Ch 2: On the Life and Death Decisions of Generals

It was with more than a little relief that we were called to a press briefing on the morning of the 27th July. The young officer, Captain Jennings, who had briefed us previously aboard the USS Solace was freshly dressed, quite dapper and apparently unperturbed by what was happening in the streets and houses surrounding our base. His manner and delivery was, again, efficient and his briefing was detailed and comprehensive:
"Gentlemen, you are aware that the relief expedition led by General Seymour, was forced to return to Tientsin in late June, but alongside this, despite many rumours and press reports to the contrary, we can report that the citizens and guards in the foreign legations at Peking are safe and that, since the 17th July, there appears to have been a lull in the hostilities there.
   Concerning the situation here in Tientsin, which was under siege from early June, the allied forces initially underestimated the capability of the Chinese forces, thinking that they could easily be brushed aside. This turned out to be a grave error in the face of fierce Chinese resistance. However, on 13th July, after further reinforcements had arrived, the eight-nation allied force to assault the walled city of Tientsin consisted of about 6,900 soldiers: 2,500 Russians, 2,000 Japanese, 900 Americans, 800 British, 600 French, and 100 Germans and Austrians. The challenge was substantial. The walls of Tientsin are 20 feet high and 16 feet thick, the Chinese had about 12,000 soldiers within the city or in nearby forts. The plan of the allies was to storm the city on two sides: British, American, Japanese and French troops would attack the South Gate; Russian and German troops would attack the East Gate.
   Initially the attack went poorly for the Allies, in large part due to some breakdown in overall command, a number of communication failures and un-coordinated troop deployments. The main effort against the South Gate became pinned down in an exposed position under Chinese fire from within the city. The allied troops were forced to lie face down in mud, wherein the dark-blue American uniforms provided targets for the Chinese troops, and severe losses were suffered by the allies.
   Eventually the allied attacks were successful and at 3.00 am. on the morning of the 14th, the Japanese force broke through the South gate, followed shortly by the Russians at the east gate and, in the face of these allied victories, the Chinese defenders made good their escape.
   For the alliance, this was a difficult battle with heavy casualties. Two hundred and fifty soldiers of the allied armies were killed and about 500 wounded. The Japanese lost 320 killed and wounded; the Russians and Germans 44 killed and some 100 wounded; the Americans 25 killed, and 98 wounded; the British, 17 killed and 87 wounded; and the French 13 killed and 50 wounded. Chinese casualties, military and civilian, are unknown, but probably heavy."
Captain Jennings then said that he would answer questions - but I doubt that he expected the furore that this simple statement unleashed. The two issues to which the assembled media demanded responses were: the looting, the atrocities and the killings to which most had already been horrified witnesses; and an explanation of why the relief expedition had not yet left for Peking. He responded:
"Once inside the city there were some additional communication breakdowns and some instances of looting by the allied forces. As the Chinese soldiers had already withdrawn it was the local Chinese who suffered the most and some civilians were killed in the skirmishes. We have no reports of American troops being involved but there have been some instances of allied troops assaulting civilians, including the rape of some women. The German and Russian commands are currently conducting inquiries into reports that their troops have behaved with particular savagery, bayoneting their victims after they had abused them. It is also reported that the allies have covered up a number of atrocities by labelling all Chinese dead as Boxers, which lends legitimacy to the killings. In addition, we are aware that the Japanese have executed some suspected Boxers by beheading them but, conversely, they are acclaimed by the local citizens to be the best behaved of all the foreign soldiers. So far as the relief expedition is concerned, out latest information is that, because of the fighting prowess and the strength of resistance already demonstrated by the Chinese, it is estimated that at least 50,000 to 70,000 troops will be necessary to mount a successful campaign. More troops from all of the eight nations in the alliance are currently en route for Tientsin and the expedition will be mounted as soon as these forces are in place. Major-General Gasalee, who will be leading the expedition has indicated that he expects this to be within the next three to four weeks. Thank you Gentlemen, that is all."
