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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

US Marines Save RussianTroops from Certain Defeat in China during the Boxer Rebellion

The impact of the bullets sent fragments of stone flying in all directions.  Knifing through the air like tiny missiles, they cut into any flesh they struck.  Peering over the wall, Captain John Meyers, United States Marine Corps and commander of the American forces, watched the oncoming rush.  It had been nine days since the siege had begun on 20 June, 1900 and it looked like it was not going to end anytime soon.   There was no point in exposing themselves to the rifle fire.   They knew where it was coming from.  The Boxers had marksmen posted on the roof tops of most buildings along the perimeter and in hidden positions on the ground.  Besides, the real attack would not start until the “band” began to play.  To call it a band was actually a sarcastic description of the tinny sound made by the various trumpets and drums which heralded a new attack.

The blaring of horns was soon accompanied by a cacophony of screams and shouts as a new wave of the Black clothed Boxers began their assault.  Armed with rifles, swords, and spears, the fanatic followers of I Ho Ch’uan, carried long siege ladders with which to scale the Tartar wall.  At forty-five feet tall and forty feet thick, the wall made an imposing barrier.  Unfortunately, with only 409 armed troops to guard a perimeter of 2,180 yards, every man was critical and unnecessary exposure to the rifle fire was not allowed.  Firing through the crenellations, the US Marines and German Troops assigned to hat section attempted to drive back the maddened mob.  As the human wave crashed against the base, the ladders were thrown forward and thumped against the wall. 

 Despite all efforts, the Chinese reached the top where the fighting became hand to hand.  Bayonets and rifle butts struck back against swords and spears. Under intense pressure, the Germans began to falter. First by one’s and two’s then as a flood, the German troops fell back from their section of the wall.  Capt. Meyers fully understood the ramifications of the loss of the wall.  If the Boxers gained control of the wall, their rifle fire would have made much of the Legation compound untenable. Turing half of his command to the left, the Marines charged east along the wall and struck the Boxers in the flank.  The fighting raged until dusk. When it was over the Americans still held control of the wall but the lack of firing from the Legations had allowed the Boxers to advance a barricade within a few hundred yards of the wall.  As Captain Meyers sank to a seated position behind the safety of the parapet, he wondered if they could hold the compound long enough to be relieved.  Unbeknownst to Meyers, he would be seriously wounded the next day leading a desperate assault outside the walls to drive back the Boxers from their barricades.

The “Boxer Rebellion” began in the north of China in early 1898.  This peasant movement originally had as its goal the driving out of both the Qing Dynasty which had controlled China for centuries and all the foreigners who had come to reap the economic rewards of China and to spread Christianity.  Known in China as the I Ho Ch’uan, which translated into Righteous and Harmonious Fist, the followers were tagged with the handle of “Boxers” due to the rituals of boxing and calisthenics which they thought made them impervious to bullets. By late 1899 the Boxers were taking their vengeance out on all the foreign missionaries and Christian Chinese converts.  They murdered all they came in contact considering them heretics.  As the Boxers influence spread throughout the country, the Empress Dowager Cixi decided to save her dynastic heritage and made a deal with them.  In exchange for support of their movement, the Boxers agreed to drop their assault on the Qing Dynasty. 

By early 1900, the Boxer movement reached the capitol city of Peking (modern day Beijing).  Each of the foreign powers had a minister, what we would refer to as an ambassador, which resided in the section of the city referred to as the Legations. This area occupied a section of Peking approximately two miles long and one mile wide.  These ministers included representatives from the United States, Great Brittan, Austria, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, and Russia.  With each day, the ring around the Legations tightened.  Acts of violence against foreigners and Christians were rampant and eventually no one could venture out into the city without an armed escort.  Eventually, all 900 foreigners and almost 2,800 Christian Chinese barricaded themselves within the Legation Sector.  Appeals to the Empress for protection were ignored and often Imperial troops were seen standing by as the assaults took place.  Finally, after an ultimatum from the Empress to leave the city, the Boxer siege of the foreign section of the city began on 20 June, 1900 and was destined to last for 55 days.  It was finally lifted during an assault by the combined International relief forces on 14 August 1900.   

