mixed body of marines and bluejackets of various nationalities, numbering 18 officers and 389 men, had reached Peking on the 1st of June for the protection of the legations. The whole city was in a state of turmoil. Murder and pillage were of daily occurrence. The reactionary Prince Tuan (grandson of the emperor Tao-kwang) and the Manchus generally, together with the Kan-suh soldiery under the notorious Tung-fu-hsiang, openly sided with the Boxers. The European residents and a large number of native converts took refuge in the British legation, where preparations were hastily made in view of a threatened attack. On the 11th the chancellor of the Japanese legation, Mr Sugiyama, was murdered by Chinese soldiers. On the night of the 13th most of the foreign buildings, churches and mission houses in the eastern part of the Tatar city were pillaged and burnt, and hundreds of native Christians massacred. On the 20th of June the German minister, Baron von Ketteler, was murdered whilst on his way to the Tsung-Li-Yamen. At 4 p.m. on the afternoon of the 20th the Chinese troops opened fire upon the legations. The general direction of the defence was undertaken by Sir Claude Macdonald, the British minister.
Meanwhile Peking had been completely cut off since the 14th
from all communication with the outside world, and in view of
the gravity of the situation, naval and military forces
were being hurried up by all the powers to the Gulf
national expedition. of Chih-li. On the 10th of June Admiral Sir E. Seymour had already left Tientsin with a mixed force of 2000 British, Russian, French, Germans, Austrians, Italians, Americans and Japanese, to repair the railway and restore communications with Peking. But his expedition met with unexpectedly severe resistance, and it had great difficulty in making good its retreat after suffering heavy losses. When it reached Tientsin again on the 26th of June, the British contingent of 915 men had alone lost 124 killed and wounded out of a total casualty list of 62 killed and 218 wounded. The Chinese had in the meantime made a determined attack upon the foreign settlements at Tientsin, and communication between the city and the sea being also threatened, the Taku forts at the mouth of the Pei-ho were captured by the allied admirals on the 17th. The situation at Tientsin nevertheless continued precarious, and it was not till the arrival of considerable reinforcements that the troops of the allied powers were able to assume the offensive, taking the native city by storm on July 14th, at a cost, however, of over 700 killed and wounded. Even in this emergency international jealousy had grievously delayed the necessary concentration of forces. No power was so favourably situated to take immediate action as Japan, and the British government, who had strongly urged her to act speedily and energetically, undertook at her request to sound the other powers with regard to her intervention. No definite objection was raised, but the replies of Germany and Russia barely disguised their ill-humour. Great Britain herself went so far as to offer Japan the assistance of the British treasury, in case financial difficulties stood in the way, but on the same day on which this proposal was telegraphed to Tokyo (6th of July), the Japanese government had decided to embark forthwith the two divisions which it had already mobilized. By the beginning of August one of the Indian brigades had also reached Tientsin together with smaller reinforcements sent by the other powers, and thanks chiefly to the energetic counsels of the British commander, General Sir Alfred Gaselee, a relief column, numbering 20,000 men, at last set out for Peking on the 4th of August, a British naval brigade having started up river the previous afternoon. After a series of small engagements and very trying marches it arrived within striking distance of Peking on the evening of the 13th. The Russians tried to steal a march upon the allies during the night, but were checked at the walls and suffered heavy losses. The Japanese attacked another point of the walls the next morning, but met with fierce opposition, whilst the Americans were delayed by getting entangled in the Russian line of advance. The British contingent was more fortunate, and skilfully guided to an unguarded water-gate, General Gaselee and a party of Sikhs were the first to force their way through to the British legation. About 2 p.m. on the afternoon of the 14th of August, the long siege was raised.
