Preview Mode Links will not work in preview mode

Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Nov 21, 2022

Last time we spoke the Europeans licked their wounds after their nasty defeat to the Taku Forts. Elgin returned to China and a even larger coalition force now set itself on a warpath to march upon Beijing, but this time they went around the Taku Forts. They seized Kowloon, Chusan, Shanghai, Beitang, Tianjin, Danggu and then exacted their revenge upon the Taku Forts. The key to their success was the devastating Armstrong field gun which ripped asunder anything the Qing threw at them. Prince Seng lost the battle for Zhangjiawan utterly humiliating the Qing, but the great General did not simply call it quits, for now he reorganized the forces and put together a last stand at Baliqao. Could Prince Seng stop the European menace before they got to Beijing? Only time will tell.


Welcome to the Fall and Rise of China Podcast, I am your dutiful host Craig Watson. But, before we start I want to also remind you this podcast is only made possible through the efforts of Kings and Generals over at Youtube. Perhaps you want to learn more about the history of Asia? Kings and Generals have an assortment of episodes on history of asia and much more  so go give them a look over on Youtube. So please subscribe to Kings and Generals over at Youtube and to continue helping us produce this content please check out If you are still hungry for some more history related content, over on my channel, the Pacific War Channel where I cover the history of China and Japan from the 19th century until the end of the Pacific War.

#23 This episode is Part 6 of the Second Opium War: The Burning of the Summer Palace


Prince Seng and Prince Sengbao, the brother of Emperor Xianfeng had gathered a force of the Green Standard Army, reinforced by imperial guards of the 8 Banner Army, for a combined force nearly 30,000 strong. After their victory at Zhangjiawan, both Grant and Montauban were overly confident that they could simply march on Beijing. As they marched, the 101st regiment led by General Jamin arrived to increase their numbers. On the morning of September 21st as the European columns moved past Tongzhou they saw the Qing force in position in front of the Baliqao bridges. The Qing force was formidable with its left on the canal, reinforced by the village of Baliqao, another village in the center and a third on the far right. The road to Beijing passed through a rolling wooden terrain veering towards the canal and the Baliqao bridges. Seng had re-established order to his army and strengthened their resolve by bringing 100 guns and positioning them in the villages, on the other side of the canal and along his entire front. The Green Standard army were the majority, while the 8 Banner Army units were kept in reserve at the bridges. Seng also had of course a large cavalry force which was being led by Sengbao on their formation flanks.

Grant kept inline with what he had done in the previous battle, he took the left while Montauban took the center and right to protect his flank. Montauban used the wooden terrain to hide his lack of numbers, sending the first column to hit the Qing center. General Jamin moved to Collineau’s right to hit the Qing left. Grant moved to the far left of Collineau hoping to flank the Qing. General Collineau took the advance guard consisting of the elite companies of the 101 and 12nd regiments, two companies of the 2nd Chasseuers a pied, an engineer detachment, two batteries of horse artillery and a battery of 4 pound foot artillery. Montauban and Jamin commanded the 101 regiment along with the 2nd Chasseurs a pied, a battery of 12 pounders and a Congreve rocket section.

Collineau’s infantry sped through the woods towards the Qing center and their speed shocked Sengbao as he moved most of the cavalry from the wings to protect the center. The French advance guard moved into skirmish order forming a long line towards Baliqao. Montauban ordered Jamin to go forward as two large bodies of Qing cavalry, around 12,000 charged at each of the French columns. Collineau’s artillery rained hell into the Mongol and Manchu cavalry, while the elite company's rifle fired from secure locations along the sides of the main road. The accurate rifle fire took a massive toll on the cavalry, but Collineau soon found himself embroiled in hand to hand combat. Montauban and Jamin also used their artillery to devastating effect while their infantry formed two squares before the cavalry hit their position. The French 12 pound battery was positioned between Collineau and Jamin, continuously shelling the enemy. After some time the Qing cavalry broke off their attack having failed to break the French square formations or to overrun Collineau’s men. A brief lull allowed Montauban to re-form and advance upon the villages being defended by Green Standard battalions.

