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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Aug 29, 2023

Last time we spoke about the Qing - Boxer siege of Beijing and the 8 nation alliance expedition led by Seymour. Baron Von Ketteler was murdered by Kansu soldiers, ushering in a real siege of the foreign legation’s in Beijing. The situation was dire, communications were cut and soon the railways also. The foreign ministers called for aid and thus came an expedition of 8 nations led by Seymour to the rescue. Seymours expedition started out quite well, but soon the Boxers disrupted the tracks stopping them in…well their tracks. To the dismay of the westerners it turned out the Qing were joining the Boxers in battle against them and Seymour’s force had to make a fighting withdrawal back to Tientsin. They fought all the way to a secret arsenal where they dug in, until another relief force rescued them! Now they all marched back to Tientsin as gunfire could be heard.


#63 The Boxer Rebellion part 3: The Siege of Tientsin & Battle of the Taku Forts


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.

When Seymour set out on his expedition a lot of events had unfolded. I mentioned it a few times, but gunfire could be heard by his expeditionary forces coming from Tientsin. When thousands of Boxers began storming the region looking to kill christians and foreigners, many flocked to Tientsin. Tientsin consisted of two adjacent but quite different subdivisions. To the northwest was an ancient high walled chinese city around 1 mile per side. 2 miles southeast along the Hai River were the foreign settlements around half a mile wide. The chinese city held around a million Chinese, the foreign settlements around 700 foreign civilians with their thousands of Chinese servants. The Boxers came at first to the railway station carrying placards and chain letters stating “Those who see this sheet and distribute six copies will deliver a whole family from calamity. If ten sheets are circulated they will save an entire district. If any see this hand-bill and fail to disseminate it they will certainly be beheaded.” Within mere hours of Seymour’s expedition departing, reinforcements were landed at Taku to head over to the foreign settlements at Tientsin to defend them. On June 11th, Commander Beatty of the Royal Navy had 150 sailors, marines and 2 Maxim machine guns with him. He would be joined a few days later by 1600 Russians who rushed to the scene from Port Arthur, before their railway lines were cut by Boxers. Alongside the other nations forces, Tientsin had roughly 2400 troops to defend the foreign settlements, facing a force of 30,000 Boxers and 15,000 Qing soldiers camped nearby. 

On June 15th the Boxers began burned down all the missions outside the Chinese city like the Notre Dame Des Victories. They stormed the streets attacking Chinese christians, massacring as they went. They destroyed all christian and foreign goods or property they could find. The foreigners in the settlement watched this unfold in horror from a distance, then at 2am on the 16th they were attacked. Beatty recalled seeing Boxers “came in great strength, setting fire to all the Houses and outlying Villages they could. . . . They came on quite heedless of the Volleys we opened on them, never replying because the poor beggars had no arms to reply with, and coming up to within 300 and 400 yards armed with swords, spears, and torches. So there we squatted, knocking them over as they came along.” Chaos ensued in Tientsin, as the Admirals on their warships off the Taku Fort bar became more and more anxious. 

The western navies had received no word since June 10th, Tientsin was clearly under attack and Seymours expedition force was gone. Seymours last message to them came on the 14th and all evidence suggested the Boxers and Qing would block the way between them and Tientsin. The Qing naval forces were seen priming torpedo tubes on their warships and laying mines in the rivers mouth. The entire situation looked like a trap. If the Peiho river was closed, the naval squadrons would be unable to rush up it to rescue the civilians of Tientsin and Beijing. On the 16th the Admirals met aboard the Russian flagship. They all formed a multinational ultimatum that was issued to the Qing, the Taku forts had to be surrendered by 2am the next day or they would attack. A russian officer was sent to deliver the message to the Taku Fort commander who responded “I would be glad to surrender the Forts, but I am here to obey orders”. The French consul general in Tientsin then took it upon himself to telephone the local viceroy and advised him to surrender the Taku Forts or face the consequences. The Admirals knew their actions were tantamount to declaring war on China and that taking the Taku Forts would not be easy.

