The Siege of the International Legations

In early 1900, the Chinese Boxer Movement, an indigenous, anti-Christian, anti-foreign, semi-mystical peasant crusade, erupted into open “rebellion” against Christians and missionaries, and the Victorian era Great Powers that were slowly carving up China. 3500 Chinese Christians and foreigners sought refuge in the International Legations (embassy) Quarter outside the Chinese Imperial City in Peking (Beijing).

In late May 1900, 450 soldiers, sailors, and marines of eight countries: the US, Great Britain (Including Indians), Germany, France, Austria, Russia, Italy, and Japan disembarked from the ships off the coast of Tiensten and secured the Legation Quarter. They arrived just before 40,000 Boxers including Imperial Chinese troops after the Qing Empress gave her blessing. Most of the foreign civilians took refuge in the British Legation because it was the most defensible and British Minister Claude MacDonald took charge of the defense of the entire Quarter. 150 civilians volunteered to fight. The Austrians and Italians abandoned their exposed embassies, and withdrew inside, the Austrians with the French and Italians to the Japanese embassy. The small force, with considerable Help from the Chinese Christians, constructed barricades and had protection on two sides by the large walls of the Imperial city. However, they were low on ammunition. Only the contingent of US Marines was sufficiently equipped. Furthermore, they had only three machine guns and two small artillery pieces, one of which, “Betsy”, the Americans constructed from various Chinese pieces they found and patched together.

On 20 June, 1900, the Boxers attacked, mostly armed with spears, swords and the belief that they couldn’t be harmed by bullets. The international defenders continually fought them off, but after ten days of constant hand to hand combat, casualties became a serious issue. On 3 July, the Boxers pushed the Germans off the Tartar Wall, and American Marines fell back with them to organize a counter attack. Pvt Dan Daly volunteered to hold a critical chokepoint at the top of the stairs on the wall to buy time. He fought all night as Minister MacDonald and Marine Captain John Twiggs Meyers organized a counterattack. The next morning they found Pvt Daly calmly smoking a cigarette at his post — his machine gun and rifle out of ammunition, and 200 dead Chinese to his front, including 18 by bayonet. For remaining at his post, Pvt Dan Daly was awarded the first of his two Medals of Honor.

The siege came to a crescendo on 13 July 1900, when the Boxers exploded a mine underneath the French Legation and promptly over ran it. They were only stopped from breaking inside the defense by furious counterattacks by the remaining French and Austrian soldiers, and civilian volunteers. Simultaneously, the Boxers broke through the Fu, held by the Japanese led by the indomitable LtCol Goro Shiba, and only determined counterattacks by the Japanese and British soldiers and civilians (including a group known as “The Fighting Parsons”) prevented the massacre of the Chinese Christians there. Nonetheless, they lost their positions and still had to fall back. Minister MacDonald wrote that 13 July was, “a most harassing day…”

The 13 July attacks were the last chance for the Empress and the Boxers to overrun to Legations Quarter. Though the defenders didn’t know it, a 20,000 strong relief force had landed at Tientsin, and captured the city that day. The full might of the Imperial army and the Boxers were forced to move against the relief column for the rest of the siege. The attacks on the legations slowed considerably as the Boxers concentrated on destroying the relief force. The Boxers were defeated at the Battle of Peking on 20 August and the 55 day siege ended the next day.

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