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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Sep 11, 2023

Last time we spoke about the darkest days of the siege of the foreign legation quarters in Beijing. The Hanlin Academy was burnt down taking with it irreplaceable books. The Fu Palace and French Legation were falling to pieces. Colonel Shiba and his men fought for weeks without changing their closes or sleeping more than 3-4 hours. Countless friends and colleagues were dead or wounded, funerals were becoming a daily event. Ammunition was running low, men were running low, medical supplies were running low, everything was running low. Suddenly some messages began to trickle in allegedly from Prince Qing. The Ministers were weary to trust them, but gradually pushed Prince Qing to show the Qing’s good faith by establishing a truce. It seemed the darkest hours were just before the dawn as Prince Qing established a truce on July 17th, and now all wondered, what was next? 


#65 The Boxer Rebellion part 5: The Battle for Tientsin


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 July 17th truce came at a perfect time, the defenders were exhausted. Food had become so scarce, they had begun sending raiding parties to the Mongol Market, but for most the regular diet consisted of horse, pony, mule meat and rice. Random note, I am from Quebec and we eat horse meat here, typically for tartar, not all the time, but if you go to the grocery store 9/10 its there, apparently this is pretty weird for everyone else in North America, I dunno, a bit on the dry side as meat goes. One thing that was easy to come by was champagne and wine, there was a enormous supply of it in the legation buildings. As Lenox Simpson put it “had it not been for the Monopole, of which there are great stores in the hotel and the club—a thousand cases in all . . . I should have collapsed.” There was a enormous concern for the Chinese Christians in the Fu Palace who were constantly attacked and very isolated. Lenox Simpson investigated them and wrote this “The feeding of our native Christians, an army of nearly two thousand, is still progressing, but babies are dying rapidly, and nothing further can be done. There is only just so much rice, and the men who are doing the heavy coolie work on the fortifications must be fed better than the rest, or else no food at all would be needed. . . . The native children, with hunger gnawing savagely at their stomachs, wander about stripping the trees of their leaves.They had terrible water-swollen stomachs and “pitiful sticks of legs. To the babies we give all the scraps of food we can gather up after our own rough food is eaten, and to see the little disappointed faces when there is nothing is sadder than to watch the wounded being carried in. . . . Thus enclosed in our brickbound lines, each of us is spinning out his fate. The Europeans still have as much food as they need; the Chinese are half starving.” The CHristian Chinese laborers complained about working for the British legation telling supervisors “the work at the British legation is crushing and they don’t feed you enough. And if you do not carry out their orders to the letter, they flog you. . . . Therefore, we don’t want to go there.” The Chinese CHristian laborers preferred working for the non-Christian Japanese and Colonel Shiba even raised a force of Christian Chinese volunteers as riflemen who he trained personally. There were also incidents of Chinese Christian girls being sexually assaulted, particularly by Russian guards whose barricades were close to their girls lodgings. A written notice was erected forbidding anyone to approach the girls lodgings prompting the Russian commander Baron von Rahen to quote “Take off his cap, and assuming a very polite air of doubt and perplexity, he inquired of the lady missionary committee which oversees the welfare of these girls: ‘Pardon, mes dames,’ he said purposely in French, ‘cette affiche est-ce seulement pour les civils ou aussi pour les militaires?’”—“Excuse me, ladies, does this apply only to civilians or also to the military?” Sexual assault was not the only thing going on, apparently the British legation gardens saw people come together each night to make romance. 

Over in Taku forces were coming over to help lift the siege of Tientsin. Men of the US 9th infantry came over from the Philippines. Now that the situation looked more land based than naval, Vice Admiral Seymour was sent back to his squadron on July 11th, leaving Brigadier General Dorward in command of British forces, but there was no supreme allied commander. There were tremendous delays as each nations officers argued who should lead and finally it was agreed the Qing held part of Tientsin had to be taken before any talks of marching upon Beijing. A plan was formed to attack the Qing held part of the city beginning on July 13th. They were widely outnumbered, around 6900 to a Qing force of around 30,000, half of which were Boxers. There were 2500 Russians, 2000 Japanese, 900 Americans, 800 British and 600 French. They would be facing the formidable walls of Tientsin, which were 20 feet high and 16 feet thick. Within the city and nearby forts were around 12,000 Qing soldiers well armed with artillery, machine guns and modern rifles. 

