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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Aug 22, 2023

Last time we spoke about the Boxers march upon Beijing. The situation in China escalated until the point of no return. The Boxers began attacked Christians and foreigners, seeing less and less opposition from the Qing government. The Qing court were hard pressed to do anything to suppression the boxers lest they fall into a full blown rebellion. The foreign community in Beijing scrambled to call for help from their navies before the Boxers cut the railways and telegraph lines to the capital. Not only were the Boxers a threat to the foreign community, but the recently arrived Kansu army of General Dong Fuxiang were also causing troubles. The foreign legations held tight waiting to see what would occur and on June 11th of 1900 the violence escalated. Mr. Sugiyama of Japan was murdered by the Kansu army, it seemed all hope for avoiding conflict was now lost. 


#62 The Boxer Rebellion part 2: Seymour's 8 Nation expedition


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.

The death of Mr. Sugiyama drove the tension through the roof. 40 French and Italian marines had detached from the legation main force to defend the Peitang Cathedral. They were led by 23 year old Paul Henry and Italian officer Olivieri who was 22. The two went to work directing a defense of the Cathedral, as Henry’s commanding officer sent a message to quickly recall him back over to the legations, the message never arrived. A detachment of US Marines, were also sent to guard the large Methodist Mission half a mile from the American legation. At this point the mission was housing some 1500 refugee’s within its walls. Streams of refugees had flooded in when the panic began, as told to us by Frank Gamewell running the mission “The missionaries are coming in from outside districks [sic]; some with only such articles of clothing as they could carry in their arms, as they had to flee for their lives. The situation is getting more serious as the Boxers are gathering and getting more bold every hour; as the Chinese soldiers sent out to guard Foreign property are assisting the Boxers to loot the places.

On June 12th the ministers sent another message to the Zongli Yamen. The Japanese were invited to partake in the message but declined so they could submit another message bearing this. “The Chinese have murdered our Third Secretary of Legation, and Japan can have no more communication with China—except war.” The next day, a Boxer appeared on Legation Street wielding a large carving knife. Baron von Ketteler was so livid at the scene he rushed into the street and began hitting the boxer with a stick. The Boxer leapt out of his cart, running for an alley, whereupon von Ketteler discovered a young boy hiding in the cart and seized him as a hostage at the German legation. Later that afternoon thousands of Boxers stormed the city wielding spears and swords. The Boxers had prepared blacklists and were quote “hunting down all who had been connected with the foreigners, cutting them down, hacking them to pieces, or carrying them off for more terrible torture in a Boxer camp”. Beijing was filled with torches held by Boxers who began destroying all the Missions they could. The East Cathedral, South Cathedral, Nan Tang and Tung Tang were ablaze. Christians caught outside the legation quarters were cut to pieces when caught. A group of US Marines rushed out to save 300 Christians fleeing. Men, women and children lay in heaps, hacked to pieces. 

American socialite Polly Condit Smith, who was staying with some relative at the US legation described the scene of seeing refugees fleeing into the legations “Half starved, covered with soot and ashes from the fires, women carrying on their breasts horribly sick and diseased babies, and in one case a woman held a dead baby. One man of about fifty years old carried on his shoulders his old mother. . . . A great many of these people were terribly wounded—great spear-thrusts that made jagged wounds, scalp-cuts and gashes on the throat where the victim had been left for dead.” To house more refugees, the palace belonging to Prince Su was seized. 

The Austrian compound isolated on the northeastern part of the Quarter came under attack on June 13th. The Austrians unleashed their Maxim machine gun to lackluster resulted as Captain Francis Garden Poole of the East Yorkshire regiment recalled “The Austrian picket opened fire with their machine gun at what they said was Boxers but they killed none and after that the French, Russians and Italians squibbed at shadows etc. We shall have a lot of trouble with these irresponsible jumpy folk.” It seemed the Austrians aimed too high and hit nothing more than a few Telegraph lines. This reinforced the Boxer belief in their invulnerability spells.

