Ch 4: The Convoy - Escape from Peking

We were called at 5.00 am. on 21st August and actually left the compound just before 7 o'clock. There were about eighty people in the convoy, nearly all travelling in Peking carts, one or two in chairs, whilst a few coolies with sedans followed in case anybody fell sick by the way. It was a clear day but very hot, and we completed the journey to Tung Chow in good time considering the number of our carts and the frailness of many of our number. On the way we passed villages, and scattered farms, all absolutely deserted. The crops were ripening in the fields, but there was no one to look after them or to reap, and they were left to rot. At a time in the season when, in other years, the country would be alive with men, women, and children, all turned out to bring in the harvest, now not a soul was to be seen.
   When we reached Tung Chow the sight that met us was terrible; we had seen ruin and destruction enough in Peking, but even that was nothing to compare with Tung Chow. The havoc wrought by this war was appalling; the city had been sacked by the Russians; the gates destroyed; the main street a mass of debris. In Peking the Chinese had carried off every stick, every stone which could be used for any purpose. Here all was left as it had been destroyed. Fires still smouldered on every side and even to enter some of the temples and houses was dangerous for the charred timbers could fall at the least movement. In our journey across the city I saw only two Chinese standing at a place where two roads met, and they simply stood there, emotionless, staring with unseeing eyes as our convoy passed them by.
   We were glad to leave the place behind us and to find ourselves upon the river bank. Here were a number of grain boats on which had been erected simple matting shelters. Each boat was to take four or five passengers, their servants, and four Beloochi tribesmen as guard. I wanted nothing to do with the company of men at this stage; no conversation of war or killing, and I was pleased that our party, comprising the Deaconess Ransome and Miss Lambert from the church in the British Legation, their Chinese charges, a servant, and myself, were allocated a boat to ourselves. The Deaconess and the other women slept in the mat-shelter, and I slung a simple hammock outside. We were all on board by three o'clock, expecting to start at once and accomplish the first stage of our journey before nightfall, but the order was that we were not to leave until 5 o'clock the next morning.
   It was quite chilly at night on the open boat, and it seemed an age before day broke; and then delay followed delay, so that we did not start until 8 am. The boats were beached high, and some had to be dragged into deeper water, one by one, so some were a long way ahead before the last had started. The boatmen were for the most part raw coolies; only a few seemed to be capable of managing the boats, and there was a general disagreement as to the course. The river was shallow and full of shoals, so that one boat after another ran aground, and was only pulled off again with difficulty.
   There were no orders to keep the boats together, no one in supreme command to direct the crowd. The boats with the best boatmen or the lightest draught speedily forged ahead, and the convoy was soon scattered and divided by great distances; often we floated along with no other boat in sight, or perhaps only a shadow of one a mile or so away. Despite my best efforts to keep my mind free from any thoughts of killing, I could not help thinking how simple it would have been for an enterprising enemy to have cut that convoy to pieces. The great millet, growing to a height of twelve or fifteen feet, grew thickly right down to the water's edge, forming a dense and impenetrable cover, and half a dozen men hidden in the crops could have easily picked off the guards as the boats passed without our being able to fire a shot in reply. The enemy would have been invisible. He had only to move a few yards and lie down, and then a full body of men might have searched for him for hours in vain. Scattered as we were, our boats could not have supported one another, but happily we did not have to deal with any such attack. Instead, in an air of peace and calm that belied the reality, the boats glided gently down stream and, for some precious hours, I was able to let the quiet motion, the stillness of the atmosphere and the glistening lights on the water work their soothing effect upon my mind.

Our Convoy from Peking on the River Peiho

   The overriding backdrop, though, was that all the way down the river we saw the same sights that we had seen on the road to Tung Chow. Where there had been crowds of busy, inquisitive, greedy Chinese, there was now not a living soul. We saw a few coolies working lazily, but no workmen in the fields, no harvest crops being gathered; no boats laden with rice or copper for the markets. We seemed to be the only people abroad in a land of deserted wealth. We saw also the harsh reminders of war only too frequently; villages in flames, shattered buildings, homes and communities, dead bodies floating down the river or stranded on the banks.
   Thus we journeyed until Tuesday night. We had hoped to reach Tientsin during the day but had made slow progress and it was 11 pm. when we reached the final sweep of the river into the harbour. Instead of anchoring against the bank as we would normally have done at that hour, the boatmen let her drift and we slid quietly downstream. There was no moon, but it was a clear starlit night, and we could see the course of the river perfectly, with all the buildings on either side half-revealed, then half-hidden in a beautiful soft white light. The stars were reflected in splashes of gold on the dark water, and the morning star, which shone with a splendid brilliance, cast a long stream of light on the river. It was difficult to distinguish where substance ended and shadow began but as we neared the harbour, the star-glow softened the harsh outlines, hiding the horrors of destruction and the squalor of the sordid surroundings in a soft mystery.
   We drifted towards the harbour's outer swing bridge, which we found closed, so we had to anchor and wait for the dawn. Slowly the day broke, chill but bright. Crowds of French soldiers were passing the bridge by the light of great fire- torches and it seemed as if we might wait for ever. At last they were all over, the bridge was opened and, with some difficulty, for the current was very strong, we passed through.
   So we arrived at about 7 o'clock in the morning of Wednesday 27th August. My fellow passengers would soon make their way to the Mission, but for me the direction was towards the dockside warehouses where I reasoned that I would find the offices organising the manifests and the movements of the great flotilla of ships berthed in the waters of Bohai Bay; and, within the hour, this was done. I located the headquarters of the American Logistics Corps, but a QM Sergeant there told me that the next ship leaving would be the USS Nashville on 7th September. He directed me to the British offices and, although I was not over-confident of help from this quarter, I was pleasantly surprised when, after a somewhat cursory inspection of my identity papers, a young lieutenant pointed to a supply barge that was being loaded and said, "If you can be aboard her in the next thirty minutes, you can join the "Surprise", leaving for San Francisco this afternoon".
   He was a little taken aback at the effusiveness of my gratitude, thrust my passage docket into my hand and showed me to the door. I walked - perhaps skipped might be a more accurate description of my gait - across the quay to the barge and jumped aboard. Within just a few minutes we were pulling away from Tientsin harbour, and an hour later I was aboard HMS Surprise.

Peking was behind me - it was over ...

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