George Henty.

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





The Empress of China is the one person responsible for all this mischief. If she had set her face firmly against the Boxers from the first, and issued stringent instructions to her generals to stamp them out, they would never have been formidable. The encouragement that she gave them, and the punishment she inflicted upon the few generals who did their duty and attacked them, has caused this. It was because they were allowed to attack the Legations and destroy the railway that the allies were forced to capture the Taku Forts, and the capture of the Taku Forts at once caused the Chinese army to make common cause with the Boxers. One step has been necessitated by another, and were it not that the viceroys of the Yangtse Valley have declined to obey her commands, and have maintained order in the districts under them, the whole of China would be in a blaze, and every European outside the treaty ports would have been massacred.

As soon as the affair is over I shall return to Europe, and remain there for at least a couple of years, for certainly there will be no renewal of trade within that time. You may be sure that every merchant in the Chinese city who carried on dealings with us, and was therefore suspected of being welldisposed towards us, is among the vast number who have been massacred. We know that the quarter inhabited by them has been almost destroyed, and before this can be rebuilt, and a fresh body of men take their places, a very considerable time must elapse.

CHAPTER XV
RELIEF IN SIGHT

On the afternoon of the 4th of August the British and American troops marched out from Tientsin to HsiKu. The route led through the almost deserted and ruined city, and through villages which straggled away for miles on the northern road. The weather was threatening when the start was made, and heavy rain began to fall when they were halfway out. The roads soon became soft and slippery, and all felt that they would have a bad time of it if the weather continued to be wet. The rain ceased, however, when they reached their destination. They halted at a village near the fort. Here General Gaselee took up his headquarters, while the British troops bivouacked to the left and the Americans to the right of the road. Orders were issued for an early start, and the troops lay down on the wet and miry ground to get what sleep they could.

The enemy were known to be entrenched in a position extending across the river and railway, their right resting on an embankment running from HsiKu in a westerly direction, their left being five miles away on the other side of the river, at a camp near a railway bridge. Beyond this the country was inundated. The main body of their force was in the centre, where the line crossed the river. Here the position was covered by a series of riflepits and trenches, which, being partly concealed by the high crops, would have been very difficult to capture from the hand of a determined enemy. A grove of trees on the left bank of the river, and within the loop made by a double bend, marked the centre of the position.

A battery of artillery was posted on the embankment, and a line of entrenchments across the plain. On the left bank of the river the position was protected by a canal running along its whole length.

It had been arranged that the Japanese, British, and Americans were to advance against the enemy?s position on the right bank of the river; that the Japanese were to lead the attack, with the British in support and the Americans in reserve; while the Russians and French, assisted by the guns of the British Naval Brigade, were to operate on the left bank.

The British and American troops had not a very long period of rest, for before the night had passed, the Japs arrived, having started after dark. They marched straight through the village, and the troops there, by no means sorry to leave their uncomfortable quarters, at once got under arms and followed them. All moved forward to the westward under cover of the embankment upon which the Chinese battery stood. It was necessary to capture this before advancing against the main position.

When the orders were issued for the Japs to leave at eight o?clock, Rex had been rather disposed to sleep comfortably at home, and join them in the morning, for he knew that his services would not be required, and as a thunderstorm was coming on just as they formed up, that feeling increased. Finally, however, he made up his mind to march with the troops, and when he found that they were not to halt, but were going straight forward to the attack, he rejoiced that he had not given way to his first impulse. He had brought with him a waterproof sheet and carried his rifle. Ah Lo, who of course accompanied him, had a large bag of provisions slung over his shoulders. His waterproof, which he wrapped round him, kept him dry during the thunder showers, and the brisk march which the Japanese kept up prevented him from feeling the cold.

You are not going forward to the attack, are you, master? Ah Lo asked, as they approached the scene of action.

No; my father only allowed me to come with the force on condition that I would not take part in the fighting unless the position became so critical that I could not help myself, and really I have no desire to fight. I want to be able to see what is going on all round, and if I were to go forward I should only see the little that happened near me.

