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11-09-03, 09:53 AM
The Boxer Rebellion: Coalition Expeditionary Operations in China

by Maj Glen G. Butler

‘Just as every Marine is a rifleman regardless of duties and military specialty, all Marines must also think of themselves as part of a fundamentally expeditionary organization designed and intended to project military force overseas. . . . The expeditionary mindset implies a Spartan attitude: an expectation and a willingness to endure—in fact, a certain pride in enduring—hardship and austere conditions. . . . [and the] versatility and adaptability to respond effectively without a great deal of preparation time to a broad variety of circumstances. Another part of this expeditionary mindset is a global perspective oriented to responding to a diverse range of threats around the globe rather than to a specific threat in a specific part of the world.’

—Marine Corps
Doctrinal Publication 3,
Expeditionary Operations

Shortly after the turn of the century, an allied coalition of eight nations entered a foreign land to protect the interests and safety of their peoples living in the area. Anti-Western terrorists had killed hundreds of innocent civilians and threatened to kill all “foreign devils” unless they left the region. American determination and leadership convinced the other nations to strike into the capital of the beleaguered country. British forces formed the strongest part of the alliance with the United States. After initial successes against the terrorists, the burgeoning coalition found itself fighting the army of the host state (turned sympathetic to the terrorists) in what could undeniably be termed a world war.

Although this may sound like a description of contemporary military activities, the above paragraph actually describes the China Relief Expedition (CRE), a short but violent international conflict that occurred over 100 years ago.

The CRE took place in the Far East over a 55-day period in the sweltering summer of 1900. Popularly known as the “Boxer Rebellion,” the campaign is perhaps better labeled the “Boxer Uprising,” as rebellion implies a revolt against the government. In fact, the Boxers’ enmity was directed not against the Chinese leaders but against the unwelcome foreign influence in their land. Most U.S. Marines are at least vaguely aware of the campaign, thanks in part to the eventual “who’s who” list of American participants: two-time Medal of Honor winners Smedley D. Butler and Dan Daly; Commandants William P. Biddle (1910–14), Wendell C. Neville (1929–30), and Benjamin H. Fuller (1930–34); and even a young civilian engineer named Herbert Hoover, who would rise to become our Nation’s 31st President (1929–33). The rosters of other participating nations are similarly impressive.

Despite the event’s many famous veterans (and the 1963 Charlton Heston/Ava Gardner movie 55 Days in Peking), many Americans today might identify the Boxer Rebellion as a feud between Don King and Mike Tyson rather than recognize its long-term military and political significance. As the first participation of the United States in a multinational coalition against a common enemy abroad, the Boxer Rebellion provides many relevant lessons for modern military theorists and diplomats alike.

The seeds for the uprising were sown gradually in the latter part of the 19th century as foreign powers expanded their presence and power in the Far East. The British wanted to continue to import their Indian opium into China. Other Western powers had similar financial interests in the area. By the late 1800s Europeans had seized Chinese ports, Christian missions were established and, in 1895, a war was lost to Japan. Not wanting to be left out, the United States sought to retain a foothold amidst the great powers’ “spheres of influence” in this region. This effort was manifest in Secretary of State John Hay’s “Open Door” policy proposal in September 1899. Hay, a former Ambassador to Great Britain, expressed America’s wish to prevent other powers from restricting trade by calling for open commercial access to all treaty ports and spheres of influence (and essentially endorsing the continued integrity of the Chinese state). Although the other Western powers did not officially accept the Open Door plan, unofficially they nodded in agreement—at least in Hay’s eyes. The nations recognized that sharing and dividing their conquests would bring multilateral competition and tension, but knew this cooperation would also prevent unilateral exclusion.

