George Henty.

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





As the time advanced, Rex, whose despair at the long delay had driven him almost distracted, began to fear that the expedition would arrive too late. He was, of course, ignorant that the capture of Tientsin had had a powerful effect on the position at Pekin. The Chinese had believed that the place was impregnable, and so long as it was there to menace the rear of an invading army they felt perfectly safe. It was a tremendous blow to them therefore to learn that this city, with all its forts, guns, and supplies of ammunition, had been captured after a single day?s fighting, and the consequence was that their indecision increased.

The war party were confused, and the peace party, headed by Prince Ching, gained vastly greater influence in the councils of the Empress. The consequence was that for twenty days after the arrival of the news something like a truce prevailed. The besieged were even able to purchase small supplies of provisions and fruit, and their condition became much more tolerable. It was probable that the Empress would have thrown herself altogether into the hands of the peace party had it not been that the delay on the part of the allies had enabled the panicstricken Chinese soldiers to recover their morale and discipline. They had been very strongly reinforced, and it was confidently hoped that they would be able to defeat the allies when they advanced. Thus the miserable delays caused by the jealousy of the allied commanders were not as prejudicial to the Legations as they otherwise would have been.

When hostilities were renewed, had the Chinese attacked as actively as they had done before the fall of Tientsin, it is morally certain that the defenders of the Legations would have found it impossible to continue their resistance, and that they would have been massacred.

The Russians are at the bottom of all this hateful delay, said Rex. I am convinced that the Japs, though the strongest in numbers, would give in willingly were it not that the Russians are always making fresh demands. We and the Americans only want to get there, and the French are in such small numbers that it does not matter a rap what they think of it. It is the Russians who are to blame.

There is no doubt about that, Rex, his father said. I believe they are playing a double game. They want to pose as the friends of China and thus obtain concessions and an overwhelming influence at Pekin. This, it would seem, they try to do by all sorts of delays, by advancing petty claims, and by generally putting their spoke into the wheel. They have already got Manchuria under their thumb, and they will certainly stick to it unless China is backed up by the other powers and they unite in insisting that China shall not suffer further loss of territory at the hands of the Russians or anyone else. There is no question that that is our best policy. It is to our interest that China shall remain whole and united and capable of holding her own against Russia.

Neither Britain nor Japan can have any desire for territory, and after the war is over, an alliance offensive and defensive between these two nations would be worth all the loss of life and property we have incurred.

That would be grand, Father. There is no doubt that the Japs are beggars to fight. The way they smashed China showed that, and the other day they certainly did at least as well as the other nationalities. With their fleet and ours combined we could hold our own with the greatest ease against Russia and France, even if Germany were to join them. We are showing them now in South Africa what an army we can put in the field, and with our Indian army and that of the Japs we could, if pressed, drive the Russians out of Asia.

That would be a big order, his father laughed, but we could certainly effectually prevent them from meddling with China and make them keep within their own boundaries. Besides, we should have China to count with also. China has wakened up since the war with Japan, and has gone in for the best modern guns and rifles. If she had let two more years pass before beginning this row we should have found her a very formidable opponent. Her troops would then have become as welldisciplined as ours.

Well, then, I am very glad, Father, that they did not wait for another two years. We found it pretty hard work as it was to take Tientsin, and if the greater part of their army had not moved out during the night I doubt very much whether we should have captured it. It was lucky indeed that we stuck to it during the night; it was only that that turned the scale. You know the old story, Father, of a Chinaman who excused defeat by saying: ?Two men cannot be in one place; if one must come the other must go.?

His father laughed.