On June 16th, the Boxers attacked the richest trading quarter of Beijing, setting ablaze all the shops and foreign goods. 4000 stores, jewelers, furriers, fans, silk, curio shops, goldsmiths, lantern shops all were incinerated along with the Chienmen city gate. Chinese fire teams tried to save what they could and the legation Quarter was only saved because of the city walls, else it would to have gone down in flames. The foreign troops erected barricades across legation street and established their defensive perimeter. The Americans and Russians defended the west barricade, the French and Italians the east. Until now the main legation Quarter was not seriously threatened, that was until June 17th. Von Ketteler ordered some of his men to fire upon some nearby Kansu forces. Australian journalist George Morrisons noted of the event “Ketteler and his merry men have just shot 7 Boxers from the top of the wall. 50 or 100 were drilling at a distance of 200 yards.... The stalking was excellently done.” 

The week of violence was followed by the Zongli Yamen sending reassuring messages to the foreign diplomats while the Qing court issued contradictory edicts. On the 16th Empress Dowager Cixi asked the Qing court what should be done with the Boxers. The reformers and conservatives began bickering as usual, but it would be Prince Duan arguing passionately in defense of the Boxers actions. The end result of the meeting was everyone agreeing the Boxers should be pacified, but no one had any real ideas on how that was going to happen. The next day, they Qing court met again and suddenly they were given an ultimatum on behalf of the foreign powers. The ultimatum demanded the foreign minister be given full responsibility for all military matters and raising of revenues and that Emperor Guangxu be restored to the throne. Now the ministers never issued this ultimatum that was in the form of a document. It is theorized to be the work of forgery done secretly by Prince Duan. According to someone present at the court when the document was issued, Empress Dowager Cixi was furious upon hearing its contents and issued an imperial edict calling upon all the provincial governors to send troops to Beijing. Prince Qing in dismay began preparing for hostilities. Two days later, Empress Dowager Cixi was informed the foreign powers were demanding the surrender of the Taku forts which in her mind was tantamount to a declaration of war. 

The Qing court sent an ultimatum in neat red envelopes to each minister. It was all in police and precise wording, with a clear deadline. The ultimatum also explained that the Qing government saw the foreign demand to takeover the Taku forts as a declaration of war by all said powers. Their passports were now void and each had 24 hours to depart Beijing. Von Kettler of Germany was convinced if they attempted departing Beijing they would all be killed. Pichon of France and Conger of America argued there was no alternative but to depart. MacDonald of Britain was undecided. All the ministers were moving from one legation to another debating the issue around. Morrison remarked “If the ministers vote to leave Peking the death of every man, woman, and child in this huge unprotected convoy will be on your heads, and your names will go through history and be known for ever as the wickedest, weakest, and most pusillanimous cowards who ever lived.” The ministers told the Zongli Yamen they accepted the demand to leave but argued 24 hours was simply too short a time to make the necessary preparations. They further demanded details on how they were to travel and be protected, they demanded a meeting with Princes Qing and Duan on the matter set for 9am the next day. 

At 9:30am the next day no meeting was to be found as all the ministers met at the French legation. They were uncertain as to what they should do next, they felt going as a large body to the Zongli Yamen would lose face. Apparently von Ketteler was livid and announced his intent to go to the Zongli Yamen and wait there until they met with him. Pichon warned his German counterpart that it was a dangerous course of action. Russian minister de Giers proposed going as a collective under an armed escort. Von Ketteler argued it was silly, he had in fact sent a secretary named Heinrich Cordes to the Zongli Yamen a few days prior and he returned unscathed. To this de Giers asked, why not send Heinrich again, to which Von Ketteler agreed. Everything was fine and dandy, until Von Ketteler joined Heinrich in his sedan chair at the last minute.

Armed with only a cigar and book, as he expected to be waiting at the Zongli Yamen for some time, Von Ketteler and Heinrich set out. Half an hour later news came back Von Ketteler was dead. As reported in the Times “Mr. Cordes, the German interpreter, desperately wounded, had just been brought through our barricades by some of our students; that he had told that Baron von Ketteler . . . had been shot in the street by an officer of the Chinese imperial army; that he himself had been fired upon and had barely escaped; and having told his tale, exhausted by lack of blood, he sank into unconsciousness. Cordes saw a banner soldier, apparently a Manchu, in full uniform with a mandarin’s hat with a button and blue feather, step forward, present his rifle within a yard of the chair window, level it at the Minister’s head and fire.”” The story hit several European papers and was telegraphed around the world. The death of Von Ketteler signaled the end to any talks of foreigners leaving the legations. As MacDonald put it  “the Empress Dowager had made up her mind to throw in her lot with the antiforeign party.” 