The average Chinese peasant was quite annoyed at the growing foreign presence in the late 1800s. Certain “secret societies” fomented popular discontent by attributing a rash of floods and droughts on Chinese gods who were said to be unhappy with the “evil” Christian missionaries and their fellow converts. One such group was I Ho Ch’uan (also Yihequon), translated variously, they were known as The Society of Harmonious Fists, The Society for Unity and Righteousness, Righteous Harmonious Fists, or The Fists of Patriotic Union. To westerners they became simply “the Boxers.” The faction had been around for many years—at least since the 1700s—but foreigners knew very little about them. The Boxers practiced martial arts and claimed that their magical, spiritual powers made them invulnerable to their enemies’ swords and bullets. Wearing uniforms with red scarves, sashes, and headdresses, they often carried banners into battle marked with vitriolic slogans and threats. Although they possessed some basic firearms, they were primarily armed with swords and spears—and a swelling hatred for the missionaries, their converts, and for the others “invading” their country.

Concern for the safety of Americans in China led to the stationing of U.S. Marines at the Peking (now Beijing) legation on 4 November 1898 (and soon thereafter in the northern Chinese trading center of Tientsin (now Tianjin));1 however, these guards were withdrawn in the spring of 1899 after tensions appeared to ease. The Boxers vigorously rejoined their uprising in late 1899, terrorizing rural Christian missions and their native Chinese converts in the northern provinces. The rioters burned churches and homes, raped women, and murdered families—usually by beheading and often by dismembering. Many of those who escaped fled to the foreign legations in the capital city of Peking. The Chinese Empress Dowager, Tzu Hsi (nicknamed “Old Buddha”), superficially supported the calls of concerns from foreign officials in Peking and Tientsin, taking little to no action against the Boxers. These frustrated officials wired their governments for help in May 1900 fearing the increasing popularity and aggressiveness of the brutal Boxers operating nearby. The Boxers continued to attract potential followers by promising that millions of “spirit soldiers” would soon descend from the heavens to help rid the homeland of all foreigners. A full-blown crisis appeared imminent.

A Call to Arms
After the Spanish-American War ended in December 1898, the Americans maintained a large military contingent in the Philippines—just 400 miles from China—and were thus prepared to answer the distress call from China within days. Putting President William McKinley’s “Manifest Destiny” platform into action, a small force of Marines and sailors landed in the port of Taku (now Dagu) on 29 May. At 10:30 that night the landing party ended their 40-mile journey at Tientsin, substantially augmenting 25 British Royal Marines who had been stationed there for several months.2 Grateful foreign residents offered the new arrivals a lively welcome, complete with brass band, free beer, and “lusty cheers for Uncle Sam.”3

The commanding officer of the USS Newark, CAPT Bowman H. McCalla, USN, led the U.S. naval force and accompanied a smaller detachment as it made its way northwest to Peking 2 days later. Thousands of silent Chinese lining the road as this detachment marched into the capital provided an awesome spectacle for the Marines (who reciprocated by offering a similarly impressive scene for the curious onlookers), but the natives’ subdued welcome betrayed the raucous terror that was to come. Under McCalla, Marine Capt John “Jack” Twiggs Myers commanded approximately 50 Marines and 2 sailors for the Peking guard, a unit that was followed into that city by similar contingents from Britain, Russia, Japan, France, and Italy (German and Austrian guards arrived 3 days later); altogether, an international group of 21 officers and 429 Marines, soldiers, and sailors stood poised to defend their frightened countrymen in the Chinese capital. Fortunately, this rescue party of reinforcements arrived before the Boxers surrounded the town.

The Crisis Escalates
Within days, the so-called Righteous Fists had dismantled railroad tracks and were severing telegraph lines—essentially cutting Peking off from the rest of the world. CAPT McCalla had returned to the larger force assembled at Tientsin and was growing frustrated at the apparent indecision and hesitancy of the assembled coalition as the situation to the north deteriorated. At an evening conference of allied commanders on 9 June, he allegedly exclaimed:

I don’t care what the rest of you do. I have one hundred and thirty men here from my ships and I’m going tomorrow morning to the rescue of my flesh and blood in Peking. I’ll be damned if I’ll sit down here, ninety miles away, and just wait.4

The British were eager to press forward as well, and the following morning a rescue party of about 2,000 men from the 8-nation coalition set off to free their comrades in besieged Peking, leaving a few hundred behind to defend Tientsin. ADM Sir Edward Seymour, commander in chief of the British China Station, led the force, seconded by CAPT McCalla.


