George Henty.

With the Allies to Pekin: A Tale of the Relief of the Legations





CHAPTER XI
THE FIGHT AT TIENTSIN

Rex crossed the river with Ah Lo, and made his way to Mr. Bateman?s, He was received with delight, and both father and mother showered questions upon him as to the state of things in Pekin.

There has been a lot of miscellaneous fighting, he said, but the Chinese have not made many determined assaults, and in all cases have been readily beaten off. The attacks are slackening off now, I think the Chinese are getting pretty sick of it. When I left the garrison the girls were quite well. They are working as assistants to the lady who undertakes the cooking for the hospitals, and they therefore get, I think, rather better food than most people. At any rate they look very well, and I do think that the siege has been good for them, for they have not had time to mope over the death of their father and mother, as they would have done had I brought them down here. When it is all over, that horrible business will seem to them an age back. Indeed it seems so to me already. I can hardly believe that it is not much more than three weeks since I got them out.

Now, Father, how have you been getting on here?

Well, the fighting only began two days ago, but it has been pretty hot since then. Everyone who can carry a gun has been taking part in the defence. We have barricaded the ends of all the streets, but I don?t think we could have held out long if it hadn?t been for the Russians, who came up after Seymour left. By the way, what is the news of him? We expected to hear ten days ago of his arrival at Pekin.

He never got up there, Father. I told you that I thought he wouldn?t. When they started they only took with them provisions for six days, and as the railway was everywhere pulled up, they had difficulty in taking even that with them. I don?t know how far they got, but it was certainly nowhere near Pekin. I believe they are now besieged at the arsenal, eight miles out. We heard heavy firing in that direction when we came along last night. Of course we had no idea then as to what it was, but I have no doubt whatever now. I must go at once and tell whoever is in command.

The Russian Colonel is at the head of affairs in virtue both of seniority of rank, and of being in command of the strongest force here. I don?t think he knows English, but he speaks French. I will ask Thompson, who I know speaks that language fluently, to accompany me to his house with you and act as interpreter. We expect some more troops up tomorrow, and I have no doubt that, as soon as he has given our assailants here a good thrashing, he will send out a relief party to Seymour.

Mr. Thompson readily agreed to accompany them, and they proceeded together to the house of Colonel Wogack, the senior officer in Tientsin. When they sent in word that a messenger had arrived from Pekin they were at once admitted. The colonel had just finished dinner. He had with him Colonel Anisimoff and LieutenantColonel Shirinsky.

Rex had changed his clothes before starting, and Mr. Thompson introduced him to the general as a gentleman who had just made his way down from Pekin.

What is the news, sir? the colonel asked in French.

Rex related the state of affairs in the Legations.

This is much better than we had hoped, the colonel said warmly. We have been in the greatest anxiety about the position, and several rumours have reached us that the Legations had fallen. Are you the bearer of the message for me from the Ministers?

No, sir, I came down in disguise, and had I been seized and searched, any paper of that kind would have ensured my death. Sir Claude Macdonald, however, bade me give a full account of the position and of the fighting so far, and assure you that, although provisions were beginning to run short, they could maintain themselves for some time yet.

Have you heard anything, sir, about the relieving force?

I went up with them, but left them at Fantail and made my way into Pekin, bringing them the only news that they had received of the column. But, sir, on my way down I heard heavy firing in the direction of the HsiKu arsenal. The only explanation of this that occurs to me is that the arsenal has been captured by Admiral Seymour, and that he is besieged there.

Why do you not think that he may be besieging it? the colonel said sharply.

Because, sir, they only had three days? provisions when I left them, and must have been in a state of starvation when they arrived at the arsenal. Admiral Seymour would therefore attack it for the sake of the stores it contained, and as he would no doubt lose heavily, he would not be in a position to cut his way down here.

Very well reasoned, sir. As soon as we can spare a force from here, we will go out to relieve him. Now, will you kindly give me a full detailed account of the fighting at Pekin and the state of the resources there?

May I ask if you speak Chinese, Colonel?

Certainly. I have resided for some years in Pekin.

Then in that case, sir, Rex said, I shall tell you in that language, as the story is a long one, and it will be tedious to translate it sentence by sentence.

