Ch 1: From Honeymoon to Hell in Tientsin

The SS Ethiopa drew into a grimy Port Glasgow dock at 3 o'clock this morning, delayed eleven hours by a storm of such ferocity that Moville was closed to all movements; and when we were eventually able to leave, the four hour crossing had taken twice that time. Mary was sick from the swell and it was with some relief that we at last reached our hotel, the Tontine in Greenock.
   We had spent a glorious fortnight meandering the lanes and byways of Northern Ireland, and Glasgow was to be the starting point for the second chapter of our honeymoon. It was far too early for certainty, of course, but I was sure that I had glimpsed a mother-to-be glint in Mary's eye. Our two short weeks of married life had been blissful but little did I know how quickly this was to change. I took the telegram handed to me by the bell-boy at the reception desk; and when I saw the signatory "Ochs", I knew at once the importance of this message. The owner of the New York Times had deemed this matter of sufficient urgency to contact me directly and instruct me to travel with the utmost haste to China.
   I had been keeping a journalist's eye on the developing situation, and I was aware of the growing threat from the Boxers, and that the Legations in Peking were in imminent danger of being overrun. I was familiar with the general concerns, but little of specific note had appeared in the British press; and in Ireland it had proved difficult to find news from America. The bell-boy was able to find a two-week old copy of the Daily Express and from the words of the Shanghai Correspondent, it was clear that the situation was, in fact, critical and that I must leave immediately.

Mary read the telegram and the Daily Express article several times and I knew that she understood the inevitability of our urgent departure. This had ruined our newly-wed time together, though, and under no circumstances would she accept my plan to return to Port Glasgow before we had even unpacked. We could have made the departure of the SS Astoria, leaving for New York at 8 o'clock, but she refused and for the first time I saw the mix of hurt and anger that was another side of her; a side I neither knew nor wished to see more of. We agreed instead that we would join the SS Furnessia, leaving at 10 o'clock the next morning. This would see us in New York by July 5th; then to the Lamson family home in New Jersey where Mary would stay for the duration of my trip. I would then take the train to San Francisco, arriving on the 9th or 10th.
   This itinerary left little room for time-slips but it was a workable plan and, in truth, I was excited at the prospect of another commission, in another theatre, in another country. I knew, though, that there would not be many more; tinged by the regret of being apart, the excitement would never be the same.

Remembering the Killing Fields of Kumassi
The SS Furnessia had reached New York on schedule and Mary is now back with her family. I boarded the train at six-thirty this morning and in front of me lies the tedious three day train journey to San Francisco. My fellow passengers are mainly men from the services transiting between duties, and businessmen chasing the opportunities that foreign conflicts always bring to the fore. There is also a strong contingent of fellow press, and I was pleased to see amongst them my friend Bennet Burleigh from the Daily Telegraph.
   We paid the conductor what seemed like an exorbitant amount to find seats for us together; but this was a mere pittance, in fact, for turning the trip from what would otherwise have been mind-numbing monotony to the excitement of speculation and anticipation about our imminent foray into the lands of the Qing dynasty, and reminiscences of our time spent in East Africa.
   Other than a general understanding that they were an anti-Christian, anti-foreign peasant movement, related to the secret societies that had flourished in China for centuries, we knew little of the Boxers. What was clear, though, from the reports of Morrison, from the Times, was that the fate of those trapped in the foreign legations of Peking was in the balance, and that occurrences of murder and atrocity featured routinely in the Boxer campaign. This immediately brought to mind the analogous situation that we had experienced some four years earlier with the Ashanti expedition to relieve Kumassi from the brutal oppression of Prempeh. The similarities were almost eerie: a long and difficult journey to a foreign port of arrival; a forced march with enemy attack a constant threat; power-crazed military leaders bereft of any moral compass; and the sacrifice of innocent lives the ultimate cost of failure.
   It would be some time before we reached China and we could, of course, only wonder what we would find and what fate awaited us. I can not recall that we ever discussed our fears openly but I am certain that both of us prayed that we would not have to re-live the horrors that had haunted us since Kumassi.

