Ch 3: Life inside the Peking Legations

To set the record for those who consider such exactitude important, although General Chaffee's force actually entered the city before any other, it was British troops that arrived first inside the Legation Quarter. The regimental colours of the 14th Infantry were the first to fly over Peking and the men of the 14th were the first to set foot inside the city at a little after 2 pm, but the enemy resistance that we encountered had held up our advance for some one and a half hours and, meanwhile, the British had entered the city at the Zua-anmen gate. Without sight of a single enemy soldier, they had followed a road to a position opposite the legations, where they set up a temporary headquarters near the Temple of Heaven. Then, shortly before 3 o'clock that afternoon Captain Pell, A.D.C to General Gaselee; Lieutenant Keys, a Sikh officer, and four Sikh privates walked into the Legation gardens.
   Some thirty minutes later, the 14th Infantry entered the inner city through the Water gate, at the same time as Captain Reilly's battery was passing through the Chien-men gate, which had been opened for them by the American and Russian marine guards of the besieged Legations. First or second into the city meant nothing, though, as we were all greeted by a cheering throng of the besieged foreigners, all decked out in their finery; all wishing to hug us and shake our hands.
   All afternoon the allied forces came pouring into the Legation compound in an endless succession until the lawn was fairly covered with them. Everybody was dancing for joy, and some could scarcely restrain their tears. Amid this cheering and jubilation, the confusion was as great as the euphoria and every new troop was greeted as the bringer of victory and deliverance. As a sharp reminder, however, that our task was far from over, some Chinese soldiers still in hiding around the walls of the Legation Quarter kept up an intermittent threat by firing into the crowds. A Belgian women received a flesh wound to the side of her face; and a Bengal Lancer, whose troop had been sent out in defence of the barricades was sadly killed when, looking through a loophole, he was instantly struck by a bullet to his face.
   At about 4.30 pm. General Gasalee and General Chaffee met with Minister Conger and Sir Claude McDonald, the senior US and British Legation diplomats and, to ensure that the joyous mood of that evening did not get out of hand, the British decided to maintain their headquarters at the Temple of Heaven and General Chaffee agreed to withdraw our troops from the Legation quarters and camp just outside the wall for the night. As the only correspondent with the 14th Infantry, though, I considered that my place at that time was with the foreigners inside the Legations so, with Chaffee's permission, I re-entered the quarters and soon found myself in the company of one Arthur Smith, an American missionary, who summed up the military situation for me. "It's a miracle that we have survived at all," he said, "but we can't understand why the Chinese did not extinguish our defences. If they had been ready to make a sacrifice of just a few hundred lives, we would all be dead now."
   Missionary Smith was an avuncular sort of fellow; one who would hold the affection and respect of his fellows in any circle of which he was a part. He had much to tell me and for this report, it is worth repeating his own words
"Many of the Chinese Christians who have been sheltering here and Chinese soldiers have been killed, but we have not been able to record how their numbers. What we do know is that the foreign guards who have been defending the Legations have suffered heavy casualties. Up to yesterday's count, of the 409 guards, 55 are dead and 135 wounded. It seems odd but our records show that the small Japanese force of one officer and 24 sailors commanded by Colonel Shiba suffered greater than 100 percent casualties. This happened because many of the Japanese troops, including Colonel Shiba, were wounded, entered into the casualty lists, and then returned to the line of battle only to be wounded once more and again entered in the casualty lists. In addition, 13 civilians have been killed and 24 wounded, mostly men who took part in the defence."
   "Almost everybody helped with some part of the defence effort and we had committees of all kinds. It was an American idea, and there were about forty altogether, one a cobbling committee to mend our shoes, another a washing committee to wash out clothes, a third a milling committee to grind the wheat, and so forth. The idea was a good one, and some of the committees did valuable work. But head and shoulders above all others as the most important man in our small community was an American missionary, Frank Gamewell who was the head of our fortifications committee. Where he got his ideas about fort and barricade building and construction? I don't know; probably he doesn't know himself, but he had a genius for the work. No Royal Engineer could have done it better, and he did everything without a fuss of any kind. "Gamewell," we said, "we want a barricade, here, or a trench there, or a gun platform somewhere else". Not another word was necessary. Mr. Gamewell got together his team, known as the 'Fighting Parsons', and his coolies, you know we had a lot of native Christians in the compound, who did the labouring work for us, and in less time than most men would have taken talking about how the job was to be done the thing was complete. He raised no difficulties, asked no one's opinion, took up nobody's time with questions, simply got the work done, and surprised us all by the ingenuity and excellence of it. Mr. Gamewell and Colonel Shiba were our two best men without whom it does not seem possible we could have won through. I tell you now, after knowing these two men, I am beginning to lose my blind, unquestioning faith in Englishmen as the solitary salt of the earth."
   Smith and I talked for some hours, until I had to leave and make my way back to my quarters, or face the post-curfew challenge of the US sentries. As I walked back through the gathering dark, I thought about the times I had spent with many brave, outstanding men from foreign lands; and I could not help but agree with him.