To say that the silence was deafening as Captain Jennings left the briefing room, would be an understatement of the highest order, and it took several minutes for us to assimilate what we had just been told. Had we heard correctly that the 900 souls in Peking, who had already been under siege for more than a month were to be left - isolated and alone - for at least another four weeks? Could it be true that, with more than 35,000 troops already garrisoned in Tientsin, and more arriving daily, our gallant Generals had decided that this force needed to be at least double in strength before they would be able to challenge an enemy that was already defeated and in flight?
   How can it be that those considered to be amongst our best soldiers, promoted to the highest military offices, appear habitually incapable of making clear, correct and courageous decisions?

General Chaffee to Tientsin ... Action at Last
In the immediate aftermath of the disturbing news that the advance to Peking was to be delayed, every correspondent in Tientsin spent every hour feverishly trying to gather, and make order of, whatever information could be gleaned from those that had been based in the city; and those that had experienced or witnessed the events of previous weeks.
   All communication with Peking was down, so nothing could be verified and, inevitably, the worst was feared. For each report purporting that the legations were safe, another presented shocking details of slaughter and massacre; and still Gasalee refused to move.
   But this morning, I received the most welcome news that General Adna Chaffee, with whom I had seen action in Cuba, was on his way from the Philippines and would be in Tientsin by the end of the month. His orders were to assume command of the US forces and to take all necessary action to reach Peking as soon as possible. I knew him as a decisive and courageous leader, considered by Washington to be one of their most capable officers, and I was confident that he would be the man to break us out of Gasalee’s slough of inaction.
   General Chaffee reached Taku at dawn on 29th July and immediately pushed on to Tientsin, arriving just before noon on the 30th. Within hours, he had called on the various generals commanding the troops of the eight nations to assess the alliance’s overall readiness and capability; and arranged a full conference of generals for 31st July. The press outnumbered the generals by a ratio of some ten-to-one at this conference, which was introduced as having the single purpose of deciding whether the alliance was ready to make a movement for the relief of Peking.
   It was disclosed in the conference that the Japanese, whose forces occupied the right bank of the river in and about Tientsin, where the British and American forces were also located, had been able to determine that the Chinese were in considerable force in the vicinity of Peitsang, about seven miles distance up the river from Tientsin, and that they were strengthening their position by earthworks extending from the right bank of the river westward something like thee miles, and from the left bank to the railroad embankment. The Chinese forces were variously estimated from between 10,000 to 12,000 men in the vicinity of Peitsang, with large bodies to the rearward as far as Yangtsun, where it was reported that their main line of defence would be encountered.
   I believe that, irrespective of this intelligence, Chaffee’s mind was already set. Nevertheless, the first question that he submitted for decision was "whether a movement could be made at once". This was answered with dissent, based on doubt that the force we could put in movement was not sufficiently strong to meet the opposition that might be expected. To this, Chaffee replied that, in addition to the Italian and Austria-Hungarian naval contingents that could remain in defence of Taku and Tientsin, the alliance forces available numbered around 18,800 and that the US contingent of some 2,100 men of the 9th and 14th Infantry regiments, together with a division from the 6th Cavalry and a Marine battalion would be leaving for Peking on Sunday 4th August.
   This statement, brazen and defiant in the face of General Gasalee's previous stance, triggered an approving cheer from the press benches; but this was nothing compared with the raucous roar that followed Chaffee's subsequent announcement that he would be accompanied by a further 3,000 British troops under the command of Admiral Seymour, who had already attempted an earlier relief expedition.
   I thought that General Chaffee’s brief nod of recognition as he left the conference was all that I should expect from a man so busy. We had met in Cuba, but only briefly following his victory over the Spanish garrison at the battle of El Caney. I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, to be called by his aide-de-camp and told that I was assigned to travel with the 14th Infantry, under Regimental Commander, Aaron Daggett, on our impending expedition to Peking.