Presently bright flashes broke out ahead on the embankment, and these speedily grew into a storm of musketry. As it was still dark the Japanese did not suffer heavily, the majority of the bullets going overhead. Rex climbed up on the embankment, and from there he could see, by their fire, that the Japanese advanced steadily till they were close to the guns. Then they suddenly stopped firing, but two or three minutes later a volley flashed out, evidently but a few yards from the Chinese line. For a moment the two lines became mixed; then, even above the roar of musketry, Rex could hear the cheers of the Japs, and he knew that the guns were won. For some distance the fire drifted away along the embankment, showing that a hot pursuit was being kept up.

It was now three in the morning and there was a cessation of hostilities for an hour and a half. Then, when the Chinese position could be made out, the Japanese and British guns opened fire upon it from behind the embankment. The Chinese replied energetically, but in half an hour their fire began to relax, and soon ceased altogether; it was evident that they were already withdrawing their guns.

Meanwhile the Japanese had been advancing. Supported by a mountain battery on their right, and taking cover in the high maize, they worked up close to the position held by the enemy on the river bank. A little after five o?clock they burst out from their cover with a cheer, and dashed at the outlying trenches. As they crossed the open they suffered heavily from a flanking fire poured in upon them from the grove of trees on the other side of the river. The Chinese in front also stood sufficiently long to inflict severe loss upon them, for they had left the maize in too close formation. Without a halt, however, they held on, sweeping the Chinese before them, and carrying entrenchment after entrenchment. Their cavalry cut up the flying Chinese whenever opportunity offered.

The British and Americans had now come up, and with the Japanese on the right, and the Americans on the left, the combined force worked their way along the river bank.

Occasionally the Chinese offered some slight resistance at long range, and it was expected that they would make a stand at Peitsang, where they had a number of strong positions. But, as at Tientsin, the panic of the first fugitives speedily communicated itself to those behind, and position after position was evacuated, without an effort to retain them, before the steady advance of the allies. The troops moved along the river, clearing out the villages and quickening the pace of the fugitives. At nine o?clock they occupied Nangsung, and as all firing ceased pushed on to Peitsang, which they found deserted, and halted there.

On the left bank of the river the Russians and French had failed to turn the Chinese right in the early morning, as they found that the whole country was flooded there, but the defeat of the Chinese left involved, of course, the retirement of their right, and at nine o?clock the Russians were able to occupy the position on the railway.

Almost the whole of the casualties involved in the battle were among the Japanese, who lost sixty killed and two hundred and forty wounded. The British had four killed and twentyone wounded, while the Americans, being in reserve, had not suffered at all. The loss of the Chinese was very small. At one point they had lost fifty killed, but very few had fallen in the rest of the entrenchments, owing to their hurried flight. They had been defeated simply because they had lost heart, a fact which promised well for the success of the expedition, for in their flight they had probably communicated their fears to the troops behind them. That in an army of twentyfive thousand men there should have been only a hundred killed was a proof that the courage that had evaporated after their first day?s sturdy defence of Tientsin had been by no means restored during the interval that had since elapsed.

The Russians and French joined the rest of the force at ten o?clock, and that day the baggage came up. It was of the most miscellaneous description. There were pack animals of all sorts horses, mules, ponies, and donkeys; there were carts of all shapes and sizes, from the great American wagons, each drawn by four mules, down to little vehicles like costers? barrows, drawn by little Japanese ponies. Even the Japanese, whose arrangements were far better than those of the rest of the allies, were but poorly provided. They had only intended originally to take a brigade to Pekin, and had brought transport sufficient for that; but when so large a portion of the British force was detained for work in the south, they were obliged to take a division, and consequently a double strain was thrown upon their transport.