The Taku Forts were 4 forts with pairs of 2 on each side of the river mouth. They had been recently rebuilt and reinforced by German engineers. The walls were made of mud mixed with chopped straw, which might sound silly, but this made them impervious to shell fire. Their garrison was around 3000 men, equipped with quick firing Krupp guns and other heavy pieces. Approaching from the sea was the most hazardous and would see men fighting through oozing mud flats surrounded by sharpened stakes. The Qing Navy held 4 new German built destroyers equipped with rapid fire guns patrolling near the forts. To attack them by land was also not favorable it would see men clamoring over small canals, irrigation works and behind the forts were the Boxer infested towns of Tongku and Taku. Another issue was the Taku mud bar, it only allowed shallow water vessels to pass, the allied navies only had 9 ships that could pass; 3 British ships the HMS Algerine, Fame and Whiting; the German Iltis; Russian Gilyak, Bobr and Koreytz; French Lion and Japanese Atago.

900 men consisting of 380 British, 300 Japanese, and the rest Russian, Austrian and Italian were loaded aboard the 9 ships as the allies, we shall call them that from now on for simplicity by the way, awaited the deadline on June 16th for the Qing to respond. All the warships arranged their broadsides aimed at the Taku forts with a bombardment order to commence at 2am if the Qing did not respond. However the Qing did respond, by opening fire at 12:50, as a eye witness recalled ““A shell shrieked over the Algerine in unpleasant proximity to her topmasts”. To this 7 of the 9 allied ships opened fire. The Russian gunboat Gilyak made the poor decision of turning her searchlight, turning her immediately into the most prominent target, she was nearly sunk by shell fire. The HMS Fame and Whiting pulled in close trying to capture the Qing destroyers and within the mayhem the two ships managed to slip upstream abreast of the 4 Qing destroyers. At Lt Keyes aboard the Fame recalled “The shells were literally shrieking around us; several fell just short and splashed muddy water right over us; several pitched just over; we really had a charmed existence.” The British destroyers cast out whaler ships holding dozens of men to board the Qing destroyers. The British sailors and marines boarded the Qing destroyers with ease, capturing all 4 without firing a shot and receiving no casualties. Lt Keyes gave explicit orders to hit men not to fire upon the Qing who were in the process of escaping up the riverbank.

Meanwhile the Russian gunboat Korietz was severely damaged by the opening salvo; the Monocacy despite being at quite a distance holding many women and children aboard took a far flung shell to her bow, luckily not hurting anyone. The Qing fort guns were very accurate managing hits on the HMS Whiting, SMS Iltis, French Lion and Giliak was forced to ground  herself lest she be sunk. Giliak had 18 deaths and 65 wounded. Meanwhile at 3am landing parties began their advance upon the forts, struggling through thick mud. The first fort was on the north bank and the landing forces came at it with bayonets pointed. British and Japanese troops were the first to scale its walls and they were even racing another. British officer Cradock recalled “I was frantic at the idea of the Japanese getting in first; they were very keen and in better condition than anyone else.” The union jack was soon hoisted followed by the rising red sun, the defenders of the Fort made a symbolic defense, but fled quickly. 

As the men cheered, suddenly two Qing soldiers burst out of a gateway 20 yards away with bayonets fixed firing their rifles as they marched forward from the hip. A Lt emptied his revolver at them and pulling out his sword to defend himself. The allied troops raced towards the second fort on the northern bank as allied shells struck its walls. The air was filled with dust and smoke as the Qing soldiers fired their guns until the last minute upon which they fled. There was to be barely a need to seize the southern forts. The Qing commander was seen galloping away on a white horse and as the Shanghai Mercury put it “The forts were a mass of ruins, rivers of blood, with headless and armless bodies everywhere, which the blue-jackets were gathering together and cremating in heaps.” 