Frank Gamewell and his Fighting Parsons

Consolidating our Position
We broke our camp at 5 am. on the morning of 15th August and moved in column back towards the Water Gate entrance to the inner city. Upon entering the Legations, the cheering and glad-handing of the previous day was continued, but the appearance of the people and their surroundings, buildings, streets and homes, presented us with clear evidence of how they must have suffered during the siege. Barricades of every sort of material were built everywhere, topped with sandbags made from every conceivable sort of cloth, from sheets and pillowcases to dress materials and brocaded curtains. Most of the Legations had been reduced to piles of rubble, and those of the British, Russian, and American residents, though standing and occupied, were riddled with bullet holes from small arms fire and, often, with larger gaping holes made by shell.
   The children presented a pitiable sight, white and wan for lack of proper food, but the adults, as a rule, seemed cheerful and little the worse for their trying experience, except from anxiety and constant worry. The Legations had been ransacked for supplies but food and water were seriously inadequate, with most living on short rations, a portion of which consisted of a few mouthfuls of horse or mule meat daily. The Chinese Christians had fared worse than most, being fed upon whatever scraps could be secured, and often reduced to killing dogs and rats for meat. American missionaries had taken over the management of sanitation and health and although medical supplies were also scarce, the doctors and nurses had managed to operate a field hospital that had saved many lives.
   The Legation guards were not well armed and only the American marines had sufficient ammunition. The defenders had just three machine guns and a small cannon but, fortunately, an old cannon barrel and ammunition had been found and from it a serviceable artillery piece with the original Italian carriage and a British barrel firing Russian shells had somehow been forged. This was manned by marines of the American guard, who had christened their fearsome weapon "Betsy;" to everybody else, though, it was known as the "International."
   General Chaffee had been informed by Minister Conger that part of the Imperial City directly in front of the Chien-men gate had been used by the Chinese as a base to fire on the Legations. Our scouts had reported that this enemy force was still in position and Chaffee had decided to force the Chinese troops out. It took some time to prepare our attack but by 7 am. four guns of Captain Reilly's 5th Artillery battery had been hauled to the top of the wall above Chien-men gate and proceeded to sweep the walls to the west, all the way to the next gate, from where there was some slight opposition supported by poor artillery. At about 8 o'clock, the Chinese opened fire on us at Chien-men gate, whereupon General Chaffee deployed a direct attack on the first Imperial City gate, and in a short while Reilly's second-in-command, Lieutenant Charles P. Summerall had opened the door of this gate. The 14th Infantry and the Marines entered, and were immediately met with severe fire from the next gate, about 600 yards distant.
   Our fire was directed upon this second gate and in less than half an hour the Chinese guns was silenced. Colonel Daggett led forward the 14th to the base of the gate and directed Lieutenant Summerall to open this gate with artillery, which he did. This assault pattern was then repeated for a total of four gates, the Chinese troops being driven from each one in succession. The fourth gate presented no direct threat because it was at the rear of the Imperial City, near an area known as the Palace Grounds, which was only lightly defended by the "Imperial Guards", and it was here that General Chaffee called a halt to the action.
   And then, the news that brought grief to all of us. Captain Henry Reilly had been killed. At just a few minutes before 9 o'clock, the courageous commander of the Artillery battery that had supported us and taken a decisive stance in every battle that we had fought from Tientsin to Peking, had taken a bullet in the mouth and died almost instantly while standing next to General Chaffee observing the effect of a shot from one of his guns. With his deep sadness quelled by an innate sense of duty and responsibility, Lieutenant Summerall immediately assumed the de facto role of acting battery commander.
   We were now in a position to take control of the Imperial City but at a conference in the afternoon a majority of the Legation Ministers and the alliance Commanders decided that only the grounds should be occupied. I am sure that General Chaffee was not in agreement with this, but he nevertheless deployed his forces accordingly, with the 14th Infantry and some Marines on three sides of the grounds in cover positions, to provide a full cross-fire defence; the remaining Marine battalion on the fourth side, protecting the ground back to the Legation Quarters; the Artillery battery on the wall above the Chien-men gate; and the 9th Infantry at the gate where our earlier attack had ceased. Thus, by mid-afternoon, we were embedded and had set up established defence positions against attack from all sides. There was a general acknowledgement that the battle had probably not yet reached its conclusion, but it was unlikely that there would be any more fighting today.
   Having been in similar positions of conflict on a number of other occasions, I knew that this was the time at which Generals needed casualty lists for their despatches. I also knew that all the men were exhausted, so I approached Colonel Daggett and volunteered myself for this task. He assigned a trooper to accompany me and we scurried off at half-crouch around the three miles or so that now made up our perimeter. We took a couple of desultory sniper shots but, unhurt, we were back in less than two hours with our list which detailed that, apart from the tragic death of Captain Reilly, our casualties for 14th and 15th August, culminating in our attack upon the four Imperial City gates, were:

