George Henty.

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





Now I think I must stop for ten minutes and wet my whistle. I have not had as much experience as you in relating adventures, and I find this continuous talking somewhat trying.

CHAPTER XVII
THE STORY OF THE SIEGE

After a short rest Sandwich continued his story.

All day the Chinese kept coming up to our barricade. Many of them got upon the roofs of the houses near and called out to us professing friendship, and we were obliged to put up signboards, warning them in Chinese against approaching too near to our outposts. Evidently the soldiers themselves believed that there was an end to fighting, for some of them actually sold their rifles and ammunition to the Japanese at fifteen dollars apiece. Letters again passed between us and the Chinese. Mr. Conger was allowed to send out a message in cypher. He said that we had been besieged over a month, and that, unless strong measures were taken at once, we were all in danger of being massacred.

Well, that message really did get through, Rex said. It was the first positive information that was received in Tientsin that the Legations still held out. So convinced were the military authorities that the Legations had fallen that there was no talk of sending a relief party, and it was proposed to wait till an army forty thousand or fifty thousand strong was collected. However, the receipt of Conger?s message made a great stir, and, as I told you, Gaselee and Chaffee said that the English and Americans would go on whether the others did or not, with the result that things were really pushed on in earnest from that moment.

The generals had no idea of the stuff we were made of, said Sandwich. However, to continue my story. The Chinese now requested that the foreign troops should stop hostilities and abandon the Tartar Wall. To this Sir Claude Macdonald replied by a recital of the events of the past month, and said that he could not retire from the wall, as the Chinese had repeatedly used it as a vantageground from which to attack us. He repeated his assurance that the Chinese would not be fired upon unless they first attacked us, and he added a request that vendors of fruit and ice should be granted leave to sell their wares to us.

We had all still very great doubts as to whether this state of things would continue, and the next morning there was a general expectation that fighting would again begin. The Chinese soldiers, however, fearlessly approached our barricades, showing an absolute confidence that we should observe the truce. One of their wounded soldiers actually came in and had his wound dressed by the foreign doctor.

During the day a secretary arrived from the yamen to interview the Ministers. He was received outside the gate. He said that the government wished to protect foreigners, and that the German Minister?s body had been recovered from the hands of those people who had murdered him and enclosed in a valuable coffin.

On that day a Chinaman who had been sent into the city returned with the news that General Nieh was dead, and that on July 14th the foreign troops took the native city at Tientsin.

This news was duly posted. No doubt was felt that the armistice was the result of the capture of Tientsin. That completely explained matters. It had evidently been regarded as certain that the Chinese troops at Tientsin would be able to hold that city against all attacks, and prevent any foreign troops from moving up towards Pekin. It must have been a frightful blow to them to learn that a place which they considered impregnable had been captured after but one day?s fighting. It must have been an awful facer for Prince Tung and the war party, and Ching and the moderates had evidently again come to the front.

The armistice continued. A few Chinese came in every day with eggs to sell, which they generally brought hidden in their clothes, declaring that some people had been beheaded for dealing with us. As, however, they continued to come, this was considered only as a device for raising the price. The eggs were a great boon to the besieged, for many of the children suffered greatly from want of proper nourishment. Twice the yamen sent in a present of fruit and vegetables. These were an immense treat, and were divided with scrupulous fairness. Each time two melons fell to our share, and were eaten with solemn and almost religious state. It was something like what I have heard takes place when a party of connoisseurs assemble to discuss two or three bottles of Imperial Tokay of a famous year.

But while this curious interlude lasted occasional shots were fired at us, and several men were wounded. The Chinese, moreover, though apparently so friendly, continued to strengthen and enlarge their barricades, and it was unsafe to move across open spaces in the defended quarter.

