The Boxer Uprising and the Problems of Expeditionary Warfare

The military intervention of eight powers in China during the 'Boxer Uprising' of 1900-01 proved a major test in coalition warfare. Early political and naval unity when faced with potential disaster proved more difficult to replicate on land due to the absence of inter-Allied control mechanisms. A subsequent lack of clear political direction transplanted established European rivalries between partners onto the Asian continent.

By Dr T G Otte, for

To assert the relevance and usefulness of a knowledge and understanding of military history is easily done; and it is frequently done. Yet the first lesson that practising historians impart to their students is that one should not study the past in the hope of extracting lessons from it. History as a branch of academic studies examines the past by recovering and interpreting unique, and so unrepeatable, facts. It has, thus, limited predictive potential, something Clausewitz appreciated - hence his warning against mining military history for 'school lessons'.

Certainly, at first glance, the events surrounding the so-called 'Boxer Uprising' in 1900-1 do not seem to offer profitable ground for those who seek to extract from the past practical guidelines for contemporary defence and security policy. The foreign intervention in northern China and the circumstances that caused it were, perhaps, too sui generis. And, of course, the wider geopolitical landscape at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and above all China's place in it, has changed beyond all recognition.

A closer examination of the history of these events nevertheless repays the effort. It can help to illuminate aspects of trans-oceanic expeditionary warfare. It also offers useful insights into the nature and problems of alliance warfare. This, after all, was the only military coalition actually to operate between the 1859 Italian war and the outbreak of the Great War. And, finally, it serves as a reminder of the continued resonance of the events of 1900 in modern China. There the foreign intervention is known as the 'Invasion of the Eight Allied Armies' - two of the characters used in the Chinese ideograph are identical with those for NATO.

Allied Intervention

To appreciate the course of the foreign military operations in northern China a brief sketch of the wider political background is necessary. The Boxers - the Western name for the Yi He Quan or "Fists of Righteous Harmony" - were part of a proto-nationalist backlash against foreign encroachment on China since the mid-1890s. The movement, one of a myriad of secret societies that thrived in provincial China, was a symptom of the disruption of traditional rural society. But it was the perceived foreign political, commercial and missionary interference that provided a powerful trigger for the uprising. Clandestine court patronage and, rooted as it was in popular superstitions, its strong appeal to the rural population allowed the movement to gather momentum in early 1900. Throughout the spring and summer, Boxer disturbances - attacks on railways, telegraph lines and missionary settlements - spread across the northeastern province of Shandong and the metropolitan province of Zhili.

Alarmed at their rapid advance, the foreign diplomats at Beijing resorted to the tried and tested methods of gunboat diplomacy. However, neither an  international naval demonstration off the Dagu Forts, which guarded Tianjin, the river port of the capital, nor the call-up of the so-called legation guards - a mixed contingent of 337 British, French, Italian, Japanese, Russian and United States marines - from Tianjin had the desired political effect. Indeed, in the short term, the arrival of the guards tipped the scales in the internal power struggle at the Chinese court, and led to the siege of the foreign legation quarter in the capital. On the other hand, without the legation guards, the besieged foreign community would not have been able to withstand the seven-week siege. Similarly, foreign naval dominance in northern Chinese waters allowed the Powers to establish a 'bridgehead' from which to launch a relief operation.

Naval and Land Operations

The international military intervention in northern China really consisted of two distinct campaigns: the relief efforts between June and August 1900, and the policing operations by the China Expeditionary Force between the autumn of 1900 and June 1901, ostensibly under the command of the German Field Marshal Count von Waldersee. However, for neither operation was there a formal agreement between the intervening Powers that set out the organisational or, indeed, command structures of the international force. This political vacuum at the heart of the operations would prove to be their main weakness, for as soon as the humanitarian emergency had ceased, political rivalries between the Powers in the region re-emerged and tested the strength and cohesion of the military coalition. 

The relief operations were carried out by a loose, ad hoc coalition of the marine detachments available on the foreign naval vessels assembled off the North China coast. Given the strength of the Royal Navy's China Station, the main strategic arm of British power in the region, the leadership of this coalition fell to its commander-in-chief, Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Seymour. An Allied 'Council of Admirals' provided a mechanism for coordinating the efforts of the foreign Powers on the spot. Sea power was central to the operations against Beijing. Britain's China squadron enjoyed effective command of the sea. In terms of British regional interests, this was sufficient to deter potential rivals from exploiting the China crisis for their own ends. At the same time, the Allied naval presence in the Gulf of Zhili meant that troop reinforcements and supplies could safely be landed in mainland China. Yet, against a rural  guerrilla force, driven by an essentially pre-modern ideology and patronised by court officials who feared for the survival of the imperial regime, its deterrent value was limited, leaving the warships unable to lift the siege of Beijing.

Under these circumstances, a naval brigade, some 2,000 men in all, drawn from eight different national contingents, set off for Beijing under Seymour's personal command. What the Army and Navy Gazette somewhat optimistically heralded as a 'Dash to Peking' very nearly ended in the annihilation of Seymour's relief column. Continually harassed by Boxer formations and by regular Chinese infantry, its advance became bogged down in the marshy Beihe river valley, half-way to Beijing. With the railway line to Tianjin cut off, ammunition and provisions running low, and casualties mounting, Seymour had to abandon most of the heavy guns and equipment, and retreat. It was only the chance capture of a Chinese armoury at Xigu, and the timely appearance of a relief force from Tianjin, that saved Seymour's column.     

