Sep 19, 2023
Last time we spoke about the battle for Tientsin. Tientsin had be relieved momentarily of its siege, but the Boxers and Qing forces quickly went back to work assaulting the foreign held part of the city. Forces from the great powers began arriving at Taku, heading for Tientsin to finally lift its siege once and for all. The battle against the Chinese held part of the city was to be the bloodiest battle of the Boxer Rebellion and it was the Japanese who ushered in victory. The southern and eastern gates of Tientsin were breached as the foreign troops sent the Qing and Boxer forces fleeing. Now with Tientsin firmly in their hands and with even more troops arriving by the day, the new 8 Nation alliance was preparing for a march upon Beijing. Would this new international force be able to get to Beijing quickly enough to save the besieged foreign community there?
#66 The Boxer Rebellion part 6: The Fall of Beijing
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 www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. 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.
German Field Marshal Alfred von Waldersee was chosen to be the supreme allied commander, but he was in Germany with his soldiers set to depart on August 18th. Meanwhile Lt General Sir Alfred Gaselee was at Tientsin and he managed to get the Americans to back him temporarily to be the leader of the new 8 Nation alliance. I would like to note, General Yamaguchi Motomi was the highest ranking officer present at Tientsin during this time, but non-white racism disallowed the other commanders to allow him to take command. It was estimated by most of the great powers that some 50-70 thousand troops would be necessary to march upon Beijing, Gaselee had 22,000. 10,000 Japanese, 4000 Russian, 3000 British, 2000 Americans, 800 French, 200 Germans, 100 Austrians and 100 Italians. Telegraph lines were cut, the railway was damaged and many of the Great powers advised waiting for more troops before marching. But the British and Americans threatened to go it alone if they did not march at once.
Back in Beijing the truce had gradually died down and now the foreigners lived in a confused paradox. At one moment the Zongli Yamen would send them gifts of food and assure them protection, the next they were plotting their death. The hostilities had resumed while the Zongli Yamen began publicly stating any soldier caught firing on the legations would be beheaded. It was unbelievably contradictory. Rumor also had it Li Hongzhang had been appointed the negotiator for peace talks and would soon send telegrams to the foreign governments. On August 12th, Prince Qing sent a message indicating the Zongli Yamen intended to have a meeting with the ministers the very next day. The foreign community hoped this meant a relief force was close to Beijing and that the Qing were panicking. They had all received information two days prior from General Gaselee stating “Strong force of Allies advancing. Twice defeated enemy. Keep up your spirits.” They also received a message from General Fukushima stating “Probable date of arrival at Peking August 13 or 14.” The legation defenders morale had thus boosted considerably, but they were still under a violent siege taking the lives of people every day. Bullets and shrapnel peppered them each day and the Qing forces seemed even more aggressive, planting their banners just 20 yards from the defenders outposts. In fact some of the banners bore the name of a General they had not heard of until that point, it was our old friend Yuxian. Yuxian had been appointed governor of Shanxi province and reigned a campaign of terror against Christians and foreigners there. On July 9th, it was rumored Yuxian had executed 44 foreigners including women and children from some missionary families whom he had personally invited to the provincial capital, Taiyuan under the guise he was going to protect them. It is disputed by historians who were the actual culprits who killed the foreigners, but the incident became known as the Taiyuan massacre. What is known, by the later half of 1900, Shanxi saw as many as 2000 Christians murdered. It seemed Empress Dowager Cixi brought Yuxian over to Beijing as a last-ditch effort to overrun the foreigners.
The tenacity of the besiegers had increased exponentially, as told to us by Lenox Simpson “all thoughts of relief have been pushed into the middle distance—and even beyond—by the urgent business we have now on hand. . . . What stupendous quantities of ammunition have been loosed-off on us . . . what tons of lead and nickel! Some of our barricades have been so eaten away by this fire, that there is but little left, and we are forced to lie prone on the ground hour after hour.... The Chinese guns are also booming again, and shrapnel and segment are tearing down trees and outhouses, bursting through walls, splintering roofs, and wrecking our strongest defenses more and more.”
