Battling in Peking

The diary of Lancelot Giles provides a gripping account of the siege of the foreign legations during the Boxer Rebellion.
In the Hollywood movie 55 days at Peking (Allied Artists, 1963), a dashing Charlton Heston plays a United States Marine Corps major caught up in the Boxer Rebellion. Defending the besieged compound housing foreign legations, Heston leads a multinational army of soldiers and civilians against hordes of Chinese militants. Predictably the film, aided by the coolness of David Niven and the sultriness of Ava Gardner, portrays a heroic stand. An item in the collection of the Australian War Memorial, however, provides a more genuine and brutal account of the action.

In China towards the end of the nineteenth century, as Western influence and trade leverage increased across the country, anti-European secret societies began to form. Among the most violent and popular was the I-ho-ch’uan (the Righteous and Harmonious Fists). Western correspondents dubbed them the Boxers, thus giving the Boxer Rebellion its name. Throughout 1899 the I-ho-ch’uan and other militant societies combined in a campaign against Westerners and Westernised Chinese. Missionaries and other civilians were killed, women were raped, and European property was destroyed. By March 1900 the uprising had spread beyond the secret societies; the Western powers decided to intervene, partly to protect their nationals but mainly to counter the threat to their territorial and trade ambitions.

Australia contributed naval brigades made up of personnel from New South Wales and Victoria. They sailed from Australia at the end of July and early August 1900 to form part of the British contingent and contingents from seven other nations: Italy, France, Germany, Austria, Russia, Japan and the United States, known collectively as the Eight-Nation Alliance. But the Australians arrived late and were not involved in any of the major battles of the campaign. They left China in March 1901 and returned home to a newly formed Commonwealth of Australia. The Australian War Memorial has a nominal roll of 569 Australians who participated in the campaign. Six Australians died of sickness and injury, but none was killed as a result of enemy action.

The Memorial’s collection contains a wealth of items from the Boxer Rebellion; one of the most interesting once belonged to a junior civil servant with the British legation. Lancelot Giles’ original diary and medals provide a fascinating insight into the siege of the foreign legations in Peking, which in this period were all located in one quarter near Tianan’men Square. Lancelot came from a family long connected with China. His father was a scholar whose revision of the method for writing Chinese in the roman alphabet, known as the Wade–Giles system, was used for nearly a century. Lancelot’s older brother Lionel was also a scholar, who later translated Sun Tzu’s The art of war.

Giles’ diary of the various forays between the defenders and the attackers makes for a cracking read. His first entry is for 4 June 1900, as tensions build and news of the Boxer Rebellion reaches Peking. Residents in the foreign legations heard tales of Christian “foreign devils” being murdered across the country, and the first attacks in Peking began a week later. Thereafter the legations – each with a small military contingent – progressively barricaded their quarters and made efforts to defend themselves. In all, the foreigners’ compound contained over one thousand men, women and children from the eight nations, as well as many Chinese. An urgent call for assistance went out before the Boxers cut the telegraph lines connecting the legations to the outside world.

As more and more Boxers entered the city, they began looting and setting buildings on fire. Before long their attention became focused on the foreign Legation Quarter and direct attacks began in earnest. On 14 June Giles wrote:

At about midnight some Boxers tried to rush our picket on the North Bridge. One fanatic was hit by a rifle bullet, a revolver bullet, and had a bayonet stuck into him, and was still advancing when the marine holding the bayonet pulled the trigger of his rifle and brought him down!

As the pressure from the Boxers increased, the legations consolidated and further developed their defences within a central compound. In typical British fashion, a seemingly desperate situation was tackled with good, old-fashioned organisation.

Great use has been made of missionaries and non-combatants who are housed here, by forming committees and sub-committees who superintend the policing of the Legation. Every Chinese man in the compound has to do two hours work a day for the general good. We have a General Committee; a Fortification, Sanitation, a Fuel Supply, a Water Supply, a Chinese Labour, a Fire Defence etc. etc.

All able-bodied men began working shifts to man the walls and loopholes. Giles, as a student interpreter, was hastily pressed into action. On 21 June he writes:

I had a narrow escape today. I was firing over the top of some sandbags at some soldiers creeping along the top of the further wall of the Carriage Park. I had brought down one man, and was covering another, who was covering me. We fired almost simultaneously; his bullet cut the top of the sandbag within an inch of my rifle, and cannot have been more than a couple of inches off my head.

Boxer attacks came from several directions and in different forms. The entry for 22 June records:

At 4.20 pm the fire alarm sounded. The Chinese [Boxers] had managed to get quite close to our west wall … a huge fire was blazing away with a strong west wind blowing. Bullets were whizzing over the top of the wall which considerably increased the difficulty and danger of getting the fire under control. For two and a half hours we worked like niggers. I emerged at the end, dripping from head to foot with muddy water, but with the satisfaction of having tided over a very serious danger.