It would certainly be more convenient, the colonel said.

Rex then told the story at length. He was saved much time in explaining the nature of the defences from the colonel?s knowledge of the ground. The Russian officer made several comments here and there.

Why did they not hold the customshouse? he asked. It was a strong building and but a short distance from the Fu.

Yes, sir, but I believe that it was considered that the force was barely sufficient to hold the Legation. Indeed, the occupation of the Fu was to some extent an afterthought, and it was necessitated by the great number of the Christian Chinese who came in for shelter, and for whom it was absolutely impossible to provide in the Legations. It was for the same reason that the Austrian, Italian, and Dutch Legations and the Pekin Club were abandoned. A portion of the French Legation has been destroyed, also part of the Fu.

Then he related the incidents of each day?s fighting.

Was our bank held as well as our Legation? the Russian asked.

Yes. The line of defence went round the back and side of your Legation and the Russian Bank to the Tartar wall. On the other side it did not reach the Tartar wall.

The narration occupied more than an hour. At the end, Colonel Wogack thanked Rex very warmly for his information.

It is all most valuable, and especially that part relating to Admiral Seymour?s expedition. I hope we shall get some more messengers through to Pekin, for it is clear that up to the time you left, the Chinese were gradually gaining ground. They have abundance of artillery, and if they were to bring it into play they could breach the walls and defences in half a dozen places in the course of twelve hours. What you tell me of your visit to Prince Ching affords a certain amount of hope, but there is never any depending on Chinamen. Tomorrow the other party may get the upper hand again and fighting go on more earnestly than ever. Matters here have become much more serious in the course of the past day or so. Until the Taku forts were taken the Chinese regular troops held aloof from the Boxers, but now the Chinese regular troops have joined the Boxers, and we are likely to have hot work of it.

On their way home Rex told his father what the colonel had said.

Yes, he said. In the opinion of a good many men the summons to those fortresses to surrender was a mistake. Up till that time the affair might have been considered as an insurrection; indeed, the Chinese troops several times fought the Boxers, but the attack on the Taku Forts was considered by the Chinese as a declaration of war on the part of the Powers. I don?t say that there is not a great deal to be said both ways. There was always the danger that the Chinese would unite against us, especially as the Empress openly upheld the Boxers. In that case it is certain that the available force on board the ships would not have sufficed to fight their way up here, and consequently Tientsin must have fallen, and Pekin also. It was therefore a most difficult question to decide. Our attack on the Taku Forts certainly had the effect of uniting the Chinese against us, but had that attack not been made, or had it been delayed, we should probably have had all the Chinese against us, with an inadequate force to oppose them, and Tientsin and Pekin would have been lost, and the life of every European in them sacrificed.

Come in, Mr. Thompson. We must get Rex to go over his narrative for our benefit. It need not be so full as that which he gave to the colonel, in the first place because we don?t know the position of all the Legations, so that details would be lost on us; in the next place, because it is getting late, and Rex has already had a long day of it.

It was not, however, till past midnight that Rex finished and they turned into bed. They were awakened an hour later by a series of loud explosions, which told that the sailors were engaged in blowing up the military college. In the morning Rex learned more of what had taken place. The Boxers had set fire to several places in the native city, and to the railwaystation. They were beaten off, and a train was despatched to TongKu, filled with women and children; the rest were ordered to take shelter in the Gordon Hall, the large municipal building in the British section.

The next night the Boxers renewed the attack on the railwaystation, but were again repulsed. On the following day they were joined by the Chinese troops, and from that time all communication with the Taku was cut off. That day the Military College was taken.

An incessant fusillade was going on when Rex awoke somewhat late the next morning. He dressed hastily and hurried downstairs.

What is up, Father? Are they attacking us again?

They have occupied the college that we blew up last night, and are now keeping up a heavy fire from that shelter. When it gets dark we are all going to barricade the ends of the streets, as it would be impossible for us to move out of our houses during the day. The municipality have already met this morning, and it has been decided that all goods in the storehouses, with the exception of the valuable ones, shall be given up for the purpose. Fortunately there is a great quantity of sacks of wool and rice, both of which will do admirably for the purpose. The greater part of the volunteers are occupied in the houses at the end of the street, where they answer the fire of the enemy; but the Chinese never show themselves. Did you notice the state of the river as you crossed it last night?