Now that our anxiety on our own account had lessened, we had time to think of the defenders of the French cathedral. It was evident that the armistice that we were enjoying was not shared by them, for from time to time we could hear outbursts of distant firing. The French Minister had endeavoured in vain to communicate with his countrymen, and beyond the fact that they still held out we knew nothing. Meanwhile letters were constantly received from the yamen, all urging us to leave the city and to retire to Tientsin, or at least to give up the Christian refugees. To these requests answers were returned in language of the greatest moderation, explaining the difficulties of the course, pointing out that the attacks on the French cathedral continued, and that shots were frequently fired on the Legation; never positively refusing to do as the Chinese wished, but always making excuses for not doing so. This method was in so far successful that the negotiations were kept up until the allied army were within a day?s march of the city.

On July 27 the yamen tried to induce the Ministers to send all the Chinese converts out of the Legations. Pekin, they said, was perfectly peaceful, and as so large a number of converts crowded into so small a space in the hot weather must be causing us considerable inconvenience, they advised that they should now return to their homes in peace and resume their usual occupations. As the coolies, however, had rendered invaluable service during the siege, exposing themselves frequently to danger and labouring with unwavering zeal until evidently exhausted, it was, of course, out of the question that they could be abandoned, and the chief replied that as shots were still fired into the Legations, and the North Cathedral was still being attacked, he could not understand the assertions of the yamen that it would be safe for the Christians to leave the Legations, and asked for further information.

The time passed very slowly with us. Colonel Shiba had bribed one of the Imperial guards and he supplied us daily with news, which afterwards turned out to be a pack of lies. On July 26th he reported that the allied troops had reached YangTsun on the eighteenth, and that on the twentyfourth they had fought a battle ten miles south of TsaiTsun in which the Boxers were defeated. On the twentyfifth the force was at HoHsiWu and had fought a battle lasting five hours, the Chinese losing in killed and wounded twelve hundred men. Reports on the twentyseventh confirmed that news and said that there was a panic at TungChow. All this of course caused a lot of excitement, but on the twentyeighth a rumour spread through the Legations that a messenger had arrived with a letter from the British Consul at Tientsin. Of course everyone went to the Bell Tower to hear the contents of this letter. It said that twentyfour thousand troops had landed and that there were nineteen thousand at Tientsin, that the Boxer power had exploded there and that there were plenty of troops on the way if we could keep ourselves in food. You never saw such a mad crowd as were assembled on that tower. Here were we expecting to be relieved in two or three days, and now no one could say when the relief would arrive. The abuse poured on the British consul was absolutely unbounded. We afterwards learned that we had reasons to be grateful rather than the reverse. Had he told us the truth, that the officers at Tientsin were at that moment actually discussing whether it was possible to make any advance until the rainy season was over, had he sent this news, there is no saying what would have happened. The disappointment would have been so great that we should probably have attempted some desperate action, with the result that all the Europeans would have been massacred and also the Christian Chinese, to whom the handful of fightingmen available would have been absolutely unable to afford protection. Fortunately, however, we did not know this, and spent our indignation upon the unfortunate consul, who, I hope, is none the worse for the objurgations heaped upon his head.

But though the disappointment was great, the news woke us up, and an order was at once issued for every household to send in a list of all the stores in its possession, of tea, sugar, white rice, and other luxuries. Up to that time, as you know, only rice, flour, and meat had been supplied from the general store, every household having used what it had collected at the beginning of the siege.

On the same day the Chinese government issued an edict condemning two of the progressive members of the yamen to death. There was some fighting also, the Chinese persisting in erecting barricades across the north bridge, which enabled them to enfilade the canal. We did not succeed in preventing them from doing this. All sorts of rumours came in, but what they all meant no one could tell; some of the reports were of the wildest nature. The only certain news we got was that portions of the regular army had left, to aid in repulsing the relief column. Another effort was made by the Chinese to get Sir Robert Hart to telegraph to reassure the Foreign Minister as to the situation in Pekin. This he refused to do, as such reassuring news might induce them to pause before sending out a relief force. On the 1st of August Colonel Shiba received a letter from Tientsin which changed the whole aspect of affairs. It was dated Tientsin, and said that the advance of the troops was delayed by difficulties of transport, but that the start would be made in two or three days.