The relief expedition

At the urging of the American Foreign Minister in Peking, the US State Department demanded the War Department send additional troops to defend the Legations.  At the same time, all the other ministers were issuing similar pleas to their Governments.  The closest U.S. troops immediately available were the units currently stationed in the Philippines.  The U.S. was currently involved in putting down a revolt by the Moro natives on the islands and it was determined that only a small force of US Marines could be spared.  All Additional troops would have to come from the Continental United States.   On 12 June, 1900 Major Littleton Waller with six officers and 101 U.S. Marines boarded the USS Newark at the Cavite Naval Station in the Philippine Islands and sailed for China. 

Arriving at the Chinese port of Taku on 18 June 1900, Waller and his troops were met by two additional officers and thirty Marines from the USS Nashville.  The eight officers and 132 US Marines disembarked into an unfriendly city. There was a decided anti-foreigner feel coursing through the population.  The small size of the landing force did not cause a general alarm within the city and they landed without incident.  Later, when the main international force came ashore, it was met by fierce resistance and was forced to take the port by siege. After consolidating their position and landing all their supplies which included a Colt machine gun and a 3-inch artillery gun, they began to move forward.  In attempt to catch the Russian column of about 400 troops already on the move, the Marines headed for the Taku railway station.  On 20 June 1900, the Americans loaded up on railroad cars for the journey west. 

The trip was not an easy one.  The Boxers had torn up the track in several places which had to be repaired to proceed.  The U.S. troops caught the Russians about eight miles from Taku at the small hamlet of Tong-Ku.  Disembarking from the train, the Marines and Russians continued to advance to a point about twelve miles outside of the city of Tientsin.  About 2:30 in the afternoon, the troops went into stopped and made camp.  While unloading their gear, the Marines found out the 3-inch gun they had been hauling was damaged to the point of worthlessness.  The road to Tientsin was almost impassable and would have to be improved before continuing further.  Not wanting to haul a useless artillery piece and its accompanying ammunition, Waller decided to disassemble the piece and throw the entire gun into a nearby canal thereby denying the Boxers its future use.   Once settled, a council of war was called where, it was decided the Allies would await additional reinforcements before advancing into the town.  Even at twelve miles distant, the firing could be heard from Tientsin where about 2,000 allied troops were besieged while trying to hold the all-important railroad station and protect the 4,000 Chinese Christians residing there.  The foreigners in the city were barricade and resisting the Boxer onslaught with the hope of being relieved.  Unbeknownst to the Allied forces however, the Empress had decided to take a part in the uprising.  While not authorizing the use of Imperial troops for the assault on the Legations in Peking, she had dispatched them to stop any attempt to relieve the besieged foreigners in Tientsin or Peking.    

June 21, 1900

 At approximately 2:30 in the morning on 21 June, 1900 Major Waller was again summoned by the Russian Commander to a council of war.  At the council, Russian Major-General Anatoly Stessel informed the Americans he intended to march immediately toward Tientsin in an attempt to relieve the besieged Westerners.  Waller was struck by this change in plans.  He was under the impression their advanced force was going to wait until they were reinforced.  Currently, British Vice-Admiral Edward Seymour was advancing with 2,000 sailors and marines representing the nations of the Legations and was anticipated reach their position about dusk on the 21st.  In reply, Stessel informed the assembled officers that he had orders to relieve the Tientsin garrison regardless of the cost. In his opinion, the volume of fire that could be heard indicated the entrenched Russian and French forces holding the town were hard pressed.  After much discussion, Waller relented and agreed to join the advance.

US Marines - Peking, China
As they moved out, the Russian infantry provided the advanced scouts for the column.  The Colt machine gun under command of First Lieutenant W.G. Powell was placed at the head of the main force and was followed by the remainder of the Russian troops.  The American Marines brought up the rear of the column.  The combined force reached the outskirts of Tientsin about 06:30 meeting little resistance along the way.  Threading their way through the town, relief column arrived at a point near the Imperial Arsenal about 7 am.    As the leading files reached the building, they came under sporadic rifle fire from a group of Boxers occupying a mud wall along the right side of the rout of march.  As the column began to take fire, Waller ordered up a platoon of his Marines to suppress the Boxers.  Unlike their Russian counterparts, the U.S. Marines were trained as marksmen.  The accurate fire from their Kraig-Jorgensen rifles killed several Boxers and sent the others flying for cover. 
Within a few minutes, the head of the column began to receive heavy fire from about 300 yards to its front.  But instead of the unorganized Boxers they anticipated sweeping aside, the Russians were facing between 1,500 and 2,000 trained Imperial Troops who were entrenched in front of the arsenal and were delivering accurate fire.  The Colt machine gun quickly went into action while the about 200 of the Russians deployed to force the Chinese from their position.  The entrenched Chinese were confident of their position but the machine gun proved to be the equalizer.  Unable to advance against the gun, the Imperial Troops supported by Boxers began to move around to the flanks of the Allied force.   Rifle fire from the left flank caused the Russians to extend their line in that direction in an attempt to keep from being overrun.

