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 uprising (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 :-)