Wednesday, 6 April 2016

History in Three Keys

History in Three Keys
The Boxers as Event, Experience and Myth
by Paul A. Cohen
Listed here on Amazon

An interesting read, giving some decent information on the potential causes of the Boxer movement. It also goes into limited detail on the measures taken by the government to suppress the Boxer movement in various places, and those flareups that were out of sight of most surviving westerners.

As much as anything, this book attempts to establish how history is recorded, interpreted, remembered, reinterpreted and often twisted to suit the needs of the day.

It's not a light read, being a record of the clear historical facts (the events), how it was recorded at the time, typically through the narrow focus of those caught up in it (the experience) and the uses to which the "history" of the period has been put by different people at different times (the myths). It's therefore a also good read about problems of recording and interpreting history in general, and the uses to which it is put.



Thursday, 21 May 2015

Some Did It for Civilisation, Some Did It for Their Country

Some Did It for Civilisation, Some Did It for Their Country
A Revised view of the Boxer Rebellion
by Jane E. Elliott
Listed here on Amazon

Ms Elliott has certainly amassed a lot of information, and is clearly keen to expand the balance of knowledge and understanding away from the misguided views of the west and towards the truth (or maybe Truth) of what China really was in 1900.  

I have a certain sympathy with her views, because much reporting in the west certainly was biased, and chock-full of misunderstandings and errors. The behaviour of most of the western powers towards another sovereign nation was absolutely reprehensible by the standards of our time (and of that time too, as many cartoons illustrate). However writing a diatribe against the reportage of the time and since - as if press reporting today is so much more accurate and unbiased - and proclaiming, loudly and ad nauseam, an Orwellian "China Good, West Bad" is no way to redress the balance. 

She also is careless with the facts as regards the west where it suits her arguments. The British army had actually abolished the purchase and sale of commissions 30 years before, and so she is guilty of the same sins as those the rails against. Such carelessness (giving her the benefit of the doubt) also raises questionmarks about her reading and selection of previously-unpublished Chinese evidence.  

And that is a shame, because her book contains information that I have not seen elsewhere. There is much, for instance, on the Chinese army's actions against boxers prior to the Seymour Expedition, and the moral dilemmas that they faced.  

For me it was an intensely irritating read, and one which gives revisionist history a bad name. However if you can somehow suppress your critical reactions and search for the nuggets of information, then it is a useful document. 

The Seymour Expedition - my thoughts

On 9 June 1900, Claude MacDonald, the British Minister in Peking (Beijing), sent a telegram to the coast asking for reinforcements to the legations guards. Sensing the urgency of MacDonald's plight, Vice-Admiral Edward Seymour, the ranking officer in the gathered international presence off Taku, decided that further reinforcements should be sent immediately.  He set off towards the capital on the next day in a convoy of 5 trains containing repair materials and a little over 2,000 seamen and marines of 8 nationalities.  After meeting increasing resistance, initially from Boxers and later from Imperial troops as well, he was forced to abandon the trains and retreat, eventually limping into Tientsin (Tianjin) on 26 June. His losses amounted to 62 killed and 232 wounded.   

This much is pretty clear form the historical record. Much else is wrapped in nationalistic/jingoistic colours on both sides.

Was it a calculated gamble or was it quixotic stupidity? 
Was it a glorious failure or it was a great humiliation?  
Was a lucky escape or it was a masterful retreat in the face of the enemy?
  
As is so often the case, it was probably all of these.

Calculated or Quixotic?
Due to rising concerns about Boxer violence, the Qin government had acceded to the International Powers sending guards to legation guards at the end of May, so Seymour must have calculated that they wouldn't get in the way of a wave of reinforcements.  Whilst it would normally have taken just a few hours to travel the 80 miles to Peking, it was anticipated that some repairs would have to be made to the tracks - Boxers were known to have been causing damage - but it was still expected that the convoy would reach the capital the next day. They were not at war with China; they only had issues with the Boxer rebels. They were going to reinforce the legation guard in Peking; they weren't expecting to fight their way through more than few poorly-armed peasants. On that level, and without the benefit of hindsight, it doesn't seem to have been an unreasonable plan. Also, the expectation of an easy journey explains the oft-repeated jibe about officers paying more attention to the packing of their dress uniforms than of weapons and ammunition.  

