As rifle-shots were parried by our high walls, our chief danger was from cannon.
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.
Some incidents of the siege may here be introduced. First among them was the fall of the British flag, not in the order of time, but in the impression which it made upon our minds. Charged with the duty of inspecting the passes of Chinese coming and going between the legations, my post was at the gate over which it waved so proudly (and there, through the whole siege, I passed my days from 5 a.m. until 8 or 9 p.m.). Never did it wave more proudly than during those days when, beneath its ample folds, it gave asylum to the ministers of eleven legations and to persons of fourteen nationalities. Never was the preeminent position of Great Britain more conspicuous — a position in keeping with her history in the opening of China, and the paramount influence she has exerted on the commerce and politics of that empire. One day, in the early morning, down came the flag, the staff having been shot away. We had observed that for several days it had been made a target by the enemy. The Chinese seem to take as reality what to us is no more than poetry in speaking of the protection of a flag. With them the flag is supposed to be accompanied by a guardian spirit. In this case they would call it the tutelar genius of the British Empire.
Before going into battle they offer a sacrifice to their own banner. If they are able to seize or in any way destroy the banner of their enemy, they consider the battle as more than half gained. To us the fall of the flag had the effect of ill-omen. It was not replaced for several days, and the aspect of the gate- tower, deprived of its glorious crest, was certainly depressing. When replaced it was not exalted to its former height — the flag- mast being purposely shortened in some degree to guard against a repetition of the misfortune.
On one of the first days of my service at the gate-house a marine belonging to the guard there stationed was shot down and died instantly. Where the shot came from it was not easy to determine, but on all sides, at no great distance, were trees and high buildings in which it was possible for sharpshooters to conceal themselves. So much, indeed, were we apprehensive of unseen messengers of death that at night we seldom lighted a lamp, taking our dinner before nightfall, and when it was necessary to light lamps they were always extinguished as soon as possible, not to attract the aim of hidden marksmen who might at night occupy commanding positions that would be too dangerous for them during the day. Let it not be supposed that, because the Chinese are backward in the military art, they were deficient in weapons of precision or in the skill to use them.
One British captain, Halliday, was grievously wounded in a sortie. His successor, Captain Strouts, was shot dead in crossing the canal in front of our gate. Captain Wray was shot in the head, but not killed, in attempting to capture a gun. The captain of French marines was killed. He had complained a few weeks earlier that in Peking he had nothing to do, and that the marines had been summoned on a false alarm. The sad pro cession closes with Captain Riley, of the United States Navy, who in the hour of occupation, while playing his artillery on the palace gates, fell a victim to a sharpshooter. It seemed, indeed, as if those sharpshooters, as in other lands, knew how to pick off the officers at the head of their troops, yet so numerous were the casualties among our men as to show that their attention was not confined to officers.
As rifle-shots were parried by our high walls, our chief danger was from cannon. With these the enemy appeared to be insufficiently provided, but gradually one after another opened its Cerberean mouth until big guns and little guns were barking at us on all sides. The most dangerous gun was distant only a few yards. The expedition for its capture was not successful in accomplishing that object, yet so frightened were the Chinese soldiers by the daring of that attack that they thought fit to re move the precious piece of artillery to a safer distance, and its roar was no more heard.
Guns of heavy caliber were erected on the northeast of the Fu, which played havoc with the French and German legations, and almost daily kept us awake by the explosion of shells over our heads. Guns of less weight were placed on an angle of the imperial city wall, close to the British Legation. They commanded both sides of the canal, and threatened to demolish a flimsy fort hastily thrown up for the protection of our gate.
Hitherto we had nothing with which to respond larger than a machine-gun. The want of heavier metal was deeply felt, and one of our marines, Mitchell by name, aided by an ingenious Welshman named Thomas, undertook to construct a cannon out of a brass pump — putting two pieces together and wrapping them with steel wire somewhat as Milton represents the devils as doing in the construction of a cannon out of a hollow pine. Before it was completed, however, Sir Claude forbade its use, saying that to keep the pump to meet a possible conflagration was of more vital importance.
Luckily, while this work was going on, the gunners were informed by a Chinese that in an old junk-shop within our lines they had discovered an iron cannon of considerable size. It was brought in, and so good was it that they resolved to rig it up for use. Examination proved it to be of Chinese manufacture.
Mounted on an Italian gun-carriage, and provided with Russian bomb-shells, it became useful to us and formidable to our enemies. The Russians, though bringing ammunition, had forgotten their gun. The Italians, no doubt, had found theirs too heavy, and brought the empty carriage. Put together and served by American and British gunners it was not unfitly christened the International. It led the way in many a sortie, prostrating barricades, and frightening the enemy by its terrible thunder. But as it was not a breech-loader, and the ammunition was ill- adapted, it was inconvenient to handle.
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