The foreign troops began aiding as many christian Chinese and foreigners they could get safely to the legations. Missionary women and children came first, hundreds of Christian converts began moving. They all went past the barricades set up across legation street. Many went the Fu palace, but the missionary leaders there were in dismay because they knew there was not nearly enough food for everyone.  Over in Peitang, 3000 refugees huddled together, protected by just a dozen French and Italian marines. The Cathedral fort at Peitang had been under attack for a few days and to the despair of Bishop Favier over there, Pichon sent a message indicating no additional help was on the way. 

The American legation began issuing out crackers, sardines, scrambled eggs and tea to who they could, the storerooms were being cracked open. The American legation was too close to the city walls to be easily defended and word came they were all to proceed to the British legation. 4000 people from 18 different nations were now in the legations. 473 foreign community civilians with around 400 military personnel, 3000 or more were Chinese christians. Nearly all the foreign women, children and men who were unable to fight crowded the British legation. At 4pm heavy gunfire was heard from the east as some bullets began hitting the tops of trees. The siege had begun.

Vice Admiral Seymour had first received word of the legations plight from MacDonald on May 28th when he sent a small dispatch of forces to help guard the legations. Then alarming reports came in on the 31st, prompting him to sail up the coast to join the French, German, Austrian, Italian, Russian, American and Japanese naval forces anchored off the Taku forts. He invited the commanders of each fleet to his ship for a meeting and they all agreed to work in concert. If necessary they would send a combined allied brigade to Beijing. Seymour became the most senior amongst them because he had a great deal of experience with China, ever since the 2nd opium war. He sent a telegram to Britain about the combined actions and dispatched his chief of staff, Captain John Jellicoe to Tiantsin to investigate the situation. On June 9th Jellicoe reported word had come from MacDonald, the situation was dire, communications would be cut at any moment, they needed to land men at once.

Seymour wasted no time, at 1am on June 10th he ordered the landing of a British force and personally came over to take a train Tongku to Tientsin. Seymour told the other nations commanders his intentions and they all followed suit. At 7am Seymour arrived to Tientsin and he began arranged train carts to fetch the multinational force, over 2100 men in all. The British numbered 916 and Seymour was careful to choose some men as interpreters as he knew the european languages would be difficult to juggle. Alongside the British were 455 Germans, 326 Russians, 158 French, 112 Americans, 54 Japanese, 41 Italians and 26 Austrians. At 9am they began their march and within hours the telegraph line between Beijing and Tientsin was cut by Prince Duan who had just replaced Prince Qing as president of the Zongli Yamen. Seymour expected a quick train ride to Beijing with an extravagant show of force. Seymour had gambled on the iea the railway line to Beijing was still intact.

There was 80 miles to Beijing from Tientsin and all seemed well until they reached Yangtsun, 15 miles away from Tientsin. There some 4000 Qin troops led by General Nie Shicheng were waiting. Nie Shicheng was struggling with conflicting orders coming from General Ronglu. At one moment he was told to suppress the Boxers which he was doing, he had in fact cut the heads of 70 off and sent them in baskets back to the capital. Then he was suddenly ordered not to fire upon them. When Seymours trains came, Seymour and Nie exchanged friendly greetings and the multinational force went on its merry way without incident. 

The trains continued and it was not long until Seymour encountered the first signs of Boxer sabotage. Rails near Lofa station, around halfway to Beijing had been torn up and a bridge was damaged. The Boxers were lighting up huge fires beneath the rails to warp them and destroy the wooden sleepers. Seymour halted the trains and ordered hundreds of Chinese laborers he had brought with them just for this type of situation to go to work repairing the railways. Seymour’s men would soon find the bodies of 4 dead Chinese railway officials in a passenger shed, they had been horribly mutilated. Their hands and feet were hacked off, one of them had their heart torn out. The workers got their work down and soon the trains were enroute to Langfang and it was here the Boxers made their first attack.

