• Si Biggs

Royal Marines in Peking - Boxer Rebellion - July - September 1900

In the year 1900 sectarian rebels assisted by the Chinese government sought to rid China of foreign influence. The German Head of Legation Clemens Von Ketteler was assassinated by an Imperial Chinese officer.

Beijing’s expatriate community was besieged for 55 days. Governments wavered. Rumors were rampant. The tumult dominated international headlines for a year and left an indelible impact on Beijing.


“The present condition of the city and surrounding districts I would liken to an immense smouldering fire ready to burst into fierce flames.”

Miss G. L. Smith (London Missionary Society), 1900


The Boxer Rebellion had a tremendous impact on Beijing. When the Eight Allied Nations quelled the uprising, the last door to the innermost workings of the Qing dynasty was kicked in and change was suddenly thrust upon the old conservative capital.


The British Legation was the safest compound during the siege. Located centrally in the besieged area and a fair distance from the city wall it was difficult for enemy fire to reach the premises. That was why a good part of the diplomatic society chose to settle here in the summer of 1900. In this map it can be seen where nuns, children and citizens of countries that had lost their legations like the Austrians made their temporary homes inside the legation. The map is typical of the kind of souvenir paraphernalia that was produced after the siege. [1]


Peking 1900


In the Legations at Peking the month of July was productive of some fierce fighting and heavy casualties. A strong attack was made on the Japanese in the Fu and a Krupp gun was brought into action; a combined sortie under the Italian Officer was made. Unfortunately the party lost their way and lost 3 men killed, and the officer and 1 man wounded. The next day in spite of a desperate resistance the Japanese under Colonel Shiba were driven further back. The Chinese had been making approaches to the City Wall and created a tower to command the American barricade which it was necessary to clear away; a sortie commanded by Captain Myers USMC with Sergeant Murphy, Corporal Gregory and 26 Royal Marines and 15 US Marines and 15 Russians was made, the British and Americans attacking on the left, the Russians on the right.


Legation Street Peking 1900-1901

The Chinese were surprised and driven from their barricade with loss; this barricade was strengthened and held. On 5th July the British Legation was subjected to a bombardment from smooth bore 14 and 7 pdrs to the northward, fortunately receiving little damage. The Japanese were however being severely pressed in the Fu, whilst the Austrian and Italian men, shaken by the loss of their officers, were proving rather unreliable.


An old British gun was found in the Legation Street and proved capable of firing Russian ammunition; it was mounted on an Italian carriage and proved very useful. On 10th July, Captain Wray was sent over to command the British and Italians who were holding the left portion of the entrenchments in the Fu.


On the 13th the Chinese sprang a mine under the French Legation, and the French and Austrians were driven back to an inner line which they held tenaciously. The Chinese who had effected an entrance into the Club near the German Legation were thrown out by the Germans. A mine also was dug under the British Legation, but they were evidently diverted by the British countermining.



On 14th July, Corporal Preston RMLI gained the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal for the following gallant act: After the enemy had been driven from their barricade on the Imperial Carriage Park Wall, near the West Hanlin by shell fire, this NCO climbed on the wall some 12 feet high, with the intention of capturing a banner left on the barricade by the enemy. Finding that he could not reach it, he called for his rifle to be given to him, and pushing down part of the barricade kept the enemy - some fifty in number - at bay, while an American gunner named Mitchell was enabled to lay hold of the flag.


Corporal Preston, then jumped down and assisted Mitchell in drawing the flag over with difficulty, as the enemy had laid hold of the other end. He was struck on the head at the same time by a brick which partially stunned him.


On 15th May the enemy succeeded in making a strong attack on the north-west corner of the Fu and had battered down the barricade, which however was rebuilt during the night. At 7 am on the 16th Captain Strouts RMLI with Colonel Shiba and Doctor Morrison was making his rounds when crossing a dangerous place Captain Strouts was mortally wounded in the thigh and died soon after, a victim to shock and fatigue; an irreparable loss to the besieged. From this date to the date of the departure of the relieving column from Tientsin, with the exception of sniping the guards had to meet no real attacks, but on 19th July the Chinese began a barricade and sniping near Fort Halliday (an improvised caponier in front of the main gate). Firing recommenced vigorously on 5th August and again on the 8th and 9th, and attacks defeated by the Allied machine guns were made. At 6 am on the 14th the shells of the relieving force were seen to be bursting over the eastern gate of the Tartar City, and that afternoon General Gaselee and his staff appeared, having come via the Chinese City through the Water Gate in the Tartar City Wall to the south of the Legations. The besieged at once assumed the offensive, the Russians and Americans advanced to the Chien Men Gate and let in the lst Sikhs and Hong-Kong Artillery. The British Marines and Volunteers under Captain Poole occupied the Carriage Park, the Japanese and Italians cleared the Chinese out of the Fu, whilst the Germans drove back the enemy to the Hata Men Gate. The relief was thus effected after two months' siege.


It remains to tell of the movements of the relieving column.


The Allied Forces, now comprising all arms, the British contingent consisting mostly of Indian troops but including the Naval Brigade with heavy guns, and the small RM Battalion, left Tientsin on 3rd August. On 7th August was fought the battle of Yang-Tsun, which cleared the way. On the 8th they marched to TsiTsun; there was no fighting but it was very hot and the RM suffered terribly, two men dying of sunstroke. The enemy had retired to Ho-Si-Woo (which evokes memories of 1860).


