China Marines: Boxer Rebellion 1900

Late on the evening of May 31st 1900, Captain John Twiggs Myers, 49 Marines with fixed bayonets and three sailors with a Colt automatic gun led a force of 337 men from six nations up Legation Street in Peking. They had rushed to the Chinese capital to guard their countries’ legations.

The city was boiling with the ferment and dangers of the Boxer Rebellion, an uprising based on a fanatical hatred of foreigners and Christians. The Boxers were rampaging violently through the countryside, and 500 foreigners in Peking were tense and anxious. In response to the diplomats’ call for armed help– over the protests of the Empress Dowager Tüz His and her government–the men assembled from 17 warships gathered off the Taku bar, ferried to the small port of Tangku and sent on by boat and railroad. They detrained at the terminal outside Peking’s walls amid a vast and ominous throng of Chinese and marched to their posts, a tiny to face amass upheaval.

The Boxer Movement had flared up two years earlier among the peasants of North China. It sought to restore the potency of the Peking regime and to exterminate the foreigners. The feeble Imperial authorities were unable to control the Boxer’s violence and in the end openly supported their murdering sweep across the land.

The foreigners had long been asking for trouble. The decaying and corrupt Manchu Dynasty had tried futilely to keep them out of China and had permitted foreign merchants to do business only six months a year in precisely limited areas on the Canton waterfront. The arrangement was unrealistic, given the pressures of Western industrialization. The Opium War between Britian and China and the resulting Treaty of Nanking in 1842 had forced China to permit trade at four additional ports and to cede the island of Hong Kong.

This started an avalanche. In the decades that followed, France, Russia, Portugal, Italy, Japan, and Germany all occupied, annexed, controlled, grabbed chunks of China. And China’s defeat in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 spurred their greed. Germany seized the port of Kiaochow; Russia demanded and received leases to Port Arthur and Darien, and France grabbed a naval base and a hugh sphere of influence in southern China. By the end of the century, foreign powers had carved most of China into areas of economic domination. And the avaricious rivalry continued. The Chinese did not have the strength to resist.

The United States was not much involved in this rush to the trough. It had signed the Treaty of Wanghia in 1844, demonstrated its muscle in the battles at Canton forts in 1856 and established a legation in Peking. But before the annexation of the Philippines planted the American flag across the Pacific, the United States had claimed no sphere of influence; and U.S. national policy, when it was finally crystallized in March 1900, called for an “Open Door” that would increase the potential American trade with China.

Meanwhile in September of 1898, the Empress Dowager deposed her reform-minded nephew; and her new reactionary leadership decided to stop appeasing the powerful foreigners. As one response, Marine detachments were stationed briefly at Peking and Tientsin.

By the beginning of 1900, the Imperial leaders were prepared to modernize the Chinese army and even to accept the Boxer’s support. The anti-foreign spirit had spread. The xenophobic Boers butchered Christian missionaries and converts, the symbols of the Western presence in the countryside. Claiming magical powers that made them invulnerable in battle, the Boxers fanned the peasants’ supersitiousness and aroused hopes that partially offset their despair over the famines of the previous two years. Racing across the North China, the Boxers neared Peking in May 1900, terrifying the foreigners there.

The arrival of the legation guards eased their fears. On June 3rd, German and Austrian sailors strengthen their defenses. But the Boxers continued to burn and kill near the city. Imperial Troops fraternized with them. After the boxers cut the railroad, Captain Myers suggested that the legations organize a common defense. On June 8th, Boxers severed the telegraph line. Isolating Peking; and on June 9th, they destroyed the racetrack three miles outside the city and burned a Chinese Christian in the flames. Myers sent Captain Newt H. Hall and 20 Marines to protect the people in the Methodist Mission, three-quarters of a mile from the legations. Hall’s men dispersed a threatening crowd with bayonets.

Rear Admiral Louis Kempff, who arrived at Taku in the cruiser U.S.S. Newark on May 27th, cabled the Navy Department for a battalion of Marines from the Philippines. The Diplomats in Peking now called for a relief force, and on June 10th, the first of five trains with 2,129 men from eight countries left Tientsin by railroad for Peking. They never got through.

