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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Sep 5, 2023

Last time we spoke about the battle of the Taku Forts and the siege of Tientsin. The allied admirals gave an ultimatum to the Qing to hand over the Taku Forts, which they declined. The western navies attacked the Taku Forts officially beginning a war with the Qing dynasty. The seizure of the Taku Forts led the Qing to fully support the Boxers who raised a siege against the foreign legations in Beijing and the foreign settlement in Tientsin. The foreign community at Tientsin found themselves surrounded by 30,000 Boxers and 15,000 Qing with only 2400 troops of various nationalities to defend them. The siege was grueling and the Chinese forces nearly overran them, but the allies were able to hold out until reinforcements arrived from Taku. Despite receiving extra troops and restoring communications to Taku, the allies were still greatly outnumbered and now those in Beijing were in more severe danger. 


#64 The Boxer Rebellion part 4:Darkest Days before the Dawn in Peking


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.

Much of China’s national library, the Hanlin Academy and other buildings had been burnt down by the Boxers. The firefighter teams did their best to stop the fires, which threatened to spread towards the British legation. Countless, irreplaceable books had perished in the fires. Within the legation quarters, they all awaited Seymours rescue force eagerly, none knowing the truth that he had been forced to withdraw. On June 24th, Qing forces deployed a 3 inch krupp gun on the charred Chien Men, the gate opposite of the Forbidden city. They began firing shells into the legation quarters, some managing to hit the British legation. Then the Chinese turned their attention to the Fu Palace being guarded by Lt Colonel Goro Shiba with a small force of Japanese soldiers. A part of the Fu’s walls was breached allowed Boxers and Qing soldiers to swarm in. They were met with Japanese riflemen behind loopholed barricades who unleashed volleys upon them. The Japanese were vastly outnumbered, prompting Colonel Shiba to request urgent reinforcements as the Christian Chinese began fleeing the Fu in panic. The fleeing Christian Chinese soon realized it was even more dangerous outside the Fu than in and quickly scrambled back.

A detachment of Americans and Germans dashed along the Tartar Wall behind their legations, scattering the enemy before them back towards the Cheinmen as they made their way to help the Japanese at the FU. The Americans under the command of Captain John T. Myers with aid from Christian Chinese managed to build a breastwork across the width of the wall while the Germans built their own fortification. There positions were 500 yards apart, a critical defense to deny the enemy access to the Tartar Wall. Just yards in front of them were Chinese barricades. Boxer corpses lay in heaps with the hot sun just feet away from most of the legation defensive lines. The stench was putrefying, gangs of Chinese laborers would risk their lives tossing corpses over walls when they could.

During the evening of the 25th, as the sun was dying down, British author Bertram Lenox Simpson recalled this “The sun . . . was sinking down slowly towards the west, flooding the pink walls of the Imperial City with a golden light and softening the black outline of the somber Tartar Wall that towers so high above us, when all round our battered lines the dropping rifle-fire drooped more and more until single shots alone punctuated the silence.... All of us listened attentively, and presently on all sides the fierce music of the long Chinese trumpets blared out uproariously—blare, blare, sobbing on a high note tremulously, and then, boom, boom, suddenly dropping to a thrilling basso profondissimo.” Gunfire suddenly ceased and created an eerie silence. The foreign troops watched with suspicion from their barricades as the Chinese departed their barricades. A giant white placard then appeared on the north bridge. It was an imperial edict announcing “in accordance with Imperial orders to protect the foreign ministers, firing shall be stopped at once”. The placard also stated a dispatch should be delivered to the Imperial canal bridge, so the defenders sent one extremely nervous Chinese laborer with a written note over. The man was so scared, when the Qing troops began chanting at him, he simply bolted back.