Prince Sengbao and Seng did not renew their cavalry assaults, because Grants column was marching onto their right flank. The 101st stormed into the village of Oua-kaua-ye in the center scattering the defenders with each and suffering little casualties from the enemies artillery. Montauban followed this up by sending both brigades to march upon the village of Baliqao. Collineau advanced along a road with his elite companies firing upon Qing forces trying to hold the road towards the village. Large cannons in the streets and across the canal fired upon the french columns,but Jamin brought up his batteries to fire upon the cannons easily overwhelming them. The village and bridge of Baliqao were defended by the 8 banner army units and they did not falter nor give ground. Collineau brought up his artillery to form a crossfire with Jamins batteries slaughtering the 8 bannermen. Collineau then formed his forces into a column and stormed the village. Fighting raged on at close quarters for 30 minutes as Montauban led the 101st to Collineaus support securing the village. Suddenly a Qing messenger was sent from Sengbao to Montauban proclaiming that they had two captured colleagues, the French cleric named Abbe Duluc and the British Captain Brabazon of the royal artillery on one of the bridges and would execute them both if the Europeans did not halt their attack. Without pause Montauban pressed the attack. Collineau then reformed his command and rapidly advanced upon the bridge with the French batteries providing cover fire. Most of the Qing artillerymen were killed by European artillery and with them gone the rest of the 8 banner army men were forced to cede ground and the bridge was overwhelmed. The French bayonet charged across the bring as Qing troops leapt into the canal for their lives. Prince Sengbao made good on his threat and had Duluc and Brabazon executed and tossed over into the canal. The bridge was now in the French hands.

Grant’s column dislodged the Green stand troops from their village while the British and Indian cavalry rolled up the line overwhelming the Qing cavalry trying to hold their ground. Grants line of attack brought him within sight of the bridge that cross the canal 1 mile west of Baliqao. The arrival of the British on Seng’s right flank collapsed his forces in the face of their attack and Seng was compelled to pull his army from the field before being trapped on the right side of the canal. The French claimed 3 dead 18 wounded, the British 2 dead and 29 wounded while the Qing had upto a possible 1500 casualties. The shocking triumph prompted Napoleon III to ennoble de Montauban, who would chose his place of victory for his new aristocratic title, Comte de Baliqao, joining the list of name-place conquerors like Scipio Africanus, the Duke of Marlborough or Germanicus. Over on the other Baliqao bridge General Hope was not enjoying the same easy going time the French had. Grant thought a horde of Mongol cavalry in the distance were French and didn't open fire. The mongols mistook this to mean Grants men were cowards and charged upon them. When the British realized it was the enemy they opened fire at close range and blew the Mongolians to pieces with Armstrong guns.

Tongzhou surrendered without a fight, but still suffered the same fate as Zhangjiawan. They plundered the town and General Grant had 3 rapists flogged with 100 strokes by a cat o nine tails then hanged one of them, but all 3 of the said rapists happened to be coolies. The British claimed many of the rapes also came at the hands of Sikhs, but again these sources always seem to wash away the British and French from the bad stuff. Oh and the British and French placed blame at one another of course. One French soldier said of the plunder of Beitang “Quant aux anglais, ce sont nos maîtres: on ne trouve pas un clou où ils ont passé.” (“As for the English, they are our superiors [when it comes to looting]. You can’t find a nail where they have passed.” Prince Seng panicked after the last two obstacles to Beijing had fallen, Tongzhou and Zhangjiawan. Beijings only remained defense were its thick walls at 40 feet high and 60 feet thick, bristling with towers that housed defenders armed with more antique guns, bows and arrows and spears.

Both Elgin and Gros pleaded with the military forces to hurry to Beijing as they feared the hostages might be massacred if they delayed. But General Grant refused to budge until all his heavy siege guns were shipped upriver from Tianjin to support their march on the great city. Elgin and Gros’s fears were not unplaced, Emperor Xianfeng had fled Beijing to go to Rehe, leaving his brother Prince Gong behind with orders to dig in and fight. Best Emperor Ever. Gong was 28 years old and a much more capable sibling. The European force made its way to Beijing where Elgin sent word to Gong they refused to negotiate with him until after the hostages were freed. But they also helped him save face by allowing him to blame the hostage taking on his subordinates. Gong was not moved by the gesture and sent word to withdraw from Beijing and then the prisoners would be released. If they began an assault of the city the prisoners would all be beheaded.