I think it should be recalled that Seymour had been a Midshipman in 1857 when the massacre at Cawnpore had caused such shockwaves. He would have served alongside naval officers who played their part in the suppression of the Indian Mutiny, and the tradition of the service of the Naval Brigades of the Shannon and the Pearl would have been strong in the fleet(1). I don't see how he could have failed to act to support the legations if it was at all in his power to do so. To remain inactive would have been unthinkable to an officer in his position. Whether he should have abandoned his squadron and put himself at the head of the expedition is another issue entirely, but as a quasi-diplomatic mission perhaps it made sense. Presumably he wasn't expecting to be at war with China within the week. Seymour was a relatively experienced China hand, and had earlier been keen not to exacerbate the situation by landing too many troops despite suggestions from Peking. He wasn't some gung-ho imperial warrior. You do wonder what would have happened if he had stayed with the fleet at Taku. Would the ultimatum to take the Taku forts ever have been made?  

Glorious or humiliating?
It was humiliating, if only because the Chinese saw it as such. Seeing the westerners off was certainly a shot in the arm for the conservative faction. Whether it was the same for the Boxers involved may be more of a moot point, as they were often at the forefront of the initial attacks and suffered accordingly. Less and less is heard of Boxers activity from here on, and I do wonder if the realisation that none of them were invulnerable to missiles affected their elan.

However the fact remains that Seymour's expedition was able to wander around for two weeks, the second of which when they were officially at war with China. During that time they beat off attacks from Boxers and from much larger regular forces armed with modern weapons, including artillery that far outranged their own, and repeatedly fought through villages, roadblocks and even captured the largest arsenal in the area (even if they had no idea what it was at the time). They were rarely out of contact with the enemy, whether to their front, flanks or rear. They suffered heavy casualties, but they did pull through.  Under the circumstances, mere survival was pretty glorious.


Lucky or Masterful?
OK, here's where I am in several minds.

I cannot see how a bunch of 2,000 matelots should have survived in the field, and indeed be free to manoeuvre at will, against 5,000-10,000 regular troops and many thousands of partisans who had them outflanked and surrounded. They were on foot; they were lost; they were transporting 200+ wounded. And remember that over 75% of them were sailors with little more infantry training than rifle drill. Clearly they fought hard and long, no doubt with the British Marines and the USMC playing a key part with their superior training and experience(2). But "Lucky" seems as unlikely as "Masterful" is just plain wrong. 

Were they being shepherded back to Tientsin? That might fit with the Chinese way of war, where defeating an enemy without fighting him was the acme of good generalship. Western observers made much of comical drills that the saw being performed by Chinese troops, but there are other hints that these were drills designed to unbalance and surround rebels and unruly peasants without necessarily killing them. Remember, the Chinese had relatively little experience of war with another state, but centuries of putting down internal unrest. They followed the precepts of Sun Tzu (Sunzi), not of von Clausewitz, so we should not expect to see "absolute war" being pursued. By any measure you care to mention, the Seymour expedition had been defeated, so was it perhaps enough to see it limp homewards as it was no longer a threat?  

As seductive as that idea is, it does not explain the attacks at Langfang, which were pressed home with some aggression and many casualties. Nor the heavy attacks against the Hsiku (Shiki) arsenal after it had been captured. I can only imagine that there was tension between the Boxers, Dong Fuxiang's Kansu Braves and the Tenacious Army of Nieh Shih-ch'eng (Nie Shicheng), meaning that command and plans were divided.  


Conclusion
Ignoring the benefit of hindsight, I think it the decision to send the expedition on the short journey to the capital was unarguable, and not overly-fraught with risk. It fell apart because the boxer action was more widespread and destructive than at first thought - I suspect because the government forces had been heavily censured for there anti-boxer activities, and so went into huddle mode. But the expedition only fell apart when a state of war was created by the attack on the Taku forts, bringing in the active opposition of regular forces. From that point retreat was inevitable, and to retreat was to admit to the defeat of the expedition. That the expedition was able to reach safety, carrying so many wounded with them, was little short of a miracle, but one which based on hard fighting and poor Chinese coordination. 




Footnotes
(1)  Incidentally it was Rear-Admiral Sir Michael Seymour, commander-in-chief of the East Indies and China Station in 1857 and Edward Seymour's uncle, who ordered these ships to sail for India to assist in the suppression of the Mutiny. 