Well, I have no doubt it is something like that, Rex. When the Chinese saw that we were quite determined to get into Tientsin, our obstinacy and fixedness of purpose told upon them, and they began to say: ?These people have made up their minds to come, therefore we had better go.? Certainly they showed a great deal of pluck during the first day?s fighting; even the tremendous cannonade to which they were exposed did not seem to shake their courage at all, for they fought as stoutly at the end of the day as they did at the beginning. We can hardly say that we gained any advantage whatever. We certainly have every reason to congratulate ourselves on the fact that they lost courage when they came to think it over after nightfall. Well, I have not the least fear that the force that is starting tomorrow will fail. If the Chinese did not stand when fighting behind strong walls, supported by a circle of strong forts mounting a prodigious number of cannon, it is hardly likely that they will make anything like a determined resistance in the open. I anticipate that the difficulties will rather be in getting to Pekin than in defeating the enemy. We know that the banks of the Peiho have been cut and a large stretch of country inundated, and consequently the river is so sunk that it is very doubtful whether even the lighter craft among the junks will be able to get up. If they cannot, the expedition will be in nearly the same position as that of Admiral Seymour. They can?t march without provisions, ammunition, and guns, and certainly the amount of land transport they have collected is nothing like sufficient for that. They must chiefly depend upon their junks, and if the river fails them they are brought to a standstill.

I am afraid that is so, Father, Rex said; but at any rate we must hope for the best.

CHAPTER XIII
CAPTURING THE TAKU FORTS

One afternoon Rex went to see his friend the midshipman at the barricade.

I wish you would tell me, Rex said, all about the capture of the Taku Forts. Beyond the fact that they were captured I have heard next to nothing.

Well, it is rather a long story, the middy said, but as everything is quiet, I don?t mind telling you about it if you like.

I should be very much obliged if you would, Rex said.

Well, then, here goes. You have not seen the place, I suppose?

No.

Well, the mouth of the river is strongly fortified, especially on the north side, where there is a big casemated fort with earthworks, mounting altogether some fifty guns of different sizes. A third of a mile farther up the river is the inner fort, which is very strong, but smaller than the other, and mounts about thirty guns. An earthwork coveredway connects the two forts, and the parapet is pierced for many small guns. On the south side, extending a mile along the shore, are a number of casemated batteries, mounting about one hundred and twenty guns. These are good guns, and for the most part modern. There is also an inner fort a mile inland, built for the defence of the main magazines.

All these fortifications consist of earthworks with cement and concrete galleries. They are wonderfully well built; certainly as good as any I have ever seen. You see, mud is the usual substance with which they build houses in China, and they are wonderfully clever with it. At many points of the fortification there are high and very powerful redoubts, which carry at their angles very big modern guns, mostly Krupp quickfirers. All these forts seem to have been designed by foreigners; I don?t think the Chinese would ever have been up to such work if they hadn?t had foreign instructors. Apparently, however, they sacked these fellows when they had finished the batteries, and themselves carried out the rest of the work. There hasn?t been any regular garrison in these forts for some years, but officials and hangerson have resided there. When the row began, however, troops came marching in, and we calculated that at the time of the bombardment they were occupied by some eight thousand men. I fancy they were good soldiers, for they came from Hunan, which province is considered to turn out the best soldiers in China. Their general, Liu, came from the same place.

Unfortunately the water near the forts is very shoal, and warvessels that drew twenty feet of water were obliged to heaveto five miles off the bar; that is to say, ten miles off the forts. By the fifteenth there were twentyfive foreign menofwar here British, French, German, Austrian, Russian, Italian, and Japanese. An American ship came up a day or two before the battle. It was difficult getting news so far out, so the admiral?s lightdraught yacht anchored close outside the bar, and they ran a wire into the destroyer Fame, which was anchored just outside the fort. By this means despatches were wired out to the yacht, and either flashed or semaphored to the fleet. A mile above the fort was the Imperial naval yard and docks, and lying moored to the wharves were four very fine thirtytwoknot Germanbuilt destroyers, with full Chinese crews on board.

During the day before the battle everyone was on the qui vive, for it was known that a summons to surrender next day had been sent in to the forts. Only two trains were despatched for Tientsin, and both these had to be worked by engineers from the fleet, for all the Chinese had disappeared. A large Japanese force was landed from their ship, and encamped by the side of the railway at Tongku, two miles from the forts. Later in the day they shifted camp to the other side of the railway, to make room for a large Russian infantry force that had just come in from Port Arthur. Two hundred bluejackets from our ships encamped near them in the evening, at the head of the road to the forts. A train came down from Tientsin in the afternoon containing a number of foreigners, principally women and children, who at once took shelter on some merchant steamers lying off the wharves.