On the following morning the main body of the Japanese advanced along the right bank of the river, repairing the breaches that had been made in it. The British and Americans, with two battalions of Japs and a battery of fieldartillery, were to advance upon Yangtsun; the Russians and French were also to march upon that bank. An early start was made, the Russians and French going on ahead of the British. They followed the line of the river. General Gaselee marched by more direct roads, and, getting ahead of them, came into touch with the enemy at halfpast nine. Their position was a strong one, their right resting on a bridge close to the river, in an angle made between it and the railway embankment. Near this bridge were the ruins of Nangsung railwaystation, which formed the centre of their position. Their left extended far to the eastward, where the town of Nangsung lay hidden behind a number of villages. Generals Gaselee and Chaffee took up their position on a high sandhill two miles away from the railwaystation, from which they were able to direct the operations.

The enemy?s fire was first drawn by a company of Cossacks, who had been sent on ahead of the Russian force to reconnoitre. The main body of the Russians had not arrived, nor had the Japanese detached to cooperate with the British and Americans. Nevertheless, the general decided to attack at once. The 12th Field Battery was brought up on the left, and opened fire on the villages near the railwaystation. Under cover of this the infantry attack developed, the British advancing in extended order through the high maize, and the Americans on the left of the railway embankment, covered by the fire of Rally?s battery.

While the preparations were being made, General Linivitch came up and explained to General Gaselee that the Russians were advancing on the enemy?s right, along the road running parallel with the river. The Japanese detachment also came up. The advance now became general, the British in the centre, the Americans on the right, and the Russians on the left. The British led the direct assault upon the enemy?s entrenchments. The 1st Sikhs, who were at the head of the line, moved steadily forward in the face of a very heavy rifle fire, which was maintained until they arrived at a short distance from the railwaystation. As usual, however, the Chinese lost heart when they saw that they were about to be charged with the bayonet, and retreated to the top of the railway embankment, from which for a short time they kept up a fire upon the American regiment next to the Sikhs. The front entrenchment was carried just about eleven o?clock, and a quarter of an hour later the fire ceased, the enemy retiring towards Yangtsun.

The Russians passed out to the rear of the captured villages, seized the railwaystation, erected a battery, and bombarded the villages round Yangtsun and the town itself. Meanwhile the force on the right were engaged in clearing out the villages in that direction, the Bengal Lancers scattering the demoralized enemy in every direction. Yangtsun was occupied without resistance during the afternoon. The losses had been comparatively slight. The British casualties were under fifty, of which twentyfour were among the Sikhs. The Americans lost seventyfour and the Russians twentyseven, but these proportionately large numbers were accounted for by the fact that both these detachments advanced in somewhat closer order than the British, who, keeping their line well extended, suffered comparatively little loss, though they were exposed to a heavier fire than the others. The Japanese had taken no part in the engagement, as they had been on the other bank of the river.

The troops were very much exhausted after their two days? marching and fighting in the great heat, and the next day they remained at Yangtsun, partly for rest and partly to give time to the junks to come up. A council of war was held, and it was decided that the road should now be left, and that the whole force should proceed on the right bank of the river. The Japs were to lead the advance, the Russians were to follow, the Americans to come next, and the British to bring up the rear.

During the day Rex went out to look at some of the captured villages, but he was so horrified by the number of peasants whom he found lying dead that he soon returned to Yangtsun. The Russians appeared to have killed everyone they met, whether soldiers or quiet peasants. The Americans, in the villages they had taken, had acted very differently. In these places he found that the peasants had not been molested. He had himself been with the detachment of the Japanese that joined the British, and had therefore been a witness of the fighting.

I cannot say much for your countrymen, Ah Lo, he said. If they are not going to fight better than they have done, they had much better have cleared off the road altogether and left it open for us to go quietly to Pekin.

Chinaman no good to fight, Ah Lo said contemptuously. Fight well enough at distance, but no good when they see that Europeans always come on in spite of their firing. Very good to kill missionaries, no good to fight soldiers.

Do you think we shall find the Legations safe, Ah Lo?

I hope so, master; but if they go on fighting all the time, instead of same as when we were there, Chinese must have taken nearly all the Legations. I expect all the people are crowded up into British Legation; they make great fight there.

