Friday, December 23, 2005

French Farce During the Boxer Rebellion

I am not often disposed to quote the author of the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx, but I am partial to his insight that: "History repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." An example of this is the history of the French military in its operations on the North China plain; I am providing this story to bring a bit of mirth for the Christmas season (especially after the sombre tone of my last post!).

The first time that French forces saw action in China was in 1860, when they were part of a joint Anglo-French force that occupied Beijing, ending the Second Opium War. The French were largely responsible for looting the many treasures of the Summer Palace.

A similar action was underway exactly 40 years later, when the Siege of the Legations in Beijing by first the Boxers, and then regular Chinese troops required a relief action by foreign troops. It was thus that, after taking the Taku Forts, securing Tianjin and its Foreign Settlements, the armies of eight nations (mostly European, but including the United States and Japan, the Japanese having mustered the largest force) marched towards the gates of the Imperial City. They expected a tough fight, but found it a rout; by the time the armies were halfway from Tianjin to Beijing, it was more of a race to see which army would reach Beijing and the embattled Embassies (which had held out against all odds with a small detachment of marines and embassy guards for two months).

Unfortunately, the French presence in 1900 was far less impressive than it was in 1860. The men, mostly Vietnamese conscripts that had seen little action and fit only for guard duty, were hastily shipped to be disembarked near Tianjin. They were led by General Frey, who had every reason to despair of salvaging glory from his command. Here I shall allow the pen of Peter Fleming, writing in 1959 in his book The Siege at Peking, to take over with his expert hand:
The British arrived at the Legations at about half past two...General Chaffee and the 14th United States Infantry reached the Legations about 4.30 p.m., and General Lineivitch [the Russians - Ed.] an hour or so later. General Fukushima arrived some time that evening...

It was not until the morning of the 15th that the French appeared [a day after everyone else - Ed.] Their harrowing experiences during the assault are too complex to describe in detail. In the small hours of 14 August they bumped into the Americans who were bivouacked. Here they learnt that they were on the south bank of the canal; they should have been on the north bank. They floundered on, then halted. Some Bengal Lancers rode past them in the darkness. The men were narrowly restrained from opening fire, but in the excitement most of their coolies disappeared.

Then the Americans marched through them. General Chaffee was disagreeable; he suspected General Frey of making an unauthorised dash for Peking and reminded him that he was on the wrong side of the canal. The French found a sluice-gate and with great difficulty crossed to the north bank. It was by now 10 am on the 14th. The men, who although they had done no fighting had been brought up from Tientsin by forced marches, were exhausted.

General Frey's object was to find the Russians. In an interview with General Lineivitch on the previous day he had concerted (or hoped he ahd concerted; there had been no interpreter present) pregnant plans concerning the occupation of Peking, the considerate treatment of the Imperial Court and other not strictly military matters. The Allies' arrangements had provided for a conference of commanders-in-chief during the 14th; and General Frey, whose voice had not been raised at these conclaves since he went back to Tientsin a week earlier, was pardonably anxious to reassert France's right to a hearing. Since Lineivitch was the senior general, the conference would be held in his camp; and to a quest for this camp General Frey, whose stamina must have been remarkable, devoted the rest of the day.

The French Expeditionary Corps had only one map; it was obsolete and useless. Their few Shetland-pony-sized chargers were on their last legs; Frey was virtually destitute of scouts or even mounted orderlies. He did eventually find the Japanese commander-in-chief; but neither General Yamaguchi nor anyone else present could speak a language other than their own, and Frey was given an escort to take him forward to the Japanese chief of staff, General Fukushima, who was something of a linguist and would put him in touch with the Russians, now believed to be well inside Peking.

So, it turned out, was General Fukushima. Frey had a long, lacerating wait at Japanese advanced headquarters outside the Tung Pien Men. At nightfall he sent Captain Bobo back to bring up part of the French contingent; and thus, to use his own words, 'our national prestige was safeguarded, for the French Commander-in-Chief and a small detachment of infantry and artillery passed through the Tung Pien Men (in other words entered Peking) on the same day as the other Allies - the 14th of August, before midnight.'

By 4 a.m. on the 15th they were advancing cautiously in a deluge of rain through the deserted streets, clutching at the muzzles of their rifles to prevent the bayonets rattling. A halt wa called on the outskirts of the Legation Quarter. Colours were unfurled, buglers marshalled to the front; their entry was to be a ceremonial victory march. Commands were given incisively. The brave notes rang out. The small, tired soldiers stepped off briskly. The sodden Tricolor flapped. But alas, the going was not suited to their purpose. 'The column, obliged to cross barricades, tenches and other obstacles became somewhat strung out and disorganised.'
So it was that the French force arrived in Beijing a day later than everyone else, without having to fire a shot, but yet totally exhausted.

The valor of France during the siege came from the resolute defenders of the Peitang Cathedral and its out-buildings, with just 41 French (mostly Breton) sailors and two officers guarding over 3,000 Christian converts against a horde of Boxers that had already massacred thousands of their fellow brethren. For two months and no news from the outside, the French, outnumbered and outgunned, managed to hold off enraged Boxers that wanted to enter and create thousands of new martyrs. Only three days after the Legations were relieved were these brave defenders rescued from their doom, just as they were running out of ammunition and Chinese bombs had made a breakthrough inevitable.

Merry Christmas everyone!


Anonymous said...

Obviously your article is based on english informations.
You said the french only looted the summer palace. Well. i have read french books written by witnesses that sad exactly the opposite: its only after seeing the british troops methodically looting the imperial palace thant the french started to get some souvenirs...One of the books added than the gallant frenchs saved the imperial concubines. Where is the truth?
It is still important to add that France was not a democracy then, but a dictatorship with Napoleon the III. Victor Hugo, in his british exiled, like some other democrats- condemned the invasion of China and the looting of the imperial palace.
I have nothing to add the the arrival

Dave and Stefan said...

I believe Chinese sources corroborate that. The British were the ones that destroyed the Summer Palace after it had already been looted by the French, as holdings in Paris will demonstrate.

The destruction, ordered by British General Lord Elgin, occurred after European negotiators, under a white flag of truce, were caputred and tortured before being killed.

There were people in both Britain and France that condemned the destruction, but it is true that France, the home of the 18th century enlightenment, had had many people that were pro-Chinese because of the idealization of China that the philosophes had projected. I am not sure though, how democracy or the lack thereof would influence the despoilation of heritage monuments by conquering armies.