With the Allies to Pekin: A Tale of the Relief of the Legations
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“At six o?clock in the evening we halted, having arrived opposite a very strong position held by the enemy, from which we were unable to dislodge them. The commanding officers held a council of war, and decided that, after we had had some refreshment and a few hours? rest, we should make a night march as the best chance of getting through. We had made only six miles during the day, owing to the stubborn resistance of the enemy and their increased gun power.
“In the course of the evening the field and machine–guns were placed on board a junk that had been taken on the previous day, and at one o?clock in the morning the march recommenced. Fires were soon seen at a little distance from the river bank, and it was obvious that the enemy were by this means signalling our approach. A heavy fire opened on the force from a village some hundred yards ahead, and a shell from a field–piece struck the junk that was carrying the guns, and she filled and had to be abandoned. The guns unfortunately, could not be got off, but the Maxims were saved. The village was carried by the marines with fixed bayonets.
“At four o?clock we arrived opposite a great building, which turned out to be the Imperial arsenal of Hsi Ku. Two unarmed soldiers came out from a house a hundred yards from the bank with the evident intention of communicating with us. Our advance halted, and the men, when they came up, made some simple enquiries as to who we were and where we were going. Having got what information they wanted they sauntered back to the houses, from which, as soon as they reached them a heavy fire was opened with rifles and guns. Fortunately there was good cover close at hand. Some of our fellows occupied a neighbouring village, and others took shelter behind the river embankment.
“It was then decided to take the arsenal. The resistance was becoming more severe with every yard the force advanced, the provisions were almost exhausted, and the troops, who had been for some time on half–rations, were exhausted with the heat and their continual exertions. The attack was begun with a heavy rifle fire against a Hotchkiss gun in the north corner of the arsenal and two guns on the river front, which were soon silenced. A body of marines and seamen was then directed to cross the river higher up, and, if possible, to rush the enemy?s position at the north corner. Fortunately there was a village only a hundred and fifty yards from this point, and the sailors, having crawled up there unobserved, dashed out of cover at the double with a cheer, in which the troops on the other side of the river joined, and the Chinese at the corner they were making for bolted at once. Lower down the river a German detachment had crossed and captured the guns in their front, and subsequently several others. Between them the two bodies cleared out the armoury.
“In the afternoon the Chinese made a most determined attempt to retake the arsenal, advancing boldly under a very heavy shell fire.As, however, we had the captured guns, we drove the enemy back with heavy losses, but not before we had suffered considerably ourselves. The main body of the troops and the wounded were in the meantime crossing, and late in the afternoon the whole force was safe in the arsenal.
“Things looked better now than they had done since we had left Tientsin. Of course we had no knowledge at all of what was going on there, and thought that we should only have to maintain ourselves till a force was sent out to our assistance.
“Several messengers had been sent on during the march, and during the night three officers with a hundred marines set out to try to make their way down to Tientsin. They had scarcely started, however, when they encountered a determined resistance. Bugles sounded in all directions, and finding that the whole force of the enemy was upon them, and having lost four of their number, they had no option but to fall back. At daylight the Chinese made another desperate attempt to retake the armoury, and maintained this until eight o?clock, when they were beaten off.
“We had now time to make a thorough investigation of the contents of the various buildings, and to our delight we found a store of some fifteen tons of rice. This placed us for some time beyond the risk of starvation. We discovered, too, an immense supply of guns, arms, and ammunition, and war material of the latest pattern, so that we felt capable of holding out for a long time. At a council of war it was considered to be impossible to force a way down, for we had now no fewer than two hundred and thirty wounded to carry. Our first move was to mount a number of guns on the various fronts of the arsenal, and with these we opened fire upon a Boxer stronghold situated near the arsenal and the Chinese fort lower down the river. The effect was excellent; the Chinese retired, and made no fresh attempt to retake the place.
“On the twenty–fifth European troops were reported in sight, and at seven o?clock the relief column under Colonel Shirinsky arrived at the fort. Preparations were at once made for the evacuation of the armoury and for the destruction of the arsenal. The wounded were transported across the river in the afternoon, and the whole force followed later. At three o?clock on the following morning we started, two officers remaining behind to set fire to the ammunition and store–houses. Fires were lit in five separate places, and from the volumes of smoke that rose from the building, and the explosions which we heard from that direction, the destruction seemed fairly complete. The officers crossed the river after lighting the fires, mounted ponies that were waiting for them, and then rejoined the main body, which met with no further resistance.