The relief expedition was led by British Vice Admiral Sir Edward Seymour. The first train carried half the British contingent of 915 men and all 112 American sailors and Marines. The Americans were led by Captain Bowman H McCalla USN, captain of the Newark, who had put Marines ashore at Guantanamo exactly two years earlier. At Langfang, halfway to Peking, on the evening of the second day, the expedition found the rails torn up and the station and water tanks torn up. He weather was intensely hot and drinking water scarce. On the afternoon of the third day at a place called AN Ping, Boxers attacked the trains. They were thrown back, leaving so 60 dead; but they attacked again and again, recklessly. The Boxers destroyed the tracks behind the expedition; the fifth train could not shuttle back to Tientsin as planned.  The expedition was trapped. Seymour decided to fall back to Yangtsun; and by June 19th, burdened with 264 wounded, he gave up any idea of going on to Peking and started down river to Tientsin, with three Marine sharpshooters at the point. The expedition had failed because Seymour insisted, with a don’t-give-up-the-ship stubbornness, on sticking to the railroad.

Meanwhile, on June 13th, 1,600 Russian troops arrived at the foreign settlements outside the walls of Tientsin. This was the second most important city of North China, with a million inhabitants, located 30 miles from the coast and 80 miles from Peking. The foreign settlements there were now defended by a force of 2,400. On the night of the 15th, much of the French settlement was burned by the Boxers.

The foreign navies off Taku attacked the four forts at the mouth of the Pei Ho River on June 17th. Only the Americans stayed out of the battle. Rear Admiral Kempff felt he was not authorized to participate; Washington was suspicious of the other powers motives. Also, it was a Presidential election year and “imperialism” was an issue of intense controversy.

Nine hundred assault troops captured the Taku forts in heavy fighting. Their victory kept open the route to Vice Admiral Seymour, to Tientsin, and, it was hoped to Peking. It also brought the Chinese armies into battle against the foreigners. The Chinese bombarded and attacked the Tientsin settlements in strength. The defenders fought from behind barricades of bales of cotton, wool and rice improvised by a twenty-five year old American mining engineer named Herbert Hoover.

By the night of June 20th, the Tientsin garrison was low on ammunition; and a young British civilian, James Watt, and three Cossacks made a heroic 12 hour ride to Taku for help. A relief column set out. A force of 140 U.S. Marines, the first to arrive from Cavite and led by Major Waller, left Taku in a commandeered railroad train for Tientsin. They were joined by 440 Russian infantrymen and camped 12 miles from the city. Stopped by a blown-out bridge, the column detrained and marched toward Tientsin, fighting from village to village. In one two-hour battle, four Marines were killed and nine wounded; the Marines and Russians were forced back to their camp of the previous night, the Marines served as rear guard. Lieutenants Smedley D. Butler and A. E. Harding and four enlisted men carried a badly wounded Marine private for six miles. The enlisted men received the Medal of Honor; the two lieutenants were breveted.

Bolstered by a British naval detachment and additional Russian troops, some 2000 men started out again for Tientsin. With the Marines in the van, they battled their way to the foreign settlements.

After resting 12 hours, the relief force next went to the rescue of Seymour’s missing expedition, which had fought down the Pei River and was now Holed up eight miles from Tientsin in the German built Hsiku Arsenal. “We are going to the relief of our comrades or die trying to reach them,” Marine Private James J. Sullivan wrote in his diary. From the arsenal, a squad of British Marines had tried to reach Tientsin; all of them were captured and decapitated. The relief force reached Seymour at noon on June 26th, blew up the arsenal and escorted the battered expedition into Tientsin. Private Sullivan wrote, “We were not attacked on our way back having an army of 4,000 men, and we could lick 5 times that number of Chinamen” (Sullivan was to die on the march to Peking)

Seymour’s men carried out 232 wounded, including 28 Americans. They had 62 dead, among them four Americans. The fresh relief force guarded the long, slow moving column on the retreat. Seymour’s decimated expedition was finished as a fighting force. Captain McCalla, who had been wounded three times, turned his men over to Major Waller and returned to his ship.