Before long, civility began to be stripped away. On 25 June he wrote, “6.30 am. Our two Boxer prisoners were shot and their bodies chucked over the wall.” By 27 June,  the situation had become a contest of survival, ruled by chance:

One of our corporals here, Gregory by name, has had three marvellous escapes. His cap was carried off his head by a bullet; the handle of his bayonet at the end of his rifle was shattered; and lastly, when he had his rifle at the shoulder ready to fire, a bullet went clean through his rifle just above the trigger, grazing his right thumb and cheek a bit. However, all comes to him who waits; he was shot through the instep some days later, and his foot may have to be amputated, poor devil.

The steady toll of the dead and wounded became a feature of their existence. On 1 July Giles wrote, “Wagner of the Customs, a ripping fellow, and a great friend of mine, was shot through the head at the French barricade. This is our saddest loss so far, as regards my own feelings.”

The struggle became a matter of using all means available, including on 8 July jury-rigging an old muzzle-loading cannon into the line.

The old muzzle-loader, variously named “Dowager Empress”, “Old Crock”, and “Boxer Bill”, when fired for the first time, had such a recoil on it that it burst the ropes which lashed it to its hastily constructed gun-carriage. However, we now put in a much smaller charge of powder, and it acts splendidly. Colonel Shiba made use of it during the afternoon, charging it with scrap-iron.

The difficulty of dealing with prisoners gave rise to some brutal measures. On 9 July he recorded: “During the afternoon three Chinese were captured trying to set fire to the French Legation. They were cross-examined, but their answers were so self-contradictory that they were shot.” And yet despite the circumstances, rivalry between the French and the British prevailed, with Giles reporting on 10 July: “The French Minister insisted that the Union Jack over the main gate was attracting fire, and wanted Sir Claude to take down the flag from its prominent position. This, of course, was promptly declined.”

By 11 July, one month into the siege, the conditions were clearly becoming unpleasant.

The flies about the place are something ghastly, being attracted to the unburied corpses of the Chinese. The heat is very great, especially during the last few days when the thermometer has been up to 103 degrees in the shade. Add to this steaming heat, a few hundred buzzing flies, and you have my picture.

The next day brought a close shave for Giles.

All of a sudden as I was looking through my loophole I became aware of the muzzle of a rifle being quietly inserted in my loophole! I leapt to one side and the rifle blazed away into space. If the man had been a second quicker, my head would have been blown off! I then peered cautiously through the loophole and saw the brute quietly reloading. Without a second’s delay I fired point blank at his head which was bent down over his rifle. He was silent after that, as you may imagine.

Giles also records how others tried to cope with the circumstances; on 2 August, for example:

A Russian soldier very nearly died of strychnine poisoning. He had looted a bottle of the poison from some store, and had drunk it, thinking it was some alcoholic liquor. He recovered, wonderful to relate! It takes more than strychnine to kill a Russian.

News of a steadily advancing relief column, under the command of Lieutenant General Gaselee, began to raise spirits in the second week of August. Giles’ last entry is for Tuesday 14 August 1900, where he enthusiastically describes the arrival of the multi-national relief column – some 55 days after the siege began.

At 3 pm, amidst shouts and howls, a few of the 7th Rajputs entered the Legation, quickly followed by Gaselee and his staff, and we were actually at last relieved! It was a moment of a lifetime, and can be better imagined than described. Shakings of hands galore! Women in tears! Sikhs patted on the back! Grimy gunners hugged! It was magnificent that the British be the first to relieve us!

In all, several dozen foreigners were killed and over 100 wounded during the siege. No estimate of the number of Boxers killed or wounded was recorded. The Boxer Rebellion was one of a series of actions that ultimately led to the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1912. This brought an end to over 2,000 years of imperial China and began an extended period of instability of warlord factionalism. The Legation Quarter remained foreign controlled until China’s war with Japan in 1937, at which point all but the Axis legations departed.

After the siege Giles continued to serve as a British civil servant in China, and in recognition of a lifetime of public service was made a Companion of the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George in 1928. Giles died in 1934 but his wife Marjory remained in China; she managed to avoid Japanese internment in 1937, thanks to a well-timed holiday in India. She later moved to New Zealand and then to Perth.

Inspecting Giles’ original diary at the Australian War Memorial is a wonderful experience. The loose pages have clearly been cut from an exercise book and his elegant handwriting cascades down the long pages. You can imagine Giles seated in a room with the windows sand-bagged, a candle on his table and a steel nibbed pen in his hand, fighting through his weariness to record the day’s events. As the weeks progress, Giles’ handwriting becomes more ragged, no doubt reflecting his physical and mental fatigue. Certainly the language he used reflected the common assumptions and attitudes of imperial powers towards their host society.

Giles’s medals and diary were donated by Lancelot and Marjory’s grandson, Giles Pickford, in the mid-1980s. Included with the diary are a series of news magazines giving various accounts of the siege and including a wide range of photographs. Lancelot Giles’s diary, medals and the news magazines are true treasures.

First published in Wartime Magazine Issue 56 – October 2011

Contact Marcus Fielding about this article.

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