On October 6th the heavy artillery needed to blast a hole in Beijing's walls arrived. Prince Gong’s position was…welll really bad. On top of literally being ditched there by the Emperor, most of the army had left with him as well. On the 5th Parkes and Loch were told their execution would take place the next morning and both prisoners were given paper and pens to write their last will and testaments. But by now the captives were far too important as political pawns than to be wasted away on executions. On the 7th the prisoners all heard the sound of gunfire and presumed the Europeans were bombarding the city meaning they were all going to die soon. They were actually mistaken the British were firing their guns in the air to let the French know their position because they were spreading out. On october the 6th the British and French agreed to march around the grand city from opposite directions and to meet at the Summer Palace just outside the walls. The two armies quickly lost contact with another. The French reached the Summer palace first finding out that its occupant, Emperor Xianfeng had fled with his 13 wives, a fraction of his harem. The French had expected the Emperors personal guard to defend the summer palace to the death, but everyone had fled. The only resistance they faced was 500 unarmed court eunuchs who screamed at them “don’t commit sacrilege! Don’t come within the sacred precincts!”. The French shot 20 of them on the spot sending the rest fleeing.


The Summer Palace or as the Chinese called it “Yuanming Yuan” (the gardens of perfect brightness”, simply does not embody how grand it truly was. A more accurate term would have been Summer Palaces, since it was a complex of 2 hundred main building sets, in an 80 square mile park dotted with vermillion tents, artificial lakes and exquisite gardens. The interiors were all unique, one for example was Baroque audience chamber designed by Jesuit missionaries in the 17th century, two other baroque palaces with gold roofs were designed by the same Jesuit priests. Emperor Xianfeng had spent countless days on the lakes staging mock naval battles with miniature boats representing the Qing navy and the British. The emperor always won the naval battles. The Summer palace was not just an architectural marvel, it was a national treasure, a storehouse of centuries of tribute the Emperors of China had received from barbarians.

De Montauban realized what a historical treasure was now laying in his possession and he tried to preserve the place by telling his senior staff quote “he counted on their honor to respect the palace and see that it was respected by others…until the English arrived”. But the sheer temptation of the priceless artifacts which lay littered across the palace floors proved an impossible temptation for the French. Montauban’s orders to not touch the treasures quickly fell apart. The French soldiers could not resist helping themselves to an Ali Baba’s worth of loot. Later in 1874 Montauban would find himself before a government committee set up to investigate the looting that took place that day. The General lied to his examiners saying the French soldiers had not participated in the looting.  “I had sentries posted, and directed two officers with two companies of marine infantry to protect the palace from depredation and to allow nothing to be moved until the arrival of the English commanders. Thus there would be no pillage. Nothing had been touched in the Palace when the English arrived.” General Hope contradicted this testimony with eyewitness accounts. “It was pitiful to see the way in which everything was robbed. Only one room in the Palace was untouched. General de Montauban informed me he had reserved any valuables it might contain for equal division between the English and French”. Grant’s critique of Montauban not being able to control his troops is a bit hypocritical as he himself could not control his men. Despite apparently similar orders from Grant, the British soldiers found a cornucopia of loot to be had. Jewels lay scattered all over the Palaces. One French officer snatched a pearl necklace whose gems were the size of marbles and sold it in Hong Kong for 3000 pounds. De Montauban realized he was fighting against the impossible and just let his men take home souvenirs, he said, one prize per soldier, sureeeee. It’s said when the French left the palace at 10pm, their pockets bulged with stolen treasure.

When the British infantry arrived on october 7th, they saw French tents piled high with jewels and other plunder, some French soldiers were casually walking around wearing jewels worth millions of Frances. Both generals simply gave up trying to establish order and by October 8th Grant demanded Montauban split the gold bars found in the palace 50/50 with the British. Grant tried to restore some order by ordering his men to render their plunder up for a public auction, the money did not go to charity. One British major turned in 8000 pounds worth of gold ingots alone. The auction listed countless Chinese art and artifacts, sculptures of gold and silver, thousands of bolts of imperial yellow silk and the list could go on forever. The 3 day auction netted nearly 100,000 pounds, ⅓ of which went to the officers and other ⅔’s to the NCOs. A private received 17 pounds, an officer 50. The French simply let their men keep what they had stolen. It was rumored that Baron Rothschild had an outstanding order with one French officer to buy anything he could at whatever price. De Montauban tried to mollify a conscious stricken general Grant by offering him a pair of gold and jade scepters as a gift for Queen Victoria, the other half was going to Napoleon III. Now the European armies did not show up to Beijing with baggage carts, but they soon managed to commandeer 300 local carriages to whisk off their treasure. 