The commanders of the Gaselee force figured they would be facing roughly 70,000 Qing soldiers and anything between 50-100 thousand boxers between them and Beijing. They had roughly 70 artillery pieces, and lacked any real cavalry, aside from a few Cossacks. There was some Japanese cavalry, but their horses turned out to not be able to face the heat, 60 out of 400 of them would not make it to Beijing. So they were going to be mostly an infantry force. The commander chose to take the exact same route to Beijing that the British and French took during the second opium war, rather fitting if you ask me. They departed on August the 4th and the first battle they would face was at Beicang.
Their intelligence reported General Dong Fuxiang had deployed roughly 20,000 troops at Beicang, though in reality it was around 11,000. The British, Americans and Japanese advanced along the west side of the river, while the French and Russians marched on its east. As the army approached Beicang on August the 4th they camped outside near the Xigu fort arsenal, the very same arsenal Seymour and his expedition had come across. The commanders planned to have the British, Americans and Japanese turn the right flank of the Qing while the Russians and French turned their left flank on the opposite side of the Hai river. At 3am the Japanese launched their attack under the cover of allied artillery and they quickly seized a Qing battery on the extreme right of their defense lines. They then pushed forward on the flank as an artillery duel between the Qing and allies raged for half and hour. During the duel, a Japanese regiment performed a direct assault on a Qing position along the river. The Japanese requested some cavalry aid from the British, but it failed to reach them on time, leading the Japanese to take heavy casualties. None the less the Japanese stormed some Qing entrenchments forcing the defenders to retreat. On the east bank of the Hai river, the French and Russians were unable to hook around the Qing left flank due to flooded terrain, but the Japanese victory in the west broke the Qing’s will to fight as a general retreat was sounded. The allies lost 60 men dead, all Japanese with 240 wounded. Around 50 Qing were killed in the battle that lasted until 9am, it was a relatively easy victory, though the Japanese paid heavily for it. American medics notably treated the Japanese wounded.
The Qing forces retreated 12 miles back to Yangcun where they took up positions between the east bank of the Hai river and its railroad embankment. Yangcun was heavily fortified and the Qing forces led by Generals Ma Yukun and Song Qing hoped to halt the allied advance there. The British and Americans took the vanguard this time advancing on Yangcun by August 6th. The Japanese advanced along the west side of the Hai river, but would not find themselves taking part in the battle. The Qing numbered nearly 11,000 again, though its unknown how many actually took part in the battle. The allies faced something nearly as bad as bullets that day, tremendous heat. Indeed during the Gaselee expedition the weather often reached 42 degrees, or 108 freedom units for your americans. 20% of the men who marched on Yangcun fell out of rank, and a ton of sunstroke related deaths occurred.
The allied forces advanced within 5000 yards of the Qing positions. The Russians were on the easternmost, followed by the British, then the Americans. The assault began at 11am, and soon it became an endurance competition between both sides. Men clutched their water canteens as they marched. The Americans bore the brunt of the Qing resistance as they hit the strongest held position behind the railroad embankment. Men were seen collapsing from sunstroke as Qing artillery and rifle fire poured upon them. The Americans were advancing in open terrain and had to run to avoid being hit. As the Americans charged over the railroad embankment they would find most of the positions abandoned. The battle ultimately became one enormous rearguard action. As the Americans advances so rapidly, the British and Russian artillery began to mistake them for retreating Qing forces and shells began to be lobbed over the US 14th infantry. 4 Americans were killed with 11 wounded as the Americans frantically signaled back to stop the shelling.Placing a handkerchief on the point of a sword an American commander galloped up the embankment waving it at the artillery fire. To make matters worse, upon seeing the shelling, the French joined in also firing upon them.