   Preparation and planning were the orders of the day and there was little enough time to make sure that kit was packed, rations arranged, stores requisitioned and munitions loaded before our departure. In the midst of all this frenetic activity, though, I received news of two out-of-context events that managed to bring some light relief to the urgency of the day, and to the chaos and misery that was Tientsin at the beginning of August.
   First, the publication of my latest book, "To South Africa with Buller," which I had completed only three months previously, had been received with a detailed and favourable review by the literary editor of the Washington Times. It appeared that this review had been widely circulated and reproduced in a number of other journals; a fact that was endorsed by the numerous comments and congratulations that I received from my friends, old and new, and my fellow correspondents.
   Second, again from the Washington Times, was a report that I was missing in action in Peking along with George Morrison, the China correspondent of the Times. Although, we had never met, I was aware of Morrison’s status and reputation as one of the most experienced journalists in the field. We had also heard about a week ago from a Chinese messenger that Morrison had been gravely wounded along with Captain Strouts, the senior Marine officer at the British legation. It appears that several shots were fired at them as they were moving through a particularly dangerous area, two hitting Morrison in the thigh and one striking Strouts in the groin. Strouts only lived a few hours but Morrison was said to be up and about within a matter of days.
   What was particularly unusual about this report was that not only was it patently incorrect, but that it appeared to have been penned by somebody who possessed very little factual knowledge, but an extremely active imagination. Accuracy aside, however, I found it quite comforting to read that because of my "hitherto remarkable escapes under fire", my friends believed that, along with the senior British Minister in Peking, Sir Claude MacDonald, I would eventually be "found among the survivors."

Leaving Tientsin ... the Battle of Peitsang
The expedition force for Peking numbered some 18,600 men, including 2,500 Americans of the 9th and 14th Infantry regiments, to which force I was assigned. The 6th Cavalry, whose horses had not yet arrived, remained in Tientsin, together with a hundred strong company of Marines, left to assist the civil government of the city. With everything ready for a departure on the 4th August, it was decided that the opening attack would be made on the 5th. As the Japanese, British, and American forces already occupied the right bank of the river, and the Russians the left, the attack would be made without changing the situation of the troops, apart from the British sending four heavy guns to aid the Russian column.
   The troops moved out from the city of Tientsin during the afternoon and night of 4th August and bivouacked in the vicinity of Siku arsenal. From here a road branches westward and leads around to the right of the Chinese entrenched position. The plan of attack was for the Japanese to march on this road at 1 am. on the morning of the 5th, followed by the British and the Americans to encircle the Chinese. This accomplished, the three forces were to face to the right and march in the direction of Peitsang, driving whatever Chinese forcThe attack was carried out to perfection by the Japanese troops, but it soon became obvious that the ground was too limited for all the forces of the Japanese, British, and Americans to enter into combat. As soon as the Japanese had assaulted and carried the Chinese arsenal they set themselves on both sides of the Chinese position and swept them clean to the river, rendering unnecessary the plan for the British and American forces, following in the rear of the march, to establish a position where they could provide might be encountered from their entrenchments. It was also known that the Chinese had a strong outpost about a mile from Peitsang, on the right bank of the river, and located directly upon the road from Tientsin to Peking. The Japanese were to send a battery and a battalion to attack at this point at 3.30 am.
   At about 5.00 am. a message was received from the Japanese that they had cleared the arsenal and asking that the British and Americans move directly northward from wherever they might be. The British received this message first, faced immediately to their right, and moved in the direction indicated. In order to provide tactical support, it was necessary for the Americans to pass around the British and try to make contact with the Japanese. This attempt was made, but before we could get into position the Japanese had cleared the field to the river at Peitsang, and the Chinese were in full retreat. The Americans continued to march north around the British, and we came upon the river about a mile to the north and west of Peitsang, the British forces directly upon the right, and the Japanese now having possession of the full river front. From this point attempts were made to find a route northward along the river, but the bank had been cut and all the country to the left, except a narrow road bordering on the river, was flooded.