The French, Americans, British and Japanese were to advance upon the south gate in three columns while the Germans and Russians circled around to hit the east gate. The approach was a flat marshy plain, intersected by canals and lagoons, by no means ideal. Herbert Hoover knew the land quite well and volunteered to guide forces and had this to write of his experience 

We came under sharp fire from the Chinese located on its old walls. We were out in the open plains with little cover except Chinese graves. I was completely scared, especially when some of the Marines next to me were hit. I was unarmed and I could scarcely make my feet move forward. I asked the officer I was with for a rifle and at once I experienced a curious psychological change for I was no longer scared, although I never fired a shot. I can recommend that men carry weapons when they go into battle—it is a great comfort.” Hoover described how the attack was badly coordinated, riddled with miscommunication and ill tempered men. The main force was pinned down in front of the south gate taking fire from the city walls. The allied forces were huddled face down in mud with the American troops standing out like sorethumbs wearing their dark blue uniforms. The Qing wielding Winchesters, Mannlichers and Mausers were exacting terrible casualties upon them. Lt Harry Rotherham of the Royal Welch Fusiliers recalled “the whole of the city wall was lined with Chinese firing through loop-holes and they just fired all day as hard as they could. They also attacked our left flank and we were told off to keep them back, so we were under fire all day from the front and the left flank as well. I never want anything quite so warm again.” Captain David Beatty noted the British forces took a entirely exposed position while the 9th US infantry were extremely exposed to Qing sharpshooters. Their commander, Colonel Emerson Liscum was fatally shot as he was trying to grab the regimental flags from a standard bearer who was falling. His dying words were “keep up the fire, men!” Beatty led a company of British to rush over to help the Americans and gradually they pulled back as it got dark. They had no news on how the Russians were doing with the east gate. 

It was to be the Japanese who turned failure into success. General Fukushima Yasumasa who had fought the Chinese during the first sino-Japanese war sent word to some of the other commanders that Qing forces would fight to the death if they were trapped, but if you left an escape route, like two gates open, they would retreat. At 3am the Japanese blew up the south gate, in a scene I can only describe as the one Uruk-hai in the film the Lord of the Rings the Two Towers. The Japanese had been trying to light fuses to explode bombs, but the Qing kept stopping them so one Japanese soldier ran with a short fuse to blow up the gate and was killed by the explosion. He would have made Saruman proud. As told to us by Herbert Hirschinger of the US Marines “The Japanese had been trying to accomplish it for some time, but the Chinks would cut the fuse. In the end a Japanese officer volunteered to light a short fuse. The gate was blown in . . . but the officer went up with the gate. This only goes to show the mettle of which the little fellows are made.” After the breach was made, the Japanese stormed into the city followed by the second battalion, the Royal Welch Fusiliers and Beatty’s men. A bit later that morning  the Russians charged the esat gate on July 9th led by General Anatoly Stessel, General Nie Shicheng personally led a counterattack to try and stop them. An allied artillery shell exploded nearby him, showering him with shrapnel and fatally wounding him. As the Russians broke through the east gate prompting the Qing soldiers to withdraw from the city. French doctor Matignon was irritated to see that although the Japanese did the lionshare of work in the southern sector, the Union Jack was flying side by side with the Rising Sun over the south gate. In his words “trois ou quatre soldats anglais . . . flegmatiquement, fument leur pipe”—“three or four English soldiers . . . calmly smoking their pipes.” Sounds like Merry and Pippin after Isengarde fell, what is with the LOTR references? 