The pivotal event of the summer operations was the Allied capture of the Dagu Forts, which had been a flashpoint in Sino-Western relations before, during the Second Opium War in 1859-60. Bristling with modern Armstrong and Krupp guns, they guarded the Beihe estuary and thus access to Tianjin and Beijing. Their capture was essentially a 'brown-water' operation.  Although the twenty-five larger warships in the Gulf provided a degree of long-range artillery support, the capture of the forts was accomplished by a small flotilla of gunboats and sloops that supported Allied landing parties on shore.

At one level, the fall of the forts on 17 June escalated the Sino-Western stand-off. The anti-foreign clique at the court now gained the upper hand, resulting in the Chinese declaration of war on the Powers on 21 June 1900. At the same time, the capture of Dagu shifted the military balance in North China. A mixed force from Dagu forced the Boxers to lift their siege of the international settlement at Tianjin. In turn, this made possible the rescue of Seymour's depleted column. Moreover, Dagu now became the hinge of a major Allied logistical operation, which allowed for the landing and supply of a 21,000 strong force. This allied army eventually captured Beijing and freed the besieged legations there on 14 August.

Personal and Political Rivalries

The spectre of the wholesale massacre of the foreign community in Beijing had previously lent coherence to Allied operations. With that spectre now dissipated, the entrenched rivalries, especially between Britain and Japan on the one side and the Franco-Russian allies on the other, resurfaced. It was largely with a view to managing the incipient frictions between them, as much as to establish law and order, that the Allied commanders divided Beijing into sectors. Each sector was policed by a different national contingent, with similar arrangements made at Tianjin and Dagu.

These local arrangements diminished the authority of Count Waldersee, newly appointed commander of the international force. The fact that the ostensible object of his mission, the relief of Beijing, had been accomplished some six weeks before the field marshal would set foot on Chinese soil reduced it further. Nor did his 'supreme direction' rest on any clear understanding between the Powers. His appointment in August was the result of a protracted diplomatic tussle between the chancelleries of Europe. Yet neither the scope nor the nature of his position had ever been formally defined. As result, Waldersee was entirely dependent on the goodwill of the other Allied commanders, who retained full control over their contingents. And this proved no firm basis for the operations of the China Expeditionary Force.

Anglo-Russian rivalries stretched Allied unity to breaking point, and Waldersee had to act as peacemaker between the two, with the entirely predictable result that he antagonised both. Waldersee's own conduct further contributed to inter-Allied tensions. He brought with him a fully organised, over-manned, and entirely German staff. The presence of foreign military representatives attached to his retinue served largely ornamental purposes. There was no properly institutionalised, inter-Allied coordinating mechanism. When Waldersee issued orders to the expeditionary force he did not consult with the various liaison officers; and the officers commanding the other contingents ignored the orders whenever they could. Waldersee's orders reflected German military doctrine, which revolved entirely around continental war-fighting, but which was of limited use for imperial policing operations.

Waldersee's penchant for punitive expeditions complicated matters further. Their stated objective was the 'mopping up' of Boxer remnants and the punishment of Chinese officials implicated in the events of the summer. But they were also meant to reassert Waldersee's fragile authority over the Allied expeditionary force. In reality, these 'punitive picnics' quickly degenerated into indiscriminate looting and random, frequently lethal, violence against the civilian population. They drove away the rural population, and the resulting food-shortages increased the risk of further unrest. They also complicated ongoing diplomatic efforts by the Powers in Beijing to negotiate a post-Boxer peace settlement. 'Jaw-jaw' in Beijing could not easily be reconciled with 'war-war' in the surrounding countryside. Eventually, in May 1901, Waldersee's own government decided to terminate his mission.

Organisational and Conceptual Lessons

It would be futile to attempt to extract practical operational lessons from the foreign intervention in northern China in 1900-1. Certainly, there are few positive lessons that suggest themselves to the observer. Even so, the campaign in the summer of 1900 and the subsequent imperial policing operations throw into sharp relief certain aspects of expeditionary and coalition warfare.

In the first instance, the intervention underlines the importance of sea power in expeditionary warfare. Naval presence was key to the Allies' ability to project their power in the region. Command of the sea established secure lines of communication and supply, and was thus a precondition for any operations on land. The broad range of diverse skills present in the marines, the land arm of naval power, enabled the Allies to establish and to secure the vital 'bridgehead' on the coast from which the successful relief operation could be launched.

Second, military interventions require clearly defined political objectives; and, if carried out by international forces, require proper inter-Allied command-and-control mechanisms. The vacuum resulting from their absence contains the risk of military coalitions being pulled apart.

Third, the importance of proportionality, is especially evident during the second phase of the intervention under Waldersee. Much judgement is needed here, judgement that was notably absent in 1900-1. To achieve the lasting pacification of disturbed districts the amount of military force employed must be the minimum the situation demands. Moreover, it must work with the grain of the existing political and social structures on the ground. Any lessons that the 1900 campaigns may hold for today, then, are organisational and conceptual rather than operational.

Dr T G Otte is Senior Lecturer at the University of East Anglia

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI


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