According to Captain Lt Paul Schlieper with the Germans of what “The Boxers came with wild gestures swinging their spears, lances, or swords about their heads. . . . We often saw Boxers spring up into the air, execute a sort of war dance, and then drop to the ground . . . but when we got nearer and could see them plainly, they proved only to have been shamming to make us believe they had been killed and so avert our fire.” British diplomat Clive Bigham had this to say “They came on us in a ragged line, advancing at the double.... Not more than a couple of hundred, armed with swords, spears, gingalls [a giant smooth bored two-man blunderbuss usually fired from a wooden tripod], and rifles, many of them being quite boys. To any one who had been some little time in China it was an almost incredible sight, for there was no sign of fear or hesitation, and these were not fanatical ‘braves,’ or the trained soldiers of the Empress, but the quiet peace-loving peasantry—the countryside in arms against the foreigner.”

It was agonizingly slow work for the laborers and every time the trains stopped to let them work, Boxers began to attack. The Boxers destroyed the water tanks at stations, laborers were forced to water the engines by bucket, a extremely tedious process. The men likewise needed water and were delighted to find a well near Langfang, prompting Seymour to halt the trains to allow men to drink. On June 12th a message arrived from the American legation in Beijing telling them their advance was causing the capital to erupt in further violence. It also warned them that Qing troops were massing south of the city. This was bad news, but what was worse was Seymour figuring out the trains would not be able to go past Langfang very far as his reconnaissance was reporting to him the railway was terribly damaged going forward.

They made camp at Langfang for 5 days trying to repair the railway line and were attacked multiple times by Boxers. British Lt Fownes-Luttrell had this to say of fighting the Boxers “They often stopped a few yards off and went through their gesticulations for rendering themselves immune from bullet wounds. Many were shot while kowtowing towards the trains and remained dead in that position. Bowling them over like so many rabbits. . . it has to be done, they are doing such a lot of fearful damage to the country.” Commander Mori with the IJN began inspecting the dead bodies of Boxers and recalled this “They were young and old . . . their costumes were various, and they had red bands tied round their heads and hanging down behind, as well as red aprons.... Their shoes also were tied with red.” June the 14th saw the telegram line to Tientsin cut. The supply train at the rear of the convoy had failed to get past the Yangtsun station because Boxers attacked a bridge between them. General Nie Shicheng’s force at Yangtsun did not seem to be doing anything about the situation, simply staying away. On the same day, hundreds of Boxers began to show up, 5 Italian solders were playing cards when they were surprise attacked by Boxers who hacked them to pieces. 

Seymour still hoped to make a breakthrough to Beijing and sent a courier to MacDonald stating he hoped to enter the city within days. However by June 16th, Seymour was sending Schlieper with some German troops back down the track to restore communications with Tientsin. The party got just past Lofa when they ran into extremely damaged tracks. Schlieper sent word back to Seymour that he required laborers and reinforcements. Seymour came over to see things for himself and realized the grave situation. “We were now isolated, with no transport or means to advance, and cut off from our base behind.” Seymour was forced to make the decision to repair the line going back to Tientsin, lest they found themselves surrounded. This decision has been criticized heavily ever since. Sir Robert Hart would go on the record to state “had [his force] left the train and marched straight across the country to the Capital it could have been with us on the 13th or 14th and so changed history.” From Langfang to Beijing it was some 30 miles or so, but Clive Bigham who was physically present with Seymour he had a different view of the situation “There was no road, we were absolutely without transport, and directly in front of us lay . . . the camps of the Peking Field Force . . . and in front of the south gate of the Chinese city lay, we knew, most of General Dong Fuxiang’s Kansu soldiery.