Countless Boxers and Qing soldiers slipped away, leaving little fighting over the city. The civilians bore the brunt of what became an orgy of looting and murder. A Chinese eyewitness had this to say “People rushed about in all directions in dread of what was to come next. When someone shouted that the North gate was open and that it was possible to leave by it, the whole city converged on the North Gate. In an instant the press of the crowd was such that one couldn’t move.... The foreigners and Christians . . . fired repeatedly on it [the crowd], each volley resulting in the deaths of several tens of people.... The greater the numbers of people killed, the greater became the numbers of those fighting to escape. . . . Dead from bullets, dead from artillery shells, dead from swords, dead from trampling. It was horrible. . . . The corpses were piled several feet high. After three days of cleaning up, following the foreigners’ entry into the city, the streets still were not clean.” The photographer James Ricalton stormed into the city as well to record what he say.  “a holocaust of human life, lines of homeless, weeping human beings—their homes in ashes, without food, friendless, and, in many cases, their kindred left charred in the ruins of homes. Doors were smashed; shops were entered and plundered; men and women were fleeing, carrying their precious heirlooms—their jewels, their silks, their embroidery, their money. These much-prized valuables were snatched from them, and they dared not protest.” American Marine Harold Kinman recalled “the streets wet and slippery with blood” while a British sailor described “brains strewn over the streets and dead Chinese pinned to the walls by Japanese swords and bayonets”. Many of the accounts place atrocities upon the Russians and Japanese. But soldiers from each nation took part in the orgy and there are many photographs for those with the stomachs to google them, 

On July 15th, in an attempt to stop the looting, the British put up pickets with orders to not allow anyone to get past except for the French whose authorities had not agreed to suppress looting, haha. So as a result many British just pretended to be French, apparently doing bad french singing impressions to get by and spoke terrible French phrases to another. Notably British civilians took part in this as they knew which houses and shops had the best goods. It was to be the bloodiest battle for the 8 nation alliance during the Boxer rebellion. 250 allied soldiers had died with 500 wounded. Of this the Japanese paid the most with 320 casualties, the Russians and Germans around 140, the Americans 25 dead, 98 wounded, the British 17 dead, 87 wounded and the French 13 dead with 50 wounded. There was no official calculation of the losses for the Boxers and Qing forces, but it was expected to be very heavy. I think for you long time listeners you can see a distinct difference now from our Opium Wars days to the turn of the 20th century. Warfare had changed considerably, casualties were much higher now, something that would be proved to a horrifying extent during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, or as many like to call it World War Zero. Tientsin was now being secured as a launching point for the future advance upon Beijing.

Back over in Beijing, the foreign community found it surreal after the July 17th truce was announced. The sudden silence of guns was more disconcerting than comforting, some even found it difficult to sleep. The Qing war banners were brought down and white flags were hoisted all around in their place. Countless Qing soldiers began peering over walls and barricades to look at the legations. Likewise the defenders looked out into the desolate landscape around them, corpses were everywhere, dogs were picking at them. As everyone's confidence built up some Qing soldiers went over to the defenders positions and began fraternizing with the foreigners. Many began to talk to the foreigners, giving them news the Taku Forts and Tientsin had fallen to the allied nations and that General Dong Fuxiangs Kansu army and many Boxers were now performing offensives between Tientsin and Beijing. Many of the Qing troops who came forward explained they did not want to be part of the battle, but were being were being coerced into it. The foreigners were beginning to suspect the truce had been made because of the Qing losses at the Taku forts and Tientsin, perhaps a relief force was already on its way. 

Within the Qing court, the loss at Tientsin had proved the progressive and moderates right that joining the Boxers was a doomed cause. This was a view shared by most of the governors and viceroys in the southern and eastern provinces who were actively holding their troops back, not daring to attack foreigners. Going back to early June when edicts were being made declaring war, most viceroys and governors ignored it and refused to send troops. In fact, the foreign community had no idea, but their most valuable allies were amongst the Qing high command. The Manchu General Ronglu, whom Empress Dowager Cixi appointed as Imperial Commissioner in command of the Wuwei Corps consisting of the 5 most modern armies led by Nie Shicheng, Dong Fuxiang, Song Qing, Yuan Shikai and Ronglu himself was helping the foreigners!