   5th Artillery: 1 officer and 2 enlisted men killed; 8 enlisted men wounded
   9th Infantry: 2 officers and 3 enlisted men killed; 4 enlisted men wounded
   14th Infantry: 7 officers and 6 enlisted man killed; 22 enlistedmen wounded
   US Marines: 1 officer and 9 enlisted men killed; 5 enlisted men wounded

Heroes all - and I am certain that nobody in Peking on that day would disagree.

Legation Guards Manning Their Barricades

The Relief of Peking ... Aftermath
It was with strange feelings that we rose on the morning of 16th August. In less than twenty-four hours the entire experience of our expedition had changed. The crowds had been greatly excited at our arrival the day before, but now people rushed to and fro in urgent, animated groups to discuss the latest news or probabilities. The whole place was in a turmoil; the trappings of battle were everywhere; guns, ammunition wagons, baggage trains, carts, clogged all the roads and passageways. The lawns and gardens were crowded with soldiers and civilians, every yard of space and every corner packed. The arrival of the relief force should have restored order and a sense of normality; for the moment, though, it seemed as if confusion and rumour were the orders of the day.
   It was widely believed that the Dowager Empress, Cixi, disguised as a peasant woman, together with the emperor and several members of the court, had slipped out of the city in three wooden carts at the moment the allies entered. Her departure, along with the immediate subjugation suffered at the hands of the alliance forces, had triggered a total breakdown in morale and disciple amongst the Chinese, and the disintegration of the Boxer movement in the city.
   The Chinese forces were in disarray, fleeing the city in their thousands; and the fire of numerous clearing skirmishes was a constant rumble as the Japanese worked their way around the north of the Imperial City, while the Americans and French were shelling the entrance to the Palace from the south by the Chien-men. The noise of a significant battle taking place some distance to the north could be heard all over the city, but nobody in our force knew what this was and it came as an enormous surprise to all of us when two runners came in and reported that the Catholic Cathedral at Peitang had been relieved by Japanese troops who had engaged the Boxers surrounding the Cathedral and, after a barrage lasting less than an hour, had put them to flight. They had then entered the Cathedral but, without a common language, they and the besieged were both confused. Shortly afterwards, however, French troops arrived and marched into the Cathedral to the cheers of the survivors. As the Cathedral was located inside the grounds of the Imperial City, about two miles from the Legation Quarter, nobody had any idea that during the siege, almost 4000 people had sought sanctuary within the stone walls, which had been defended for more than a month by only 41 French and Italian marines, led by two French officers.
   At a conference of the generals on the afternoon of the 16th, the city area was divided up and sections allocated to the various forces for security and protection of the inhabitants. The 14th Infantry and the marines were assigned to the west half of the city, and to that section lying between the Chien-men gate and the south wall of the Imperial city. I would have been part of this activity but, now that the main fighting appeared to be behind us, I had other priorities than to continue my attachment with the US forces. After clearing my departure with General Chaffee, and bidding my farewells to the brave troops who had become my friends and brothers-in-arms, I set off with the notion of reporting on the developing situation inside the Legation quarter.
   Making my way through the outer grounds, past the Italian, French, German and Japanese compounds, I met not a soul but saw that every wall and roof was down and the whole place levelled to the ground. There was nothing more than a vast field of smashed brick and rubble, in which it was difficult even to trace the ground plan of the houses. I passed a well that had been filled in; a dead body rotting in the drain. Nothing remained standing and not a tree, not a stick, not a shrub had survived; I was walking in a bare and empty wilderness.
   As I neared the larger and better defended American, Russian and British legations, however, I came across an occasional house or shop that was untouched, from where a few people came out professing friendliness and welcoming me like a lost brother, offering me tea and such-like tokens of goodwill. It was not difficult to see through their thinly veiled hypocrisy, or to guess why they had suffered no harm. I declined their offers but I did go into a large pawn-shop, where I surmised that a number of foreigners would have deposited their treasures for safe keeping. If, indeed, they had done so, their belongings were now lost. The shop was deserted, empty, looted. Nothing remained except heaps of paper, account books, pawn tickets, and other rubbish.
   More and more people were around as I walked up South Bridge road, the track that separates the US Legation from the Russian and British compounds. Dozens of covered wagons, with horses straining at their load, were hurriedly leaving the US Legation; and in the Russian grounds there was much bartering and bickering over the price of looted goods. In full and open view of anybody who cared to look, two peaceable, well-dressed men were surrounded by a dozen or so Russian soldiers, suffering the crude but simple act of being made to undo their girdles and hold up their tunics whilst the soldiers felt all around their waists for watches or money; a blatant example of highway robbery in its most disgusting form.
   I had seen all of this before, of course, in Tientsin where, just a few short weeks before, the military occupation had turned into an orgy of looting and violence. Little did I realise, though, that the relief of Peking was about to become a bloodbath of human atrocity in which soldiers, civilians, diplomats, missionaries, and journalists all participated.

