The most dangerous of their attacks were, however, made with the firebrand.
Continuing The Boxer Uprising,
our selection from The Siege in Peking by William. A.P. Martin published in 1900. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages. The selection is presented in seven easy 5 minute installments.
Previously in The Boxer Uprising.
The fires of which I have spoken as having first shown themselves in the outer city were not confined to mission chapels. A large quarter, containing the richest magazines of foreign goods and estimated to be worth from five to ten millions of pounds sterling, was laid in ashes by the infuriated Boxers, not merely with a view to ridding themselves of industrial competition: perhaps also in the expectation that a fair wind would carry the conflagration over the walls and destroy the foreign settlement. As a matter of fact, the high tower overlooking the great central gate of the Tartar city caught fire and was consumed. The firebrands fell in profusion on the inside of the walls, and we all turned out in expectation of having to fight the flames. Happily a change of wind rendered this unnecessary.
Within a few days conflagrations were kindled by the Boxers themselves in the inner city — missionary chapels, schoolhouses, churches, and cathedrals were wrapped in flames, and lighted the lurid sky night by night for a whole week.
The new, or northern, cathedral, standing in an open ground by itself, was considered capable of defense. Monsignor Favier bravely resolved to hold it at all hazards, and thus preserve the lives of three thousand converts who had there taken refuge. In this he was aided by a volunteer band of forty brave marines, French, Italian, and Austrian, together with a disciplined force of native Christians. The defense of that cathedral forms the most brilliant page in the history of the siege.
Not until the siege was raised, however, had we any conception of the severity of the conflict that devoted band had to wage in order to keep the enemy at bay; for from us, though separated only by an interval of two miles in a direct line, they were cut off from communication as completely as if they had been situated at the north pole.
After the declaration of war and the ultimatum above referred to, the Ministers had a meeting, at which they agreed that it would be impossible to comply with the demand of the Chinese Government. They resolved to request an extension of time, or at least to gain time by parleying over the conditions, until our expected relief should arrive. With this view they agreed to go separately to the Yamen to make remonstrance against the harsh treatment implied in this ultimatum.
On the 18th two Boxers, mounted in a cart, had ostentatiously paraded the street, by way of challenge, as heralds were wont to do in feudal times. As they passed the German Legation the Minister ordered them to be arrested. One made his escape; the other was captured and brought to the United States Legation. On consultation it was decided to keep him a prisoner, and he was led away, the Baron giving him a beating with his cane.
On the morning of the 20th Baron Ketteler set out for the Yamen, in pursuance of the arrangement. No sooner had he reached a great street than he was shot in the back, falling dead immediately. His secretary was wounded at the same time, but succeeded in escaping to a mission hospital, whence, after his blood was stanched, he was carried back to his legation.
The news produced a panic in all the legations. They considered that the projected massacre had begun, and, as the British Legation alone was regarded as capable of defense, to that they fell back, accompanied by all their nationals. Sir Claude MacDonald placed its resources at the disposal of his colleagues.
Had the enemy followed up their advantage and poured into the outlying legations (abandoned as they were), they might have reduced them to ashes, or, pursuing us into that of Great Britain, they might have overpowered us in the midst of panic and confusion. Happily they were held in awe by their opinion of foreign prowess, and carefully abstained at that time from coming to close quarters. In the course of the day it was found that the legations had not been invaded by the enemy, and they were reoccupied by their proper guards, with the exception of the Belgian, Austrian, Dutch, and Italian, which lay beyond the line of defense, and were speedily destroyed by fire.
Baron Ketteler’s life was in no unimportant sense a ransom for many, but his was not the only foreign life offered up that day. In the afternoon Professor James, of the Imperial University, while returning from the fa of a Mongol prince on the opposite side of the canal, was shot dead in crossing the bridge. He, too, sacrificed his life in a noble cause; for he, along with Dr. Morrison, of the London Times, had there made arrangements for the shelter of native Christians.
That very evening, and thenceforward every day, we were fired on by our besiegers. The fusillades were particularly fierce when a thunder-storm occurred, the Chinese seeming to regard heaven’s artillery as coming to supplement their own weapons.
The most dangerous of their attacks were, however, made with the firebrand. Numerous buildings beyond our outer wall were successively fired for no other object than to burn us out. Of these the principal was the magnificent palace of the Hanlin Academy, containing the most costly library in the Chinese Empire. That library only served the ruthless vandals for the purpose of kindling a conflagration, and manuscripts of priceless value, five or six centuries old, were consumed by the flames or trodden under foot. By almost superhuman effort the flames were subdued and the enemy driven back. That building henceforward became a bloody battle-ground between the con tending forces, which at times approached so near each other that the enemy assailed us by throwing kerosene oil, and our people replied with oil of vitriol in hand-to-hand encounters.
We want to take this site to the next level but we need money to do that. Please contribute directly by signing up at https://www.patreon.com/history