The foreigner community were baffled, why was there now a ceasefire? Was it some sort of hoax? Was Seymours force here? Some felt safe enough to go atop the walls and look out into the city. Lenox Simpson was one of them who had this to say of the scenery. “Just outside the Palace gates were crowds of Manchu and Chinese soldiery—infantry, cavalry, and gunners grouped all together in one vast mass of color. Never in my life have I seen such a wonderful panorama—such a brilliant blaze in such rude and barbaric surroundings. There were jackets and tunics of every color; trouserings of blood-red embroidered with black dragons; great two-handed swords in some hands; men armed with bows and arrows mixing with Tung Fuhsiang’s Kansu horsemen, who had the most modern carbines slung across their backs. There were blue banners, yellow banners embroidered with black, white, and red flags, both triangular and square, all presented in a jumble to our wondering eyes. The Kansu soldiery of Tung Fu-hsiang’s command were easy to pick out from amongst the milder-looking Peking Banner troops . . . but of Boxers there was not a sign.”The foreigners looked on to see the Chinese were busily fortifying their positions, at midnight the firing resumed.

Meanwhile the Qing Court had been tossing out quite a few imperial edicts as the conflict escalated. On the 21st of June an imperial edict told the Chinese “with tears have we announced in our ancestral shrines the outbreak of war”. This edict wa accompanied by some words describing the Boxers as patriotic soldiers and that they were being incorporated into the militia’s and rewarded for their bravery with silver and food. On the 23rd another decree “ the work now undertaken in Peking by Dong Fuxiang should be completed as soon as possible, so that troops can be spared and sent to Tientsin for defense” It should be noted the word used for “work” “shih” was intentionally vague and a euphemism for a swift massacre, obviously of the foreigners. No one in the foreign legations were aware of these edicts, nor did they know of the plight of their comrades outside Beijing. The one thing the foreigners know in the legation quarter was that they did not just face Boxers, it was obvious to all that the Qing government was now helping them.

On June 29th a message from the legations managed to sneak out via a Chinese courier. He slipped out all the way to Tientsin with two messages in hand. The first was from Sirt Robert Hart “Foreign community besieged in the legations. Situation desperate. MAKE HASTE!” The second was from a missionary, telling the tale of what happened to Von Ketteler. The allied admirals were in despair for they all knew Seymours mission had failed and Tientsin was again under siege. The first child born inside the legation quarter since the conflict began was named Siege in the hopes he might actually be raised. Over five Qing armies were now in Beijing increasing the ferocity of the attacks on the legations. The foreigners estimated that on a single night over 200,000 bullets were fired at them by riflemen, but what baffled them all was why the riflemen aimed so high? Casualties should have been massively worse than they were. Some began to theorize the Qing were keeping up a barrage to force them to surrender or flee. By July 3rd 38 legation troops had been killed with 55 wounded. Every window was bricked up to protect occupants from bullets and shrapnel. Doctors and nurses struggled to keep pace with the number of operations. They had no X-rays to help find shrapnel or bullets in patients making it gruesome work. Several ministers' wives were working as nurses, everyone was trying their best to survive. Dysentery was becoming rampant. As bad as things seemed for the foreigners, it was terribly much worse for the Chinese Christians at the Fu. On July 1st, British civilian Nigel Oliphant wrote this in his diary  “the Chinese Christians were dying like sheep from smallpox, we do not reckon Chinese converts in our casualty lists and that he could not therefore be more precise. Morrison went to inspect the Fu, where the Chinese refugees were crowded like bugs in a rug, and was appalled. His doctor’s sensibilities were outraged by conditions that were stinking and insanitary . . . children ill with scarlet fever and small-pox, with diptheria [sic] and dysentery.

MacDonald was directing the defensive efforts as the Boxers and Qing assaulted their barricades. Gaps were continuously being made and plugged up. On June 30th, another major attack was directed at the Fu. The 3 inch Krupp gun was battering the Fu’s walls prompting the commander of the Italian forces supported the Japanese, Lt Paolini to led a brave sortie against it. Captain Poole had this to say of Paolini’s sortie ‘Paolini appeared to have lost his head and taken the wrong turnings.” Yes the poor Italian Lt had led his small party through some alleyways and it seems they got a bit lost. They also ran into Qing forces who fired upon them, Paolini was hit. They desperately tried to escape, finding a small gap between a wall and the Fu.