The Russians at Tientsin now attacked the Chinese and were thrown back. A British naval detachment and 42 U.S. Marines led by 2nd Lieutenant Wade L. Jolly then reinforced them, and together they drove the Chinese from their fortified positions.

The tireless Waller wrote of his Marines: Our men have marched 97 miles in the five days, fighting all the way. They have lived on about one meal a day for about six days, but have been cheerful and willing always. They have gained the highest praise of all present, and have earned my love and confidence. They are like Falstaffs army in appearance, but with brave hearts and bright weapons.

Five had been killed and eleven wounded. (On the outside of the envelope of his report which he sent through Commander Frederic M. Wise of U.S.S. Monocacy, Waller peened this note: “Captain Wise: Please open and read and add Russian casualties, 2 killed, 9 wounded, I need whisky”)

In Peking, back on the morning of June 11th, the foreigners had waited at the railroad station for Seymour’s expedition, which did not come. That afternoon, the chancellor of the Japanese legation returned to the station alone and was murdered by Chinese troops, who cut out his heart and sent it to their general.

Two days later, the Boxers ranged the city in force, killing Chinese Christian converts and burning and looting foreign stores and churches. Marines went out to rescue, shooting and Boxers they saw. Captain Myers later wrote: It was realized at the time that these rescuing parties served to inflame the Boxer element more deeply against the foreigners, but it was more that flesh and blood could stand to see the terribly burned and lacerated bodies of those who escaped into our lines, and refuse to send aid to their comrades known to be still within the power of the fiendish Boxer hordes

After the foreign navies seized the Taku forts, the Chinese attacked the Peking legations. On the 2oth, the 55 day siege of Peking began with an assault on the Austrian mission. The German minister, Baron Klemens von Ketteler, was killed. Captain Myers, with 15 Marines and 20 British and Russians, ventured out and escorted in Captain Hall and his Marines, as well as 26 American missionaries, their families and a horde of converts who had taken refuge in the Methodist Mission. By 6 P.M., the isolated Legation Quarter, an area three-quarters of a mile square and now jammed with more than 3,000 people, was under constant attack.

The Marines and the Germans, whose legations were the southernmost, manned a section of the Tartar City Wall, which formed the southern side of the Quarter. It was imperative to prevent the Chinese from dominating the legations from the top of a 45 foot high wall. On the twenty-fourth, the American Marines and the Germans pushed out from their back-to-back positions atop the wall. They took casualties, but secured a section of the wall overseeing the Quarter and built barricades of bricks, stones and beams to hold it. The Chinese put up barricades facing them.

The Marines kept a guard of 15 men on the 40 foot wide top of the wall, relieving them at night. A half-dozen Marines manned a trench leading to the legation and another seven or eight held a barricade at Legation Street.

The Chinese made their only assault on the wall on the 27th. They crept out from their barricade, 400 yards from the Marines, and tried to catch them napping in the heat of the afternoon. The Marines waited until the Chinese got within 200 yards and then mowed them down. The survivors fled.

The intensity of the Chinese attacks on the legation increased. On June 28th, Captain Hall, under intense fire, temporarily abandoned the position on the wall. By July 3rd, a quarter of all foreign military professionals had been killed or wounded. As is so often the case, many of the best men were among the first to fall.

At 3 A.M. that morning Captain Myers led 14 Marines, 16 Russians and 25 British Marines over the barricade in the most important counter-offensive of the siege. Attacking through the darkness and rain, they shoved back the Chinese and killed many of them in hand-to-hand fighting. Myers was badly wounded in the right leg by a Chinese spear. Two Marines, Privates Albert Turner and Robert E. Thomas (Myers called them “two of the best men in the guard”) and one Russian were killed.

Myers was breveted a Major for his heroism; and when a monument to the British Marines was erected outside the Admiralty in London, one bas-relief depicted the American Marine captain leading his men on the Peking wall. Myers, who came from a distinguished military family, was a great-nephew of Major Levi Twiggs, U.S.M.C., killed at Chapultepec. His father was the quartermaster general of the Confederate Army and after the Civil War had moved to Wiesbaden, Germany, where the future Marine was born. The family came back when the boy was five years old. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and joined the Marine Corps in 1895.