11-09-03, 09:54 AM
In Peking the 473 foreign women, children, and noncombatant men had consolidated inside the British legation—designed to hold only about 60 people—because it was deduced to be the most easily...

11-09-03, 09:56 AM
Reinforcements IV and Relief
Outside of China, foreign leaders had been slow to grasp the severity of the situation. International media would help cajole their awareness as world headlines on 16 July screamed about the “massacre in Peking.” Based on false rumors that the Chinese had successfully overrun the legations—killing every man, woman, and child inside—many newspapers committed what has been called “one of the most monumental mistakes in the history of journalism.”18 Mistake notwithstanding, the German Kaiser was inspired to call up 30,000 reinforcements, but these troops would not arrive until October, well after the relief of Peking. The Germans, however, had not been the only ones to finally grasp the scale of the growing conflict. Additional American reinforcements arrived in China on 30 July after a 5-week transit from the United States.

Maj William P. Biddle led almost 500 Marines, and Army MG Adna R. Chaffee commanded the entire American force, roughly 2,000 strong. The international coalition generals chose British GEN Alfred Gaselee as overall commander for the allied forces and quickly organized to relieve Peking. This final relief column departed on 4 August and was comprised of 18,000 to 19,000 men from 8 nations (with almost half of the force from Japan). Ironically, after 16 July (the day of the Peking massacre headlines), Peking enjoyed an unusual, semiofficial truce until being liberated, though occasional sniper fire kept the trapped foreigners on edge (and the meager supply of horse meat was running low).

Gaselee’s 85-mile march to Peking was punctuated by two sharp battles: at Pei Tsang on 5 August and at Yang Tsun on 6 August. However, the toughest adversary during the advance was unquestionably the environment. Contributing to the environmental onslaught were scorching hot temperatures and merciless duststorms, relieved only occasionally by driving rain and mud. A dirty river contaminated with decapitated bodies and serving as the primary water source compounded the relief column’s anguish. Just as the famous Chosin breakout in late 1950 arguably remains the Marines’ most memorable cold weather fight, the Peking relief column’s march in August 1900 China stands as an epic struggle of similar extremes, albeit at the opposite end of the thermal spectrum. In both cases the men offered exceptional performances under inhumane conditions and continuous enemy pressure. Although some of the exhausted, dehydrated men fell back and staggered into the nightly camps after dark, few American Marines dropped out of the march.

International rivalry and raw male competitiveness helped fuel the column’s motivation to press forward. Unfortunately, this same competitive spirit resulted in the abandonment of plans for a coordinated attack on Peking as the Russians surprised the other allies on the night of 13 August by independently initiating an assault in an attempt to be the first to liberate the desperate legations. While the other troops were setting up their bivouacs, in anticipation of a synchronized morning attack, the eager Russians pressed on without consultation or command. The other forces had no choice but to follow suit. Gaselee’s coalition did succeed in capturing Peking, but to the Russian’s mild disappointment, it was the British and Americans who were first through the gates, midday on 14 August. The following day the allies attacked the inner “Forbidden City” (where entry was barred to all but the Imperial court), forcing the Dowager Empress to flee in disguise. The advancing liberators, however, held short before occupying the sacred inner sanctum of the capital.

Finally, after much political debate, the foreigners staged a victory parade through the never before entered Forbidden City on 28 August, essentially capping the end of the siege. (Foreign forces quelled several sporadic revolts in various northern towns through October.) Soldiers, sailors, and Marines from each of the eight participating nations joined in an elaborate ceremony, marching together in a grand procession that sent obvious signals to the defeated Chinese and symbolized the conviction and cooperation of the provisional allies. In a dramatic reversal, the Imperial Chinese Army rounded up and executed Boxers—fellow Chinese who had been their comrades-in-arms just days earlier. One undisputable and unfortunate wart on the campaign’s finish was the disgraceful looting and pillaging of the capital and Forbidden City by foreign troops, although British and American forces, for the most part, refrained from these crimes.