No, Father.

It was just as well that you didn?t, my boy, for it is full of corpses. Some thousands of Chinese must have been massacred in the native city, all of them no doubt people who are supposed to be favourable to us coolies employed here and their relations, shopkeepers who have supplied us with small necessaries, and perhaps some of the better class who have ventured opinions hostile to the Boxers. It is a horrible business, lad, and the troops are so furious at the sight that they may give little quarter when the tables are turned and we take the town. That is the worst of a war in this country; the Chinese never give quarter, and as a result little is given on our side. Our men may possibly be kept in hand, but I doubt whether the Russians, or the Germans, or the French will be restrained.

Rex at once put on his uniform, took his rifle, and joined the party who, behind some hastilythrownup barricades, were trying to keep down the Chinese fire. With that exception the day was comparatively quiet. All the Europeans not engaged in combating the Chinese fire were employed with the sailors and marines in erecting barricades, while the Russians held the outposts.

The next morning the Chinese opened fire with two fieldguns posted on the railway embankment opposite to the British section. Commander Beattie, of the Barfleur, with three companies of sailors, was sent across the river to try to silence them; but the Chinese, sheltered behind the mud walls which intersected the ground in every direction, poured in so heavy a fire that the attempt had to be abandoned, Commander Beattie and three of his officers being wounded. A ninepounder gun was then brought up to the river bank front under the command of Lieutenant Wright, of the Orlando. This opened fire upon the two Chinese guns, and maintained it so rapidly, and with such excellent aim, that the Chinese guns were withdrawn. Lieutenant Wright, however, was mortally wounded by a bursting shell.

Most of the Chinese guns were placed in the yamen fort, fortyfive of them being in position there. There was also a battery of seven guns in the canal, two miles from the railwaystation, a couple of guns within a thousand yards of it, and another couple behind the ruins of the Military College. Besides these there were several sandbag batteries along the bank of the river between the French settlements and the native city, in the city wall, and in the arsenal. All these now opened fire, and from their different positions were able to cannonade the settlements from every direction.

The din was incessant, and many of the houses speedily became ruins. Unfortunately the besieged had but a few guns to meet it, having only seven twelvepounder Russian guns of an obsolete pattern, a new fifteenpounder, a Maxim, and a Nordenfeldt, which had just arrived, but which was of little use, as there were very few rounds of ammunition to fit it.

For a week the position was grave in the extreme; the defending force was constantly engaged, and the enemy swarmed round them; but though they made numerous demonstrations they never attempted anything like a determined attack. In one attack the enemy set fire to the buildings in fourteen places, burnt down the Roman Catholic cathedral and the greater portion of the French station, and nearly succeeded in capturing the railwaystation, which was held by the Russians.

Day by day the situation became more serious. There had been no communication with the coast for nearly ten days; the enemy daily became more daring, and their attacks were repulsed with everincreasing difficulty. Then one of the volunteers, Mr. Watts, offered to ride through the Chinese lines by night. He knew the country well, and believed he could get through; but the service was a desperate one. The Russian general gave him two Cossacks as an escort. These might be of use if he fell in with a very small party of the enemy; but as he could not speak their language they could be of little other service. His comrades gave him a hearty farewell when he left, never expecting to see him again. Nevertheless, almost by a miracle, he succeeded in getting through, and carrying news to the fleet that the position at Tientsin was becoming desperate, that they maintained themselves with the greatest difficulty, and that their ammunition was fast giving out.

No time was lost; two thousand men British, Americans, and Russians bringing with them two Russian batteries, each of six fifteenpounder Krupps, were at once landed. The Russians were commanded by General St?ssel, the Americans by Major Waller, and the naval brigade by Commander Craddock and Captain Mullins. The force also included four hundred Welsh Fusiliers under Major Morris, and a portion of the Chinese regiment from WeiHaiWei under LieutenantColonel Bowyer.

It was a terrible journey. The railway had been completely destroyed, the heat was overpowering, and the enemy, though they did not venture to make an open attack, kept up a constant fire upon them. Nevertheless they toiled on unflinchingly, and at last reached Tientsin, to the delight of the inhabitants, who now found themselves in a position to defy any attack.