Inside the Legation Quarter, conditions worsened. Sanitation was impossible and the stench was foul. Rice and pony meat were the best of the diet. The trapped foreigners were tortured by torrential rains and heat up to 110 degrees in the shade. He Chinese bombarded the the Quarter with cannon and steadily inched their barricades closer and closer. The defenders found an ancient bronze gun, and Gunners’ Mate Joseph Mitchell of the U.S. Navy adapted it to fire ammunition made for a Russian 9 pounder that had been left behind at Tientsin. Although it had no sights “Betsy,” as the gun was called, was used effectively at short range.

July 13th was a terrible day. The Japanese, who won unanimous praise for their effective fighting throughout the siege, were pushed back in the northern section. The Germans saved their area with a bayonet charge. The British were severally pressed, and the Americans fought fiercely on the wall. At dusk, two mines exploded under the French Legation; and the Chinese swept in. The French shoved them back out. Five defenders were killed that day and twice that number wounded.

Two nights later, Captain Hall, now in command, and Private Daniel J. Daly of Glen Cove, New York, went to the top of the wall at 9 P.M. to determine where to build a new barricade nearer the Chinese position. When the coolies failed to show up with the necessary sandbags, Hall went down to find them. Daly volunteered to stay. He held the top of the wall alone with his bayoneted rifle all that night.

On the 13th, the situation in Tientsin also came to a crisis. The Chinese had been shelling the foreign settlements continually. The old walled Chinese city, now garrisoned by 12,000 Imperial troops and 10,000 Boxers, was shaped like a square; the middle of each side was pierced by a fortified gate, which could be approached only by a causeway. Each causeway was bordered by open fields, canals, and marshes.

The allies had assembled about 14,000 men, many of them colonial troops from Indochina and India, to attack against the South Gate, supported by the Americans, British and French. The Russians were to threaten the city from the rear.

Colonel Robert L. Meads, U.S.M.C., had arrived at Taku on June 25th from Cavite. A tall, slime, peppery veteran of the Civil War and the war against Spain, he was now fifth-eight. Meade commanded the First Marine Regiment, 451 officers and men, and the United States Ninth Infantry–a total of 1,021 men–brought from the Philippines. They were brigaded with the Second Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers and a British naval force, all led by Brigadier General A. R. F. Dorward of the British Army. The general inspired no ones’ confidence. His attack was badly planned, and by nightfall he would run up 700 casualties.

The causeway was the only way to reach the South Gate, but Dorward extended his men the length of the wall, exposing them to enemy fire they could not return. They were slaughtered. The Japanese came straight up the causeway and took the most casualties. The Americans led by Colonel Meade advanced on the Japanese right across a marshy plain. The Marines, armed with Krag-Jӧrgensen rifles, struggled through the flooded rice paddies, moving up in rushes of 50 to 75 yards. Chinese batteries and snipers enfiladed the Americans’ line and forced them over toward the centre of the attack, where they came under heavy fire and suffered severe casualties.

The Marines were in the heart of the action throughout the day-long battle. At the city wall the enemy fire was fierce. The sun was cruel. Cartridges ran low; water became scarce. A bullet stuck Captain Austin R. Davis in the chest, killing him. Captain Ben H. Fuller, who had arrived at Tientsin only the night before, commanded F Company, an artillery unit that silenced a Chinese gun with its three rapid-fire guns and three Colt automatic guns.(These were the early machine guns that fired 6mm ammunition) A Mauser bullet went right through Fuller’s hat. Eighteen-year old 1st Lieutenant Butler, who had had a hugh Marine Corps emblem tattooed on his chest  at Cavite, was hit in the right thigh while carrying mortally wounded Private Partridge from the field–the young Lieutenant, who had been commissioned at sixteen after lying about his age, would be promoted to Captain before his nineteenth birthday. 1st Lieutenant Henry Leonard brought Butler to safety. Leonard and Sergeant Clarence E. Sutton also saved 1st Lieutenant S. D. Hill, who was badly wounded. Leonard himself was later wounded in the left arm and was rescued by Sergeant J. M. Adams and Corporal H. C. Adriance. Leonard’s arm had to be amputated. (Many years later, when Butler was court-martialed at the end of his career, after earning two Medals of Honor, Henry Leonard, then a civilian lawyer would defend him.) The Americans, with five Marines dead and 11 wounded were finally pinned down and withdrew after dark.