During the day the Fame dropped her end of the wire, and, steaming up the river, took up her station by the four Chinese destroyers in the middle yard. The Algerine, which had been lying between the north and south forts, also moved up the river to a berth about a third of a mile off the inner north fort. A quarter of a mile higher three Russian gunboats were moored in line; higher still lay the German gunboats, moored to one of the wharves; and a little lower down was the French Lion. At another wharf higher up lay the Japanese Atago, and higher up the United States paddlewheel steamer Monocacy. I hope I am not boring you with too many particulars?

Not at all, I am much obliged to you for giving me such a good account; I seem to be able to see the whole thing.

Well, I must tell you that the Monocacy had been ordered to take no share in the business, but she did useful work in giving shelter to a number of women and children. Although we knew that an ultimatum had been sent in, nobody dreamed that the rumpus was going to begin so soon. We thought that, as usual, messages would be exchanged, and that the thing would drag on a little before anything serious came of it. The Algerine had her ventilators up, masts all standing, and yards crossed. The Germans on the Iltis had landed their boats and ventilators some days before; the Lion had housed her ventilators but still had her yards crossed. At nine o?clock a long searchlight train went out under the command of Lieutenants Kirkpatrick and Riley, with the twelvepounder Hotchkiss, two Maxims, and a hundred men German, British, and French. It was stoked by British bluejackets, and was driven by a German engineer from the Iltis.

All watched the glare of the searchlight for about three hours, till it disappeared across the plain in the direction of Tientsin. Then all who were on the port watch turned in. We had scarcely got into our hammocks when there was the boom of a heavy gun, and you can imagine how quickly we all jumped into our clothes again and ran on deck. We could see that the inner north fort was firing, and guessed that the Algerine, which was lying nearest to her, was the target. No return shot came from her, and it was evident that she was taken as much by surprise as we were. Bom, bom, bom went the big guns. It was about five minutes before the Algerine replied, and shortly afterwards the three Russian gunboats returned the fire, and the Iltis and the Lion also joined in.

Of course, all this part of the business I am telling you from hearsay, for we were necessarily only spectators of the affray; and you can imagine, Bateman, that we were hopping mad with being altogether out of it. It was enough to make one tear one?s hair. However, the great part of the bluejackets and marines were ashore, and would soon be having a lookin; but there were we, as much out of it as if we were off Spithead. Well, of course, now that I have had my turn ashore here I am satisfied, but at the time it was maddening.

Nevertheless it was a splendid sight, I can tell you. All the forts had now joined in, and the flashes that burst from them and from the gunboats were almost incessant. In a few minutes the Iltis steamed down at full speed from her wharf and joined the three Russians and the Algerine, the crews of which cheered her enthusiastically as she went into action. Shortly afterwards the French Lion also came down. She had been lying with her head up the river, and so had taken longer than the Iltis. She, too, was warmly welcomed. The whole of the forts were now pouring in a heavy cannonade, and every gun that could be brought to bear from the six gunboats replied at a range of hardly a mile. The Iltis, with her eight 3.4 quickfirers, and the Algerine, with her 4inch guns, engaged the north fort. The Lion, with her two 5.5inch guns, joined them, while the three Russians directed their fire on the south forts. They were all heavily armed, the Bobr had a 9inch gun in her bows, and a 6inch in her stern. The Corkoretch had two 8inch guns and one 6inch, and the Gilyak had one 4inch gun in her bows, two 2.6inch guns and four 1.8inch guns in her military top.

All the ships kept up a heavy and methodical fire from the machineguns in their tops, and so searched out the bastions; while the heavy guns made it impossible for the gunners to stick to their work. It was, however, difficult to keep up an accurate fire against a gun in the shade of the forts. Many of the Chinese soldiers left the fort, and, taking cover among the mudhouses, maintained a heavy fire on the men on deck and in the tops, and the Gilyak, which was closest to the village, suffered heavily.

Meanwhile the Fame and the Whiting had been ordered to attack the four Chinese destroyers lying in dock. As they approached, however, the Chinese crews jumped ashore and bolted. The Fame grappled one, and towed it down the river to Tongku, two towboats belonging to a mercantile company took the two others in charge, and the Whiting brought out the fourth. These four splendid destroyers, if they had been manned with resolute crews, could have sunk six gunboats without difficulty.