By the late afternoon the battle for Yangcun was over, the Qing took very few casualties as they had abandoned their positions fairly early on. The Americans had 9 dead, 64 wounded, 15 of which would die later on. The British had 6 dead, 38 wounded and the Russians 7 dead, 20 wounded. Within Yangcun the allies found the trains Seymours expeditionary forces had abandoned, as told to us by Frederick Brown “Still standing on the embankment were the boilers and wheels of the engines used in that fruitless attempt to reach Peking. How the Boxers must have gloated in their hate when they rushed upon these inventions of the ‘foreign devils’! They had burned the woodwork . . . looted the brasses, nuts, and bolts, and had even torn up and buried the rails and sleepers. But the wheels and boilers remained there in defiance”.
The route to Beijing was a nearly treeless plain, the landscape was littered with fields of 14 foot high corn. It was actually terrifying because one could not see over the corn fields for possible enemies lurking about. On one occasion Lt Roger Keyes of the HMS Fame was horrified to see “the banners of a large body of Tartar cavalry and the pennons of our Bengal Lancers showing above the standing maize, and within a mile of one another, apparently unaware of each other’s proximity, but closing fairly rapidly.” Keyes galloped over to warn the Bengals, but it was like finding a needle in a haystack. The Japanese actually began carrying bamboo ladders so they could peak over the corn, must have been silly as hell to watch this march. The heat was a constant enemy, as the commanding officer of the US 14th infantry, Colonel Dagget recalled “a fierceness in that China sun’s rays which none had experienced in the tropics or our Southern States during the Civil War.... Its prostrating effect was unaccountable, and caused our men to fall by hundreds. The dust of ages . . . rose at every footstep. The corn obstructed the breeze, and did not allow it either to blow away the dust or fan the burning faces of the fainting soldiers.” The men would abandon countless blankets, greatcoats, haversacks and such along the roads. Even the British Indian troops were suffering from the heat. Lt Steel remarked “The heat was awful, the whole road being littered with men fallen out, Americans, Japs, and ours. The country is so dense with crops we couldn’t see anywhere, and the flies and bad water made life pretty sickening. Everywhere one came across dead bodies of Chinese and mules and horses in various degrees of foul composition. I nearly catted [vomited] dozens of times.”
Despite the conditions, the 8 nation alliance marched 25 miles and won two easy victories. After a council of war on August 7th, the commanders had all agreed to continue the march and not wait for reinforcements. The Italians, Austrian and Germans had returned to Tientsin to reequip themselves as they had greatly miscalculated the gear needed for the expedition. Many French likewise would have to turn back. The field was thus set for the Russians, British, Japanese and Americans to push on. The Qing who saw them march would simply flee, seeing countless villages abandoned along the way. In some villages, a few Chinese civilians would be found, and as noted by Dagget “the villages were all deserted, except occasionally a Chinese man or woman would be found crouching in some hidden corner, expecting to be killed every moment. And, to the disgrace of humanity . . . some of these innocent, unresisting people were shot down like beasts but not by Americans.” British journalist Henry Savage-Landor traveling with the expedition would write “the majority of the “American boys” were “as a rule extremely humane, even at times extravagantly gracious, towards the enemy.” Henry would also claim his countrymen showed more humanity than the other nationalities. Many prisoners were taken, some Qing troops, some Boxers. The Chinese regiment was in charge of prisoners, but the other troops sometimes grabbed prisoners and abused them. Henry wrote of how a Boxer prisoner was dragged away by some French and Japanese troops and shot in the face “The poor devil, who showed amazing tenacity of life, afterwards had all his clothes torn off him, the soldiers being bent on finding the peculiar Boxer charm which all Boxers were supposed to possess. The man lived for another hour with hundreds of soldiers leaning over him to get a glimpse of his agony, and going into roars of laughter as he made ghastly contortions in his delirium.”
On August 8th a message came from MacDonald to Generals Gaselee and Chafee. The message was accompanied by a map of Beijing, advising them to enter Beijing through the south gate of the Chinese city, then to advance up the main street, before turning towards the Tartar wall. MacDonald promised they would mark portions of the Tartar wall with American, British and Russian flags to help them. Unfortunately the notes were written in cipher, but the Gaselee force had left the key back in Tientsin. Captain Griffin of the 1st Bengal lancers was given the task of running back to Tientsin to get it deciphered.
