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Category: Conflicts

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an account of Australia's Boxer Rebellion contingent

Ships in Port Jackson were bedecked with bunting; hooters sent eerie wails echoing across the water; thousands lined streets and foreshores waving flags and singing Empire songs.

People in Sydney on 8 August 1900 were patriotically excited! They were witnessing the departure of the Australian Naval Contingent, whose destination was China - there to "contribute aid to the British portion of an expedition which had as its object, the restoration of order and tranquillity".

So the ladies waved lacy handkerchiefs; brass bands played, and four hundred and eighty men embarked aboard the hastily converted Aberdeen liner Salamis. The ship was delayed for farewells and speeches but by nightfall had cleared the Heads-a carrier pigeon bringing news that all was well.

In far-off China chaos reigned. An immense secret society-dubbed "The Boxers"-had arisen. Tremendously powerful, well armed, fanatical-backed by the Empress Dowager herself-the rebels launched a campaign of terror aimed at the expulsion from China of all foreigners and foreign influence. Riots took place in many parts, legations were besieged, missionaries murdered. Especially was "Boxerism" aimed at the "British clique".

The position was serious. British interests were threatened and citizens were suffering. Vice-Admiral Sir E. H. Seymour and his force of two thousand three hundred men were in a state of siege at Tientsin. The press published strong editorials-and even verse such as:

"The Boxers are making things willing,

Both plunder and murder their sport;

All classes of whites they are killing.

Let's hope their reign will be short."

On 2 8 June, Sir William Lyne, then Premier of New South Wales, received a cablegram from the Colonial Office in London suggesting that vessels of the Australian Squadron be sent to China to take part in the hostilities. Public feeling was running high at the outrages and the Government readily agreed to the proposal.

Further, it offered for active service a contingent of the Naval Brigade which had been intended for South Africa. This offer was immediately accepted by the War Office. Three vessels, H.M.S. Wallaroo, H.M.S. Mohawk and H.M.S. Lizard - all of shallow draft suitable for use in river warfare - left for China early in July. Then began preparations to equip and dispatch the force.

The New South Wales portion amounted to two hundred and sixty under command of Captain Francis Hixson, RN, while in Victoria volunteers were called from the naval forces serving in Cerberus and the Victorian Naval Brigade, Militia. This force was commanded by Captain Frederick Tickell. South Australia, meanwhile, had offered the gunboat Protector; but only after considerable indecision was the offer accepted. The ship finally left Sydney on 11 August - complete with seventy-five rounds per gun! 

The Order of the Dragon China 1900

Later she was employed almost entirely in the Gulf of Pechili carrying dispatches and doing patrol work. Arriving at Hong Kong on 26 August, the contingent became portion of the "British Contingent Field Force in China". Here Hixson handed over command to Lieutenant Gillespie, and the unit was ceremoniously inspected by the Naval Officer-in-Charge at Woosung. 

At Tientsin, after heavy fighting, the British garrison had been relieved, and the Australians found themselves installed in the battered city. Fifty men, under Captain Hixson, were placed on duty in the Lama temple; another fifty were allotted to guard the British Legation, with the remainder at city headquarters. The work was unspectacular to the adventurous Australians, who policed and guarded and patrolled in surrounding villages. 

But it was a strange land-and dangerous-this China in revolt. In September, however, a company of the Victorian members were chosen as part of a punitive expedition organized by General Alfred Gaselee, whose object was a combined attack on Pao-Ting-Fu. 

Moving off from Peking, it was intended that the force should consist of British, French, German, Russian and Italian troops. The British were prepared to start at once, but the German arrangements were incomplete and there seemed every prospect of a long delay before a start could be made.

A German cartoon from that time.

Then news arrived of a proposed almost identical move by the French, and plans were altered to combine the two expeditions into one force which would converge on the objective from two different directions. Command of the column to move from Tientsin was given to Major-General Balliard of the French army, while General Gaselee assumed command of the force moving from Peking, and also became supreme commander at the junction of the columns in the neighbourhood of Pao-Ting-Fu.

The Australians were included in the force known as "The Tientsin Column", and in addition to the company of troops they carried supplementary armament in the form of two Maxim and one 12-pounder naval gun. Numerically stronger than the Peking force, this column comprised elements of artillery, engineers, pioneers, cavalry and infantry British, German, French, Italian and Australian. Truly a mixed gathering!

Both forces started out on 12 0ctober. The Peking men went by road direct to Pao-Ting-Fu, while the Tientsin column marched by three roads in a roundabout route. No opposition was encountered during the march - the Chinese apparently taking good care to avoid such a well-organized and businesslike force. The march from Peking was accomplished in seven days. The Australians, however, were delayed, as the route they followed had proved much longer and more difficult than was expected. They eventually reached Pao-Ting-Fu on 21 October.