The allied troops in the northern forts turned their guns on the southern forts. One shot hit a powder magazine exploding a part of the southern fort walls, creating a large fire. Through the smoke and dust the Qing defenders could be seen abandoned the forts. By 6:30am the battle of the Taku fort was done. By 8am many of the allied troops were coming back aboard their ships, the allies had suffered 172 casualties. Rivers of blood were seen around the forts. The survivors of the carnage aboard ships or the forts ate tinned beef, salmon and ship biscuits reflecting on their good fortune to be alive. With only 9 ships the allies had secured the mouth of the river. All in all it was a brave action helped considerably with some luck. Many questioned its necessity as it undoubtedly would increase the attacks upon the foreign legations in Beijing. Herbert Hoover recalled “it was this act of aggression which marked the downfall of the moderate party in Peking, unmasked the gigantic plot of the powerful party behind the Boxers, and turned the Government over definitely into their hands . . . no more favorable moment could have been chosen by our Admirals to precipitate a general massacre.” At the same time it was happening, MacDonald had been sending assurances to Empress Dowager Cixi that Britain wished to remain on friendly terms with China. Cixi was literally receiving reports of the attack on the Taku Forts as MacDonald’s letters came in and when he found out he wrote “this would put the old buddha in a good temper”.

Back over in Tientsin’s foreign settlement, people could hear the loud gunfire coming from the Taku Forts. At 8am Tientsins foreign community received word the Taku Forts had been taken and now all wondered what would happen next. As recalled by Lou Hoover in Tientsin “All the forenoon at Tientsin there was an ominous silence, nothing doing on either side, each waiting for the other to play the next card, neither knowing the result of the attack at Taku, and yet both sides knowing that now we were committed to a war, if not with China itself, with Northern China and the Manchu Dynasty.” At 3pm Qing artillery began to open fire upon the foreign settlements. Shells were hissing overhead, explosions followed everywhere. An alarm bell began to ring on the Municipal Hall as foreign residents ran through the streets. Rifle fire was cracking against brick walls as civilian dived for cover.

It looked like a hopeless situation, 600 foreigner civilians were trapped in a mile long by quarter mile wide area bounded by a river on one side and a flat plain on the other. It was a maze of narrow alleys and single storied Chinese houses, perfect conditions for snipers. The whole was enclosed by a mud wall around 15 feet high and wide enough for 4 people to stand across. As Midshipman C.C Dix recalled “The prospect was hardly brilliant; inside the settlement was a mixed force of 2,400 men, with nine field guns, and a few machine guns; outside were 15,000 Imperial troops, with immense numbers of quick-firing guns. Their ammunition was of the best, and practically unlimited, and they had the dreaded Boxers at their back.” 

The most senior officer in Tientsin at the time was Russian Colonel Wogack who took control of the multinational force of Americans, Russians, Australian, Germans, French, Japanese and Italians, the except of course were the British who chose to be led by Captain Bayly of the HMS Aurora. The Russians deployed in a very exposed position trying to defend the railway station on the opposite side of the river from the foreign settlement. They were in close proximity to a Chinese grave site, some houses and ditches, places Qing snipers could hide in. With the Russians were the French who took up a position in front of the French concession at the north end of the settlement near the Taku road. The Americans defended a stretch with the British along the eastern side of the entire settlement; it was a very thin line. The Germans, Austrians, Japanese and Italians deployed along the mud wall near the riverbank. Civilians who were capable were given the task of policing, sentry, engineering and medical duties. Herbert Hoover and his men were the only engineers in Tientsin, Colonel Wogack asked them to get people building barricades. Hoover and the men frantically searched for Chinese laborers to help and any materials that were sturdy enough for barricades. As Hoover recalled “Soon we . . . had a thousand terrified Christian Chinese carrying and piling up walls of sacked grain and sugar along the exposed sides of the town and at cross streets.” Within the first hours of battle it seemed the Qing and Boxers would overrun them. Hoover had this to say “With the smoke of many burning buildings pouring over the settlement, with the civilians erecting barricades across the streets for the final rush, the terrific bombardment, the constant sound of rifle-fire in the distance, and the knowledge,—if not the sight,—of the scores of wounded brought in from the lines—it all seemed bad—very bad. It was really the climax of terror, of the black fear, as it was of the fighting. And this was the ‘black fear,’ not that the siege would be successful and we should be compelled to lower our flag and surrender to an honourable enemy,—but that, if every man fought to his utmost strength and was beaten, there were without,—Chinamen, —mobs of Chinamen, at their very worst,—barbarians who knew no quarter.” 