The most desperate fight would be for the Tartar Wall, which if it fell, all hope was lost. On July 1st, Qing soldiers were spotted creeping up the ramp to its top. The Qing surprised the German barricade who according to Nigel Oliphant “fled before the Chinese had fired a single shot, and without having had a man even wounded” The flight of the Germans left the American barricade 500 yards away exposed. This prompted the Americans to pull back, the situation was extremely dire.

MacDonald called for a war council and it was decided a mixed force of British, Russian and Americans would storm back up the wall to reoccupy the American position. Fortunately for the foreigners, the Qing had not pressed home their advantage to bolster the barricades. On July 3rd the men gathered under a bell tower and Captain John T Myers who would lead the assault made a speech as told to us by Nigel Oliphant.

“because it was so utterly unlike what a British officer would have said under similar circumstances. He began by saying that we were about to embark on a desperate enterprise, that he himself had advised against it, but that orders had been given, and we must do it or lose every man in the attempt. He then explained what we had to do—viz. line up on the wall and rush the covering wall . . . then follow up that covering wall till we got to the back of the Chinese barricade. He ended up by saying that . . . if there was anyone whose heart was not in the business he had better say so and clear out. One man said he had a sore arm and went down—not one of ours, I am glad to say.

At 2:00am on July 3rd, the mixed force of 26 British, 15 American and 15 Russians stormed up the Tartar Wall led by Captain Myer’s. The Americans were hollaring like natives from their homeland as they they caught 20 Qing soldiers sleeping who they butchered and sent survivors fleeing in panic. Two American marines were killed and Captain Myers tripped over a spear wounding himself in the thigh,  but the wall was recaptured. Retaking the wall was the key pivotal moment of the fight. For the rest of the siege the barricade atop the Tartar wall was nicknamed Fort Myers. It was a fitting action to be a prelude to the American celebration of July 4th the next day. The American marines celebrated the 4th with som well earned drinks atop the Tartar wall, must of been hella awkward for the Brits. 

Meanwhile Colonel Shiba was struggling to keep the assaults upon the Fu at bay. By late June nearly a third of the Fu had to be abandoned forcing the Japanese to pull back to their second line of defense. All the other nations forces agreed, Colonel Shiba was an outstanding commander and led his small but efficient force to their admiration. Late June brought in some rainstorms that made everyones guard life hell. Many of the Chinese beleived thunder and lighting was a signal from their gods. Temperatures reached 43 degrees, in freedom units thats 110. Black flies were everywhere because of the corpses. The men began smoking cigars from morning till night to overcome the stench and bugs, even the women began chain smoking cigarettes. The situation was becoming worse and worse, taking a toll on everyone. Apparently the French Minister Pichon began pacing around telling everyone who was near him ‘La situation est excessivement grave; nous allons tous mourir ce soir.’ [“The situation is exceedingly grave; we are all going to die tonight.” I can be quite annoying with my french, if any francophones listen to this podcast I am actually releasing a episode in french on my youtube channel about France’s role during the Pacific War and you will be happy to know I got my wife to narrate it instead of my anglophone accent self. 

By the way apparently by this point most of the ministers were doing pretty much nothing to aid the situation. As one of my sources put it, the Russian Minister de Giers took walks between his legation and the British making himself look like he was working. The Spanish minister Senor Cologan was extremely ill. The Dutch Minister Knobel offered his services as a sentry, but also acknowledged he did not know not know how to fire a gun and was extremely shortsighted. The American Minister Conger just walked about, taking a cue from his Russian counterpart. The Japanese minister Baron Nishi, kept silent as he spoke only Japanese and Russian, and the Japanese and Russians were certainly not friends. The German minister, Von Below went into his legation and began playing Wagners Ride of the Valkyries on the Piano, apparently he was determined to die in a storm of music. Thus MacDonald had his hands full and had this to say of his colleagues “The Russian Minister asks, twice, that the British should remove a sandbag barricade which is blocking his withdrawal route to the British Legation. . . . Sir Claude replied that he is being heavily attacked from the north and can spare no men for this duty. ‘Indeed I may have to call upon you and Mr. Conger for help to repulse this attack—so please have some men ready.’ . . . Mr. Conger’s comment is: ‘We are having the heaviest attack we have ever had here and every man is engaged.’ . . . At 2:30 P.M. Sir Claude writes again: ‘It is absolutely essential that the Fu should be held at all hazards. I hope therefore you will order over as many men as possible.’ . . . The Russian Minister complies: ‘I am sending you my last ten men, but I must have them back as soon as you no longer need them.’” Being the middle man to all was certainly not the best logistical setup. 