From San Francisco for Tientsin
Unlike the chaos that had prevailed during the Cuba troop deployment at Tampa Bay, efficiency, urgency, clear communications and disciplined organisation characterised the military operations that we encountered when we pulled in to the rail terminus at San Francisco. In a little over four weeks, more than 6,000 troops had been mobilised and were transiting through the port, thirty ships were already en route via Manila, Guam and the Philippines, and a further ten were set to depart within days.
   Within an hour of our arrival, we learned that USS Yorktown had already sailed but we had been allocated alternative berths on USS Solace. We were also advised that there would be a press briefing at 6 o'clock, which gave me just over an hour to contact Adolph Ochs at the New York Times to clarify and confirm the details of my commission.
   The briefing was a straightforward chronological summary of the facts and events to date; understated and unhindered by emotion or opinion, and it will serve well to simply repeat it here, verbatim:
Gentlemen, USS Solace will depart San Francisco at 04.00 tomorrow, 13th July for Tientsin, China. We will be travelling at top speed and it is expected that we will arrive on 27th July. I will now outline the details of the operation, beginning with the burning of a station on the Lu Han railway line on 17th May. This was the first indication that a move to expel foreigners from China had broken out. Previous to this, the Foreign Ministers at Peking had sent a joint note to the Chinese Government calling attention to the Boxer troubles, but it cannot be said that even the signatories themselves fully realised the extent of this.
   From the 17th May, events followed each other with startling rapidity. On 26th May, the Boxers burned the stations on the Railway between Peking and Paotingfu; Fengtai station and works were burnt; and railway communication between Peking and Tientsin was interrupted, while the Belgian engineers and other refugees from Paotingfu had to leave and make their way to Tientsin.
   Communication with Peking was temporarily restored on the 29th May, at which time Foreign Ministers urgently requested military guards for their respective Legations. On the 30th May these forces began to arrive at Tientsin. On the 31st, British, American, French, Russian, Italian and Japanese guards for the Legations left Tientsin by rail. They reached Peking safely, but their presence triggered further outbreaks of increased violence. A fire occurred in Tientsin on the 1st June and on 5th, railway communication between Peking and Tientsin was finally cut.
   A large force landed at Taku on the 7th June and on the 10th Admiral Seymour left Tientsin with 2,000 Allied troops to attempt the relief of the Legations. At the same time all communication between the Legations and the outside world suddenly ceased. On the 11th June the Secretary of the Japanese Legation was murdered in the streets of Peking, and on the 20th, Baron von Ketteler, the German Minister, who was proceeding to interview the members of the Tsungli Yamen about this, was killed in the streets by an officer of the regular Chinese troops.
   On 14th June Admiral Seymour was completely cut off, the railway having been destroyed behind him. Communication between his force and Tientsin was lost. At this time the position at Tientsin became critical, the city now being completely in the hands of the Boxers. All the Christian Chapels in the city were burned and many native Christians murdered.
   On the 16th June the Allied naval commanders demanded the surrender of the Taku forts, but in reply to this ultimatum, the forts opened fire on the foreign gunboats in the Peiho River early on the morning of the 17th. After a fierce fight between the gunboats and the forts, a magazine in one of the forts was blown up by a shell, and the other forts were taken by storm.
   On the same date the Chinese commenced the bombardment of Tientsin. Two attempts to reach Tientsin from Taku failed, but a third attempt on 23rd June was successful, although the Chinese Boxers and regular soldiers remained in force in the neighbourhood, and the bombardment from the city continued.
   Admiral Seymour, who had managed to force his way to within 25 miles of Peking, found further advance impossible, and was compelled to retreat. On 26th June, being joined by a small force from Tientsin, he succeeded in returning there in safety. Foreign troops had in the meanwhile been arriving at Taku, and it was possible to reinforce Tientsin.
   Messages from Sir Robert Hart, Sir Claude Macdonald and Mr. Conner were received through native runners on the 30th June and 1st July, all of which reported the situation of the Legations as desperate.
   On the 9th July the Japanese captured the Tientsin Arsenal, and yesterday, the 11th, the Allies made a combined attack on the native city, which was recaptured, but with heavy losses.
   Thank you Gentlemen. That is all the information we have at this time. We have some additional information to analyse and, when this analysis is completed, there will be further briefings on board.
   Although this filled in a lot of the gaps in our general understanding of the situation, it was clear - mainly from what was left unsaid - that for some considerable time no communication had been received from Peking. This ominous silence gave rise to the gravest fears for the safety of the besieged foreigners, and lent credence to the disturbing rumours of bloodshed and massacre that were circulating.
   With one or two exceptions, we had all seen battle before but, in truth, on this occasion we had no real idea of what to expect, and it was with mixed feelings of fear and excitement that in the grey slivers of dawn, we slipped quietly from the San Francisco sea-wall, heading towards the unknown.