The women, children and non combatants huddled in fear within the catacombs beneath Gordon Hall, the most robust stone municipal building available. The Qing assault was first directed at the railway station. Upon seeing this Commander Beatty formed a bridge of boats and took sailors across to reinforce the Russians, but they soon became pinned down. The sailors tried to hide amongst some Russian artillery horse carriages as Chinese artillery and snipers fired hell upon the area. The allied forces had to allow the Chinese to approach closer, because their artillery and snipers were wielding an enormous advantage, no one could stand up right unless they wanted shrapnel or sniper bullets to hit them. Those who did advance were armed Boxers who were driven off by volley fire from the defenders. The defenders could not know this, but the Boxers and Qing despite appearances were not really coordinating together. The Qing troopers were awaiting orders from Beijing whether they were to support the Boxers or the protect the foreigners! It was only a result of the attack upon the Taku forts that finally led the Qing government to officially take the side of the Boxers and orders began to trickle over to support them. Despite the official orders, there were many moderates counter ordering and commanders out in the field who did not support the Boxers and were only putting up symbolic efforts at battle.

General Nie Shicheng led the forces in the field overall and he had his artillery fire constantly, it is reported nearly 60,000 shells would be fired upon the foreign settlements. These shells however, much akin to what occurred during the first sino-japanese war, were not all exploding upon impact. Corruption was still rampant and the shells were quite lackluster in their results. The Boxers who did advance were quickly met with volleys at close range, and Beatty noted this of the Russians s “they worked their guns like men, scorning to build up protection with the bales of goods that were there and which we utilized for our riflemen.” Beatty was less impressed with the Germans who continuously sent messages stating they were under heavy attack and required reinforcements, lest they be forced to abandon their positions. According to Beatty the Germans were crying wolf and he made it clear they would receive no reinforcements from the British.

Sailors and marines pushed through against Qing and Boxer infiltrators tossing them out. The allied forces formed a closed ring around the civilians as Hoover described it “It was in the center that the melodrama and comedy were played—the rim was nearly all tragedy.” Sniper fire was coming from within the settlements prompting wild hunts. Chinese Christians within the settlement numbered 3-4 thousand were prime targets for Boxer attacks. Hoovers wife Lou Hoover volunteered at the hospital using a bicycle to move between alley’s and had a sniper bullet hit her tire once. The hospital saw around 200 wounded brought in a day, people requiring bandages, bedding, dressings, disinfectants all of which were in short supply. Tientsin was under siege.

Herbert Hoover bicycle around the defensive perimeter braving the streets to see his barricades were working. The situation was incredibly stressful for the civilians, cooped up together while artillery and gunfire raged outside their buildings. According to Herbert Hoover many friendships ended because of the stress and he recalled ““No one will again dare to organize a dinner party in Tientsin without consulting an inmate of Gordon Hall, for how could Mrs. E. ever sit at meat again with Mrs F., who slapped Mrs. E.’s Peking pug?” So…someone slapped a pug? War never changes. By the 22nd of June things were becoming critical. Commander Beatty had been shot and was losing a ton of blood after the attempted seizing and enemies gun in a narrow escape when a shell burst near him. The men fighting in the barricades were mutilated by shellfire and gunshot.

Contact with Taku had been lost on the 17th, casualties were piling up and the settlement was completely surrounded, there was no escape. The only reason the settlement had not already been overrun was because the Qing and Boxers were not working in concerted efforts to simultaneously hit all fronts. The Russians sent word that if the fighting continued the way it had been for the past 4 days, their ammunition would run out and they advised preparing a night time escape. Their recommendation was for the women, children, wounded and sick to be escorted by the Germans, Austrians, French, Japanese and Italians while the Russians and British would perform a rearguard. Upon hearing this, the very injured Beatty remarked “it was the maddest, wildest, damndest, rottenest scheme that could emanate from the brain of any man. Doing this would mean abandoning Seymour to certain destruction”. Beatty made it known to the Russians the British would not comply. Unbeknownst to them all, help was on its way and quite close by.

