In 1900, China was teetering on the edge of being a "failed state". A huge rural rebellion, known in the West as the "Boxer" rebellion, was sweeping the country, ostensibly against foreigners and Christians, the latter being murdered in large numbers. The weak Imperial government, unsure whether to utilise, or stamp on, the Boxers gave them free reign, so much so that by 1900 the foreign embassies, or "Legations" in Peking were under siege. Fortunately, enough sailors and marines had been scrapped together from foreign warships on the coast to give the bare minimum of defence. There were British, Russians, French and Japanese, but this is the story of the Austrians, with details form Indiscreet Letters from Peking by B.L. Putnam Weale.
SMS Zenta in 1900
The only Austro-Hungarian force available to go to the aid of their legation was from the cruiser SMS Zenta. Consequently, Captain Thormann with several of his officers, 30 men and a machine gun made their way to Peking, where they were trapped in the Siege. Their adventures up to this point are described here and here. We take up the story on the 10th of July.
Putnam Weale details the various "artillery" available to the defenders. He is not impressed. After the Italian one-pounder ("absolutely useless", "merely a plaything") he describes the Maxim machine gun the Austrians had bought from SMS Zenta...
" a very modern weapon, and throws Mannlicher bullets at the rate of six hundred to the minute. Yet it, too, is practically useless. It has been tried everywhere and found to be defective. When it rattles at full speed, it has been seen that its sighting is illusory, that it throws erratically high in the air, and that ammunition is simply wasted. It cannot help us in the slightest. The value of machine-guns has been always overrated. "
This was together with a British Nordenfeldt ("absolutely useless and now refuses to work") and an American Colt ("so small, being single-barrelled, that it can only do boy's work. Yet this Colt is the most satisfactory of all, and when we have dragged it out with us and played it on the enemy, it has shot true and straight They say it has killed more men than all the rest put together").
There should have been a Russian field gun, but although 1,000 shells were bought, the gun itself was somehow left in Tientsin Station. Putnam Weale suspects that there had been a deal done between the Chinese and Russian that the Russian legation would not be attacked.
Austro-Hungarian naval officers in China
The Chinese exploded a huge mine under the defences, burying the French Commander, the Austrian Charge d'Afaires and four French sailors, but they had a miraculous escape. A second explosion just afterwards somehow shifted the rubble so all but two French sailors could be pulled clear. Following this there was bombardments and rifle fire all along the defences, but they still held.
The bombardment still continued. Putnam Weale notes that Captain Thormann of the Zenta was killed a few days before, "while he was encouraging his men to stand firm". There has been speculation about this ever since, that Thormann had earlier had a from of nervous breakdown, and how sought death on the parapets. We´ll never know.
The constant bombardment, sniping continued until the final day......
August 14th 1900
Surprised by the sudden quiet, Putnam Weale and some others creep out into the city.....
The Austrian Legation after the siege
"Still not a sound, not a word. A little encouraged, we crept more valiantly into the Austrian Legation, and stood amazed at the spectacle. Rank-growing weeds covered the ground two or three feet high ; all the houses and residences had been gutted by fire, everything combustible burned, leaving a terrible litter. But the brickwork and stonework stood almost intact, and the tall Corinthian pillars with which it had been the architect's fancy to adorn this mission of His Most Catholic Majesty, stood up white and chaste in all this scene of devastation and ruin; they might have dated from centuries ago. Broken weapons, thousands more of brass cartridges, and sometimes even a soldier's blood- stained tunic could be seen among the weeds. This must have been the site of another camp of Chinese soldiery. Abandoned straw matting showed where rough huts had once been built line upon line. But all these hosts had flown."
Moving on they discovered, to their joy, the advancing Relief Force, although that wasn´t initially clear......
"Dense bodies of men in white tunics and dark trousers were debouching into the street, thousands of yards away, and were then marching due east that is, towards the Palace. They came on and on, until it seemed they would never cease. What were these newcomers ? Were they white troops at last, were they Bannermen of the white Banners? . . . They might be anything, anything in the world, but they might be ... Yes, without a doubt they might be ordinary Russian infantry of the line. Russian infantry of the line! "
It was over.