Seymour prepared the men to withdraw. The commander of the German forces, Captain von Usedom was ordered to hold Langfang and protect their rear while the laborers worked tirelessly to repair tracks going back. The trains managed to get to Yangtsun, but there a bridge had been so heavily damaged it became impassable. The Yangtsun station and its water tanks were destroyed, the situation was dire. Seymour summoned the commanders of each nation for a war council. They all agreed the trains had to be abandoned, they would simply have to trek the rest.

Over at Langfang von Usedom was suddenly attacked by a 5000 strong force of Kansu and Boxers. Dong Fuxiang alongside his comrades, Ma Fulu, Ma Fuxiang and Ma Haiyan had secretly departed the Beijing area to attack the western invading army. General Ma Fuxiang and Ma Fulu personally planned and led the attack, employing a pincer maneuver. On June 18th, the Kansu forces who had been stationed at Hunting Park in southern Beijing had marched and attacked multiple points towards Langfang. The 3000 Kansu men were armed with modern rifles and had a ton of cavalry units personally led by Ma Fulu who would go on to cut down western forces with his sword. 

The Boxers and Kansu were working together to ambush the western army. The employed human wave attacks. The Boxers showed no fear of death as they charged at the western forces engaging in melee combat with swords and spears. Many also tossed firecrackers to give off the effect of guns. The psychological effect was tremendous on the western soldiers. The western army would suffer the vast majority of their casualties not from the Boxers however, it was the Kansu troops. The mounted Kansu with rifles in hand were tenacious, battle hardened from wars in the northwest. Von Usedom’s right flank were on the brink of collapse, until French and British troops further down the track stormed up to help them. The western army was forced to make a fighting withdrawal while under attack the entire way. The trains at Langfang were ridden with bullet holes like swiss cheese. The Germans under Von Usedom fought like lions against wave after wave killing an estimated 400 and wounded 57. Of these the Kansu lost 200, the Boxers 200. Despite their losses to gunfire the Boxers never ceased charging the enemy, unnerving the westerners greatly at such a sight. The British were armed with .303 Lee-Metford rifles, the American M1895 Lee Navy’s. At point blank range these men reported it could take 4 bullets to stop a Boxer, single rifle shots was not enough.

There are primary accounts from the battle which I would like to read, the first is from Clive Bigham

Early on Sunday morning, 17th June [1900], a week after we had started, the Taku Forts were taken by U the Allied Forces in order to relieve Tientsin. That city was invested by the Boxers who began to bombard it next day. Of this of course we were quite ignorant. But the Court in Peking must have received instant news of the fact, for on the afternoon of the 18th Captain von Usedom, the German officer in command of the troops left at Langfang, was attacked by the Imperial forces belonging to General Tung-fuh-siang's division. Their numbers were estimated at 7,000 and they were well armed _^ with modern rifles which they used with effect, so that we suffered considerable casualties.

The next comes to us from Seymour 

On 17th messages were sent back to Lofa and Langfang to recall Nos. 2, 3, and 4 trains, it being evident that the advance by rail was impossible, and the isolation and separate destruction of the trains a possibility. No. 3 returned on the afternoon of 18th June,, and in the evening Nos. 2 and 4 from Langfang. Captain Von Usedom (His Imperial German Majesty's Navy), the senior officer present with Nos 2 and 4 trains, reported that they had had a severe engagement with the enemy, who unexpectedly attacked them at Langfang about 2.30 on that day (18th) in great force estimated 'to be-fully 5,000 men (including cavalry), large numbers of whom were armed with -magazine rifles of the latest pattern. The banners captured show them to have belonged to-tho army of General Tung Fu Hsiang, who commands the Chinese troops-in the Hunting Park- outside Peking, and it was thus definitely known for the first time that Imperial Chinese troops were being employed against us. The attack was made in front and on both flanks, the enemy pouring in a heavy fire on the allied forces coming out to engage them ; they were driven off with much loss, but when they saw our forces retiring towards the trains they rallied and made another attack ; a halt was then made and the men were once more beaten off with greater loss than before, and then finally retreated. In this action the Chinese lost over 400 killed, the allied forces 6 killed and 48 wounded.