That is so, Ah Lo; the less space they have to defend, the stronger they become, but they will have a terrible experience if they are all crowded into the British Legation. The place was full enough when we left. Still, I can hardly hope that, if the Chinese have gone on attacking all the time, we could hold more than our own Legation. The French Legation was almost destroyed before we came away, the Russian Legation could only be held with difficulty, and more than half the Fu had already been captured. I try to think that it is all right, but I am horribly anxious. All the time that was wasted after we had taken Tientsin I was regretting that we had not stopped at Pekin. Our two rifles might not have been of much good, but we should certainly have been of some use, and above all, I wanted to be there in case the Legations were captured. My cousins have their Chinese dresses ready, and I cannot help thinking that there must have been some points that were not attacked where I could have lowered them down from the wall and so escaped into the city. Once away from the fighting, we ought to have been able to find some place of concealment among so many ruined and deserted houses.

Perhaps they stand out all right, said Ah Lo.

I hope so, Ah Lo, I hope so with all my heart, but I am terribly anxious, and I grudge even this day?s halt, knowing that every hour is of importance, and that even while we are staying here today, the massacre may be going on.

Ah Lo had no consolation to offer. He felt that what his master said was true, and that at any moment the catastrophe might occur.

The Japanese started early on the following day. They were already in advance, and for this reason they had been chosen to lead. A halt was made at TungChow, ten miles distant, no resistance having been encountered on the way. The Japanese arrived long before the rest of the allies. They were very fast marchers, and their transport was light and handy, and able to keep up with the infantry column. The Russians, on the other hand, were very slow marchers. They slouched along as if halfasleep, made very frequent halts, and their average pace rarely exceeded a mile an hour. Consequently the Americans, who followed them, were frequently blocked. The Russians, too, always stopped at a village, thus compelling the Americans to halt on the hot and sandy road. This accounted for the great number of casualties from sunstroke among the American troops, for the very slow progress made by the Americans and British, and for the great amount of marching which they had to do during the hottest hours of the day, instead of completing their journey before the sun had attained its full strength.

The Japanese generally completed their marches before the sun was high. The Americans seemed to suffer most from the sun, but they marched fast in the early morning and when the heat of the day was over. The British marching was good, and the Indian troops carried themselves well and marched in good order even in the hottest part of the day, though many fell out. As regards uniforms, the British were better off than the others. The Japs wore white, and consequently they were visible for miles, while the British khaki could scarcely be seen at a hundred yards. The Russians were also in white, but their uniforms being always extremely dirty the disadvantage was not so apparent. The Americans, like the British, had khaki, but they seldom wore their coats, and their blue shirts rendered them visible for considerable distances.

On the following day a mixed body of Lancers, Cossacks, and Japanese cavalry scouted the country ahead and came in contact with the enemy halfway to HohsiWu, where it was expected that the Chinese would make another stand. The main body halted and encamped, and the Japs threw out outposts. During the day two squadrons of Bengal Lancers came upon a force of four hundred Chinese cavalry, whom they charged, killing forty or fifty and capturing their standards.

The British always came in a long time after the rest of the force. They followed the winding of the river to protect the junks which were carrying up the heavy guns intended for the siege of Pekin. It was fortunate that forage was plentiful for the cavalry and the animals of the artillery and transport. The millet was standing high, and as frequently a large extent of this grain had to be cut down to make a clearance for a campingground, there was abundant fodder to supply all the demands. The junks came up very slowly, towed by lines of coolies on the bank, and their late arrival frequently excited great exasperation among the troops, who were dependent upon them for their supplies.

HohsiWu was a small village, near which was situated an arsenal stored with an enormous quantity of gunpowder as well as a supply of guns of the latest pattern. The Chinese had made an attempt to divert the course of the river by digging an enormous trench in the direction of some lowlying ground. Fortunately they had not had time to complete the work, for not only would it have still further lowered the river, but it would have rendered an attack on the village difficult, as the trench was twenty feet deep, and from twenty to thirty feet wide. As it was left it was still above the level of the water, and could be crossed easily. The village was therefore captured after only a slight resistance.





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