When the Boxer rebellion broke out, Prince Duan was pressuring Dong Fuxiang and his Kansu Army to seize the foreign legations. It was Ronglu who behind the scenes was sand bagging the entire situation. At first he tried to countermand orders to Dong Fuxiang, trying to stop him from attacking the foreign legations, but that gradually failed when Prince Duan began ordering anyone hampering the war effort to be arrested or killed. Then when Dong Fuxiang requested artillery to breach the legation defenses, Ronglu began blocking the transfer of artillery pieces and constantly made up excuses. Ronglu and Prince Qing coordinated efforts to sneak some food into the legations and even used their most loyal Manchu bannermen to perform minor attacks on the Kansu army and Boxers who were besieging the foreigners.

Ronglu also withheld orders that were to be sent to General Nie Shicheng in Tientsin, telling him they were at war with the foreigners, so for the majority of the time Nie Shicheng had thousands of his men still fighting the Boxers! Seymour getting past Nie Shicheng and the Tientsin settlement surviving as long as it did was specifically because of this action. Ronglu even tossed blame for inaction all upon Nie Shicheng, who luckily for Ronglu ended up dying before he could explain what had occurred. During the siege of the legations the major reason so many riflemen were aiming so high was because of Ronglu countermanning orders. As Dong Fuxiang would order the men to kill the foreigners, Ronglu continuously ordered men to just make it seem like they were helping the siege but not to kill the foreigners.  Yes one can argue the MVP of the 8 nation alliance was Qing Generals like Ronglu or Prince Qing. 

The foreigners knew none of this, but they would received enormous intelligence on July 18th from one of Colonel Shiba’s messengers who went over to Tientsin and returned confirming it was in allied hands. The messenger also told them a force of 11,000 British, Russian, Japanese, American and French would begin a march upon Beijing, starting on the 20th. MacDonald then invited a nearby Kansu officer to parley with him and the man reluctantly acquiesced. The men shared cigars and spoke using an interpreter. The officer asked MacDonald who the men wearing the big funny hats were and MacDonald explained they were American marines. The officer shrugged and stated his men were afraid of them because they were good shots. The officer then explained his superior was not Dong Fuxiang, but General Ronglu who had overall command. He also stated Ronglu wished the fighting to stop. MacDonald was puzzled by this and explained the fighting was never started by the foreigners. The officer was puzzled by that statement and said perhaps he should write to Ronglu to explain his views. Both men shook hands and departed.

MacDonald before departing the wall took one last look at the scenery and described the situation “I could see the enemy’s positions stretching away to the north until they disappeared in the direction of the Imperial City. There were barricades in the streets below the wall; a large temple was loopholed and . . . full of men; more men were amongst the ruins west of the Russian Legation and a species of mound which commanded this Legation and the Mongol Market was gay with the uniforms of hundreds of Imperial infantry. Following the line west of the Mongol Market, the tops of the houses carried nests of these bright-coated soldiery; altogether from my position I saw some 1,500 to 2,000 men, and many more must have been hidden behind the walls and ruined houses.

MacDonald wrote to Ronglu proposing rules of conduct going forward. He promised the foreigner forces would only fire if being attacked, except in the case of seeing Qing forces building barricades closer to them. Any unarmed persons who approached the legation defenses could do so safely but only two men at a time. MacDonald gave the letter to the officer he had talked to who delivered it to Ronglu. The very next day Ronglu sent a man carrying a flag of truce who came over to officially accept the proposals. However there was a catch. The man explained this would be on behalf of the forces loyal to Ronglu and Prince Qing, they were commanding the south and eastern portions of the siege, but Dong Fuxiang’s troops held the north and west. In fact the officials explained the officer whom MacDonald had spoken to was one of the very few Kansu soldiers who was willing to follow commands from Ronglu, Dong Fuxiang was quite the renegade.