At one point the Chinese turned their 3 inch Krupp gun upon the Union Jack flying over the British legation’s gateway. Three shells hit the gateway and one went over hitting the tennis court. It was decided the flag was too provocative and MacDonald had it hauled down. Luckily for British pride, the Chinese turned their attention to other targets, thus Mcdonald canceled the order to haul it down. Aside from mediating between all the other nations, MacDonald was greatly frustrated by the lack of news from outside the legations. A young Chinese boy from Shandong province volunteered to carry a message out on July 4th. The message was directed to the British consul in Tientsin and was put inside a rice bowl filled with rice. The little boy was the first messenger to reach Tientsin since late June, he got there on July 21st after a hard and long journey. 

Meanwhile casualties were piling up, the French consul general in Shanghai’s son was shot dead during an attack against the French legation on July 1st. On July 5th David Oliphant if the british consular service and brother to Nigel was shot while trying to cut down a tree in the Hanlin. David died of his wound and would be buried shortly after. On the 8th Austrian captain von Thomann, the chaos maker, was hit by a shell burst that took him in the chest killing him instantly. Funerals were becoming a daily thing whenever the enemy let up their attacks. By early July the shelling began to concentrate upon the French legation. To make matters worse there were rumors the Qing were sapping mines towards the French legation. Two Qing were then caught and interrogated by Paul Pelliot an archeologist and member of the French volunteer corps who recounted “We killed two prisoners with rifle shots and with bayonets. One said little of significance . . . the other revealed without being asked the existence of a mine being dug in the East.” The Qing began aiming 4 and 8 pound guns at the British Legation, some shot piercing its walls. 

After the first week of July, the defenders were in despair finding the ammunition running low. They had 14 shells left for the Italian one pound artillery piece that had been deployed all over the legation. In desperation a munitions expert from the HMS Orlando began melting down pewter vessels, teapots, candlesticks, vases and such to make conical shot fitted with old copper shell casings. The defenders also began filling fireworks with nails and scrap iron, pretty innovative stuff if you ask me. By this point the Qing had only brought to bear 10 artillery pieces into the siege and they were antiquated at that. They most definitely had larger and more modern pieces, but they were not deploying them, puzzling the defenders. Some of the foreigners questioned the Qing gunnery as well, it was as if their riflemen were all at Tientsin and the Beijing troops were all novices. Many of the Qing were able to fire on the outer walls of the Fu at point blank range, but they were not hitting anyone.

The Qin barricades were getting closer and closer and the defenders could physically see them mining. On July 7th the defenders came across a rusty old muzzle gun which looked like it came from the 2nd opium war, most likely it was just an old Qing iron cannon. To everyone's surprise it still worked and a American gunner, Sergeant Mitchell cleaned it up and outfitted some Russian shells to it which fired! The new gun was not very accurate, had terrible recoil and made a ton of black smoke when it was shot. But it was another artillery piece and could fire upon the Qing barricades to great effect. Allegedly, Empress Dowager Cixi would go on the record stating to a minister that the cannon was so noisy it kept her awake during her afternoon naps. The rickety old cannon was nicknamed “the international’. 

