12/12/12

The Boxer Rebellion 1899-1901: Eight Nation Alliance and the Bloody Defeat of the Chinese Boxer 'Braves'

The Boxer rebellion is a most fascinating conflict to study because of the unique nature of the conflict amongst many other notable conflicts fought at the very end of the 19th century and into the early 1900's. Many histories written in modern times have highlighted the international diplomatic and military effort's of the Eight Nation Alliance which was arguably the first modern age military coalition force of its kind.

Allied armies attack the Peking (Beijing) palace during the Boxer Rebellion 1900


Their enemy, the mystic Chinese ‘Boxer’ rebels (nationalists) of the Society of ‘Righteous Harmonious Fists’, fundamentalists patriots who were fighting to expel "Western" allied influence (Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and Japan) from China. A conflict marked by bloody insurrections, atrocities, and costly sieges, the Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901 is a critical study in early-modern world diplomacy, warfare, and military studies.

Soldiers of the Eight nation Alliance: Britain, the United States, Russia, British India, Germany, France, Austria-Hungary, Italy, and Japan

Beginning in the 1830’s and into the middle of the 20th century, China became a major cog in the greater imperialist schemes of the West, and later Russia and Japan, bringing many different nations into conflict over the right to exploit and/or control the wealth of the country. China conversely struggled to maintain order and promote growth (economically, socially, and politically) within their borders, heavily dependent on the corruption and back door-deals of the Western nations, who all eagerly looked to the crumbling Qing Empire as an untapped imperialist venture.

Boxer 'Brave' showing the movements distinct insignia and archaic weapons

One of the earliest and strongest economic concerns being the import of Opium into China by the British originally, which lead to conflict in 1839-1842, and 1856-1860, during the Taiping Rebellion. In general, great concessions were continuously sought from China throughout the 1840’s and beyond by many of the leading European nations, especially Britain and France, setting the stage for the resentment of Western influence and economic control which causes the uprising of the Boxers just as it had during the Opium Wars.

The Eight Nation Alliance as it came to be known, the first truly Allied coalition and intervention force to speak of in the modern era, was formed after the rise of the Boxers and the murder of Westerners, in Beijing and surrounding provinces. Many of these Westerners were Christian missionaries. One of the major concerns from the British legations standpoint which ultimately help to spread the Boxer Rebellion was the severe drought in Shandong province where the  movement had started and later festered. In time it became a national movement.

Soldiers of the Eight Nation Alliance Depicted in a Period Japanese Drawing

At first a secret society operating in 1898-1899 or even earlier the Boxers were anti-Westerner and anti-Christian which were popular sentiments of the time throughout China's many provinces. This again was most certainly a revisionist movement dating back to the Taiping Rebellion and the Opium Wars where anti-Western sentiment was fervent. Eventually the Boxers lashed out, killing Chinese Christians and later Westerners, first beating them in the streets and later lynching and executing them en masse, shocking the world with tales of gore and violence which quickly were exaggerated & sensationalized by Western newspapers.

These actions signaled major Allied intervention in Beijing and elsewhere throughout China from early 1899 to the summer of 1900. Eventually the Empress Dowager Cixi (b.1835-1908) persuaded by her advisors and Boxer sympathizers at court, declared the Imperial Army at war with the Allies, widening the war into essentially a state sponsored rebellion. She had been alive during the Opium Wars and remembered the Anglo-French heavy handedness during and after the Second Opium War of 1856-1860.

French Colonial infantry man barricades in the streets

The British maintained the toughest and most vocal stance against the Boxers urging the totally inept Qing to take some action against the rebels else they would. Ultimately the intervention of the West and Japan hinged on the colonial/imperialist view that this archaic & backwards Chinese uprising (nevertheless deadly and seemingly widespread) would need to be pacified for the sake of greater China and for the protection of the greater Western concessions growing in the Chinese coastal regions.

The first contingents from most Western countries came ashore from the dreadnoughts and frigates anchored in Dagu (Taku) harbor. These were mostly naval contingents who were soon then rushed to Beijing to protect the Westerners and their properties in grave peril of raids, sacking, or much worse.