   The battle was over by 9.00 am. and with the action of the day having now ceased, we bivouacked in a deserted village just north of Peitsang. About 50 Chinese bodies were found on the battlefield and almost all the Alliance casualties were Japanese, amounting to 60 dead and 240 wounded, with a handful of British and Russian casualties caused by Chinese artillery fire. The American forces suffered no battle casualties during the day but nearly half the men fell behind, overcome by the sun and the blistering heat. There was no shade and the cavalry kicked up clouds of thick dust which beat back in our faces. Our throats were parched and we were cautioned not to drink the river water. I knew well the torment of dysentery that this would bring, but no orders could keep most of the men from anything that was liquid
   At 10.00 pm. I was summoned to headquarters, where General Yamagutchi was meeting with General Chaffee to discuss their plans for the next day, which were for the Japanese to march up the right bank of the river, and to construct three bridges for the Americans, British and Russians to cross. A pontoon bridge had already been constructed at Peitsang by the Japanese, and the British, Americans, and Russians were to march from this point up the left bank of the river to Yangtsun. As the bridge-building was to be controlled by the Japanese, and since it was essential to ensure co-operation on both sides of the river at Yangtsun, it was agreed that we were to march from Peitsang at 6 o'clock in the morning.

Leaving Peitsang ... the Battle of Yangtsun
After crossing the river we marched in the direction of the railroad, near which we halted until our planned departure time. During our halt the Russian troops crossed the pontoon bridge, followed by the British and French, and then took the river road, which was generally parallel to the railroad and a mile from it. We moved ahead at 6 o'clock, marching near the railroad embankment, which was around 20 feet high and 40 feet wide, revetted on both sides with stones and rock ballast. The railroad track had been entirely removed; the ties burned or carried away and the rails left strewn along the road.
   Arriving within about a mile and a half of Yangtsun, we came across an enemy patrol of about 300 men occupying the section immediately in front of the bridge and the bend in the road, the railroad and the river road converging at this point. General Chaffee placed the 14th Infantry to attack along the west side of the railroad, where they connected with the British line. I crossed to the east side of the railroad embankment with a squad of Marines and a field battery under Captain Reilly, who were deployed to support the march of the 14th Infantry and the British troops. General Gaselee had also sent a squadron of British cavalry to operate on our right flank.
   As the 14th began their advance, the enemy opened fire on our right flank with artillery, and the commanding officer of the British cavalry reported that in the village directly on our right there were eight companies of Chinese infantry with three field guns. It was clearly unsafe to leave our right flank exposed to a force so strong, so General Chaffee directed a move against it. Our barrage very soon silenced the enemy guns and set the village ablaze; but this diversion had left the 14th with no cover and they were suffering terribly, even before the village had been completely cleared out.
   There was no choice for General Chaffee but to abandon the movement on the village and re-direct his attack towards the enemy forces holding up the advance. Artillery, as well as infantry fire was being delivered from various villages to our right and in front, so our troops were sent into position to assist the 14th, intending to fire over the railroad embankment. Reilly's guns were unlimbered and about to open fire when we saw men of the 14th mount the embankment directly in front of our line of fire. Chafee ordered Captain Reilly to hold his fire, but within a minute of this order, the battery was fired upon by Chinese infantry and dismounted cavalry secreted in the cornfields within short range. Captain Reilly shifted his focus to the fields and opened fire upon them delivering a withering fusillade of shrapnel, which soon dispersed this force.
   The 9th Infantry, which had come up on the right of battery, mistook the Chinese flag for the French and withheld their fire, losing an opportunity to inflict serious damage on the Chinese troops. I should remark in explanation of this that both the Russian and the French commanders were distributing messages throughout the lines, "to be careful not to fire on their troops which were advancing on Yangtsun", indicating that they were likely to pass close to our front line. As a matter of fact, neither the Russian or French troops were anywhere in front of us or to left, but these messages had been communicated to officers and staff, and in consequence of this all the troops were being particularly cautious.