The Besieged Legation Quarter

The Relief of Peking ... Atrocities
It was a misery to walk the city and see its desolation. Peking had twice been looted before, by the Boxers, then by the Imperial soldiers, and now it was being ravaged again by the allies. At each fresh step in this depressing history, the inhabitants had fled to places where they hoped to find greater peace and safety. Now the place was a ruin, the restoration of which, if even possible, could only be accomplished over a long period of time. Peking was no great natural hub of trade, able to recover from such a disaster through the economic influence of renewed commercial life; it was simply the fortified home of the Imperial Court, which had attracted the crowds that always migrate to such places to supply the wants and luxuries of the wealthy. The moment the Court left, Peking had sunk to the level of a dingy, second-rate market town.
   Lost in this sorry reverie, I hardly noticed General Gasalee, General Chaffee and their staff officers walking across the compound towards the Russian Legation. Gasalee ignored me but General Chaffee invited me to join them. I fell into line alongside the familiar figure of Lieutenant John Furlong, Chaffee's aide-de-camp, who informed me that a full conference of all the military Commanders and foreign Ministers had been called to discuss what action should be taken in respect of the Imperial City. Shortly before 9.30 am. we arrived at the Russian Army Headquarters where the conference was to be held. Following my earlier failed bid to make contact with Morrison, I was pleased to see a number of familiar faces. George Lynch, war correspondent for the London Daily Express was there, as was Emile Dillon, Russian correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, together with my old friend, Bennet Burleigh, who had been billeted with the British forces.
   There was but one item on the agenda and, after some brief, token discussion, the representatives of the foreign powers came to their decision. At 10.15 am. on the morning of 17th August, they agreed and recommended that:
"As the advance of the foreign troops into the Imperial and Forbidden Cities has been obstinately resisted by the Chinese troops, the foreign armies should continue to fight until the Chinese armed resistance within all the Cities of Peking and the surrounding country is crushed, because in the crushing of that armed resistance lies the best and only hope of the restoration of peace."
   This proved to be a fateful time, date and proclamation, for not only did it initiate the final attack by the allied forces on the Imperial city itself, it was as though the firm military stance of the allied forces had been perceived by the civilian residents as a signal for the abandonment of the very rules and mores of society itself. Within hours, it seemed as though the closeness of community that had been succour to the besieged just days earlier, had all but disappeared and been replaced by a raw, almost animalistic survival instinct. Alongside the hundreds already engaged in their brazen looting of property and person, many of the foreigners packing up and preparing to leave the Legations with their possessions, now began gathering in small parties, arming themselves and rampaging out in search of anything valuable that they could find. Some were bent on robbery and some on revenge, while others sought satisfaction of even baser impulses. Thus, over the next two or three days, a cascade of vile atrocity erupted; on all sides fighting, burning, torture, rape and killing.