Conclusion and Current Applicability
By October the Marines who had participated in the Boxer Rebellion were out of China. The short event dominated world news for a few weeks during the hot summer of 1900, but public attention quickly turned elsewhere even before the Boxer Protocol19 was signed. The Americans were back fighting in the Philippines, and Britain would send almost half a million men to fight the Boers in South Africa through 1902. Militarily, on the surface, the Boxer Rebellion was merely another colonial “small war.” But for today’s student of military history, this small war has much to offer. Indeed, as Professor Rick Norton remarked:

The development of the Marine’s Small Wars doctrine owed a substantive debt to the writings of Colonel [Charles E.] Callwell, the British author of ‘Small Wars’ fame . . . and clearly shows the continuing influence of the Victorian combat experience on military thought well into the 20th Century.20

The Boxer Rebellion is a clear example of a colonial-type campaign conducted under Callwell’s Victorian small war theory, but its educational value continues on several levels with valid applicability to many present-day concepts such as: low-intensity conflict, joint and combined expeditionary operations, military operations on urbanized terrain, force protection/antiterrorism considerations, logistics concerns, forward presence, naval power projection ashore, and expeditionary operations.

The Boxer Rebellion also saw the birth of America’s worldwide engagement and, despite its relatively minor scale, was in truth the real first world war. This war was fought before American military maneuverists had embraced the notions of “surfaces and gaps,” “fog,” “friction,” or “centers of gravity.” Nevertheless, the conflict heralded an early awakening of global American might and illustrated the value of coalition cooperation. While illustrating the capability of this rapidly comprised multinational alliance of determined partners (spearheaded by American and British resolve), the crisis signaled the decline of China’s 2,000-year-old dynastic government,21 even as it showed their culture’s willingness to respond to intrusions with military force.

The allies succeeded through the implementation of old-fashioned, force-on-force attrition warfare; however, it was the strategic resolve of the engaged nations’ leadership—not just the tactical brashness of the battlefield victors—that ensured success. In mid-July, when victory in Peking was almost inevitable, the Chinese failed to seize the legations. This clearly was because they lacked the will and not the ability. Why then did they seek the truce on 16 July rather than exploit their advantage? Possibly they were satisfied with having taught the foreign “devils” a lesson, sensing that the allies had “lost face.” More likely, they knew that America and her partners would continue sending reinforcements until their mission was accomplished; to continue the onslaught was to delay the inevitable.

The fight with the Boxers in 1900 also forged an inseparable bond of respect between the American and British Marines, and even more strongly so between Leathernecks and RWF, who repeatedly proved themselves together in combat during the campaign.22 The U. S. Marines had not yet adopted their now-famous amphibious character, but Marine actions during the expedition helped foster concrete American public support and strong international respect for the bold, reliable, “always faithful” U.S. Marine Corps.

Arthur H. Smith and Charles E. Ewing, expressing a resolution unanimously adopted at the meeting of American missionaries in Peking on 18 August 1900, wrote:

The Americans who have been besieged in Peking desire to express their hearty appreciation of the courage, fidelity, and patriotism of the American Marines, to whom we so largely owe our salvation. By their bravery in holding an almost untenable position on the city wall in the face of overwhelming numbers, and in cooperating in driving the Chinese from a position of great strength, they made all foreigners in Peking their debtors, and have gained for themselves an honorable name among the heroes of their country.23

All of these aspects of the Boxer campaign make it a truly exemplary and worthwhile campaign study, particularly in the chaotic times of the 21st century. The noble sacrifices and heroic deeds of Smedley Butler, Dan Daly, Jack Myers, and their fellow Boxer Rebellion veterans continue to inspire and set the standard for Marines everywhere. This high standard remains critical for American fighting men and women who will continue to prosecute our country’s dispersed and challenging small wars campaign—the global war against the bona fide threat of international terrorism—well into the foreseeable future.