“The country through which we passed was flat, and along the river banks villages of mud–huts, generally surrounded with enclosures of dried reeds, were scattered at frequent intervals. Near the villages high reeds grew plentifully in patches, and trees were numerous. These, with the entrenchments for irrigation and against flood, and the graves everywhere scattered about, afforded excellent cover to the enemy; they seldom exposed themselves, always withdrawing as we advanced. Their fire was generally very high; had it been otherwise we should have suffered very severely. Altogether, I think that, although we failed in our object, the affair has been very creditable, and, considering the difficulties to which we were exposed, none of those who took part in it have any reason to be ashamed of what they have done. At the beginning our opponents were largely armed only with swords and spears, but in the latter part we had to encounter trained troops excellently armed and provided with guns, and there can be no doubt that all these belonged to the regular army.”
“Thank you very much, Major Johnston, for your interesting account!” Mr. Bateman said. “We have been fighting nearly as hard here for the past ten days, and I hope now that in a short time we shall begin to turn the tables upon them. I expect you will have hard work before you to take Tientsin, for there you will probably be opposed by all the troops with whom you have hitherto been engaged. I have no doubt that they have followed you down to–day, anticipating that we shall now take the offensive.”
“Yes, I expect we shall have some stiff fighting,” Major Johnston said, “but you may be sure that we sha?n?t shirk it. Well, I think now, with your permission, that we will turn in. We had no sleep to speak of last night, and may be wanted again early in the morning.”
The three officers were up early and went down to see after the marines, and Rex went out with them to hear what was going to be done. The town presented a very different appearance from that which it had shown for the past ten days. The streets were no longer deserted, but swarmed everywhere with troops; bugles were blowing, and all was life and bustle. The houses that had been closed were open again, and men congratulated each other that the strain was over. Rex went down to the shed which was the head–quarters of the volunteers. Here some twenty or thirty had already assembled. Rex was, of course, in the simple uniform of the corps, and had brought his rifle with him.
“What is going to be done?” he asked.
“We don?t know yet,” said one of his friends. “The Russians are certainly going to march out, and I suppose a mixed column will also go, in which case we shall accompany it. I expect we shall get orders before long.”
Tientsin is one of the most important towns in China. Standing as it does at the junction of the Peiho, the Grand Canal, the Lupi Canal, and five smaller streams and canals, it is not only the port of Pekin, but practically the sole outlet of the trade of the whole of the north–western provinces of China. Its population amounts to nearly a million, and its trade is considerably better than that of Canton, and is exceeded only by that of Shanghai. The native city is enclosed in sombre walls, and lies some two miles farther up the river than the foreign settlements. The imports of Tientsin include not only European manufactures, but also sugar, salt, and the tribute rice of the southern provinces. From the interior there is a vast export trade in the wood and furs of Manchuria and Mongolia, the teas of Hang–Chow, and the ground–nuts and bristles of Chih–li.
The foreign trade was growing rapidly, and would have increased still more but for the want of water in the Peiho. This river is about the size of the Thames at Richmond, but it used to be deep, with rapid currents, and large ocean–going steamers were able to come up to the settlements to unload. The extensive canal and irrigation works, however, have of late years greatly diminished the flow of water, so that now vessels of any considerable draught have to remain outside the bar, thirteen miles out at sea, and even small vessels can only come as far as Tonku, three miles up the river mouth.
As soon as it was known that the allied generals had decided upon the bombardment of the city, earnest protestations were made by the leading merchants of all nationalities, but the military necessities overruled their wishes. Until the town was captured the settlements would be practically beleaguered, and it would be impossible to make an advance to Pekin and leave the large Chinese force in the city behind. Moreover, if the advance did not take place, not only would the Legations at Pekin inevitably fall, but the life of every European in China would be in jeopardy. Consequently the allied generals arrived unanimously at the conclusion that the bombardment and assault of Tientsin was an absolute and vital necessity. Already there had been an enormous loss of life there. Thousands, if not tens of thousands, of the Chinese suspected of being favourable to the allies had been sacrificed, and in the perpetration of these outrages whole streets had been destroyed by fire. It was therefore necessary, if for no other reason, to inflict a terrible lesson upon the Chinese troops who occupied the city.