Meanwhile over in Tientsin, Boxers were continuing to terrorize the Chinese Christians and any unfortunate Chinese who had connections to foreigners. The river nearby was said to be clogged with mutilated bodies and human limbs. In early July a photographer named James Ricalton was sent to China to record the Boxer uprising and he had this to say of his travels over to Tientsin “Many mud villages were passed . . . from most of which the inhabitants had fled back into the country. We were constantly passing dead bodies floating down, and on either bank of the river, at every turn, hungry dogs from the deserted villages could be seen tearing at the swollen corpses left on the banks by the ebb tide. It was forty miles of country laid waste, deserted homes, burned villages, along a river polluted and malodorous with human putrefaction.” When Ricalton made it to Tientsin on July 5th he saw buildings in shambles, barricades, smoke and corpses floating in the river.

The Qing continued their bombardment of the foreign settlement at Tientsin and snipers made pot shots all day long. The reinforcements from Taku had reached Tientsin on June 23rd, but they were not nearly enough to lift the siege. The Qing were firing 3 and 4 inch quick firing guns from within the Chinese part of the city. Casualties were mounting to around 20 a day. The foreigners stuck within the siege heard rumors that there was conflict between the force of Nie Shicheng and the Boxers, apparently they were not a united front. According to one reporter, Nie Shicheng had deliberately put himself in danger because he believed the orders coming from the Qing Court were impossible to fulfill. Vice Admiral Seymour was no longer in command at Tientsin and a lot of disorderly conduct would be found. Take for example one instance where some French sentries left their position, exposing the position of some nearby British Indian Sikh guards. Herbert Hoover had this to say about what they did “Not knowing what it meant for other than traitors to run under attack without orders, the Sikhs set about exterminating the squad of Frenchmen, which only the most frantic commands of the English officers prevented.”  With the arrival of over 10,000 reinforcements to Tientsin from Taku people were breathing easier, but these were by far not crack troops, many were sailors. The new forces managed to seize two Qing arsenals nearby Tientsin aiding their situation significantly. But all knew their job was to lift the siege and lift it quickly for their comrades in Beijing were in much more peril.

By July 9th, with Seymours rescue party still not in sight, the foreigners in Beijing began to doubt it was still coming. In fact that very day a Christian Chinese messenger was sent into the city and returned with some bad news. He told them all Emperor Guangxu and Empress Dowager Cixi were still in the capital and that nothing was known about approaching foreign forces. Everyone fell into despair. Also on that day the British government sent a warning to the Qing envoy in London that his government would be held personally guilty for any damage to the foreigners in Beijing.

July the 13th, which yes was a Friday, was a truly grim day for those under siege in Beijing. As dawn rose, the Fu Palace was met with shell fire from the Krupp gun. The Japanese and Italian guards were dodging a hailstorm of shells and shrapnel. The buildings all around were burning and collapsing. Colonel Shiba was forced to order a retreat, he had originally set up 9 lines of defense, but they had fallen back to the last one. No one could blame him, he had led his men fanatically. Captain Poole went on the record to say “I put Colonel Shiba . . . on a golden pedestal for endurance and perseverance.” At 4pm, the Qing attacked from all sides. The alarm bell went off as MacDonald frantically gave our orders for men to dash to the most vulnerable positions. MacDonald was about to order the Russian marines over to the Fu when he received word from Colonel Shiba that he had regained his hold over it again. It was at that exact moment the German second secretary Von Bergen screamed the German Legation was nearly overrun. The Russian marines rush over in the nick of time to meet some Kansu troops charging in. The Russian and Germans led by Lt Von Soden counter charged with bayonets driving them off in melee combat.

Then as evening was coming up them a tremendous explosion was heard and the earth around them shook. Two mines had been exploded under the French Legation. The blast completely destroyed the second secretaries house and the ministers house and killed two French sailors as they collapsed. But it would be the Qing who suffered the most, as they had misjudged the force of the blast. The foreigners would watch throughout the night as they were frantically digging the tunnels out trying to save countless who got buried alive. Qing carts carried away perhaps 30 bodies from the crater. With the legation so battered, many predicted the French would be forced to pull back to the Hotel de Pekin. 