For nearly six weeks after the first interruption of communications,
no news reached the outside world from Peking except a
few belated messages, smuggled through the Chinese
lines by native runners, urging the imperative necessity
the Peking legations. of prompt relief. During the greater part of that period the foreign quarter was subjected to heavy rifle and artillery fire, and the continuous fighting at close quarters with the hordes of Chinese regulars, as well as Boxers, decimated the scanty ranks of the defenders. The supply of both ammunition and food was slender. But the heroism displayed by civilians and professional combatants alike was inexhaustible. In their anxiety to burn out the British legation, the Chinese did not hesitate to set fire to the adjoining buildings of the Hanlin, the ancient seat of Chinese classical learning, and the storehouse of priceless literary treasures and state archives. The Fu, or palace, of Prince Su, separated only by a canal from the British legation, formed the centre of the international position, and was held with indomitable valour by a small Japanese force under Colonel Sheba, assisted by a few Italian marines and volunteers of other nationalities and a number of Christian Chinese. The French legation on the extreme right, and the section of the city wall held chiefly by Germans and Americans, were also points of vital importance which had to bear the brunt of the Chinese attack.
Little is known as to what passed in the councils of the Chinese court during the siege. But there is reason to believe that throughout that period grave divergences of opinion existed amongst the highest officials. The attack upon the legations appears to have received the sanction of the dowager-empress, acting upon the advice of Prince Tuan and the extreme Manchu party, at a grand council held during the night of the 18th/19th June, upon receipt of the news of the capture of the Taku forts by the international forces. The emperor himself, as well as Prince Ching and a few other influential mandarins, strongly protested against the empress’s decision, but it was acclaimed by the vast majority of those present. Three members of the Tsung-Li-Yamen were publicly executed for attempting to modify the terms of an imperial edict ordering the massacre of all foreigners throughout the provinces, and most of the Manchu nobles and high officials, and the eunuchs of the palace, who played an important part in Chinese politics throughout the dowager-empress’s tenure of power, were heart and soul with the Boxers. But it was noted by the defenders of the legations that Prince Ching’s troops seldom took part, or only in a half-hearted way, in the fighting, which was chiefly conducted by Tung-fu-hsiang’s soldiery and the Boxer levies. The modern artillery which the Chinese possessed was only spasmodically brought into play. Nor did any of the attacking parties ever show the fearlessness and determination which the Chinese had somewhat unexpectedly displayed on several occasions during the fighting at and around Tientsin. Nevertheless, the position of the defenders at the end of the first four weeks of the siege had grown well-nigh desperate. Mining and incendiarism proved far greater dangers than shot and shell. Suddenly, just when things were looking blackest, on the 17th of July the Chinese ceased firing, and a sort of informal armistice secured a period of respite for the beleaguered Europeans. The capture of the native city of Tientsin by the allied forces had shaken the self-confidence of the Chinese authorities, who had hitherto not only countenanced, but themselves directed the hostilities. Desultory fighting, nevertheless, continued, and grave fears were entertained that the approach of the relief column would prove the signal for a desperate attempt to rush the legations. The attempt was made, but failed. The relief, however, came not a day too soon. Of the small band of defenders which, including civilian volunteers, had never mustered 500, 65 had been killed and 131 wounded. Ammunition and provisions were almost at an end. Even more desperate was the situation at the Pei-tang, the Roman Catholic northern cathedral and mission house, where, with the help of a small body of French and Italian marines, Mgr Favier had organized an independent centre of resistance for his community of over 3000souls. Their rations were absolutely exhausted when, on the 15th
- The diary of a Manchu noble printed in China under the Empress Dowager (1910) by J. O. Bland and E. Backhouse throws light on the subject. It was to Jung-Lu, father-in-law of Prince Chin, that the legations owed their escape from extermination.
- It was at this time (July 17th) that the intense anxiety of the civilized world with regard to the fate of the besieged reached its culminating point. Circumstantial accounts of the fall of the legations and the massacre of their inmates were circulated in Shanghai and found general credence. It was not till near the end of the month that an authentic message from the American minister proved these fears to be premature.