Rex had been continually at one or another of the barricades. The fire from two guns concealed among some houses had been particularly galling and accurate, and Rex, with two of his comrades, had often talked over the possibility of silencing it. On the twentysecond Rex said: Well, I mean to go out tonight and see if I cannot stop the fire of that gun. Are you two fellows disposed to go with me?

Certainly, if you think there is a shadow of a chance.

I think that there is a very good chance. You see, the Chinese guns always stop fire between ten at night and four in the morning. It is true that sniping goes on all night, showing that there are skirmishers out all that time; but if we could pass through these we are safe, for there is no doubt that the artillerymen serving the guns lie down and go to sleep. I have a Chinese disguise, and, talking the language as I do, I feel sure that I can get through. I shall take my man Ah Lo with me. Two might be quite enough if it were not that the gunners probably lie down close to their pieces, and if they woke up before we had driven both spikes in and made a rush, we might fail in our object. For that reason I should like to have two more if you are willing to come.

Both the young men expressed their willingness to go, one of them saying, however, that neither of them spoke Chinese well enough to pass.

That does not matter, Rex replied. It would, of course, be better for us to go through in two parties and join when we have passed the skirmishingline. Ah Lo can go with one of you and I can go with the other, so that if we are stopped and questioned we can do the talking.

Yes, that will make it all right, the other said. There is no difficulty about disguises; there are still some coolies here. Now, what ought we to take?

We must each take a heavy hammer and a spike, also a thick felt wad to put on the top of the nail when we strike it, so that we can practically spike the guns without making a noise. In addition we had better each take a brace of revolvers and a sword, so that we can make a pretty tough fight should we be attacked. Still, if we are discovered after we have finished our work, we must take to our heels rather than to our arms. In that case I think it would be wise, instead of making at once for the camp, to run to one of the houses. The night will be dark, and in the confusion the Chinese will not at first realize what has happened, and before they recover we shall probably be out of sight. If we get a good start there is little fear that we shall be overtaken, and even if we should come upon skirmishers they are sure to be very scattered. We can shoot them down before they realize who we are and what we have been up to, and then there will only be a short run and the risk of a chance bullet before we are safe behind the barricade.

Well, it all seems plain enough, and I really don?t see why it could not be managed.

I have no doubt in the least that it could be managed, Rex said confidently. There are only two real difficulties; the one is, to make our way through their skirmishers without being detected, the other is to find the guns in the dark.

Yes, that will be a serious difficulty. One of those Chinese houses is just like another, and as the guns are a good thousand yards away, the chances are that we should not find them.

We can manage that, Rex said, after a moment?s thought. Today we will put a lantern on the barricade, and ask the middy in charge to let it remain there, telling him what we want it for. Then we will go back fifty or a hundred yards and place another lantern in a window in such a position that when we are going in a direct line for the guns the light of the first shall cover that of the second.

That is a splendid idea, Bateman; that will certainly get over the difficulty. You are a wonderful chap to plan things. Well, I feel sure now that we shall succeed if only we can make our way through those sniping beggars.

The lanterns were obtained, and Rex went with them to the barricades. The officer in command there was a midshipman of the Orlando. Rex had had several chats with him during the past few days. Hello, Bateman, he said, what are you up to with those lanterns at this hour? Going to look for a subterranean mine?

No, I will tell you what I am going to do, but you must keep it a secret; all sorts of objections might be raised, and the enemy would get to know what we were up to.

You can trust me.

Well, then, we are going out tonight to spike those two guns over there that have been doing so much mischief for the past two days.

You are! By Jove! I should like to go with you, but of course I can?t. I have got to stick here whatever happens till the thing is over. How are you going to do it?

Four of us are going out. There is no doubt the fellows who work the guns all go to sleep between ten and four, so we have a fair chance to go up and spike the guns before they wake. Of course the difficulty will be to get through those fellows who keep watch all night. For that we have to trust to chance. We shall carry pistols, and if we come across one or two men we can use them without attracting attention, as anyone who heard the shots would naturally think that some of their own men were sniping.





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