The Truth of Tientsin … Relief or Revenge?
We are now just days away from Tientsin; a force of many thousands massing to relieve those poor souls trapped in the foreign legations at Peking. But they are now telling us that all are already dead; tortured, murdered, slaughtered by these Chinese barbarians. So who is left for us to rescue? Has our mission failed by days? Are we here to relieve? Or are we now here to revenge?
   We can not be certain of course, until we arrive and can see for ourselves the truth of what has taken place at Peking. For now, we have only the press headlines to inform us; and we can only pray that they are an exaggeration of reality.

   Past the burning forts at Taku, the USS Solace slid from the Yellow sea into the Bohai basin and found her berth amongst the dozens of gunboats and warships clogging the harbour. With little but rumours of murder and slaughter to inform us, it was with a terrible sense of foreboding that we disembarked.
   For a description to capture that moment, I could have likened it only to walking into the depths of Hades itself. The overpowering stench was more revolting than any I had suffered, even in the fetid swamps of Kumassi; and was matched in intensity only by the visual horrors before us. There was hardly a building standing and a pall of thick smoke hung everywhere, giving an acrid, ugly taste to the very air that we breathed. Thousands of people milled aimlessly from ruin to ruin; or squatted, expressionless, like dumb animals unaware that they were about to be slaughtered.
   Everywhere was chaos. Putrid corpses lay rotting in the streets, while women and children ran in terror from the carnage around them or stood huddled, almost comatose, in abject groups. Side-by-side, soldiers and civilians together were bent on a rampage of open looting, interrupted only by sporadic gunfire as before my eyes, people were shot for carrying some minor cudgel or knife in a pointless attempt to protect themselves.
   The madness of this devilish vista was compounded by the vision of a solitary family still grasping for a finger-hold on normality as they sat together eating the scraps of a meal in the ruin of their destroyed home.
   As we moved to quarters in the military compound, I knew that tomorrow I must locate somebody, somewhere in this place who could un-clutter and re-paint the horrendous pictures now filling my mind with the sharpness and clarity that comes from fact rather than from the nightmares of imagination.

The Ruins of Tientsin City

The Women and Children of Tientsin

Tientsin ... the Nightmare Continues
I had barely settled in to my billet when a thundering rattle of my door introduced Bennet Burleigh. It was only a matter of hours since we had disembarked from the USS Solace together but now, almost incoherent with his urgency, I could not recall ever seeing such a dramatic change in any man in so short a time. He insisted that I accompany him immediately to meet the correspondent of the Shanghai Mercury who, Burleigh shouted, "knows what has happened."
   We sprinted across the harbour square to the north wall of the old city, now the base for a swarthy, heavily armed squad of Russian troops. Burleigh's contact was there, squatting against the wall, surrounded by an ugly, threatening crowd driven by what I could only describe as a mix of blood-lust, hatred and terror in their wild-eyed raging. His camera was focussed on three bloodied bodies that lay at his feet; and it seemed that his journalistic integrity had rendered him completely oblivious to the life-threatening mob around him.
   Burleigh snatched up his camera while I dragged him to his feet; and we made off down the crumbling steps. Some spirit must have been watching over us because, instead of giving chase as we feared, the mob stayed atop the wall. We raced around the base of the wall, desperately searching for some cover or hiding place; only to hurtle almost headlong into the backs of another crowd, so close that we instantly saw the executioner's blade at the start of its downswing and the collapse of the headless body as it crumpled to the blood-strewn earth.
   I have witnessed killings in other wars, just as cruel and just as barbarous, but I have never before experienced such revulsion or such terror as on this evil day, in this evil place.

The Correspondent at Work

A Boxer Execution Taking Place

Execution Aftermath

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