   The 14th Infantry assault continued against the Chinese position, with support on the left by the British troops, who were by now somewhat mixed with the 14th as a result of the contracted ground. The 14th should have held their attacking position on the west side of the railroad, but they had veered east to assist the British commander who had insisted on their support on his right flank. In this attack the 14th Infantry suffered considerable losses with 7 men killed and 57 wounded and it is with some sadness that I have to report that probably 25 or 30 of these casualties were the result of fire from the British and Russian batteries.
   The advance of the 14th Infantry ended at the railroad embankment, while the 9th Infantry, the Marines, and Reilly's battery continued to advance northward through the villages to the east of Yangtsun until we reached the north end of the city, where opposition had practically dispersed and, here, the operations of the day ceased.
   During the advance of the 9th Infantry, Lieutenant Lang and 5 men of his regiment were wounded. One man in the Marines was wounded; as were two men and two horses of Reilly's battery. The day was intensely hot and the troops had suffered horribly for the want of water and from the heat. Quite a number were unable to keep up with the advance and only arrived in camp after nightfall, while two so afflicted died on the field.
   In the conference at Tientsin it had been agreed that the first step of the advance on Peking should terminate at Yangtsun; and that a further conference should be held there to determine what was to be done next. The troops remained in camp at Yangtsun during 7th August; the dead were buried and the wounded sent by boats back to Tientsin. During the morning of the 7th a conference was held at the headquarters of the Russian commander, and it was decided that the forward movement should be resumed the next day to Ho-hsi-wu, where our scouts had reported that the Chinese had constructed an intricate complex of dams and ditches in their efforts to drain the river and flood the surrounding ground; an attempt that had fortunately been abandoned in their flight.
   From Ho-hsi-wu, we would then continue to Tung Chow, where a final conference should be held to agree plans for the attack on Peking. All the armies would concentrate at Ho-hsi-wu during the day and night of 8th August, and the march be resumed at 4 o'clock on the following day.

Leaving Yangtsun ... Confusion at Tung Chow
Our schedule for leaving Ho-hsi-wu on 9th August was for the Japanese to head our advance at 4 am, followed by the Russians, then our force, and finally the British. In the event, more communication problems and what many saw as a lack of moral fibre on the part of the Russian commanders and staff, delayed our start and it was almost 7 am. when we moved out on to the road for Matou and Tung Chow.
   Even though it had rained heavily through the night, the sun was well risen at this hour and the torrid heat, together with the swarms of vicious insects that turned any exposed skin raw with bites in minutes, left many of our troops prostrated by the roadside, to usually regain camp during the night. From Yangtsun the railway splits off from the road, which then follows the Pei-ho River in a north-westerly direction to Tung Chow and Peking. The road had been destroyed by the retreating Chinese, though, making for tortuously slow and difficult progress; and during the four days' marching from Peitsang to Tung Chow, our forces were physically distressed and ultimately depleted by about a quarter.
   We had made only some three or four miles, and were halted by a tiny village when there was a loud, reverberating report that we thought was a gun fired quite near us. For a moment we thought that if we were not under fire, someone at least was firing close to us, until we saw to the south behind us a dense column of smoke and dust slowly ascending into the air. An immense store of powder had been found by the British in a temple at Ho-hsi-wu; some said it amounted to eighty tons, and as it was of no use to us, it was ordered to be fired.
   We reached Matou to our west at about 10 am. on 10th August, and a troop from the 14th infantry, together with a squad of around 30 marines, was detailed to prepare for the expected resistance. Two scout patrols were sent to assess the strength of the enemy, but shortly reported back that the Chinese had fled from the advancing Bengal Lancers and that there were now no enemy forces in the town. We rejoined the main force, at bivouac on the river bank and on receiving the scout’s report, General Chaffee decided that there was time enough to proceed to Changchiawan, a walled town some 6 miles to the south of Tung Chow.