While the Russians were heavily engaged on their front and left flank, Waller advanced his Marines to the right flank.  Using a stone wall as cover, the Americans attempted to drive back the Chinese.  As the US rifle fire increased, the Chinese began to work their way toward the American right.  This forced Waller to lengthen his line, side stepping to the right to keep his flank secure.  This lengthening of the line thinned his Marines and made any attempt at concentrated their fire on a weak spot ineffective.  Waller was soon faced with his right flank becoming completely enveloped and threatening to both cut off his retreat and get into the rear of the Marines.   Turning to an officer standing close by, he instructed Lt. Wayne to refuse the right flank of the line.  Pivoting it at ninety degrees, the American line was now bent at a right angle. With the right hard pressed, about 100 Russian troops moved under the cover of the railroad embankment to the far right of the American line in an attempt to stabilize it. The Allied lines were now in a horseshoe shape with the enemy on three sides.  With the wounded and dead mounting, the situation was becoming desperate. 

Colt Machine Gun
The pressure on the Russians became too much.  Slowly and then as a flood, the Russian troops began to break.  Soon the front line was held by only 17 Russian soldiers and Lt. Powell’s machine gun crew.  Even though the front line basically no longer existed, the fire from the Colt machine gun kept the Chinese in their trenches.  Soon the remaining Russians began to disappear.  With their support gone, Corporal Lannigan was killed.   Within a few minutes, the Private feeding the ammunition was wounded when the gun jammed.  Left without any options, Lt. Powell moved quickly to disable the gun so it was unusable and grabbing the wounded man drug him to the safety of the ever shrinking American perimeter.

 By 8:15 the Chinese made a final push.  With the Russians in full retreat, Waller and his Marines were left to hold the line.  Unable to stem the tide, the Marines fell back acting as a rear guard for the retreating column.  The deadly accuracy of the Marine riflemen reeked terrible damage on the advancing Boxers and Imperial troops.  Firing and falling back, they made a stand at any defensible position holding it as long as possible then retreating to the next.  For four hours, the remainder of the original 132 U.S. troops fought the Chinese to a standstill while covering the retreating Russian column.  Arriving back at their encampment about 2 pm, the Americans had been in constant combat for five and one-half hours and covered a total of thirty miles.    Admiral Seymour arrived that evening and the next day, the combined force again assaulted the town with much better success.

 During the retreat, the Marines did not leave a single wounded man behind.  Unable to recover their dead, they hauled their wounded with them as they fought a running fight.   The U.S. suffered four men killed in action and nine wounded.  During the action, Lieutenants S.D. Butler, A.E. Harding, W.L. Jolly and Henry Leonard were cited for gallantry above and beyond the call of duty. Each of these men braved intense rifle fire to save the life of a gravely wounded man.    Lt. Powell was cited for his composure under fire and the direction of the Colt machine gun, while Lt. Wayne received a citation for steadfast courage and leadership under fire.  For his action in the Boxer rebellion, Waller would eventually receive the Marine Corps Brevet Medal

Friday, January 31, 2014

Battlefield Interpretation 101-


The concept of Terrain and Line of Sight

  For the serious historian there seems to be a natural progression from the well-read enthusiast to the hardcore scholar. While the enthusiast gets caught up in the pomp, pageantry, heroics, and devastation wrought by war, the scholar looks deeper into the subject. He or she must be a student of not only events, but how different parts of a battle come together to determine the outcome. The scholarly historian must study not only strategy, but operational and tactical implementation of overall strategy. They must understand how an army, a regiment, a company, and indeed the common soldier preforms its individual function. To be a good military historian, especially one who is providing an interpretation of an individual battle, one must walk the ground to get the feel of what each soldier faced. You must have a thorough understanding of terrain and line of sight. Once you understand this concept, the historian must be able to visualize how it affected actions on the battlefield. It is with these concepts that we begin our study on how to properly interpret a battlefield.