(2)  I'd love to know how well the French Fusilier Marins were trained.  I believe they were better trained that your average naval rating, as this was supposed to be their m├ętier, but I suspect that their tactical drills were not up to the levels of the RMLI, USMC or even troupes de la marine


Sunday, 30 June 2013

Boxers - Fanatics or rural militia?

Pick up almost any wargames publication that mentions Boxers, and you'll be introduced to a bunch of fanatical technophobes.  One-trick ponies, they'll charge and be shot down in droves.  

But was it really that simple?  

I won't try to rehash the roots of Boxer phenomenon.  Others have done it far better that I could - and using original sources.  What I want to examine is how they fought when they fought. This is a wargamer's blog after all.  Much of what follows is guesswork, built upon hints from secondary sources, and piled upon peripheral knowledge of group dynamics.  It it not original research, merely applied supposition. 

Western sources frequently referred to the fanatical charges of Boxer groups.  We are left to infer that they were also quite adept at setting ambushes given their ability to catch guards napping.  They also fully understand the idea of cutting rail lines in front of and behind a train, isolating it and destroying water tanks, further limiting the movement of trains.  Clearly they have the skills of the partisan, at the very least.  This should not be surprising when you recall the other rebellions that had taken place in and around Shantung (Shandong) province where they originated - the Taiping and Nien to mention two recent ones.

However it is probably more complex than that, simply because I believe that the "Boxers" changed shape over the two or three years of their existence.

Early Phase - an agrarian protest against discrimination in favour of Christians.  This phase has law-abiding farmers and landowners hitting back against Christian groups who stood outside the normal law because of the Unequal Treaties, with bandits taking up christianity (small "c") in order to avoid Chinese justice.  Weapons were probably very basic, and any firearms would likely be limited to a scattering of old matchlocks.  More likely to be guerrilla raids and property burnings rather than standup fights, but largely limited to melee weapons.

Rising Tide Phase - all of the above, but starting to grow and becoming better-organised.  This phase has Boxers attacking symbols of western culture (missionaries and railways) and facing persecution from government in some regions.  This phase also sees mysticism taking over - the "boxing" plus other buddhist ritualism.  Now the movement is pulling in the unemployed and the hungry - the people most desperate for a cause or a meaning.  Some will have been veterans of the Sino-Japanese War, or victims of cutbacks in the Green Standard forces, so would have had some basic military training and maybe even some better firearms - breechloaders perhaps.  Ammunition may have been a problem, but some could be acquired from defeated regulars, friendly magistrates, or western gunrunners.  This also covers the first week of Seymour's expedition - up to the allied attack on the Taku forts. 

High Water Phase - This is where the government finally throws its lot in with the Boxer "militia", repulsing Seymour's expedition and besieging the foreign settlements at Tientsin and the Peking legations.  Here we see many more firearms being distributed to (or picked up by) the Boxers.  We also hear of fewer fanatical charges as mysticism loosens its hold - probably as the effect of bullets becomes obvious.  The fall of Tienstin seems to have been the death-knell for the movement in the countryside of Chihli (Zhili) province, with little mention of Boxers during the subsequent advance to Peking.  They are still active in Peking itself, but their last gasp is when they are driven from around the Peitang Cathedral on 16th June.  They may still be active after this date in Manchuria, but as an embodied militia. 

Ebb Tide Phase - After the fall of Peking the life has gone out of the movement.  Partly because it's simply so dangerous, with punitive expeditions fanning out from Peking, but also because the rains arrive, after a 2-year drought, watering the fields that now need the agricultural labour that had been idle for so long.  That doesn't stop the international forces (especially the Germans and the Russians, according to English language sources) executing Boxers in every village they enter.  But others lament that many innocents are slaughtered for every one that may actually have been a Boxer.  

Anyway that's my interpretation.  If I ever get round to reflecting Boxers on a wargames table they will look something like this:

Early Phase - small actions only.  Few firearms.
Rising Tide Phase - willing to charge into contact, but with a scattering of firearms throughout.
High Water Phase - many more firearms, and much less reluctant to charge home
Ebb Tide Phase - small actions only.  Snipers with firearms, but otherwise demoralised



St George and the Chinese Dragon


St. George and the Chinese Dragon
by Lt. Col H.B. Vaughan
Listed here on Google Books

This book is a short account of the British-Indian army 7th Rajputs Regiment in China in 1900, by one of their officers.  The regiment arrived only after the relief of Tientsin, but were the first troops to reach the legations.  Vaughan was a major at the time, and later rose to command his regiment.  The account was originally published in 1902, so quite soon after the events being described. 