On June 19th, my birthday random factoid, a young British volunteer, James Watts set out with 3 Cossacks in an attempt to make contact with Taku. They men rode through hostile villages as Boxers tried to attack them. Watt carried a message from Captain Bayly stating “Hard pressed, heavy fighting; losses, 150 killed and wounded; Chinese Imperial Artillery shelling the Settlement; women and children all in cellars; fires all over the Settlement; every one worn out with incessant fighting.” A rescue force of Russian infantry and American marines had already been dispatched but they were pinned down near the outskirts of Tientsin. According to one American Gunnery Sergeant “We fell into a trap . . . we laid on our faces with the bullets coming like hail not knowing what to do . . . we fell and got up, staggered, crawled—but got out. I never saw such a tired party in my life and yours truly was on the hog!” The force was 131 US marines and 400 Russians who got ambushed 2 miles from the city. The Americans suffered 3 deaths, 13 wounded before they withdrew back to Taku. Bayly’s message made it clear a more substantial force was required. 

Taku and her forts were left with just 1000 men as a garrison as the allies prepared an expeditionary force. Luck was theirs again, as two new warships arrived, the HMS Terrible from Hong Kong carrying 300 Royal Welch Fusiliers and a Russian troopship from Port Arthur carrying hundreds of Russian troops. On June 23rd a multinational force 2000 men strong set out which also held the British 1st Chinese regiment from Weihaiwei, so even some Chinese troops were in their ranks. They rushed up to Tientsin reaching it the same day and upon seeing them the Qing and Boxers dispersed into the east. Lou Hoover described the scene of their arrival to Tientsin as such “A good many hundred civilians and a couple of thousand troops sat still and repelled faint hearted charges while 10,000 or 15,000 Chinese troops and 20,000 Boxers plunked shells of all sizes into us for exactly one week without a sound or a word from the outside reaching us. Then the first relief cut their way into us . . . enough to get in but not to do anything more than we could when they got there.”  With the Chinese siege lifted momentarily, the lines of communication and supplies from Taku to Tientsin were quickly restored. However Tientsin’s battle was nowhere close to be over as the Qing and Boxers would quickly remount their siege. 

Back over in Beijing the foreign legations work up to their first day of siege on the 21st. The first hours of the siege brought panic, the Austrians from the offset abandoned their isolated legation to fall back upon the French barricades leaving the northeast sector in enemy hands. The next day, Professor Huberty James who had been working with missionaries at the Fu Palace calmly walked up to the north bridge going over the canal. He gave the appearance of someone trying to parley, but Qing troops on the other side shot him dead upon the bridge. They all awaited Seymours rescue party, but it was not to be seen. A letter from Captain McCalla, Seymour’s second in command dated June 14th managed to pass through to the American legation. The letter had been written 35 miles from Beijing and whose contents were nothing more than small chat, indicating nothing about when they would arrive.

On June 22nd, by 9am the Italians, Austrian, French, German, Japanese, Russian and American detachments suddenly abandoned their positions and frantically ran to the British legation. Three-quarters of the legation quarters defenses were left undefended, including the Fu Palace, which held nearly the entire Chinese christian population that had fled into the legation quarters. Everyone was in a tremendous panic, it turned out a single man had caused it. Captain von Thomann of the Austrian cruiser Zenta whom from the offset of hostilities had been trying to take command of the defenses for the legations went into a panic when he reportedly was told the American legation had to be abandoned by a random American marine. Von Thomann lost his wits at the news and without verifying it to be true began screaming to everyone that all forces east of Canal street had to retreat immediately to the British legation. So yeah, everyone blindly began running. Once everyone figured out what had happened all the troops were ordered to retake their positions, but in the mayhem the Italian legations was already being burnt down. Boxers and Qing forces occupied the allied barricade in the Customs street, but had failed to press their advantage further. Von Thomann was relieved of command and now it was MacDonald in command. MacDonald was an ex-soldier, but held little experience in the guerilla style warfare they faced. MacDonald also had no official control over any non British forces. MacDonald would write orders and give it to the respective ministers who would arrange them to be carried out. It was a terrible system, but it was all they had it seemed.