The Relief of Peking
The first International attempt to relieve Peking, the Seymour expedition having been shown to be hopelessly outnumbered, the allies upped the ante. A fleet assembled outside the port of Tianjin/Tientsin and on June 17th the Taku Forts protecting the city were stormed. This was a gamble, the shallow river Hai meant that only 9 of the smallest vessels in the fleet could used, so only 900 men against four forts and about 2,000 Chinese. Matched in artillery the allies stormed the forts one by one. The northwestern fell to waves of 200 Russians/ Austrians, 380 British and Italians and finally, 300 Japanese, who actually captured the fort. Its guns were then turned on the northern fort, which fell to the British and Italians. The fire power of both captured forts, and the fleet, was turned to the southern forts, and the Chinese fled. Now Tianjin was besieged by the Boxers, but they were driven off and the allies controlled both the port and its defences.
Russian troops in the Peking relief expedition
With Tianjin under their control, large numbers of troops were bought ashore.and about 20,000 marched on Peking, under the command of British Lieutenant-General Alfred Gaselee. It was a real mixture - 8,000 Japanese (who had already proved themselves in the capture of Tianjin), 4,300 Russians (infantry, Cossacks and artillery), 3,000 British (mostly from India), 2,500 Americans and 800 French from Indochina. This sounds impressive until you consider that there were 70,000 Imperial troops and 50,000 to 100,000 Boxers between them and Peking! Fortunately they didn't have to fight their way through. Whilst there were many cases of stragglers being ambushed and murdered, only two small battles took place, at Beicang and Yangcun, on the march.
Arriving at Peking there was considerable rivalry between the "allies" to be the first to liberate the Legation Quarter. Each of the Japanese, British, Russians and Americans each assigned a gate into the city. The British won, wading through a drainage canal, and were greeted with loud cheers.
The battle for Peking wasn't quite over,, but on the 28th the allies held a victory march through the Forbidden City, marking in the most emphatic way possible, who had won, and who had lost.
Austrians elsewhere in China
Seventy-five members of the crew of the Zenta were part of the ill fated Seymour Expedition to Peking to rescue the Legations, and their comrades, only to be forced back.
The SMS Kaiserin und Königin Maria Theresia
Zenta was joined by the armoured cruiser SMS Kaiserin und Königin Maria Theresia, and 160 sailors from both ships (and two landed guns) were part of the assaults on the Taku forts which defended the entrance to the port of Tientsin (Tianjin). The crew of the SMS Kaiserin und Königin Maria Theresia incidentally included Georg Von Trapp, of Sound of Music fame, who was decorated for his actions.
Meanwhile in Tientsin (Tianjin) were 2,400 allied troops, mainly Russians but others as well. After the Taku forts were taken the Boxers attempted to storm the city, all but destroying the French quarter and only being back with heavy losses by the Russians. On June 18th 175 Austrian, British, German, and Italian troops sortied across the river and captured eight guns,and killed the defenders, which eased the situation until forces could arrive from Taku.
Over the following months several other Austrian cruisers arrived in China, including the SMS Kaiserin Elisabeth and SMS Aspern, and their sailors were also part of various policing and mopping up operations, up to 500 men being involved in all.
Finally, in June 1901 the Kaiserin Elisabeth and Zenta were sent home, the S.M.S. Kaiserin und Königin Maria Theresia and S.M.S. Aspern remaining on station. The Zenta arrived back in the Austrian base of Pola in October, where she was awarded a silk Flag of Honour in recognition of the actions of her crew in China.
As well as a huge indeminity paid to all the allied powers, the Austro-Hungarians actually gained territory as well, a sort of mini-Hong Kong of 150 acres at Tianjin. Although small, their first Asian colony still had 30,000 people, who became Austro-Hungarian citizens, and were under Austrian laws. It lasted until 1917.