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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