During all this time we had not been idle. We had strengthened the wall round the Legation and had dug a deep trench inside the west wall, to cut any mines that the Chinese might attempt to drive from that quarter. We omitted one spot, however the kitchen of the students? mess and it was precisely at this spot that the Chinese afterwards drove a mine. One of the customs staff declared that he heard men digging in that quarter, but no one believed him, Another defensive measure was the occupying and barricading of the ruins of the houses on the Legation side of the market. A mail came in with several letters on the 2nd of August. The reports were contradictory, but it really seemed that the column was at last starting. The supplies had been all stopped now and we were beginning to feel famine, especially the Christian Chinese, who were fed on a mixture of a little grain, chopped straw, and other fodder. It was a very bad time. Except the building of the new defences there was nothing to be done. A good deal of sharpshooting was kept up, but the want of work made the delay hard to bear. The nurses were now suffering from sickness brought on from overwork.

At five o?clock on August 10th a messenger arrived bearing letters from General Gaselee to Sir Claude and from General Fukushima for Colonel Shiba. Both letters were very brief. They were dated August 8. ?A strong force of allies is advancing,? one said, ?twice defeated enemy. Keep up your spirits.? The other confirmed this news, and mentioned the thirteenth or fourteenth as the probable date of their arrival at Pekin.

You may imagine the enthusiasm that this news excited. It was the first intimation we had received that the column had left Tientsin. The attacks now became much more vigorous, and on the eleventh the attack on the French and German Legations was more severe than anything we had experienced. The attack on the Mongol Market was also very warm. And all the time this was going on, the Chinese government were writing letters complaining of the attacks made upon them by the defenders. Towards evening the firing became even more furious; there was a general call to arms, and every man turned out. The fusillade died away a little at midnight. At halfpast two the boom of heavy guns and the rattle of musketry were heard, and every man and woman in the Legation got up to hear the welcome sound which told that the relief force had arrived outside the city.

The enemy then made a last desperate attack. Everyone rushed to his post again, but although the firing was tremendous and we could hear the Chinese officers shouting to their men to charge, nothing came of it, and towards morning the fire died away to the usual desultory sniping. Everyone remained in a state of expectancy until, as you know, at two o?clock the troops made their entry. There, I think, Bateman, I have given you a very full account, and shall expect as detailed a one from you.

You certainly deserve it, Rex said with a laugh, and he then told in full detail the story of his entry into Tientsin, the situation there, the account he had received of the taking of the Taku Forts, the defence of the city, the capture of Tientsin, and the march of the relief column. There, he said when he concluded, I think we have both a pretty good idea of what has taken place since we last met. Now I must go out and see for myself the points where the fighting has been fiercest. Wandering about, Rex learned more of the fighting of the past two days. The fire kept up was something tremendous, but the Chinese troops could not be persuaded to leave their shelters. Their officers in vain shouted: We are many, they are a mere handful; come on! But the soldiers shouted back in return: No good. Every word could be plainly heard, for the barricades held by the Customs volunteers in the Mongol Market were only ten or fifteen yards from the Chinese. In the Fu the same thing was going on. Positions held by the Italians and Japs were each of them only twenty yards, and the extreme outpost held by Customs volunteers was but ten yards, from the Chinese barricades.

In the Fu they had hit on a happy expedient. They got a huge supply of empty petroleumtins, and when the Chinese attack was at its hottest, they set the Christian Chinese to hammer on them with sticks. The din was something tremendous, and the Italians added to it with wild shouts. Astounded at this terrible uproar, and ignorant of what new weapon of destruction was being brought against them, the Chinese fire dropped at once, and did not reopen for some time.

In the Mongol Market five Customs volunteers stood behind their loopholes, close up to the Chinese position, and as they watched the Chinese officers trying in vain to urge their men forward, they chaffed them with invitations to come in and see the place, and then, when they did not come, advised them to go home and nurse the babies. Nevertheless, fighting with the enemy both in the Fu and in the Mongol Market was a matter of grim earnest. If the barricades there had been carried, those positions must also have been abandoned, and all communication between the British and Russian Legations would have been cut off.