This is a no-nonsense, soldierly account, and launches itself into the narrative with no preamble: "The ... 7th Rajputs, stationed at Fort William, Calcutta was warned for active service on 19th June 1900".  It contains some interesting anecdotes made in an off-hand manner - for instance a comment in the first paragraph about being rearmed with the Lee-Metford (presumably replacing the Martini-Henry) reminds us that the Indian Army was kept one technological step behind British troops.  

The narrative covers the advance to Peking, the relief of the legations and the occupation of the city.  During the advance he alludes to much of the fighting being done by the Japanese, with little by his own regiment.  The heat is described as a more dangerous enemy than the Chinese, but nowhere is he dismissive of Chinese fighting qualities.  The frequency of casualties from friendly fire are also a reminder of the difficulties of communication in an international force.  

There are many descriptions of the other nationalities involved in the advance and occupation.  He was impressed by the Americans, by the Japanese and by the (few) Italians, but less so by the Russians and many of the French - whose press seems to have been critical of the Indian troops (to read between the lines of some of his more acerbic comments).  "The German is a prodigy at drill" is one of the phrases that appears to damn the Germans with faint praise.  Further "... some of their formations in the attack appear, in the light of the Boer War, to be open to criticism ..." bring to mind their close order columns of the early days of WW1. 

I have the Alexus Press 2000 edition, which includes some sketches by the author, including the cover which shows a sowar of the 1st Bengal Lancers - somewhat confusingly as the 7th Rajputs was an infantry regiment.  The Editor's Foreword gives some background information on Col. Vaughn (as he became), none of which comes out in his narrative, and helps to paint the picture of a rounded individual (attended the Slade School of Fine Art, player of the Great Game in Persia) rather than the bluff cardboard-cutout victorian officer of popular writing.

Altogether an interesting read for a view from the ground, and of contemporary military practise. 



Thursday, 27 June 2013

Where to start ...

Wargaming, that's where!

I have become fascinated by the history of China and of the Chinese "Empire" in the 19th century, and in the related Western meddling in much of Chinese affairs.  It would be easy to get lost in the disgrace of much of it, but that would be to ignore the huge wargaming potential that exists in this period:
  • The First Opium War (1839-1842)
    • British/Indian army vs Chinese
  • The Taiping Rebellion (1851 - 1866)
    • Chinese vs Taiping rebels, EVA vs Taiping rebels
  • The Second Opium War (1857-1860) 
    • British/Indian and French vs Chinese
  • Conquest of Cochinchina - southern Vietnam (1858-1864)
    • French vs Vietnamese
  • Tonkin Campaign - northern Vietnam (1883-1886)
    • French vs Black Flags and/or Chinese
  • Sino-French War (1884-1885)
    • French vs Chinese
  • Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895)
    • Japanese vs Chinese
  • Boxer rebellion (1900-1901) 
    • Boxers vs Chinese govt; Boxers vs Westerners; Boxers & Chinese govt vs Westerners; Chinese govt vs Westerners
That hardly begins to touch on all of the internal rebellions that China suffered during the period, nor the repeated Russian encroachments in Manchuria - from where the Russo-Japanese War is just a short stroll.  In terms of scale you go from massive set-piece battles in the Taiping rebellion, to patrols in the river valleys of Tonkin and the sieges, large and small, of the Boxer rebellion.  For the naval gamer there are sea battles, amphibious assaults, riverine warfare.

Over time (probably measured in geological terms) I intend to build up the pages on this blog - partly as a personal source of reference, and partly to share what I find and where my meanderings take me.  I hope to include lists of the various books and publications that I've read, with brief comments rather than full reviews.  I'll add links to interesting sites and pictures of the units and terrain that I build.  I SHALL!  Well ... probably anyway.

Just for the avoidance of doubt, this is the blog of a wargamer.  I have never had any formal education in Chinese history and my knowledge of Mandarin is on a par with that of Martian Parhooni.  If you're expecting an erudite commentary on the differences between Wade-Giles and Pinyin (look it up - I did), then you're on the wrong blog.  The use/abuse of terms such as Qin/Ching, Beijing/Peking and Tianjin/Tientsin will be frequent and inconsistent.  You have been warned!

Oh the bandits? That's us westerners.  Mostly :-)