The Chinese were convinced that it would be impossible for the Europeans to capture their city, held as it was by a greatly superior force of regular Chinese troops, and protected by a very large number of guns.
The bombardment was to be greatly deplored, for the enormous injury inflicted upon Tientsin could not but cripple the trade there for many years, and probably divert it to other channels. Still, the necessity could not be denied, grievous though its effects might be.
The Russians had already started from their camp, which was on the opposite side of the river, in the foreign settlements, and marched against the Peiyang arsenal, which is on the same side, about a mile and a half up. It was defended by several thousand Chinese, with six nine–pounder Krupps. The attack had to be made across an open plain, and this was swept by an incessant rifle fire, while the Chinese artillery made excellent practice. The casualties mounted up quickly, and before long a halt was called, and messengers were sent to Tientsin to ask for reinforcements.
When the messengers arrived, the bugle sounded and the troops hastily assembled. The whole of the Naval Brigade, under Captain Bourke of the Orlando, was called out, including a battalion of marines under Major Johnston, and with them went a twelve–pounder gun from the Terrible. The American Marine Artillery also went out, together with a detachment of Tientsin volunteers. When they got to the scene of action, they found the Russians shelling the arsenal under cover of the railway embankment.
No movement was made till eleven o?clock, when a Russian shell exploded in the principal Chinese magazine, which contained no less than eighty tons of powder. The explosion was terrific, and for some minutes a great cloud of smoke hung over the arsenal. The shock was so severe that soldiers who were standing up at the time were thrown off their feet by it, and the sound was heard distinctly at Taku, thirty miles away. The British had increased their fire, and shortly afterwards a Terrible twelve–pounder put a shell into the smaller magazine, which also blew up. Each explosion was hailed by the troops with tremendous cheers, which a few minutes later were redoubled when the Chinese were seen leaving the fort. The British and Americans, who were nearer than the Russians, at once advanced at the double. Some Chinese, composed of sterner stuff than their comrades, still kept up their fire, causing some casualties, but they also retreated in good time to secure their own safety.
When the storming party was close to the arsenal, what seemed to be a tremendous musketry fire broke out from the building, and, supposing that there was still a very large force there, the troops halted. Presently, however, the fire ceased altogether, and they again advanced. When they entered the place they discovered that the fire that had checked them was not musketry, but long strings of crackers which the Chinese had prepared to check any storming party, and thus secure their own retreat. Angry as the troops were at being deceived, they laughed heartily at the trick that had been played upon them.
After the arsenal was occupied, a large mixed force of Chinese regulars and Boxers came out from Tientsin city, at the back of the railway–station, and placed themselves between the arsenal and the river, on the very ground the British and Americans had occupied, and their first act was to massacre all the wounded who had been left there. One poor fellow alone was saved, for although he had been very seriously wounded in both legs he managed to run, and the British–Chinese regiment coming up at the moment, he was able to reach the arsenal in safety.
The murder of the wounded exasperated the troops to the last degree, and palliated, if it did not excuse, the general refusal of quarter to the Chinese during the campaign. In Tientsin a document was found showing that rewards had been paid to several Chinese who had brought in the heads of British and American soldiers.
The capture of the arsenal enabled all the women and children to be sent away within the next few days, which was a fortunate occurrence, for large reinforcements of Chinese troops entered the city the day after, and the settlements were again exposed to a vigorous fire.
Reinforcements were coming up, but even yet the force was not considered sufficiently strong to attack Tientsin. The destruction caused by the Chinese fire was very great; numbers of houses were burnt, many containing stores of great value. In one of these alone, twenty thousand pounds worth of furs and other Chinese produce was consumed.
Rex was maddened by the delay which occurred after the arsenal had been taken. It was a fixed idea among the military men that Pekin had fallen, and its occupants had been massacred. Many rumours to this effect had indeed been received, and Rex found his assertions that the Legations were well able to hold out received with absolute incredulity. He repeatedly urged his opinion on Major Johnston, but that officer said that all the officers in command were so firmly convinced that it was quite useless for him to bring the matter before them.