   For some vestige of protection, Lynch, Dillon, Burleigh and me stayed together and did what we could to avoid drawing attention to ourselves. The main battles were now over and the Boxer forces were in disarray, retreating in all directions. Peking would soon become a post-war city and we had a responsibility to find out what we could within this period of transition. As we skulked around the grounds, though, grim and for the most part, silent, we were witness to an unfolding kaleidoscope of human behaviour more nightmarish and more brutal than any of us could have believed possible. We saw prisoners chained and fettered so heavily that many collapsed and died under a sword, a bayonet or a beating when they could not rise; we saw row upon row of kneeling captives collapse crumpled into ditches filled with the still-writhing bodies of their brothers as the bullets from the firing squads smashed their skulls; we saw hordes of terrified men, accused and instantly guilty on the merest suspicion of being Boxers, beheaded at the many thickly blooded killing grounds scattered throughout the city. The Japanese are said to be the most prolific exponents of these grisly forms of execution, but so many now followed their lead that General Chaffee wrote "It is safe to say that where one real Boxer has been killed, fifty harmless coolies or labourers on the farms, including not a few women and children, have been slain".

The conduct of the Russian soldiers was generally considered atrocious, the British and Americans somewhat better, and the French perhaps worse than any. The Japanese, whose officers had brought along prostitutes to stop their troops from raping Chinese civilians, despised the Russians and on at least three occasions of which I was told, executed Russian soldiers caught ravaging local women. It was also widely believed that a group of US troops had taken upon themselves the role of vigilante to patrol the city and castrate, then execute, any rapist that they identified. Nevertheless, many Chinese women chose to commit suicide to avoid rape by allied forces; and, on one of our darkest days, we began to perhaps appreciate a fraction of their torment as we witnessed the funeral pyres of the hundreds of mutilated corpses of women and girls raped and killed by alliance soldiers.
   And we saw more, much more; much more that was more inhuman, more grotesque, more repulsive. As journalists our natural intent was to report all that we had seen but we knew that this was different. We had all experienced the horrors of war in different, distant arenas, but not one of us had ever known such an assault on the senses; not one of us had ever been exposed to such obscene visions of reality. In our hearts we all knew, but it was Lynch who first voiced our silent understanding and our shared pledge when he whispered, "there are things that we must not write, and that may not be printed for our readers, which show that this Western civilisation of ours is merely a veneer over savagery."
   That evening, a notice was sent round to collect the names of all those who wished to travel to Tientsin by the first convoy, which was expected to leave the next day, Tuesday 21st. I knew that I was done here and that I had to leave this evil place. Lynch, Dillon and Burleigh understood and, for us, there was no need of a farewell. I walked slowly back to my quarters and spent the next few hours packing the scraps that were left of my kit. At midnight, I made my way to the grounds of the Temple of Heaven, from where the convoy was to depart at 5.30 in the morning. I was there, ready to leave, at 2 o'clock.

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