The army found themselves halfway to Beijing at the town of Hoshiwu. There they found written plans that the Qing forces sought to flood the countryside and drown them out. Lt COlonel Vaughan of the 7th Rajputs recalled “We found the cutting nearly completed, and the workmen’s tools and baskets lying in it, so precipitately had they fled. However, although the thing didn’t come off, the Chinese general informed his government that he had cut the banks of the Peiho, and inundated the country, drowning 25,000 of the foreigners, at which, he naively concluded, ‘they are much disheartened.’ We read this account of our being drowned some months later in a Chinese paper, and were much amused,”. On August 12th, the allies came across the sealed gates of Tungchow. The Qing garrison fled upon their arrival too which Frederick Brown would write .“As we followed the retreating army, we came across pots, pans, umbrellas, and fans, the necessary paraphernalia of a Chinese army, scattered about in all directions. . . . It seemed, therefore, that there would be no serious stand till Peking should be reached,” The south gate of Tungchow was blown up, allies pouring in and began looting. Gaselee tried to control the men and reassure the local population who were terrified and hiding in their homes. Meanwhile Li Bingheng who had promised to repel the foreigners at the first sign of a battle on August 11th he wrote to Empress Dowager Cixi .“As we followed the retreating army, we came across pots, pans, umbrellas, and fans, the necessary paraphernalia of a Chinese army, scattered about in all directions. . . . It seemed, therefore, that there would be no serious stand till Peking should be reached,” After the fall of Tungchow, Li Bingheng killed himself.
On the 12th the commanders held another war council. General Linevitch of the Russians argued they would be too exhausted to perform an assault upon Beijing immediately upon arrival. The other commanders agreed to a three phase operation. Each nations army would send a cavalry reconnaissance on the 13th, followed by the main bodies expected to arrive on the 14th and the general attack would commence on the 15th. The French commander General Frey had just returned to the force with an additional 400 French troops from Tientsin making them 5 national armies. The general attack called for a simultaneous advance with each national contingent aiming for a particularly gate in the eastern wall of Beijing. The Russians took the furthest north position on the right flank; then the Japanese, then the French, then the Americans and last the British on the southern most left flank. Their intelligence reported the Qing were concentrated on the south and southeast portions of the city, thus Gaselee chose to have the British take the most exposed position. The Russians were assigned the Dongzhi gate, Japanese Chaoyang gate, Americans Dongbien gate and the British the Guangqui gate, while the French were simply left out of the planning all together ahaahah.
On the evening of the 13th, rumors suddenly emerged that the Russians were breaking the plan and making a wild dash for Beijing. As told to us by Keyes “A message has just come from the Russians that some Cossacks have pushed on to within a mile and a half of Peking, and the gates are open. I wonder if it is true; if so we are properly left behind.” What actually occurred is unclear, but Russian scouts were well ahead of everyone else on the night of the 13th and sent word that Dongbien, the gate the Americans were to attack, was lightly defended. General Lineivitch sent a vanguard under General Vassilievski with some artillery to secure the approach to Dongbien. Apparently it was Vassilievski who saw an opportunity so instead of waiting he charged with his men over the moat bridge taking the 30 or so Qing defenders by surprise in their outer guardhouse. The Qing tried to raise an alarm but it was too late as the Russian artillery blasted a hole right through the Dongbien and before dawn of the 14th were the first to enter the city. The Russians would soon find themselves in a crossfire however between the courtyard and inner/outer door killing 26 Russians and wounding 102. The survivors would be pinned down for many hours.
