Tuesday, August 13

Leaving Yangtsun .. Confusion at Tung Chow

Our schedule for leaving Ho-hsi-wu on 9th August was for the Japanese to head our advance at 4 a.m, followed by the Russians, then our force, and finally the British. In the event, more communication problems and what many saw as a lack of moral fibre on the part of the Russian commanders and staff, delayed our start and it was almost 7 a.m when we moved out on to the road for Matou and Tung Chow.
    Even though it had rained heavily through the night, the sun was well risen at this hour and the torrid heat, together with the swarms of vicious insects that turned any exposed skin raw with bites in minutes, left many of our troops prostrated by the roadside, to usually regain camp during the night. From Yangtsun the railway splits off from the road, which then follows the Pei-ho river in a north-westerly direction to Tung Chow and Peking. The road had been destroyed by the retreating Chinese, though, making for tortuously slow and difficult progress; and during the four days' marching from Peitsang to Tung Chow, our forces were physically distressed and ultimately depleted by about a quarter.
    We had made only some three or four miles, and were halted by a tiny village when there was a loud, reverberating report that we thought was a gun fired quite near us. For a moment we thought that if we were not under fire, someone at least was firing close to us, until we saw to the south behind us a dense column of smoke and dust slowly ascending into the air. An immense store of powder had been found by the British in a temple at Ho-hsi-wu - some said it amounted to eighty tons - and as it was of no use to us, it was ordered to be fired.
    We reached Matou to our west at about 10 a.m on 10th August, and a troop from the 14th infantry, together with a squad of around 30 marines, was detailed to prepare for the expected resistance. Two scout patrols were sent to assess the strength of the enemy, but shortly reported back that the Chinese had fled from the advancing Bengal Lancers and that there were now no enemy forces in the town. We rejoined the main force, at bivouac on the river bank and on receiving the scout’s report, General Chaffee decided that there was time enough to proceed to Changchiawan, a walled town some 6 miles to the south of Tung Chow.
    As we were preparing to leave, a general hubbub from the direction of headquarters brought to our notice that a radio operator from the Signal Corps had managed to open a channel to the British Consulate in Che-Foo and that, through this link, we were now able to communicate with Washington. This news was a source of great excitement to the whole of the press contingent, with stories and reports to file; but insisting that time was of the essence, General Chaffee ordered that messages to our editors would have to follow later; and we were to make haste for our departure. As we were leaving he dictated a despatch, about as short and to the point as it could possibly be … "Tenth: Arrived Ho-hsi-wu yesterday. Chaffee"
    As we approached Changchiawan, some light opposition was offered by Chinese troops, but this was quickly brushed away by the Japanese army, which took possession of the town and manned the gates as the remainder of our forces streamed through. The entire force, except, for some of the French, who inexplicably were still in the area of Yangtsun, were at Changchiawan by 8 p.m on the evening of 11th August. That night the Japanese advanced a brigade to near Tong Chow; and at 3 a.m on the morning of the 12th the south gate of the city wall was blown in by the Japanese troops, when it was found that the place had been deserted by the Chinese forces, which opened the route for the rest of the force. Although heavy downpours had again turned the road to mud, the day being cloudy and cool enabled the troops to march without much distress and all the armies had arrived at Tong Chow by noon of the 12th
    General Gasalee called a conference at Tung Chow to determine whether a direct assault on Peking could be made on the following day, 13th August. All the commanders were in agreement and the necessary re-grouping and logistical preparations for this assault were immediately put into action. During the afternoon, the Russian commander sent a note stating that he thought it best to remain at Tong Chow and rest the army for a day. This idea did not meet the views of other generals and a second conference was called at 6 o'clock in the afternoon. The Russian commander stated that he could not move the next day, and that he must rest his troops. Since the Russians comprised the second largest army in the alliance - some 13,000 troops - it was considered essential that they were part of the assault force, and it was finally agreed that the next day, the 13th, should be devoted to reconnaissance; the Japanese should reconnoitre on the two roads to the right of the river; the Russians, if at all, on the main paved road; the Americans to concentrate on the road just south of the river; and the British on a parallel road about a mile to the left. This would also allow an additional day for the French to come to strength, since some large part of their force was still scattered behind us.
    The final advance on Peking would now be delayed until 14th August; and the plan agreed was that all the armies would be concentrated on the advance line held by the Japanese and that each of the four main national armies would assault a different gate. The Russians were assigned the most northerly gate, the Dongzhi; the Japanese had the next gate south, the Chaoyang; the Americans, the Dongbien; and the British the most southern, the Guangqui.
    On the morning of the 13th General Chaffee ordered the reconnaissance of the road that we were to occupy with troops from the 6th Cavalry, Captain Reilly’s battery and the 14th Infantry up to the point specified at yesterday’s conference, which was about 7 miles from Tong-Chow. Finding no opposition, he directed the remainder of our force to march out and to close in to where we were camped as the advance guard; the rest of our force arrived at midnight. The British completed their reconnaissance with a cavalry division and moved up to their advance position on our left, while the Japanese reconnoitred both their front and that which had been designated to the Russians.
    For reasons unfathomable to anybody the Russians departed their camp at Tong Chow at about the time that we had completed our assigned reconnaissance and were closing to our advance position. They followed the road which they should have reconnoitred and passed through the positions where our forces, the British and the Japanese were now in readiness for the next day’s attack. Some hours later battle sounds were heard in the vicinity of Peking, with heavy artillery and considerable small arms firing continuing throughout the night. We supposed the firing to be the last efforts of the Chinese troops to destroy the legations, which - although in no degree necessary - gave our imminent assault on the city an even greater urgency.
    As night fell a Japanese staff officer came into our camp and enquired whether we knew anything of the whereabouts of the Russian troops, to which I could only reply that I supposed them at Tung Chow or on our right flank in their advance position for our combined assault the next day. To this he replied that they had left Tung Chow some hours earlier and, since he had come through from our right, he was certain that the Russians were not there; which begged a question of just what they were up to. Had they backed away from the battle in front of us? - or, in spite of our agreed attack plan, had they made ground on us to be the first army to enter the gates of Peking?
    Tomorrow would tell ...

Original Image by Capt C F O'Keefe, 36th Infantry, USV.
(courtesy of Digital Collections. NYPL)

Route of Relief Force from Tientsin to Peking

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