The battle raged till morning. The gunboats were doing their utmost to keep down the fire of the forts; but although the practice was excellent, they quite failed to do so owing to the fact that it was impossible to get the exact range. Fortunately the fire of the Chinese was extremely inaccurate. The gunners were evidently unaccustomed to work heavy guns, such as they were now handling, and although they stuck gallantly to their work in spite of the large number of casualties, they did little damage. Sometimes the powder charges were altogether too heavy, sometimes so light that the shot never reached the ships. Their shells almost all failed to burst. Sometimes a shot would fall close alongside, and the next would go clean overhead.

As daylight approached, the boats got up anchor, with the exception of the Gilyak, which had received a heavy projectile on her waterline. She made water fast, but still maintained a heavy fire, and remained at her moorings while the damage was being temporarily repaired, though she suffered severely in consequence. You may imagine what a state of mind we were all in on board the larger ships. There were those six little boats fighting against a whole chain of huge forts that ought to have sunk them at the first round.

Meanwhile, of course, our fellows, the Russians, and Japs, who had landed the day before, were not idle. Naturally they got under arms as soon as the first gun was fired, but they could really do nothing until daylight, for they were ignorant of the country, which was all cut up with dykes and ditches.

If the force had tried to cross there in the dark they would speedily have been broken up and half of them would have been mired. They chafed very much, however, at the delay, though they recognized the necessity of it, and they set out eagerly at the first gleam of daylight.

When they got up anchor, the gunboats moved backwards and forwards, engaging a fort here, plumping shell into another somewhere else, and seeming to care nothing at all for the rain of shot and shell to which they were exposed. It was difficult for us to keep count of them, moving about as they did, and more than once a good many of us thought that one of them was gone.

Presently we were all in the boats and making for the shore. Day began to break just as we approached the forts. At this moment the Chinese gunners doubled their fire, and now we thought the gunboats could never live under such a storm of shot and shell. But their fire was as regular as ever, and the fact that they were all in motion seemed to bother the Chinese gunners as much as the darkness had done. A 10inch gun isn?t easily managed by men who have never used such a toy before, so that although the fire from the smaller guns was more accurate than it had been, it seemed to us that the big ones fired less frequently. The Iltis was hit by a heavy shot, and at the same moment a magazine at the northern end of the south fort blew up. The Chinese fire slackened a little, but in a short time the action was as hot as ever.

We and the Japs were making for the north forts, and the Russians for the other side. I tell you, Bateman, things looked nasty. By six o?clock the storming parties were near the north forts, and a heavy fire was already opened upon them; but they pushed steadily forward until at eighteen minutes past six the main magazine of the south forts blew up. The concussion was terrible, and a dense black column of smoke and fragments of all sorts rose a thousand feet in the air.

Firing stopped instantly, and for half a minute a dead silence reigned. Then a tremendous cheer rose from the gunboats and storming parties, and the latter raced forward to the assault. Firing was renewed more briskly than ever on both sides, but at halfpast six the resistance had almost ceased, and the British flag was hoisted on the north fort, followed a minute later by that of the Japanese. The garrison of the southern fort, appalled by the destruction that had been made by the explosion, were already in full flight across the plain, and now those on the north side were endeavouring to follow their example.

The number of casualties among the storming party had not been large, that of the British and Japanese amounting to only twentysix killed and wounded. The casualties in the gunboats were remarkably few, almost miraculously so considering the fire to which they had been exposed. The Russians had suffered most, having sixteen men killed and three officers and fiftytwo men wounded; the Germans had six killed and fifteen wounded; the French one officer killed and one man wounded; and the British three men killed and one officer wounded. The Chinese actually in the forts consisted of three thousand men. The rest were in support behind and near the line of railway, and took no part in the affair. Nearly one thousand killed were found in the forts, and the prisoners, who were nearly as many, were set to throw the bodies into the river.

All communications ceased with Tientsin from the time of the capture of the forts, and it was not till some days afterwards that we learned from a man who rode through the Chinese lines that the place was besieged and that the garrison were hardly able to hold their own.





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