MacDonald got his men together to raise the Stars and Strips, Union Jack and Imperial eagle of Russia atop the Tartar Walls to signal the advancing allies. Upon seeing this the Qing siege forces went into a frenzy last ditch assault upon the legations. It was to be known as “the three terrible nights”, as Captain Poole wrote “Legation full of danger, up all night, fiercest attack I can remember, let them do their worst.”. The Qing artillery began smashing the Fu palace as Qing riflemen fired upon anyone they could see. In the midst of the chaos a messenger from the Zongli Yamen showed up bearing a note stating “dating from today, neither Chinese nor foreigner would ever again hear the sound of a rifle.” Meanwhile Colonel Shiba was ordering men to bang pots and pans while the Italians shouted and whistled trying to convince the Qing soldiers they were a larger force than they were. MacDonald called up reserves three times trying to rush forces to critical points.
Qing rifleman armed with Mannlicher carbines were storming through the Mongol Market with a large modern piece of artillery that was deployed upon a high point on the Imperial cities wall. It was a two inch quick firing Krupp gun which did more damage in 10 minutes than the Qing had done in 5 weeks. The foreigners unleashed their colt machine gun and Maxim gun upon it, but were met back with Mannlichers, Mausers, Jingals and older muskets. Bricks and stones exploded, hand to hand combat erupted. Then suddenly through the chaos, the sound of heavy artillery could be heard coming from the east. A sudden lull began on both sides, until the foreigners in the legations realized it was the relief force outside the city, they were engaging the Qing troops! The news spread from building to building, MacDonald watched as the legation guards all suddenly became alive again, everyone was joyous. They all wondered whose national army would come first.
As news spread that the Russians had already stormed the Dongbien gate the race began. The Japanese march turned into a rapid sprint, followed by the Americans. General Gaselee refused to believe the Russians had abandoned the plan but when he himself heard the sounds of artillery hitting Beijings walls, he was livid. At 3:30am on August 14th the British main body was 6 miles outside Beijing. They marched upon Guangqui and General Gaselee had two artillery piece brought up. According to Lt Steel “The battery fired some dozen shots, and the Chinese scuttled, and we burst the door open and were inside.” Keyes took a Union Jack and scaled the wall just right of the gate placing it atop the wall. Keyes had hoped to hop down and open the gate for his comrades, but they busted it open before he could do so. Gaselee dispatched two detachments through the breach to seize the Temples of Heaven and Agriculture as the rest of the main body proceeded westwards to the Tartar Wall. Lt Colonel Vaughan described the scene “Not a Chinaman was to be seen, but the banging of doors was heard, and many of the rings hanging from the door knobs were shaking as we passed, showing that the doors had only just been shut. At last we entered a long and broad street, and while going up it saw hundreds of Chinamen running down the side streets away from us.” The British forces estimated they were lined up with the “Sluice” gate also called the watergate which led to the legations quarter. They turned north as Qing troops fired down upon them from houses, but as noted by Keyes “we saw no troops and there was no real opposition.” As they approached the Tartar wall they came under fire from the outer gate of Hatamen. The Qing were using smokeless powder, making it very difficult to see where shots were coming from. As the British got closer to the legations they saw the American, Russian and British flags atop the Tartar Wall indicating where the Sluice gate was.
Lt Steel described the scene as the men went towards the Sluice gate “we all dashed across the canal, bullets fizzing and spitting all round, a small shell exploding in front of my nose, no harm done.” It’s unclear who exactly was the first man to enter the British legation, but according Mrs Ker, a British diplomats wife “it was a Sikh, an unforgettable sight, naked to the waist, sweating like a pig, hair tumbling on his shoulders. He kept waving his rifle and shouting ‘Oorah!’ . . . and in a bunch, with officers and men, that old darling, General Gaselee, about twenty-five yards behind.” The besieged foreigners were in a daze, shortly before 2pm MacDonald received news that foreign troops were beneath the Tartar Wall opposite of the Sluice gate. MacDonald rushed over just in time to greet General Gaselee. MacDonald led the force to the British Legation.