When Elgin arrived to Beijing on October 7th he was mortified by the looting of the summer palace. On October 8th, Heng Chi an imperial commissioner assigned to treat with the invaders, visited Loch and Parkes. He treated them with respect, but also fed them lies like how the Emperor had a secret army of hundreds of thousands of men in Mongolia waiting to rescue the capital. He also tried pressing to them the fact the trade between their nations might fall apart. Then Heng Chi delivered to them a request from Prince Gong that they write a letter to Elgin urging him to end hostilities. Parkes declined to help, even though Heng said he might be executed if the men did not write the letter. Then Parkes stated “Although you would do the Allied forces but little injury by killing the few prisoners…you would by such an act bring down on yourselves a terrible vengeance.” Heng switched back to good cop again and said “You will be in no danger for the next two or three days.”. Back on september 29th, Loch and Parkes had been transferred to the Gaomiao temple in northern Beijing where their treatment took a 180. They were wined and dined at a 48 course meal banquet catered by a restaurant near the temple. The men were too ill to eat, but happily accepted a bath and new clothes. Parkes eventually wrote to Elgin “The Chinese authorities are now treating Loch and myself well. We are told that His Highness [Gong] is a man of decision and great intelligence, and I trust that under these circumstances, hostilities may be temporarily suspended to give opportunity for negotiation.” At the bottom of that said letter, Loch added in Hindustani that he was writing under duress and believed the Qing could not decipher the Hindu language. Elgin was happy to receive the letter but worried the hostages would be executed. 

Elgin was in a real pickle. He felt as trapped as the hostages. If he ordered the siege to commence the hostages might be executed. On October 8th orders arrived from Prince Gong to release the prisoners. The reason Gong did this was actually because orders were coming in from Emperor Xianfeng to execute them all in revenge for plundering the summer palace. Loch and Parkes were released first and it seems just their release alleviated Elgin and Gros’s stress to such an extent that they did not seem to care about the fate of the other 30-40 hostages still in the Qing hands. Less than 24 hours after Loch and Parkes were released the allies on October 9th positioned 13 field pieces opposite of the An Tung Gate, begun to dig trenches and posted a placard threatening bombardment if the gate did not open. Elgin gave the Qing until noon of October the 24th to open the gates to the city or the shelling would commence. And on october 24th, 5 minutes before noon the gate of An Tung cracked open a bit hesitatingly, then swung wide open. Without firing a single shot Elgen marched at the head of 500 men into Beijing as conquerors. 

The return of the remaining prisoners was not done promptly. 3 days after the An Tung Gate opened, a frenchman and 8 Sikhs were freed. Two days after that, 2 more Sikhs were freed both both men were almost dead and one did die the next day. In all 19 prisoners were freed, 10 others had died being forced to kneel in the courtyard of the summer palace for days without food or water, their hand bound by moistened ropes and leather straps that shrank and causing excruciating pain. The British and French found coffins with the bodies of the victims, one including The Times correspondent, Thomas Bowlby. Many of the freed prisoners described their ordeal. They said they had been bound with ropes or chains for days, exposed to the elements. Many got gangrene and their infections took their lives. The Sikh and British victims were interred in the Russian cemetery on october 17th without ceremony. The next day the French held an elaborate funeral and high mass for the deaths. The fate of the prisoners seemed to have pushed Elgin over the edge. He rattled his brain for a response to such a heinous crime. Elgin plotted a bloodless revenge in his mind, something to restore British honor through a symbolic act that would prevent the Qing from ever harming a contingent of European ambassadors in Beijing in the future. Elgin thought of a way to hurt the Chinese but not at the cost of any lives, he sought to burn down the Summer Palace, a place where many of the prisoners were tortured to death. Elgin wrote to his wife his decision was in his mind to hurt the Emperor’s home but spare the Chinese people. Jack Beeching had a rather interesting thing to say about Elgins decision, “Elgin’s decision to burn the Summer Palace at least meant that flesh-and-blood injuries done to people he knew intimately would for once be revenged, not as in war, upon other people—on helpless Chinese—but on inanimate objects, on redundant and expensive things. He had suffered all his life from his father’s costly obsession with works of art; now works of art would bear the brunt of his revenge.” Thus Elgin’s father had profited from the plunder of art and now Elgin was going to destroy art. Elgin also had pressing concerns, he faced a deadline imposed by General Grant, who warned him that a treaty must be concluded before Beijing's winter set in so the allies could return safely to their base at Tianjin. If they did not Grant warned Elgin that their supply lines were overextended and they would easily be severed off by the Qing forces. Prince Seng had been defeated, but his cavalry remained a constant threat and they could blockade the city off at any time. 