   As we were preparing to leave, a general hubbub from the direction of headquarters brought to our notice that a radio operator from the Signal Corps had managed to open a channel to the British Consulate in Che-Foo and that, through this link, we were now able to communicate with Washington. This news was a source of great excitement to the whole of the press contingent, with stories and reports to file; but insisting that time was of the essence, General Chaffee ordered that messages to our editors would have to follow later; and we were to make haste for our departure. As we were leaving he dictated a despatch, about as short and to the point as it could possibly be: "Tenth: Arrived Ho-hsi-wu yesterday. Chaffee."
   As we approached Changchiawan, some light opposition was offered by Chinese troops, but this was quickly brushed away by the Japanese army, which took possession of the town and manned the gates as the remainder of our forces streamed through. The entire force, except, for some of the French, who inexplicably were still in the area of Yangtsun, were at Changchiawan by 8 pm. on the evening of 11th August. That night the Japanese advanced a brigade to near Tong Chow; and at 3 am. on the morning of the 12th the south gate of the city wall was blown in by the Japanese troops, when it was found that the place had been deserted by the Chinese forces, which opened the route for the rest of the force. Although heavy downpours had again turned the road to mud, the day being cloudy and cool enabled the troops to march without much distress and all the armies had arrived at Tong Chow by noon of the 12th.
   General Gasalee called a conference at Tung Chow to determine whether a direct assault on Peking could be made on the following day, 13th August. All the commanders were in agreement and the necessary re-grouping and logistical preparations for this assault were immediately put into action. During the afternoon, the Russian commander sent a note stating that he thought it best to remain at Tong Chow and rest the army for a day. This idea did not meet the views of other generals and a second conference was called at 6 o'clock in the afternoon. The Russian commander stated that he could not move the next day, and that he must rest his troops. Since the Russians comprised the second largest army in the alliance, some 13,000 troops, it was considered essential that they were part of the assault force, and it was finally agreed that the next day, the 13th, should be devoted to reconnaissance; the Japanese should reconnoitre on the two roads to the right of the river; the Russians, if at all, on the main paved road; the Americans to concentrate on the road just south of the river; and the British on a parallel road about a mile to the left. This would also allow an additional day for the French to come to strength, since some large part of their force was still scattered behind us.
   The final advance on Peking would now be delayed until 14th August; and the plan agreed was that all the armies would be concentrated on the advance line held by the Japanese and that each of the four main national armies would assault a different gate. The Russians were assigned the most northerly gate, the Dongzhi; the Japanese had the next gate south, the Chaoyang; the Americans, the Dongbien; and the British the most southern, the Guangqui.
   On the morning of the 13th General Chaffee ordered the reconnaissance of the road that we were to occupy with troops from the 6th Cavalry, Captain Reilly’s battery and the 14th Infantry up to the point specified at yesterday’s conference, which was about 7 miles from Tong-Chow. Finding no opposition, he directed the remainder of our force to march out and to close in to where we were camped as the advance guard; the rest of our force arrived at midnight. The British completed their reconnaissance with a cavalry division and moved up to their advance position on our left, while the Japanese reconnoitred both their front and that which had been designated to the Russians.
   For reasons unfathomable to anybody, the Russians departed their camp at Tong Chow at about the time that we had completed our assigned reconnaissance and were closing to our advance position. They followed the road which they should have reconnoitred and passed through the positions where our forces, the British and the Japanese were now in readiness for the next day’s attack. Some hours later battle sounds were heard in the vicinity of Peking, with heavy artillery and considerable small arms firing continuing throughout the night. We supposed the firing to be the last efforts of the Chinese troops to destroy the legations which, although in no degree necessary, gave our imminent assault on the city an even greater urgency.

Route of Relief Force from Tientsin to Peking

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