In the meantime in the Hanlin area, Captain Poole led a small group through some broken down walls to take up a position in the ruined library. The men grabbed bricks and sand bags to create new defensive positions. They were so close to the Qing soldiers, they could hear them complaining to another about terrible rice rations. Although there was no breakthrough and many Qing had died in the blast, the French Legation and Fu Palace had shrunk considerably, 5 men were dead and 10 wounded. The most important position, the Tartar Wall had Captain Newt Hall replacing the wounded Captain Myers to command the US Marines. The Marines were all suffering from diarrhea and drank far too much. 

On July 14th, a Chinese messenger who had been sent out on the 10th returned. He had been captured by the Boxers and beaten quite badly, before he was grabbed by some Qing forces working on behalf of Prince Qing. They helped him recover and Prince Qing gave him a message that blamed the attacks on the legations actions and that of the foreign soldiers at Taku. It advised any ministers alive to come take the protection of the Zongli Yamen, promising them safe conduct as long as they did not bring armed guards to accompany them. As you can imagine the message was not trusted one bit. However two days later the French took a Qing soldier prisoner and he told them there was conflict between Prince Duan and Prince Qing. This led some to think perhaps Prince Qing could be trusted. MacDonald sent out a messenger to tell the Zongli Yamen that they would not stop defending themselves and if they wanted to negotiate, they should send a official with a white flag. 

While they waited for a response, Colonel Shiba sent word that all his sailors and volunteers were exhausted. They had been on duty since June 20th and not a single man had even changed his clothes, nor any had taken more than 3-4 hours of consecutive sleep. Shiba asked that his men be taken off duty for 24 hours to recuperate and if the British could sent help. MacDonald could only agree as all knew the Japanese had fought like lions for weeks. On July 16th, Captain Strouts led a relief party to the Fu, accompanied by George Morrison who recalled a traumatic event “we were caught in a shower of bullets. I . . . felt a cut in my right thigh. At the same moment, ‘My God,’ said Strouts, and he fell over into the arms of Shiba, who was on his left. Shiba ran for a surgeon while I tried to apply a tourniquet but it was no good. The thighbone was shattered and Strouts’s body was “soaking in blood.” Both myself and Strouts were carried by stretcher to the hospital, under such heavy fire that a bullet passed through Shiba’s coat. It was immediately obvious that nothing could be done for Strouts, who had a severed artery in his thigh. He died three hours later”. Captain Wray replaced Strouts to command the British Marines taking up the Fu position. MacDonald figured by the end of July, there would be nobody left to oppose Dong Fuxiangs forces from storming in and killing men, women and children all. The night they were burying Strouts, the messenger they had sent to the Zongli Yamen was returning with a letter. The message was stated to be from Prince Qing “and others”. It begged the ministers to refrain from attacking the Qing soldiers and promised their government would “continue to exert all its efforts to keep order and give protection”. The messenger also carried a cipher telegram for Conger the official from the United States. It read “communicate tidings bearer” it had no date and no indication of who it was from, but it was the first communication received from the outside world since mid june. Conger wrote a cipher response stating “For one month we have been besieged in British Legation under continued shot and shell from Chinese soldiers. Quick relief only can prevent general massacre.” The next day Conger found out the telegram had been sent on June 11th and was transmitted by the Qing envoy to Washington Wu Tingfang. When Washington received Congers message, they assumed it was a forgery and that all the foreigners had been massacred. 

By mid July, most of the world assumed the foreigners in Beijing were dead. In fact many newspapers wrote of how everyone had died and even made obituaries for some of the ministers. Many news outlets would be embarrassed come August when it became known the foreigners were alive and fighting still. MacDonald replied to the message from Prince Qing et al, by suggesting a ceasefire might be a goodway to show some goodwill. Prince Qing agreed and gave the ministers assurance there would be no fighting and a truce would begin on July 17th. The foreigners were in shock, what was to happen next?

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 darkest days come just before the dawn as they say. The foreign defenders within Beijing were barely holding on losing men, food and ammunition. Then as if a miracle, the Qing provided them a truce…or was it all some foul trick to finally deal the killing blow?