At 3 A.M. on July 14th, the Japanese blew up the South Gate; and there was a rush through the hole. By sunup, Tientsin was taken. Foreign flags flew from its walls and foreign soldiers looted the city. Meade was breveted a Brigadier General.

The allies built up their forces at Tientsin to fight through to Peking. But their international army was wracked by imperialistic rivalries that delayed their setting out.

The Americans were reinforced by another Marine battalion, the Fourteenth Infantry and a battery of light artillery. Their force, now totaling more than 2,000 men, was commanded by Major General Adna R. Chaffee, United States Army, a veteran of the Indian wars.

Major William P. Biddle took over from Meade, who was invalided home. The Marine regiment now had 29 officers and 453 enlisted men. Waller commanded the first battalion of Marines, Captain Franklin J. Moses, the second battalion, and Fuller, F Company of artillery.

At dawn on August 4th, the first units of the International Relief Force, about 17,000 strong (figures disagree), marched out of Tientsin for Peking. Lieutenant Wirt McCreary, U.S.M.C., was put in charge of 30 junks carrying American’s supplies. Out of an old blue flannel shirt he created and admiral’s flag, which gave him the right of way on the river.  The Marines hiked near the rear of the column, missing most of the action and excitement, trudging on hour after hour in the heat and dust. The men cursed.

They followed the river, fought a couple of skirmishes and reached Yangtsun, 25 miles on their way, in 36 hours. There, the Americans and British led an attack. 1st Lieutenant Frederic M. Wise (Navy Commanders Wise’s son) in Dunlap’s Company wrote years later: “Word came back that we were to drive a heavy force of Chinese out of some earthworks far over to our right. We stood there mouths and throats gritty with dust; without a drop of water in our canteens and no chance to get any. Then when it seemed we had stood there for hours that afternoon, the orders came to deploy to our right and attack.

The plain in front of us was a furnace. Dust rose in thick clouds. There was no air to breathe. That heavy heat and dust left us choking. As we started forward there was a crash of sound at our rear. Our own artillery, firing over our heads, was covering our advance. We advanced a thousand yards. Down on us, every step of the way beat the blazing sun, heavier every second. Another thousand yards, my men began to stagger again. They were taut and game, but all in. Here one turned ghastly white, there one dropped dead from heat. More and more men were staggering.

Now we were close to it, behind the earthworks the Chinese were milling. We went on, we cloud see them begin to break….then we were on the earthworks, over them, behind them. They were empty. The Chinese, every man for himself were vanishing rapidly amid the tombs in the dust of the endless plain. Men and officers collapsed in the shadow of those earthworks, we couldn’t have made another hundred yards to save our lives.”

The battle and the intense heat cost the Marines two wounded in action and two dead of heat prostration.

After resting at Yangtsun, the Americans, British, Japanese and Russian detachments, some 14,000 men, set out again at dawn on the 8th. The march was grueling in the heat of the ten foot high grain. Smedley Butler wrote: “Nearly fifty percent of our men fell behind during the way, overcome by the sun. In the cool of the night they would catch up us and start on again next morning.”

The bond of friendship between the American Marines and the Royal Welch Fusiliers-begun on the walls of Tientsin- was welded during the ordeal of the march. Years later, the First Marine Battalion asked John Philip Sousa to write a march to honor its British comrades in China. The Royal Welch Fusiliers was first played at the Gridiron Club dinner in Washington on April 26th, 1930; present was President Hoover, who had been at Tientsin.