“You see,” he said, “it is now a fortnight since you left the place, and it may very well have fallen by this time. You yourself reported the state of things on your arrival, but so much has occurred since then, and the Chinese have fought so pluckily, that one cannot imagine it possible that the mere handful of men in the Legations can have resisted any determined attack. At the time you left, the news of the fighting here could not have arrived, but I fear that when the fierce fighting here became known, the anger of the Chinese would be raised to such a point that they would make a general and furious attack on the Legations, in which case you acknowledge yourself that they must have fallen. Besides, however anxious everyone may be for our advance, nothing can be done until Tientsin is taken.”
Rex could not but acknowledge the justice of this reasoning. He was strongly tempted to make another journey to Pekin, but so many of Admiral Seymour?s messengers had failed that he felt that he could not ask his father?s permission to undertake it. He spent his days, whether on or off duty, at the barricades, keeping up a vengeful fire on the Chinese. His love of fun had entirely left him, and his face was as stern as that of the oldest soldier.
“It is horrible, Father,” he said, “to think that the girls and all others in the Legation may be massacred before we get there. I won?t believe that it has been captured yet, in spite of the numerous reports that reach us; but if we keep on delaying as we are doing now, the Legations may very well have fallen before we get there. I bitterly regret that I came down, for I might, had I remained at Pekin, have succeeded somehow in saving the girls.”
“I don?t think you could have done so, and you would only have thrown away your own life. You must remember that, dear as the girls are to us, you are naturally far dearer. It is a very serious business attacking Tientsin, and a repulse would be telegraphed all over China and turn all the waverers against us. It would be an awful affair, and eagerly as I long for a relieving force to set out, I feel that it cannot be attempted until we have a force sufficient to ensure the capture of Tientsin, and to be able to fight its way up against the opposition which it will certainly meet with.”
“Possibly that opposition will not be serious, Father, when we have once turned them out of Tientsin.”
“That is possible, Rex; but I fear that even then there will be delays. It is a great pity that this force is not under one head, and composed of men of one nation. As it is, every step to be taken has to be discussed and decided upon by the officers in command of the various nationalities. There are, it is well known, all sorts of bickerings and jealousies between them. The Russians want to have everything their own way, and the general opinion is that they are fighting only for their own advantage, and that they are bent upon the destruction of Tientsin and the practical annihilation of the trade of the place, in order to divert the whole of the trade of the north–west to Port Arthur.
“The Japanese interest lies exactly the other way. Here Japan is acquiring a good share of the trade, but if it were turned to the Manchurian port she would lose it altogether. Naturally, therefore, as her force here is about as strong as that of Russia, her generals are not disposed to let the latter entirely have their own way. As for ourselves, our interests are as large as all the others put together, and we have had more than our share of fighting, but unfortunately we have no officer of sufficient rank and command to hold the Russians in check.
“However, at present no preparations whatever have been made for an advance upon Pekin. Nothing is thought or talked of but Tientsin, and yet, after the city is taken, there will be a great deal to arrange before we can move forward. It is certain that the advancing force must move by the river; in no other way could the army be provisioned, for the railway is wrecked from end to end, and I should say that, even with hard work and without opposition, it would take at least a month to restore it to order. Well, it will be necessary to collect a great number of junks – river junks, for the sea–going craft would draw far too much water. Then a great quantity of stores must be got together. It seems to me that while the troops are waiting here for reinforcements they ought to be making preparations for the advance.
“Of course I am no judge whatever of military matters, but it does seem to me, as it seems to every civilian here, that at least something ought to be done, and that with the force we have here it is disgraceful that we should be doing nothing while our countrymen are fighting for their lives at Pekin. However, I suppose the present state of things cannot last indefinitely. I have no doubt that telegrams have been sent by all the nations in Europe to their military representatives here urging them to make an effort to relieve the Legations, though unfortunately, as we learn from Shanghai, it appears to be almost a settled conviction in Europe, as it is among the military men here, that the Legations have already fallen and all within them perished.
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