D-day for the burning of the summer palace was set to October 18th. A 27 year old captain in the Royal Engineers said this of the event 

We went out, and, after pillaging it, burned the whole place, destroying in a vandal-like manner most valuable property which [could] not be replaced for four millions. We got upward of £48 apiece prize money ... I have done well. The [local] people are very civil, but I think the grandees hate us, as they must after what we did the Palace. You can scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the places we burnt. It made one's heart sore to burn them; in fact, these places were so large, and we were so pressed for time, that we could not plunder them carefully. Quantities of gold ornaments were burnt, considered as brass. It was wretchedly demoralising work for an army

The destroyed the 800 acre complex of building and gardens where countless Chinese emperors had spent much of their time. There were so many ornate buildings on the grounds covering more than a square mile that it took 2 full days of burning, breaking and smashing to bring it down. Countless books, artifacts, centuries of history burned to ashes. I don’t think its controversial to say it ranks on par with the burning of the library of Alexandria (despite if you believe the library ever burnt down that is, listen to Our Fake History’s podcast for that one haha). It was a tragedy and the remains of the summer palace stand today as a monument of what once stood there, China is still trying to have the site placed on the list of UNESCO world heritage sites. 

On October 23rd, the Qing imperial treasury paid in full the increased indemnity fee of 500,000 taels to Britain and France. On October 24th Elgin met with Prince Gong at the board of Ceremonies to sign the new treaty of Peking. By this point Elgin had become a student of the Qing court protocols and used his knowledge to further humiliate Prince Gong and the court officials by arrived at the Board in a chair carried by 8 porters. According to tradition, only the Emperor had the right to that many porters. Now Elgin had learnt he was a target for assasination so he showed up with 500 troops and dispatched another 2000 troops to perform a triumph tour of Beijing. Lt Col Wolseley also performed a mine sweep of the meeting room before Elgin went. Elgin also ordered a huge artillery piece to be mounted on the An Tung gate, aimed directly at the city to ensure good behavior from the population. Prince Gong arrived to the board in a sedan chair bourn by 6 porters, something prescribed for his rank and when he saw Elgin’s 8 he knew immediately it was a direct insult towards his brother. Elgin also made sure to show up 2 hours late. The signing of the new treaty took on a sort of comedy. Elgin scared the hell out of the court officials when he screamed at them to “keep perfectly still”, because his Italian photographer, Signor Beato was taking a shot of the scene to preserve the Chinese humiliation. Bad lighting, doomed the Italians efforts and no photographic evidence of the signing was made available to the British press. By the way on the note of photography, the 2nd opium war is one of the first instances you have actual photos of some of the events. Over on my personal channel, the Pacific War Channel, I have rather long 45 minute~ episodes, 1 on the first opium war and 1 on the second. My episode on the second utilizes a lot of the photo’s taken and they are honestly incredible, especially the shots outside Beijing and the Taku Forts. So stating that it be awesome if you checked my episode out, or give the photos a google!