The situation in Peking had grown more and more desperate. The legations were under perpetual attack. The last of the ponies had been eaten; trees were stripped of bark and stray dogs killed for food. The small children of the Chinese converts were dying, (Ironically, there was a superabundance of champagne, which had been stocked in two stores in the enclave.)

The Chinese armies were now in disarray, fleeing before the invading relief force. Several Chinese commanders committed suicide. On August 12th, the allies took Tungchow, a rich, walled city 14 miles from Peking, and looted it. When reconnaissance found no resistance between Tungchow and Peking, the Russians’ general suggested that the expedition rest three miles from the capital and then launch a coordinated attack at dawn on the fifteenth.

As the relief force approached, the Chinese in Peking tried to overwhelm the legations’ defenders. The fighting reached a climax. The Chinese brought up a new 2-inch Krupp gun that did great damage before it was put out of action by the defenders’ two machine guns.

The relief force planned to advance in four parallel columns against Peking’s eastern wall. But the Russians jumped off at midnight on the 13th and captured Tung Pien Gate (the Americans designated objective) before sunrise. The other nations forces moved up. The Americans, including two companies of Marines, scaled the wall south of the Tung Pien to stop sniping and relieve the pressure on the Russians, who cloud not advance beyond the gate. First Lieutenant Butler was wounded in the chest but saved by a button on his blouse; and two privates were hit. Private Dan Daly earned his first Medal of Honor.

The British Indian troops advanced most quickly without opposition and were signaled by semaphore to enter the legation Quarter through the Water Gate, a giant seven foot sewer tunnel. Inside the enclave, Myer’s Marines cleared obstructions for them. American Marines and Russian sailors on the wall above rushed the Chinese, routed them and raised the flag over the city gate. The British emerged emerged into Canal Street at 2:30 P.M.; the thirsty soldiers were greeted with bottles of champagne. Major General Chaffee reached the legations two hours later. The siege was over. In the Quarter, 66 foreigners were dead, 150 wounded.

At 7 A.M. the next day, Chaffee ordered an assault on the Imperial City in the centre of the Tartar City. Marines led one of the attacking columns. But Chaffee called off the attack just short of the inner city at the insistence of the Russians and the French. Fifteen men died in this meaningless fight. The Empress Dowager and her court had fled; the allies drove out the Chinese troops and plundered the city.

In August, the British landed at Shanghai; the Russians extended their hold on Manchuria, and Japanese marines landed at Amoy opposite Formosa. The intense competition for the potentially rich Chinese market went on. The Anglo-Japanese Alliance and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 brought Japan to new and fateful power in East Asia. But the United States returned its attention and manpower to its most festering problem; the Philippine Insurrection.

The Marines remained in Peking until September 28th; on October 11th, they sailed back to the Philippines. An unusually large number of enlisted Marines–33–was awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery in China. Captain Hall had a less happy fate; it took a Court of Inquiry to clear his name of charges of cowardice for abandoning the barricades on June 28th. The Court at Cavite declared it “an error of judgement.”

Of the small detachment in Peking, seven Marines had been killed (six of them on the wall) and ten wounded. The seven were buried near the chapel of the Russian Legation; later, their bodies were sent home. And the United States was now entangled in Asian rivalries that would enmesh all Americans in the generations ahead.

Far to the south, the Marine detachment from the U.S.S. Philadelphia fought on the Samoa Islands. The cruiser’s landing party of Marines and sailors went ashore near Apia on April 1st, 1899, with a British force to intervene in a tribal war. The 20 Marines were Commanded by 1st Lieutenant Constantine M. Perkins. As the 62 British Marines and sailors and 56 Americans moved inland, natives attacked their flank and rear. Four U.S. Marines made a stand when the party began to retreat. Four Americans were killed,  and five, including Marine Private Henry L. Hulbert, were wounded. English born Hulbert, Sergeant Bruno A. Forsterer and Sergeant Michael J. McNally received the Medal of Honor for covering the retreat. During World War I, Hulbert would earn a Navy Cross at Belleau Wood and die in action at Blanc Mont at the age of fifty-one.


SOURCE: U.S. Marine Corps Story; BY: J. Robert Moskin
CONTRIBUTOR: Cade Pommeraan


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