One of MacDonalds first orders was to dispatch the Italian guards who had no legation to guard to help the Japanese with the Fu Palace defenses. If the Fu Palace were to fall, the French, German and Japanese legations would be cut off from the British legation which was the last stronghold. MacDonald took a stock of the legations defenses: over 400 men, 20 officers and 389 men of 8 differing nations. They were supplemented by two bands of armed volunteers. The first were 75 men with some military experience, such as Nigel Oliphant of the Chinese imperial Bank who had served with the Scots Greys, Captain Poole of the East Yorkshire Regiment and Captain Labrousse of the Infanterie de Marine. The second group were more amateurish, titled the carving knife brigade because of their variety of weapons going from elephant rifles to fusil de chasse. Professionals and amateurs alike were all short of ammunition and each nationality used differing weapons with differing types of ammunition making it a nightmare logistically. The legation had only one piece of real artillery, the Italian one pounder and that too held little ammunition. 

Their lines of defense had shrunk alarmingly after just the second day, they only had 7 legations to defend. The outliers such as the Belgian and Dutch legations had been abandoned at the beginning, the Austrians shortly after and the Italians lost theirs during the Von Thomann confusion. The area they defended was now 700 yards east to west from the Russian and American legations and 750 yards north to south from the Fu Palace and British legation to the north and the Tartar Wall in the south. Sandwiched between these were the Japanese, Spanish and German legations alongside some other buildings. All the legations, excluding the British one, were on Legation street. The Germans and Americans were on the south side of the street overshadowed by the massive Tartar wall. MacDonald knew the Tartar wall had to be held at all cost, if it was taken anyone from its top could lob incendiaries down, spelling doom.

The British legation grounds quickly became the place everyone congregated searching for further information, everyone was starved to know what was going on outside. Meanwhile the Chinese Christians were doing their part helping with labor an invaluable aspect to the defenders plight. There was also the issue of having to watch over them, lest the enemy infiltrate using them as cover. The foreigners and Chinese likewise were introduced to the hazard of fire which constantly was an issue. Boxers would toss torches and firecrackers at all hours trying to burn the legations out. It was all to easy for the Boxers to dip rags in kerosene attach it to the end of a long bamboo pole and lit it ablaze. On the 22nd, many buildings in the western sector were lit of fire and it took the defenders a long time to put it out. The first casualty for the British was to be Private Scadding who was shot dead as he stood watch while the fire committee went to work putting out fires. The very next day was the same, the Chinese tried to burn them out again, this time they aimed for the Hanlin Academy just due north of the British legation. Thousands of silk covered books were there, it was a tremendous tragedy to try and burn the place. 

On the morning of the 23rd, the enemy was spotted running through the four acre compound tossing torches soaked in petrol around. The foreigners were stunned the Chinese would burn such a place, but burn it they did. The fire teams tried to put the flames out, but the Chinese were firing down upon anyone who would go near the academy. Eventually MacDonald sent some royal marines to go through a hole in the wall getting into the academy where firefighting efforts were organized. Scholars among the foreign community were in despair knowing the academic treasures being burnt. Morrison had this to say  “the combustible books, the most valuable in the Empire, were thrown in a great heap into the pond round the summer house . . . a heap of debris, timber in ashes, sprinkled with torn leaves, marked the site of the great library of the Middle Kingdom . . . what can we think of a nation that sacrifices its most sacred edifice, the pride and glory of its country and learned men for hundreds of years, in order to be revenged upon foreigners? It was a glorious blaze. The desecration was appalling.” By the night time the fire was still burning as soot covered fire fighters struggled.  Other fires were seen that day, the Russo Chinese bank containing 80,000 dollars of cash was burned down, many officials houses alongside it.

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The battle for the Taku Forts was won at a small cost, but the battle for Tientsin and Beijing would rage on for many more days. Time was of the essence if the allies were to reach the foreign legations in Beijing to save their countrymen.