It became clear after a few days the word truce was a bit of a misnomer, it was more of a half armistice. Some Qing were still mining close to the Hanlin and various barricade forces continued to fire upon the legations. Some Qing soldiers east of the Fu Palace began using a dog to send communications to the Japanese as noted by their officers “One day a large dog trotted into the Japanese barricade with a note tied round its neck; this was from the Chinese general commanding in that quarter pointing out the futility of further defense and recommending unconditional surrender. A reply, declining the suggestion in somewhat forcible terms, was tied on the dog’s neck, with which it trotted back, this was repeated several times, the dog seeming to enjoy the fun, the advisability of surrender being urged with greater insistence each time, the answers varied only in the strength of their language.” Some Qing troops began offering fruit, vegetables and chickens to the foreigners, bargaining for money. The Japanese even were able to barter for rifles and ammunition from some Qing soldiers. The Zongli Yamen began sending gifts of fruit, vegetables, even ice to the besieged, all in the name of Emperor Guangxu. Many worried the food was poisoned so they first gave it to a dog. A constant stream of letters began to go back and forth between the foreigners, Prince Qing and other moderate Qing officials. The recurring theme on behalf of the Qing was that the foreigners needed to depart Beijing and that the Zongli Yamen would provide protection to Tientsin. This was constantly ignored. The Qing government also began mediating on behalf of the ministers and their governments, ferrying messages back and forth.

On July 28th, the foreigners received word from the Shandong youth who had been sent out to Tientsin. He sent a letter back to them stating this “Your letter 4 July. There are now 24,000 troops landed, and 19,000 here. General Gaselee expected Ta-ku to-morrow. Russian troops are at Peitsang. Tientsin city is under foreign government and ‘Boxer’ power here is exploded. There are plenty of troops on the way if you can keep yourselves in food. Almost all the ladies have left Tientsin.” On August the 1st, another letter arrived dated from July 26th addressed to the Japanese Minister Baron Nishi. It officially stated troops were on their way, but they were delayed because of the railway damage, but their vanguard should arrive in two to three days. The foreigners checked their food stores noting they had 600 lbs of white rice, 11,5000 lbs of yellow rice and 34,000 pds of wheat left. They estimated it would last them 5 more weeks of siege alongside the 30 ponies they had left…poor ponies. Nigel Oliphant also noted “cigars and tobacco are running out, which is more serious to some of us than want of food.” The condition of the Christian Chinese at the Fu was horrible. As written in the diary of Lenox Simpson on July 24th “the miserable natives imprisoned by our warfare are in a terrible state of starvation. Their bones are cracking through their skin; their eyes have an insane look; yet nothing is being done for them. They are afraid to attempt escape even in this quiet, as the Water Gate is watched on the outside night and day by Chinese sharpshooters....Tortured by the sight of these starving wretches, who moan and mutter night and day, the posts nearby shoot down dogs and crows and drag them there. They say everything is devoured raw with cannibal-like cries.” I should note, while you hear sympathies from some accounts by the foreigners in regards to the Christian Chinese, by no means were they distributing out food equally amongst them. As you can only imagine with the 19th century attitudes, the Chinese were treated like subhumans.

After a few days it seemed the half armistice was fading away. The Qing were constructing a large barricade across the north bridge which the foreigners began to use the International gun against. Qing sharpshooters took up positions to thwart the men using the international gun. The barricade reached 6 feet high over the length of the bridge. The foreigners reacted by building their own barricade over the south bridge securing communications between the British and the other legations. All the while the Zongli Yamen was sending reassurances and advising the foreign community to take their offer to depart under their protection.