Two hours after the British arrived, General Chaffee and the 14th US infantry arrived who were also quickly brought over to the British legation. The Americans led by the 14th infantry had reached the walls of Beijing only to find the Russians stuck in the Bongdien gate. The Russians had assumed they would strong right into the city, but instead they were being torn to pieces from the wall top riflemen. General Vasilievski was hit in the chest by a Mannlicher as he tried to rally his men on the lower parts of the wall. The main body of Russians only reached his vanguard force at 10am. The Americans proceeded to scale the wall south of Dongbien, taking some of the pressure off the Russians.
A 20 year old bugler, Calvin Titus volunteered to scale the wall first. Unarmed he climbed the wall, earning himself the Congressional Medal of Honor and an appointment at West Point for the action. When he got to the top he signaled the rest to start climbing and by 11am the regimental flag was flying over the walls of Beijing. By 12 US forces were charging Qing soldiers atop the walls around Dongbien. The Americans advanced through the southeast of the Tartar city too which they were embroiled in street fighting. It took hours for them to work their way to the Tartar Wall. When they got through the Sluice gate, they then realized the British had won the race after all. The Japanese encountered stiff resistance at their assigned gate, the Chaoyang. The Qing hit the incoming Japanese with artillery, greatly stalling them.
Despite the relief forces getting into the legations, the siege was still raging on. As Lt Steel remarked “everyone was talking and cheering and waving their hats whilst the bullets were flying thick overhead and banging on the roofs all high, no one caring a hang! The Chinese simply went mad when they realized we were in and let off every bally gun they had at random.” Colonel Shiba launched a final attack on the Qing barricades at the Fu, driving off the soldiers. The relief forces went to work clearing snipers out of the Mongol Market who were shocked upon seeing the soldiers, they had no idea Beijing had been breached. As Captain Poole blasted a hole through the Imperial Carriage Park wall and stormed through it with 60 marines he discovered two mines with the powder and fuse lying about. He would later remark “If the troops had come one day or one night later, God only knows what the result would have been!”
Upon seeing the British troops enter the Sluice gate, the Qing began lowering banners atop the Tartar wall and withdrew. American and Russian forces surged forward as hundreds of Qing soldiers fled. The British, Russians, Japanese, Americans and French forces went to work securing gates of the city and were actively fighting their way to the imperial court. Lenxo Simpson was at the Hotel de Pekin where he found Russian soldiers getting drunk and openly discussing plans, he had this to say “the Russians had attempted to steal a march . . . on the night of the 13th, in order to force the Eastern gates, and reach the Imperial City and the Empress Dowager before anyone else. That had upset the whole plan of attack, and there had then simply been a mad rush, everyone going as hard as possible, and trusting to Providence to pull them through.” The Russians had managed to enter the legations an hour before the Americans, while the Japanese had the most frustrated time getting in. George Lynch accompanying the Japanese described their attempts to blow the Chaoyang gate “The Japanese engineers went forward one by one until twenty minutes passed and expanded into half an hour. With cheerful and unwavering gallantry these men went forward to blow up that gate, across the open space over the bridge, from which they could be fired on by hundreds of Chinese. The attempt was absolutely hopeless. It was not that there was any wavering amongst them after ten had been shot. . . . But it was a task that the bravest man could not accomplish. Working like marionettes, they fired their guns again and again, but they were of very light caliber—little war dogs, spat their rather impotent projectile against that great mass of centuries-old masonry, they might as well have been firing peashooters”. It took the Japanese until 9pm to blast their way through the wooden doors. They then stormed the city skewering Qing soldiers upon their bayonets until they reached the legation. The French were the last, they only arrived to Beijing a day late because their route went through a marsh.
The battle to seize Beijing claimed 66 foreign lives and 150 wounded, simply astonishing when you think about it. The losses to the Qing are unknown, but expected to be quite high. While Beijing was being seized, the work of the 8 nation alliance was not done just yet.
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And so at last the 8 nation alliance had made it to the great walled city of Beijing. The British, Russian, Japanese, American and French stormed Beijing's outer walls to rescue the foreign legations, but what of Empress Dowager Cixi?