The morning after the troops entered, two mines heavily charged were fired. If the troops had been one day later, there is no saying what the consequences might have been. All with whom Rex had chatted were of opinion that the Chinese were deterred from attacking, not by our rifle fire, but by a superstitious fear that we were keeping some secret means of destruction in reserve. Whether it was that we had mined the ground everywhere, and would blow them all into the air as soon as they crossed our barricades, or whether they feared some unknown, but even more terrible form of death, could not be said, but the men who were ready to endure the deadly fire of our rifles could not be got to make a rush against a position where only some fifteen or twenty men faced them. The Chinese kept up their straggling fire all day, and among others one English lady was hit in the arm, this being the first time that a woman had been struck since the siege began. Rex learned that out of a total strength of nineteen officers and three hundred and eightyeight men, including volunteers, thirteen officers were killed and wounded, and sixtyseven men killed and a hundred and sixtyseven wounded. Fighting still went on, but great surprise was expressed that the French did not make any attempt to go to the relief of their countrymen in the North Cathedral.

In the evening, Rex went into the Fu, where the Japanese were for the most part quartered, and enquired of General Fukushima if there was anything that he could do.

No, I do not think there is anything at present. When we once get out into the city I shall be very glad of your services again. You can, if you like, go with a force I am sending out in the morning to relieve the French missionaries. We know they must be in extreme danger, and it would be a scandal if we allowed them to be massacred after we have entered the city.

Accordingly the next morning Rex started with the Japanese. They made a long detour and approached the cathedral from the other side. They attacked and drove off the Chinese on that side and really raised the siege, but at the same time they heard heavy firing on the other side, and found that the French and Russians had arrived there. Fukushima therefore halted his men, being willing to give the French the opportunity of being the first to relieve their countrymen.

The garrison had had indeed a terrible time, and in spite of the entry of the allied force, the attack had been maintained up to the very moment of their relief. The Japanese had met with resistance on coming through the gate that separated the cathedral quarter from the palace of the Empress. Here they came upon a number of Boxers, who were so occupied by their attack upon the cathedral that they had scarcely noticed the arrival of the relieving force. Taken by surprise, a good many of them were hemmed in, and a machinegun was trained upon them with terrible effect. Fighting was kept up through the various streets, and continued until they reached the cathedral. The garrison at first refused to admit this unknown band of swarthy warriors, and some explanations had to be exchanged before they could be brought to understand that they had been relieved.

The Catholics would never have remained in possession of the cathedral had not the Chinese municipal officers assured them that they would be altogether undisturbed. When the Boxers first appeared near the cathedral, the governor asserted that he had special orders to protect the cathedral. The regular troops there consisted only of thirty French and twelve Italian marines, who at the last moment, when the danger of the situation could no longer be winked at, had been spared from the slender garrison of the Legations to aid in the defence. This was the force that was called upon to defend the circuit of the walls of the great French establishment, whose circumference amounted to nearly a mile. Within this circle there were no fewer than three thousand five hundred people, the larger portion of whom consisted of children from the orphanages. The adults were formed by the fathers into a body, and armed with spears made by fastening knives to the ends of long poles. The eight muskets, which were all the firearms they had, were distributed among the different sections.

The Chinese authorities threw off the mask on the 10th of June, and on that day the Chinese regulars and Boxers surrounded the place, cut the telegraph wires, and completely isolated it.

At the head of the defence was Mgr. Favier, the heroic bishop, who by his courage, selfdevotion, and zeal, kept up the spirits of the defenders through the darkest days of the siege. He was the soul of the resistance. Under him were six priests, who organized the work of defence and set a noble example to the others. The converts were set to work with pick and spade to assist in the defence, and the whole defensible area was quickly surrounded with trenches and barricades. Ammunition was unfortunately very short, but the priests set some of the converts to manufacture powder and bullets. The shot was not difficult to make, as lead and pewter could be obtained from the roofs and vessels, but both sulphur and charcoal were very scarce. After many failures, however, some thousands of rounds were manufactured. These would have been of no use for distant fighting, but they were sufficient for what at times was almost handtohand work.





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