Allied Intervention, Battle of Tientsin & the Breaking of the Siege of the Beijing Legation 
1900-1901

The second intervention force to engage the Boxer rebels, the Imperial Army and its rebel allies were the troopers of the Seymour Expedition, named for British admiral Edward Hobart Seymour. A combined force of predominantly British, American, and Japanese forces set out from Dagu after capturing the city in Battle of Taku (Battle of the Dagu Forts) June 1900. Despite some initial successes, Seymour’s expedition became a failure due in part to Imperial Army harassment a fact which the Admiral referred to himself in his after action report.

Admiral Edward Seymour

For many of the Allies the Boxer Rebellion was a major conflict but politically and diplomatically very few of these nations were willing to commit large forces  for a sustained period of time to China. Only the Japanese perhaps, who had already been to war with China in 1894-1895, were willing to occupy, as they showed later, vast amounts of Chinese territory. The Americans were bogged down in their occupation of the Philippines and the British were still fighting the Boer guerrillas in South Africa, in what had been the independent republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State before British annexation.

Seymour's relief expedition limps through Tientsin

By the time the Battle of Tientsin (Tianjin) was fought, the first three quarters or more of the war had already been fought, with the Boxers bloodied and driven back yet again by the technological superiority of the Eight Nation Alliance. At Tientsin the Russians, Americans, British, and Japanese principally, finally defeated the Boxers in a decisive set-piece engagement. In this respect Tientsin was the penultimate battle that broke the Boxer rebellion, and the Imperial Chinese rising against the West.

American soldiers breaching the walls Beijing Legation at the climax of the siege

Eventually the Allies did pierce the attackers’ lines, inflicting perhaps thousands of casualties, capturing many Boxers and ending their cause almost overnight. After the Siege the Boxer Protocols would be signed and by 1901 the conflict was over, China’s bid for total independence and control over their own country on hold until after the Second World War, when the Peoples Republic of China is proclaimed in 1949.

In the aftermath, thousands of Boxers were executed by the Chinese government who were eager to appease the West at any cost. The Japanese cracked down hard on suspected rebels executing hundreds of Boxer or Qing nationalists with their infamous samurai swords, in en masse by well trained firing squads. Already considering parts of China under their sphere of influence and greater control the Japanese military must have been eager to display its military capabilities to both the Chinese and the Westerners. The Boxer Rebellion though not the first or last time that a foreign army would battle for China, would signal the greater end to the 19th century imperialist period, beginning in the 1820s-1830’s, continuing into the late 1890’s at height of imperial and colonialist power globally.

Japanese and Indian troops stand at attention while Imperial Japanese officers execute Boxer rebels shortly after the end of the rebellion. For standards of content I have cropped from the original image the decapitated heads and bodies of Boxers recently executed.

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6 comments:

  1. The Japanese military really made a name for itself during this conflict. With the British and Americans fighting by their side, they got to see just how skilled and disciplined the Japanese soldiers were. I read a book about the siege of Peking that pointed out how instrumental the Japanese were in the defense. They suffered more than 100% casualties (many men being wounded more than once) yet kept on going. I wish I could remember the name of the book but I read it probably twenty years ago!

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  2. Imperial Japanese military from the the 19th century to 20th century is fascinating to me from a military history standpoint. Thanks for commenting!

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  3. Interesting piece - nice to see the events outside of the '55 Days' given some consideration.

    The photo of the French troops is very interesting. They are not Foreign Legionaires, however, as surprisingly (they were in Indo-China where the first French troops came from) none were sent to northern China. They are Colonial Infantry, who appear in other photos with the white sun helmet and light blue 'bleu mechanic' and dark blue uniforms.

    Do you have the original photo? I would very much like a copy, if so, for use as an illustration in a book on the armies of the Boxer Uprising.

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  4. No but from a volume I own, featured in a photo-book of the Boxer rebellion, photos taken throughout the war, published originally in 1906.

    Thanks for the correction on the Foreign Legionaries photo, realized there was a difference but was ultimately unsure when I captioned this photo. Cheers!

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  5. Interesting article-and Blog. I have always loved history. One of my favorite movies is "55 Days at Peking" with Charlton Heston. I think that the Boxer Rebellion was proof of what could happen when fundamentalism is allowed to spread. Do you recommend any books on this particular subject?

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  6. So how did the British continue to trade with the Chinese if the Opium was banned, and what percentage was that?

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