Seymour concluded from the battle that the Qing government was officially in league with Boxers. They abandoned their trains, but were able to find 4 Chinese war junks along the river that they quickly commandeered for transporting the wounded and essential equipment. On June 19th they marched to Tientsin following the left bank of the Peiho. A lot of non essentials had to be abandoned and thus tossed into the river. As Seymour recalled ““All our trophies of war . . . the large standards, the curious weapons, all the plunder with which our carriages had been hung, all had to be sacrificed.”” The sailors aboard the war junks could see Boxers pouring in from all sides descending upon abandoned train carts which they set on fire. The western army had ablaze to their backs as they marched.

To reach Tientsin was some 30 miles and the men were exhausted from combat and marching with little water, some even reportedly took their chances drinking from the Peiho. Going to go ahead and say dysentery came quickly to those boys. The Boxers held most of the small villages along the riverbank, prompting the western army to deploy guns at each. As Schlieper recalled “When one village was cleared a still hotter fire was sure to be opened on us from the next. It was a tough bit of work.” Many of the men had unsuitable clothing as well. The Germans were wearing thick blue clothing, designed for operations in the North Sea for winter time. Seymour had 62 deaths and 228 wounded, as they marched closer to Tientsin, they could hear gunfire.

On June 20th, they had marched only 8 miles and had to fight the entire way. Two British soldiers were buried that night, having died from wounds. The men made it to the larger village of Peitsang where they fought a brutal battle. Schlieper took a rifle hit to his left shin, Captain Jellicoe likewise shot in the chest and coughing a lot of blood. Medics tended to him with morphine, but it looked grim so they told him to write out his will. Seymour approached Captain Von Usedom and asked him to act as his chief of staff and if he were to be killed to take over command. You have to take a step back and think about how unprecedented this entire situation was. 8 nations together with different policies, cultures, etc. It’s not every day you see a British officer asking such a thing of a German. Seymour had around 200 wounded now and acquired a new war junk on the river for more of them. Seymour knew, anyone left behind would be massacred. The men were down to fewer than 10 rounds a man and all food was gone.

On June 22nd the men made camp along the Peiho river bank and at dawn saw hope at last. On the other side of the Peiho river they saw a fortified position with a parapet. This was the Hsi-ku Arsenal, a place where Qing forces kept stored munitions. It held rifles, millions of rounds, rice, medical supplies and other war materials. Now that is lucky. The Arsenal was defended by a tiny force which got up and left upon seeing the western army. Seymour’s men took refuge at the arsenal, but nearby General Nie Shicheng were given word of the situation. Nie Shicheng ordered forces to retake the arsenal, but the western army repulsed them. At 3am on June 23rd Qing forces attacked again, but this time they had Boxers helping them. Qing soldiers and Boxers managed to scale some of the walls during the night causing casualties upon the western army. Seymour realized departing the fortified positions was suicide. Seymour deployed his forces as best as he could and told the men to dig in. They could hear gunfire again coming from the direction of Tientsin. Seymour sent a Chinese servant named Chao Yinho with a message to make a run for Tientsin. Chao set out on the 24th with a cipher message, ordered to eat it if caught. Chao was forced to swim many parts of the way through the Peiho, going 8 miles. He was caught by Boxers and Qing soldiers and interrogated. He swallowed the message and convinced his captors he was innocent and they let him go. He made it to Tientsin where he told them the plight of Seymour and his men. A rescue party was formed, but the men of Tientsin were under threat themselves and could only spare so many. 1800 men consisting of 900 Russians, 500 British and others from the other nations departed on June 25th led by Russian Colonel Sherinsky.

The rescue party came under Qing sniper fire along the way, forcing them into a single file formation. They reached the arsenal at 10:30am carrying food and cigarettes. Commander Mori of the Japanese shaked the hands of their rescuers. Sherinsky and Seymour got the men together and on way the next day, spiking the artillery pieces and destroying countless munitions they could not carry. The arsenal was ablaze on the 26th as they made their way to Tientsin.

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.

Seymour grand 8 nation alliance force set out to rescue the trapped foreign community in the legations at Beijing. However the Qing and Boxers had joined forces and turned the tables of Seymour, for it was he who would end up needing rescue in the end.