A riveting account of a British Chinese regiment in action
The Weihaiwei Regiment, or as it was also known, The 1st Chinese Regiment, was a British Army regiment formed in British Weihaiwei in 1898 from the men of Shantung Province. It was led by British officers and colour sergeants. Major Hamilton Bower of the Indian Staff Corps was given the local rank of lieutenant- colonel and appointed commandant of the new regiment. By 1900 the regiment consisted of 420 men organised into seven companies and was highly regarded for its drill, military appearance and marksmanship. The regiment saw active service during the Boxer Rebellion. In its first action in March 1900,men of the regiment led by Lt Col. Bower put down a failed uprising in Chengfoo. Two hundred men of the regiment in four companies were nominated to serve in the Boxer Rebellion, arriving in Tientsen in late June 1900.Fighting alongside United States Marines, two British captains and 21 Chinese NCOs and other ranks were killed during this campaign whilst two majors, one colour sergeant and 15 Chinese NCOs and other ranks were wounded. The regiment took an active part in the relief of Peking and smaller expeditions including Tu Liu and Peitsang. This book was written shortly after the events described within it by a British captain of the regiment who witnessed many of the events at first hand and, of course, had ready access to other members of the regiment who were able to recount their own experiences to him.
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About 10 a.m., on the 4th August, orders came for our party to be ready to march off at 2 p.m. the same day, so that there was some final hustling to be done to get the junk, that was to carry our kits and our rations for eight days, started off up the river.
At 2 p.m., accordingly, our contribution to this historic march fell in. The party consisted, as has been stated, of Nos. 2 and 3 Companies, under Captain Barnes, with Captain Dent, Lieutenants Bray and Layard, and Colour-Sergeants Young and Dunn. About twenty men of No. 4 were attached to No. 3, to bring the total up to a hundred.
Towards the end of the long column, we set out on our march, out past the Temperance Hall, across the once shot-swept lands between the old Mud Wall and the city, across the city from south to north, over the Grand Canal, and on to Hsiku Arsenal, the scene of Admiral Seymour’s victory.
When we got near the bivouac ground, Colonel O’Sullivan met us and told us we were to be escort to the Field Artillery, and that we were to join them. We were on our way when Major St John, the Commander, Royal Artillery, told us he had had this changed, and that we were to go as escort to his heavy guns, which we accordingly did.
A few words on this most extraordinary unit, our good old “International Battery,” as we loved to call it, will not be out of place at this point. It consisted of two naval 12-pounder guns, mounted on Krupp carriages captured in that fort to the north-west of Tientsin city already referred to. They were each drawn—or intended to be drawn—by four Japanese ponies, urged on by Japanese, redeemed from the coolies from that country imported by General Dorward, in case all other means of transport failed. The guns were worked by natives of India, of the Hong-Kong and Singapore Asiatic Artillery, officered by Englishmen, and the escort was found—and more often than not the haulage power—by Chinese, of the 1st Chinese Regiment, also officered by British officers. Verily a unique unit, and typical of the resourcefulness of our race.
It was not a pleasant bivouac that night at Hsiku, but I suppose this is not a form of entertainment that recommends itself by reason of the enjoyment to be derived therefrom. It rained a great part of the night, and what with Japanese infantry and cavalry running about, and mosquitoes, there was little peace or comfort to be had.
We were up the next morning at three, and as soon as it was getting light the advance began. I have no intention of attempting to describe the Battle of Peitsang, my only comment being to wonder how the enemy were ever turned out of their position, for both their flanks were secure, and the attackers had to advance over a plain as flat as a pancake, against what looked an almost impregnable position, most strongly and carefully intrenched, and which the Chinese had been at work on all the time we were waiting in Tientsin. It is true that the “kaoliang” and other crops gave, from their height, a certain cover from view, but the undue agitation of these caused by the troops advancing through them, at once gave the said troops away.
The Japanese bore the brunt of the attack, and their impetuous advance caused them to lose heavily, and as we came along we saw many of them dead and wounded, more, in fact, than we saw of the enemy, who had either got their dead away in bulk, or had not had many. I incline to the latter idea, for their cover was very good, and they did not stay long enough to lose very heavily.
The first we heard of the battle was in the grey of the morning as we were advancing, and away a mile or so to our left front there arose that lively crackle that tells of an action at almost close quarters. The Chinese held a copse in a salient of the river, but on its opposite bank, and the Japanese set about dislodging them, the fight, from opposite sides of the river, lasting for some time, and, as I have said, being very spirited. A few of the bullets they had no use for came singing over our way, but did no harm. All this time we were approaching the main battle, and after a bit came under a spasmodic shell-fire, directed, apparently, at the ammunition column in rear of us.
Our guns now came into action, not far from the copse aforesaid and close to the river, the naval 12-pounders being already in action on our right. I was much struck with the method of obtaining a view over this absolute plain, adopted by Major St John. It may be quite common, but it was new to me. Two long bamboo ladders were lashed together at one end, and the lashed ends raised, forming a double stairway to nowhere in particular, which was kept in position by guys, and from the apex of which an extensive view could be obtained. We had discharged one shot, which was still in the air, when an irate staff officer came to say we were firing into the Japanese. He must have meant someone else, for our shot had barely had time to hit anything when he arrived. However, firing was stopped, and thus it was that we took only 999 rounds of 12-pounder ammunition into Peking!
There is nothing more to add. The Chinese went away, and we went on, through villages showing too plainly the scourge of war, until at about noon we reached the bivouac at Peitsang, and took up our abode close to the river.
In all their well-entrenched position, I noticed one very curious thing, which seemed to show the extraordinary “cussedness” of the Celestial in the midst of his modern military training. All along the river bank near Peitsang he had dug good trenches parallel to its course, as if he had expected we might come gaily up the river in our junks, and afford him some fine shooting at close range.