General Gaselee's plan for an "attack" on the town did not materialize, for the columns were met outside the gates by the Chief Magistrate and other officials. The general conferred with these personages, and next day rode through the streets accompanied by his staff.

Tie town was divided into four districts or zones and the French, German and Italian commanders marched in and occupied their respective areas. But the British - distrustful and cautious at the quiet entry - remained outside and camped to the north of the town. General Gaselee, however, moved his headquarters into the north-west section allotted to the British. A strong force of "police" went with him, and a British guard held the north gate.

Life in the town was not pleasant-or safe. Tension was high. The troops saw massacre, unrest, rioting and typical Eastern cruelty among the Boxers and inhabitants; but the measures taken by General Gaselee soon proved to the rebels that risings do not pay!

Things quietened suddenly, and the general decided to withdraw his troops-as did the Italian commander. Some French and Germans were retained as the garrison force.

The plan was for the troops from Peking to return on a wide front by three roads-different from those used on the march south-and the British from Tientsin were also to return by a different route with the object of attacking Boxer villages which "required to be punished".

On 27 October the British troops started back to Tientsin, arriving there on 6 November. During the trip, they duly "punished" many villages, destroying arms and ammunition, seizing stores and cattle, and blowing up vast quantities of gunpowder discovered aboard river junks. The troops retuning to Peking employed similar tactics.

General Gaselee returned direct to Tientsin, and declared the expedition successful. As a direct result, the Allies' show of might and determination caused the virtual cessation of all active military operations in North China.

It had been clearly proved that there was no Boxer force in the field capable of - and courageous enough to - successfully accomplish their sworn cause. The Boxer bands were demoralized and dispersed. Those who still resisted were hunted down by the soldiery.

Towards the end of October British troops were ordered to be withdrawn from North China, and winter saw two hundred and thirty men of the New South Wales contingent established at Peking; while at Tientsin the Victorians formed part of the garrison. Remainder of the force was scattered about in various localities doing various jobs.

By now practically nothing in the way of operations was going on, although small patrols were constantly moving about the country searching out isolated trouble-makers. It was too cold for the mass movement of troops. The Australians, therefore, had to settle down to the "odd jobs" until 25 March 1901, when they were relieved by Royal Welch Fusiliers from Hong Kong.

Thus began the return home. The force of "handy men" had lived up to the name coined by Australian newspapers. They were used as soldiers, as policemen, as guards and ticket collectors on railways. High quarters praised their "usefulness" in eulogistic letters and speeches.

"You have been called upon at the shortest notice to provide men for all kinds of detached work," said Lieutenant-Colonel J. Swann in a letter of thanks before the men left Tientsin. "Individual intelligence and handiness alone could command success; and never once have you failed to have just the men ready for the job-and never once have you failed to justify, and more than justify, your selection."

The Mayor and Council of Tientsin also thanked the Australians, who were each given an illuminated souvenir of the contingent's visit to North China. In addition the Council granted fifteen hundred dollars to be divided among the men who served in police and fire brigades connected with the city.

All officers and men who were employed in North China and in the valley of the Yangtze Kiang between 11 June and 31 December 1900 received the "China Medal 1900". 

The medal bore, on the obverse, the head of Queen Victoria; while the reverse showed the Royal Arms and a trophy of weapons. Around the top circumference was the inscription:  

  • Armis exposcere pacem  

    • (They demanded peace by force of arms)

The word China appeared at the bottom, and the round medal of silver was suspended by a crimson ribbon with yellow edges.

Peking. c. 1900-1901. 

An Australian soldier on guard wearing a Canadian uniform. An ammunition belt is slung around his body and he is holding a rifle with a bayonet. 

(From the H. E. Lofts collection)


During the six months, the contingent suffered only seven casualties - one of whom was Staff Surgeon J. J. Steele, who died at Peking on 10 November.

The contingent left Tientsin at the end of March on the transport Chingtu, and arrived at Sydney on 25 April. Trouble started here when a member named Symons became a suspected case of smallpox. The ship was placed in quarantine-despite typical Australian expressions of disgust! It was not until eight days later that a hundred and forty-six of the men whose early vaccinations had "taken" - were allowed to leave the ship and land at Circular Quay. There followed a short march through city streets to the drill hall at Fort Macquarie, where they were welcomed home by the Premier, the Honourable John See.

The Victorians left Sydney by special train and arrived in Melbourne next day. They were accorded a warm welcome-arriving as they did when the city was en fete for the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York. The men were entertained at Victoria Barracks and later given leave until paying off arrangements were completed.

The unfortunate remainder - the success of whose vaccinations was doubtful - landed at the Quarantine Station and began an enforced wait of a further two weeks!

So the China Contingent came home. They saw little of the expected active campaigning, but the presence of Australians on such a remote stage as North China produced what was termed "an excellent political effect".

"They were an object lesson in patriotism which inspired all parts of the British Empire."


AS YOU WERE 1946 by the AWM


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