I recently took a little trip east with my research partner Wayne Fielder and my son to visit some Civil War Battlefields. Several I had visited before, but our visit to the Bull Run (or Manassas) battlefield was a first for me. As we climbed Henry House Hill towards the position of Ricketts Battery, I was struck by how close Rickets position was to the Position of Stonewall Jacksons 1st Virginia.
Figure 1: Ricketts Battery at the Crest of Henery House

 As Ricketts crested the hill; the Virginians were out of sight and would remain so until the Federals began to unlimber their pieces (figure 1). Almost immediately,
the Battery was taking rifle fire. The Virginians advanced against the Federals on the hill pushing them away from the Henry house and eventually down the hill. The Confederate counterattack on Henry House Hill cost Rickets many men and more importantly a large number of horses. Without the ability to remove all his guns, several were abandoned to the Confederate onslaught.

  My initial reaction was one of wonderment at the obvious folly of trying to deploy the artillery battery under the concentrated fire of the Confederate infantry and artillery. After examining the situation however, Wayne and I came to the same conclusion. There is no way Ricketts either saw the Confederates or at a minimum did not appreciate the danger. As Ricketts Battery thundered up the hill from the ford, they stopped just short of the crest and swung their teams around brining the field pieces to bear. This was done very rapidly as they rushed to get into position. More than likely, the artillerymen did not even look to the far ridge where Jackson had posted his guns. They most certainly did not see Jackson’s brigade as it sheltered itself behind the ridge a few hundred yards away, or the Confederate infantry in the low ground immediately to their front. The Picture in Figure
2 is taken from the position of Ricketts Battery looking toward Jacksons Line which is marked by his monument and the artillery. The seemingly flat ground directly in front of the marker is deceiving. The ground slopes rapidly down into a draw where the tall grass now lies. Unless Ricketts was looking down, he probably did not notice the Infantry until it was too late.

Figure 2: Jacksons Position (stone marker and statue) as seen from Ricketts Battery Position.
What struck me most about this event was the fact that the Confederate troops and batteries were not purposely concealed by some elaborate rou├ęs, but by the masking effect of the surrounding terrain. The ebb and flow of the landscape kept Jackson’s men hidden until the battery had crested the hill and began to unlimber. The two lessons which must be learned from this is first, how terrain and specifically line of sight effected not only the overall strategic decision of Ricketts and how his tactical objectives were supported or disrupted by the terrain. Secondly, it is important for the battlefield or military historian to understand how a horse drawn artillery battery would go into action. How they unlimbered, where they positioned their caissons, how long it took to unlimber the battery and all the other details. It is important to appreciate that these guns did not just appear. The combination of these two factors created a situation where the battery commander was lulled to a false sense of security about his intended position.


Important Things to Consider

To fully understand why line of sight and terrain have such an impact on the battlefield through the eighteenth and nineteenth century’s one must understand a few key concepts. All artillery, up until the late (really late) 1800’s, were line-of-sight weapons. For field artillery to be effective the gunner must be able to see the target. Even shell and case shot, which exploded on or above the attacking enemy, had to have a visible target for the gunner to hit. Some elevation was possible. Early field and naval guns could be elevated by inserting or removing wooden wedges under the breach. Later, most guns were equipped with an elevating screw. Even with these devices, all artillery lacked an over the horizon ability. In other words, they could not fire over hills and drop shells onto concealed troops. Most guns had a maximum elevation of no more than five degrees which allowed them to shoot up hill or against fortifications. There were mortars available which could fire shells high over terrain and fortifications, but they were unwieldy and little used unless during a siege.

Another key concept that needs understanding is the tactical doctrine of the time. Unlike modern soldiers, troops of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries fought standing in mass formations utilizing long battle lines to maximize the effect of their musket fire. In this respect, with the exception of men assigned as skirmishers, troops did not move stealthily up to the brow of a hill and snipe at the enemy. The assaulting forces would begin receiving incoming rifle fire as they began to expose their head and shoulders above the crest of a terrain feature. They would be unable to return the fire until they had crested the hill to an elevation where they could bring their arms to bear. A stark example of this situation occurred during the battle of Antietam. As the Federals advanced against the Confederates positioned along the Sunken Road, known also as Bloody Lane, they were initially exposed to rifle fire as they crossed a small ridge taking terrible casualties. As they continued to advance, they dropped into a draw which completely masked them. This intervening terrain feature allowed the Federals to reach a point directly above the lane and deliver terrible slaughter on the defenders. In this case, the terrain masked the attacking Federals long enough for them to reach a position with their attack largely intact.


