with sufficient ammunition.
The Chinese forces completely surrounded the defenders and had erected barricades of their own for protection. From these positions the Chinese could mount small raiding parties and full scale assaults with the aid of artillery positioned behind the lines.
For the defence of the quarter each nation took responsibility for their respective embassy and eventually constructed a continuous line of barricades 2000m long through urban streets and alleyways. Defences varied from nothing more than road blocks to a 14m high and 12m wide defensive wall to the south which was occupied by German and US soldiers. The defenders had the advantage of good interior lines of communications which meant they could transfer forces and supplies quickly.
Course of the Siege
On the 18th June 1900 foreign ministers in Peking received word from the Chinese Government that a state of war would soon be in effect, and offered them safe passage out of the city should they opt to surrender. Concluding that no promise of safe passage could be trusted in a land teeming with hostile bandits and Boxers, the foreign ministers determined to stay and call the bluff of the Chinese. The Empress Dowager declared war the next day and Boxer and Imperial forces began the siege, erecting barricades and positioning their forces and weapons for an assault.
Ill discipline and conflicting interests meant that from the beginning of the siege there were no organised attacks, however artillery and harassing small arms fire was relentless. From high explosive rounds to fire crackers, all was hurled at the defenders in an effort to inflict casualties and keep them awake. Of the relentless bombardment, American Minister Conger said that it ‘exceeded anything he experienced during the American Civil War’. For anyone who has knowledge of that conflict, this is a hefty statement indeed.
The first effort to dislodge the defenders came on the 23rd June when the Chinese set fire to much of the buildings adjacent to the British Legation, considered to be the strong point in the position. Meanwhile, Chinese forces had scaled the Tatter wall and forced the Germans off, leaving the American marines alone in its defense. At the same time a Chinese barricade advanced to within a few feet of the American positions and it became clear that the Americans had to abandon the wall or force the Chinese to retreat. At 0200 on 3rd July 26 British, 15 US and 15 Russian soldiers commanded by Marine Captain John T Myers charged the Chinese positions. As hoped, the Chinese were sleeping and taken completely by surprise, losing 20 of their number killed and the survivors expelled from the position. 2 US Marines were killed in the assault and Captain Myers was wounded in the leg.
Of the men on the wall, Captain Myers suggested that they ‘all feel they are in a trap and simply await the hour of execution’. Imagine these men are thousands of miles away from home, surrounded by hostiles wielding halberds, sabers and battle flags, it must have been a terrifying existence.
In the Fu region (see map) the Japanese under Col Shiba were hard pressed. However through violent counter attacks, stubborn resistance and assistance from British soldiers,
Shiba was able to mount a skillful defense and was
admired by all throughout the siege.
It was in the vicinity of the French Legation that the fighting was most desperate. With only road blocks constructed of anything to hand for protection, French sailors and Austrian soldiers fought ferociously in a rat warren of urban streets and alleyways, also combating the fear that the Chinese were digging mines below them.
Sir Claude MacDonald said July 13 was the ‘most harassing day’ of the siege. The Japanese and Italians in the Fu were driven back to their last defensive line. While the Fu was under heavy attack the Chinese detonated a mine beneath the French Legation, destroying most of it, killing two soldiers and pushing the French and Austrians out of most of the French Legation.
Discord among the Boxers and the Imperial army over the prosecution of the siege often threatened to boil over and small confrontations were common. Realising that a quick victory may not be possible, the Empress declared a ceasefire on the 17th July which for the most part held. This wasn’t a moment too soon as the defenders had lost a third of their number and were exhausted, but also begged the question as to why the Chinese had initiated the ceasefire.
One final attempt to overrun the defenders came on the night of 13th August. Breaking the ceasefire the Chinese commenced an artillery attack on the British Legation and used small arms fire to attempt to break the defense. However, they were reluctant to commit to a full attack, opting to engage at range and as a result the position held. However the situation was desperate, the defenders’ only hope was a relieving force that they were informed was on its way, but would they arrive in time?
In the early hours of August 14th, the Chinese manning the barricades were uncharacteristically quiet. Something was different. And then they heard it, a machine gun to the East, followed by the rumble of artillery. Only this time it wasn’t aimed at the defenders, the sound heralded the arrival of the 20,000 strong relief force of the eight nation alliance.
Later that day, five contingents of the alliance; the British, American, Japanese, Russian and French assaulted the city. Each had an assigned gate to attack in an effort to enter the city, fight their way through to and relieve the beleaguered defenders within the legation quarter.
Meeting strong resistance, the Russian and Japanese forces were held up. The French became lost during the approach and the Americans scaled the walls instead of assaulting the gates but eventually all forces broke through. It was the British who first linked up with the besieged legations, entering through an unguarded gate and meeting very little resistance. Whole elements of the the Chinese Imperial Army and much of the Muslim contingent were completely wiped out in the engagement. The remaining Chinese melted away and the relief was a resounding success.
Chinese casualties during the siege and later Battle of Peking are unknown but estimated to be very heavy. The siege cost the lives of 55 soldiers of the legations and 135 wounded, as well as 13 civilian deaths and 24 wounded.
The Siege of the International Legations is fascinating to me because it is a rare example of a band of soldiers and civilians uniting together regardless of nationality to resist an enemy who has overwhelming numerical superiority. A Japanese Colonel commanded British soldiers in the Fu, French sailors fought alongside Austrian soldiers around the French Legation and US Marines fought back to back with German soldiers on the Tarter wall. Through unflinching courage, selfless co-operation and determination to survive the defenders of the international legations won through and lived to tell the tale. It is one end of a scale, with the other being the catastrophic events to come in 14 years time where the same nations would find themselves killing one another in the First World War.