11-09-03, 09:57 AM

1. Since 1958 a different method of transliterating Chinese characters has been used thereby changing the earlier Roman alphabet names of many Chinese cities.

2. Daggett, BG A.S., America in the China Relief Expedition, The Battery Press, Nashville, TN, 1997 (originally printed 1903), p. 11.

3. Taussig, CAPT J.K., USN, “Experiences During the Boxer Rebellion,” Proceedings, U.S. Naval Institute, Annapolis, MD, April 1927, p. 405.

4. Thomas, Lowell, Old Gimlet Eye: The Adventures of Smedley D. Butler, Marine Corps Association, Quantico, 1981 (originally published in New York by Farrar & Rinehart, Inc., 1933), p. 55–56.

5. Preston, Diana, The Boxer Rebellion: The Dramatic Story of China’s War on Foreigners That Shook the World in the Summer of 1900, Walker & Company, New York, 2000, p. 84.

6. Dieckmann, Sr., Edward A., “Dan Daly: Reluctant Hero,” Marine Corps Gazette, Quantico, November 1960, p. 26.

7. Heinl, Jr., Col R.D., “Hell in China,” Marine Corps Gazette, Quantico, November 1959, p. 59.

8. Roos, Bram, producer, The Boxer Rebellion, History Channel International World Timeline, 1997.

9.Thomas, p. 48.

10. Marine officers were not eligible for the Medal of Honor until 1914, so several in the Boxer campaign were promoted and eventually awarded the now obsolete “Brevet Medal” in 1921. Butler would later be awarded two Medals of Honor, one for heroism in Vera Cruz, Mexico in 1914 and the other a year later for actions in Haiti. Interestingly, Dan Daly, also of Boxer Rebellion fame, is the only other Marine to have received two Medals of Honor. Fifty-nine Americans were awarded the Medal of Honor for actions during the Boxer Rebellion.

11. Bodin, Lynn E., The Boxer Rebellion, Osprey Publishing Ltd., London, 1979, p. 13.

12. Preston, p. 120.

13. Heinl, p. 61.

14. Butler would later receive one of two gift ceremonial umbrellas from the inhabitants of a village near Tientsin as a symbol of “tremendous distinction and a mark of appreciation” for assistance during his time in China in the late 1920s. During the presentation ceremony, Butler commented that he had passed through the same village some 30 years previously and was shot in the leg. Four older, amused Chinese men confessed that they were among those who had fired on Butler. (BGen Smedley D. Butler, American Marines in China, The Brass Hat, Pike, NH, (historical reprint from The Annals, July 1929), date published unknown, p. 132.

15. Heinl, p. 61.

16. Smith, Capt Oliver P., “We Will Do Our Best,” Proceedings, U.S. Naval Institute, Annapolis, MD, November 1928, p. 992.

17. Dieckmann, p. 25.

18. Roos.

19. Among other things, the Boxer Protocol (treaty signed 7 September 1901) allowed permanent stationing of foreign forces in Peking, Tientsin, and elsewhere, enabling America and the other nations to guard their lines of communications between the Chinese capital and the ocean. The Protocol also ordered China to pay an indemnity of $330 million. The United States, and later Britain and Japan, returned part of this money for China’s educational use.

20. Norton, Rick, May Book Reviews, http://www.geocities.com/cdferree/review/may.htm, accessed 20 February 2003. The first edition of Small Wars—Their Principles and Practice by Victorian author and Col Charles E. Callwell was published in 1896.

21. The Qing Dynasty would end in 1911.

22. John Philip Sousa wrote and dedicated his march, “The Royal Welch Fusiliers” in 1930, and U.S. Marine and RWF headquarters annually exchange the simple message, “And St. David” on 1 March, St. David’s Day, to honor the patron Saint of Wales (and of the regiment) and to recognize the close, continuing bond between the U.S. Marine Corps and the RWF. These are but two examples of this international bond that was established in China over 100 years ago.

23. Daggett, p. 261–262.

>Maj Butler wrote this article in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the “Callwell in Practice: The Victorian Small Wars” syllabus while a student at the U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College, 2003.

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