Walking the Field

To truly understand the why’s and how’s of a battle, it is of critical importance the historian walk the terrain in the area of study. It is simple enough to read from historical sources that a certain position was here and what it did, but from a flat map or a textbook one cannot see how the terrain dictated the outcome of the defense or strength of the attack. It is important to understand what could be seen and when it could be seen. Sometimes this makes all the difference in understanding the historical record. Additionally, sometimes it is the historical record which can be called into question. If an account relates information that, after the examination of the ground, cannot possibly be seen, we are justified in calling that source and possibly its whole interpretation of the event into question.

 When examining terrain the historian must keep some information in mind. First, unless the trees are very large, they probably did not exist during the battle. Although the tree’s age is based on several factors such as the species and growing conditions we can make some generalizations about the age of the trees without cutting them down (figures 3 & 4). Let’s examine, for example, a Red Oak tree. If it is about ten inches in diameter it is probably only about seventy-five years old.

Figure 3: New Growth Trees at an Artillery Position on the Antietam Battlefield
If the same Oak tree has a diameter of thirty inches it could easily be over two-hundred years old. Battlefield interpretation can be particularly confusing when the view shed is blocked by new growth trees or even whole wood lots. It should be noted however, that the diameter of a tree must not completely eliminate it from the picture. The historian must make a careful comparison of the historical record and the terrain. Some wooded areas or tree lines may indeed be in their original position but the replacement of old growth by new growth may give a false impression of the age of the standing timber as it relates to the battle. Secondly, the locations of water course or streams can change over time. While these changes are usually subtle they can create a false impression and confuse the historian when attempting to align oneself along a critical event during the battle. Finally, farming, road construction, and construction of housing disturb the landscape in various ways. They change the terrain by grading and creating erosion runoff which will raise valleys and lower hills over time. It is therefore important for the historian to understand what the property has been used for since the event took place and any changes which have affected the line of sight

Figure 4: Tree Age based on Diameter


What if I can’t take a field trip?

While I cannot stress the importance of the field visit for understanding battlefields, one cannot always do so. If I were writing an article about the battle of Balaklava in the Crimea It would be cost prohibitive to catch a plane to Turkey for a quick walk. You do however have another option. While it is should not be substituted unless necessary, Google Earth with its street view feature can give you a good look at the view shed. It will allow you to look over the terrain from a view parallel to the ground and get an idea of what it is like without leaving your desk. Additionally, you can use it as a tool to confirm a hypothesis or as a method of doing reconnaissance prior to a site visit.

Another neat feature of Google Earth is the overlay function. While working on a recent project, I needed to reference a map drawn in 1862 to the actual terrain on the ground now. I needed this to reconcile between what I understood of the actions and the current layout of the area. To do this, first I pulled up Google Earth for the area I was working in. Then, using the overlay function, I placed the old map on top of the new one. After some positioning and lining up known landmarks, the old map draped over the terrain like a table cloth following the dimensional terrain displayed in Google Earth. With the overlay I could see exactly what the original map maker saw from the modern perspective. Figure 5: Google Earth with Historic Map Overlay

Figure 5: Google Earth with Historic Map Overlay
Regardless of your reason for studying a particular event, it is very important to understand the role terrain and line of site will play on the outcome of the event. Interpretation of the battle begins with reading and understanding as many of the available historical sources as possible. The second act is to visit the site either virtually or physically and walk the ground to find those key points and identify how the view shed impacted the actions of the actors. With the widespread availability of digital cameras it can be very useful to take as many pictures as you can from multiple angles. These photos can be used as a later date to refresh your memory or shore up a theory. Being good military historian requires more than a cursory study of primary source material. Unlike other historians, the military historian is required to understand how terrain and lines of sight affect the course of the battle. Without a serious study of terrain, it is difficult for a military historian to accurately convey the actions of the combatants in the proper light.