On the 9th the Naval guns and Royal 122 Marines marched 5 miles to take up a position, but the Chinese had departed and Ho-Si-Woo was oocupied at 4.30 pm Captain Mullins with 50 RM , a troop of Indian Cavalry, G Company 9th US Infantry, 300 Russians, 140 Japanese and 30 Germans, were left to hold this post, which was very important. The banks of the river had been tampered with by the Chinese, which fortunately was discovered in time. On the 10th the Japanese reached Matao; the Naval guns going by river had to travel 30 miles, the land distance being 8 miles. At 4 pm the force pushed on to Shai-Matao. At 3.30 am on the 11th they started for Tung-Chow; before which occurred a short engagement.


On the 12th the Allied formed for attack; at 1 am the Japanese blew in the South Gate and marched into the town; this day was a rest day. On the 13th was made the final march and they halted 3 miles from the walls of Peking. On the 14th the Russians entered by the Tung-Pin Gate and were reinforced by the Americans at daylight. A sortie in the centre was beaten back by the Japanese, and after a heavy engagement the Japanese entered the City, blowing up two forts. The British as related had entered by the Shan-Huo Gate unopposed.


A small party of officers and men, with whom was Lieutenant Harmar and 4 Marines, who had come up by river, followed the Japanese and entered with them, reaching the Legations at 7 an. The RM Battalion entered not long after. On the 15th there was hard fighting, falling chiefly on the Americans who occupied the approaches of the palace.


The RM Battalion with some Indian troops and 500 Russians were detailed to relieve the French and native Christians who had been bravely defending the Peitang Cathedral. The Royal Marines were ordered to assault one of the large gates on the inner wall, Captain Harris' Company advancing along the top of the wall and one company on either side. They advanced covered by a French battery; when they reached the gate the Chinese fled.


Cart. Harris' Company was detailed to hold the gate, the other two with the Russians went on and encamped outside the Palace grounds.


On the 18th the Royal Marines and the Russians entered the Palace grounds and encamped at Coal Hill. From now on they supplied Officers' Guards for the Palace and parties for organised looting; the loot was taken to a central loot committee for division, but never was.


On 21st August the RM Battalion assisted the French to clear their quarter of Boxers, a very terrible business. On 28th contingents from all nations marched through the Palace and on that day the RM Battalion started to return to Tientsin by river, arriving at 10 pm on 4th September. They returned to their ships on 7th September. Just after they returned 400 RM under Major Kappey RMA, arrived from England in SS Jelunga and were sent to garrison the north-west forts at Taku where they remained until July 1901.


During the campaign detachments of Royal Marines had been landed at various places in China such as Shan-Hai-Kwan etc, to protect British subjects and interests. Besides the VC awarded to Captain Halliday and the CGM to Corporal Preston, Captain F Wray received a Brevet Majority; Sergeant Murphy, Corporals Gowney, Preston, and Gregory received the DCM and all members of the Legation Guard were granted six months' service towards pension or retirement. Majors Johnstone and Luke RMLI were promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in the Gazette of 9 November 1901, Lieutenant Armstrong RMLI was specially promoted to Captain, and Captain Dustan mentioned in dispatches. Majors Luke and Johnstone were subsequently awarded the CB.


The casualties at Peking were Captain Strouts killed, Capts. Halliday and Wray wounded; 2 NCOs and Men killed, 20 wounded.


The casualties at Tientsin and in the relieving columns were Captain Lloyd, RMLI killed; Captain Doig, RMLI, died of fever.


In conclusion we may quote Sir Claude Macdonald's Report on the Legation Guard and also Queen Victoria's telegram to Major Wray.


"They were exposed day and night for two months to the most arduous, irksome and responsible duties, which they fulfilled with a cheerful alacrity and with a courage and endurance which excited the admiration of everybody. Their bearing under fire was quite excellent and could not have been surpassed by the best veteran soldiers. During the entire siege I did not observe the slightest signs of liquor in any of the men, neither was a case reported to me and this though the facility for obtaining drink was great. To sum up, the general good conduct, soldierly bearing, and steadinese under fire of the men of the detachment was worthy of the highest traditions of the British Army and the Corps to which they belong. "


"This high state of excellence was undoubtedly in a great measure due to the Officers and Non-Commissioned Officers. Captain Strouts was an excellent soldier and a gallant gentleman. He was killed in the defence of the Legation on 16th July and his loss to me and to the defence generally was irreparable. Had Captain Strouts lived I should certainly have recommended him to the Lords of the Admiralty through Your Excellency for promotion or for the Distinguished Service Order.”


“I thank God that you and those under your command are rescued from your perilous situation. With my people I have waited with the deepest anxiety for the good news of your safety and a happy termination of your heroic and prolonged defence. I grieve for the losses and sufferings experienced by the besieged. VRI”

Telegram from HM The Queen. [2]


More related 'dits'


Captain Halliday RMLI VC - Boxer Rebellion


References


[1] Beijing Postcards

[2] History of the Royal Marines 1837-1914 HE Blumberg - p122


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