WAR AGAINST THE BOXERS

From ‘Diggers 1860 - 1994’

by George Odgers.

Endorsed by the Australian Defence Force

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All Australian colonies were deeply involved in the bloody fighting in South Africa when another call to arms came from China, via Britain, for help in containing and defeating a dangerous threat to all foreigners in China by the fanatical Chinese secret society known as the "Boxers".

The colonies of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia responded at once by offering some 460 members of the Victorian and NSW naval brigades and the gunboat Protector, flagship of the South Australian naval forces, and its crew of 96.

When in June 1900 the call for military help came, the Australian naval brigade units were being prepared for the South African war and their diversion to China resulted in the first Australian involvement in a war on the mainland of Asia.

The Australian soldiers were to join an international force composed of sailors, marines and soldiers from Britain, France, Italy, Russia, America and Japan tasked protect the lives of Christian missionaries and other foreign nationals and to defend their economic interests.

China's immense size, huge population and enormous resources and potential, coupled with the weakness of the ruling Manchu dynasty, made her vulnerable to external pressures.

In the second half of the 19th century Western industrial nations and emerged.

Japan vied with each other to extract concessions, privileges and leaseholds from the Chinese. Japan, eager to detach Korea from China, succeeded in its aim when the Chinese were crushed in the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-95. Sensing a likely disintegration of the Chinese State, other nations increased the pressure on China for concessions and spheres of interest.

These unfortunate circumstances were the cause of growing unrest in the Chinese community. With patience finally exhausted many Chinese joined the "Righteous Harmonious Fists" or "Boxer" movement. Secretly encouraged by the Empress Dowager, the angry Boxers vowed to "exterminate the foreigners".

But however much China suffered from the foreign "devils", there was no way such a drastic solution could be tolerated by the E Europeans who lived and traded there. The Boxers murdered Christian missionaries, both male and female, and Chinese converts to Christianity. Rape and pillage were widespread and Western property was put to the torch. A crisis point was reached in May 1900 when the Empress permitted Boxers to demonstrate openly against foreigners in the walled city of Peking (now Beijing) and an Imperial Chinese Army 18,000 strong joined thousands of undisciplined Boxers in the streets. Chaos reigned in the capital and the Diplomatic Corps sent urgent appeals for more guards to be provided from a multi-national fleet standing off the coast. Some 1500 Europeans were slaughtered by the Boxers. At Tientsin the Boxers waved the heads of murdered missionaries as they occupied the city.

]The Empress ordered all foreign diplomats to leave Peking, but before they could do so Baron Von Kettler, the German Minister, was killed by Boxers. This aroused a furious response from the German Kaiser who urged German Marines to "take no prisoners, kill him when he falls into your hands".

The siege of Peking now began with the insurgents and Chinese troops firing on the embassies. In June an additional Allied force of 2000 sailors and marines from the multi-national fleet set off from the coast to relieve the legations but were forced back by the Boxers and the Chinese army.

Alarmed for the safety of their nationals, eight nations joined together in forming an international relief force.

On 28 June 1900 the British Government cabled Australia asking that warships of the Royal Navy then serving on the Australian Station be released for service in China. They were released at once and in addition the State of Victoria offered 200 men of the naval brigade (commanded by Commander Frederick Tickell) for service in China. As well, NSW offered another 260, to he commanded by Commander Francis Hixsom. The commitment of the South Australian gunboat HMCS Protector- together with 96 officers and men brought the total to 556.

The ship, Protector- was to be commanded by Captain William Creswell, a former Royal Navy officer who had served on the China Station.

Included in the NSW force was a detachment of ‘disguised’ soldiers designated the "NSW Marine Light Infantry".

In the Victorian Legislative Assembly the Hon. C.C. Salmon declared that no better means could be adopted of ensuring peace than by assisting in China at once.

"The terrible occurrences in China" he said, "had sent a thrill of horror right through the civilised world". Mr H.B. Higgins doubted the wisdom of the decision. "The people will be wanting to know whether we in these colonies are to be expected to volunteer each time to contribute valuable lives and money in aid of wars which may not interest us directly".

The Victorian and NSW contingents left Sydney on the liner Salamis on 8 August and the Protector three days later.

On the 9 September the contingents after inspections at Woosung arrived at Taku on the Gulf of Chihli where they became part of the British Contingent Field Force in China.

However, most of the fighting had already taken place. The Taku forts had been captured on June 17, opening the way for contingents of the international force to land.

By 14 July the international force had taken the city of Tientsin. A 20,000- strong allied force had then pushed on to Peking, which was relieved on 14 August after the defenders had endured a desperate 55-day siege. The relief took place before the substantial German expeditionary force, despatched to avenge the murder of the German Minister in Peking, could take part in the rescue. Deprived of the glory of lifting the siege the Germans now cast about to find some way of justifying their high-speed sea dash from Europe.

The Australians arrived in North China in the Salamis on 8 September and were quartered in Tientsin. On 24 September they were ordered to take part in a foray against the Peitang forts in a force of 8000 men which included British, Russians and Australians. The Australian contribution was 300 (150 from Victoria and 150 from NSW including 25 marines of the Light Infantry). The Australians were angered to learn when they arrived at Peitang that the Russians had already stormed the forts where after the action only four dead Chinese were found. The Australians, hungry and tired after a march of 18 miles, had arrived too late.

On 6 October the first Australian to die in China was buried. He was Private T.J. Rogers of the NSW Marine Light Infantry, who fell victim to influenza. At the time 25 per cent of the contingent were on the sick list. Four days later the New South Welshmen were ordered to Peking where they carried out guard duties at the British Legation and the Llama temple.

HMCS Protector became HMS Protector when she arrived in China and came under Royal Navy control. Protector spent her time shuttling men and stores between ports and carrying despatches. By the beginning of November the Admiralty decided it could dispense with her services and she was released on 2 November to return to Adelaide.

On 12 October, 250 Australians joined a force of 8500 men (including British, German, French and Italian soldiers) in a foray to Pao Ting-fu where they were to deal with the murderers of missionaries. The force, under French Brigadier General Bailloud, reached Pao Ting-fu, the provincial capital of Chihli, after a 10-day march. But the city offered no resistance. Some Australians were directed to guard a number of Boxers who were to be held and then handed over for execution. The force returned to Tientsin after being in the field for 25 days during which they experienced no fighting.

Towards the end of 1900 after the Boxers had been dispersed, the fighting in North China quickly subsided.

With few active military duties to be performed, the Australians were tasked to support the civil administration.

In Peking, Lieutenant Staunton Spain of the NSW contingent was put in charge of fire fighting. Victorians in Tientsin formed the nucleus of the police force. Others were employed in the railway service as guards and ticket collectors. ,Some understandably resented being used in non-military duties.

Lieutenant General Sir Alfred Gaselee, the British Commander, wrote to Prime Minister Edmund Barton praising the Australian naval brigades. "It only remains for me to say how excellent an effect has been produced by the appearance in so remote a stage as North China by these fine Contingents from the Australian Commonwealth." The Mayor and Council of Tientsin presented each member of the contingent with an illuminated souvenir.

After serving through the bitterly cold winter months, members of the contingent were withdrawn to Australia. They arrived at Sydney on the transport Chingtu on 25 April 1901.

Of the total of 556 Australians who had served in the war of the Boxers, six had died, including Staff Surgeon J. Steel.

All information and photos from 'Diggers 1860-1994' by George Odgers, Endorsed by the Australian Defence Force

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