By August the 4th, there was still no sign of a relief force and the truce was certainly all but over as artillery were pounding the legations heavily. Back on July 26th, the former governor of Shandong, Li Bingheng had come to Beijing and began pressuring the Boxers and Qing to ramp up the siege efforts. Empress Dowager Cixi favored Li Bingheng and gave him the rare honor of riding within the forbidden city before the received the promotion to Deputy commander of the Northern armies. Two days after he showed up, two moderate Qing officials were executed as traitors for criticizing the Boxers and advocating to lift the siege. Three other moderate officials would follow days later in what was becoming a purge within the court. More Boxers began to flood Beijing, cowing the surviving moderates into submission. A very nervous Prince Qing wrote to some southern viceroys and governors who all agreed the Boxers needed to be suppressed, but Prince Qing did not dare publicly give the order.

When Vice Admiral Seymour  was rescued from his rescue attempt he sent word to the British admiralty that at least 40,000 troops would be needed to lift the siege at Beijing. The other nations such as American thought it should be 80,000, Japan estimated 70,000. But the logistics of mounting an international rescue became difficult quickly. Not all the great powers involved could afford to muster troops at this time, hell America was fighting a war in the Philippines; Britain was fighting the Boer war; the French were fighting in IndoChina and the Russias had a full on war in Manchuria, that we will tackle later. Japan was one of the few nations free and quite able to send a large force, so the other nations appealed to Japan who agreed to send an additional 20,000 men to Tientsin. Then there was the issue of a supreme allied commander. Kaiser Wilhelm, as usual sought to grab the reigns for Germany and used von Ketteler’s murder as justification. Kaiser Wilhelm nominated Field Marshal Count von Waldersee whom would go on to say of the appointment “a Japanese Supreme Command, no less than an American, was out of the question from the start. The French had not made any effort to get the Supreme Command, leaving only Russia and Britain as Germany’s rivals. But, neither would concede it to the other, and, moreover, no one favored England, as the reputation of the English Generalship had suffered a set-back in the Boer War.” The Kaiser persuaded Russia and Japan to back his nominee and everyone abided by the decision. Von Waldersee was set to depart for China on August 18th. Meanwhile in Berlin, the Kaiser gave a speech, tossing away the prepared text for his own words “You must know, my men, that you are about to meet a crafty, well-armed foe! Meet him and beat him! Give no quarter! Take no prisoners! Kill him when he falls into your hands! Even as, a thousand years ago, the Huns under their King Attila made such a name for themselves as still resounds in terror through legend and fable, so may the name of Germany resound through Chinese history . . . that never again will a Chinese dare to so much as look askance at a German.” Ironic he made the link about the Huns and Attila haha.

By the end of July, 25,000 men were at Taku and Tientsin with a lot more on the way. Britain was calling up forces from India, America from the Philippines. Tientsin was swimming with foreign troops, so much so, Doctors began vaccinating their men against smallpox. Tensions were mounting, as most of these nations were in proxy wars with another. The Russians and Japanese particularly did not like each other. 

Then on July 27th, as quite a cheeky maneuver, the British commander in chief General Gaselee, began to argue there was a need for quick action. He was met by resistance from the French and Russians who cautioned delay, but Gaselee argued “The rainy season will set in in a few day and the whole place will be under water.” Gaselee determined to take control of the situation suddenly told the other leaders Britain would go it alone if necessary. The Americans backed him thus forcing the hand of the others, for none of the other great powers wanted to see Britain and America steal the glory. It was agreed they would all march on August 5th as an international relief force and they would be quite a sight to behold as told to us by US Marine officer Smedley Butler :“French Zouaves in red and blue, blond Germans in pointy helmets, Italian Bersaglieri with tossing plumes, Bengal cavalry on Arabian stallions, turbaned Sikhs, Japanese, Russians, English. we are going to fight the greatest battle at Pekin that has been fought for one hundred years.

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 Qing were at war with 8 different great powers and even amongst themselves in many ways. The Taku forts had fallen, Tientsin had fallen and now the 8 nation alliance was going to march upon Beijing, by all means it was time to toss in the towel wasn't it?