So again the Qing were given a document to sign, not a treaty to negotiate, when Elgin presented the treaty to Prince Gong for his signature. The convention included an apology for the Emperor’s aggression, the British ambassador was granted a year round residency and 10 million in reparations were to be paid to Britain. Another port city was added to the list of those to be opened to trade and kowloon was to be handed over to Britain. After signing and being degraded, Prince Gong invited Elgin to a banquet in his honor and Elgin declined citing his fear the Qing would simply poison him, haha! The French version of the same treaty occurred the next day and Baron Gros was much more gracious. After signing the treaty Gross gave Gong a rare collection of French coins and an autographed photo of Napoleon III and the Empress Eugenie. Gross apologized for the burning of the summer palace, but did not mention the looting. Gross then accepted Prince Gong’s invitation to dinner and no one was poisoned. 

In December Elgen spent his time recuperating in Shanghai reading victorian romance novels and Darwin’s recent bestseller “On the Origin of the Species” which Elgin found to be audacious. In January he left China for good as Britain began the process for annexing Kowloon. Elgin returned to Britain a hero and received the new appointment as Viceroyalty of India, a position Lord Canning fought to get him. As the viceroy Elgin enjoyed the lucrative post for 20 months, but then he died of an aneurysm in november of 1864 in Calcutta, the same city Cantons viceroy Ye Mingchen died, perhaps a symbolic symmetry. Emperor Xianfeng died at 30 years old, only a year after the signing of the Convention of Peking which had humiliated him so much he secluded and anesthetized himself with opium, wine and of course his harem at Rehe. Emperor Xianfeng never returned to Beijing and refused to meet foreign ambassadors or even his own courtiers so deep it was said of his shame. 

Prince Seng the defacto commander in chief of the Qing military continued to suffer military setbacks and humiliations. At one point he led 23,000 infantry and cavalry to quell a violent tax revolt in Shandong province and was forced to beg European occupiers to return some of his guns he surrendered to them during the 2nd opium war. They ignored his pleas and the Prince ended up failing to suppress the rebellion. Queen Victoria had received one interesting gift from the summer palace, a small Pekinese dog that she named Lootie. The poor thing had been found wandering around the ruins of the Summer Palace, where a captain in the Wiltshire regiment rescued it and gave it to the Queen. The Queen also of course received a jade and gold scepter from General Hope. 

Both the first and second Opium war were fought largely because of the opium trade and British manufacturers. The conflict was an incredible pay off for Britain. Four years after the second opium war ended, Britain sold China ⅞’s of all the conquered nations imports, more than 100,000 pounds annually. Opium imports to China increased from 58,000 chests in 1859 to 105,000 chests by 1879. The British textiles which the Chinese rejected for their own silk eventually found a market, quadrupling from 113 million yards in 1856 to 448 million yards 25 years later. The Treaty of Tianjin basically made opium legal in China by setting the amount at which the Qing taxed it. The Qing court tried to fight the importation of opium by raising taxes on it. There were many attempts by officials in Britain to stop the opium trade, but it was far to profitable and those voices were quelled whenever they rose up. Eventually the Qing realized they could not stop the plague that was opium addiction, so they began to cultivate opium in large quantities within China to at least offset the British imports. Opium addiction became more and more rampant in China. In 1906 the Qing government forbade the sale of opium, but users over the age of 60 were exempted for a specific reason, Empress dowager Cixi was an opium addict herself. Opium cultivation and consumption thrived in the 1920’s and 1930’s under Chiang Kai-shek’s government. By the time of the 2nd sino Japanese war in 1937, 4 million Chinese, around 10 percent of the population were opium addicts. Over in British held Hong Kong 30% of the colony’s population were dependent on opium. The Japanese occupiers encouraged opium consumption to make the population more docile. Within a year of the communist takeover under Mao Zedong, dealers of opium were to be executed, some lucky ones got to go to Gulags. Users were treated more humanely and detoxed in hospitals.

I would like to take this time to remind you all that this podcast is only made possible through the efforts of Kings and Generals over at Youtube. Please go subscribe to Kings and Generals over at Youtube and to continue helping us produce this content please check out If you are still hungry after that, give my personal channel a look over at The Pacific War Channel at Youtube, it would mean a lot to me. 

The Chinese struggled for 150 years against opium. More than half a century of legislation by both Britain and China failed, while Mao’s totalitarian efficiency succeeded in half a generation. Ironically Mao Zedong enforced a policy and plan that had been first tried by a commissioner named Lin Zexu, go figure.