In June 1900, the men and women of the International Legation Quarter in Peking found themselves under siege. They were surrounded by thousands of fanatical Boxer militia who made no secret of their desire to slaughter everyone inside, as well as regular Chinese troops - both groups had already murdered diplomats found outside the quarter. Communications with the coast had been cut and, it seemed, the end was only a matter of time. They had two advantages. By forcing all International embassies and businesses into the same area, the Chinese had inadvertently created a block that was, barely, defensible. And secondly, an International band of about 500 marines and sailors had forced their way through before the railway line to the coast at Tianjin was cut. Eight nationalities had troops in Peking, the British, Russians, French, Americans, Japanese, Italians, Germans and Austrians.
The Austrians were officers and men from SMS Zenta, the only Austrian warship in Tianjin at the time, about 10% of her crew. The Zenta, launched only the previous year, had actually been designed for long distance cruising, to show the Austro-Hungarian flag around the world, if you were Austrian and wanted to see the world, this was the ship to be on. She had been on an Asian tour and was on her way to Japan when recalled to help in the evacuation of embassy staff. Other Austrian ships were based in the Russian port of Port Arthur, and were destined to see action in other parts of China, but for now the crew of the Zenta were the only ones available for the international effort.
Commander Thomann, the captain of the Zenta, took Lt Kollar, Lt Von Winterhalder (the Zenta´s artillery officer), Sub Lt Meyer and Baron Boynburg-Lengsfeld, with 30 seamen and joined the Germans on a train to Peking, arriving on June 3rd. Actually, according to Putnam-Weale, Thomann had been in Peking on a pleasure trip and took command when Lt Winterhalder brought up the troops. Although not the largest contingent, they did supply a Skoda MG M1893 machine gun, which with British and American machine guns, an Italian 1pdr quick firing gun and a cannon cobbled together from bits and pieces and called Betsy gave a certain amount of fire power. The Austrian troops joined their ambassador, Baron Czikann von Walhorn, at the Austrian Legation.
Tensions gradually increased through Peking, Boxers appeared increasingly on the streets and the Legations fortified themselves as best they could. The Legation area became an armed camp, but as one survivor, B.L. Putnam Weale, notes in his diary "Were we really playing an immense comedy, or was there a great and terrible peril menacing us? I could never get beyond asking the question. I could not think sanely long enough for the answer". later the answer came.
"The day passed slowly, and very late in the afternoon, when some of us had completed a tour of the Legations, and looked at their various picquets, I finished up at the Austrian Legation and the Customs Street. Men were everywhere sitting about, idly watching the dusty and deserted streets, half hoping that something was going to happen shortly, when suddenly there was a shout and a fierce running of feet. We all jumped up as if we had been shot, for we had been sitting very democratically on the sidewalk, and round the corner, running with the speed of the scared, came a youthful English postal carrier. The English youth had started gasping exclamations as he ran in, and tried to fetch his breath, when from the back of the Austrian Legation came a rapid roll of musketry. Austrian marines, who were spread-eagled along the roofs of their Legation residences, and on the top of the high surrounding wall, had evidently caught sight of the edge of an advancing storm, and were firing fiercely. We seized our rifles and in a disorderly crowd we ran down to the end of the great wall surrounding the Austrian compounds to view the broad street which runs towards the city gates.
The firing ceased as suddenly as it had begun, and in its place arose a perfect storm of distant roaring and shouting. Far away the din of the Boxers could still be heard, and flames shooting up to the skies now marked their track; but of the dreaded men themselves we had not seen a single one. We found the Italian picquet at the Ha-ta end of Legation Street nearly mad with excitement; the men were crimson and shouting at one another. Bands of Boxers had passed the Italian line only eighty or a hundred yards off, and a number of dark spots on the ground testified to some slaughter by small-bore Mausers. They had been given a taste of our guns, that was all ; and, fearing the worst, every able-bodied man in the Legations fell in at the prearranged posts and waited for fresh developments. "
Later, Boxers burnt plundered and burnt the city around them, the flames clearly visible as the skies darkened. From the route of the flames that the Boxers were drawing closer again.
" The Boxers, casting discretion to the winds, appeared to be once more advancing on the Legations. But then came a shout from the Austrian Legation, some hoarse cries in guttural German, and the big gates of the Legation were thrown open near us. The night was inky black, and you could see nothing. A confused banging of feet followed, then some more orders, and with a rattling of gun-wheels a machine-gun was run out and planted in the very centre of the street. "At two thousand yards," sang out the naval lieutenant unexpectedly and jarringly as we stood watching, "slow fire." I was surprised at such decision. Tang, tang, tang, tang, tang, spat the machine-gun in the black night, now rasping out bullets at the rate of three hundred a minute, as the gunner under the excitement of the hour and his surroundings forgot his instructions, now steadying to a slow second fire. This was something like a counter- excitement; we were beginning to speak at last. It was not so much the gun reports which thrilled us as the resonant echoes which, crackling like very dry fagots in a fierce fire as the bullets sped down the long, straight street, made us realise their destroying power.
The volunteers could now see flames from the Eastern Cathedral, where many Christians had sought sanctuary. Thomann and another senior officer conferred, but events were out of his hands....
"Volunteers to the front," shouted somebody. Everybody sprang forward like one man. A French squad was already fixing bayonets noisily and excusing their rattle and cursing on account of the dark; the Austrians had deployed and were already advancing. "Pas de charge" called a French middy. Somebody started tootling a bugle, and helter-skelter we were off down the street, with fixed bayonets and loaded magazines, a veritable massacre for ourselves in the dark. . . . The charge blew itself out in less than four hundred yards, and we pulled up panting, swearing and laughing. A very fine night counter-attack we were, and the rear was the safest place. Yet that run did us good. It was like a good drink of strong wine. "
Thomann had run with the charge and tried to get the men to return, but they pushed on into the night, finding mutilated bodies the Boxers had left behind. In the end it became clear that nothing could be done in the dark, so when the French commander recalled his men everybody else returned too. A French expedition to the cathedral found it mostly destroyed and there was no one left to rescue so they returned. Few slept that night.
Weale is critical of Thomann several times for what he considers indecision, but as he admits "Whole battalions of Boxers could have lurked there unmarked by us ; perhaps they were only waiting until they could safely cut us off.", In fact this was probably the Boxers best chance for an easy victory. At least Thomann had accompanied the charge, whilst the French commander had sensibly strayed back at the Legation.
Weale wrote in his diary...
"Taking the remaining three Legations, the Belgian is hopelessly far away beyond the Ha-ta Gate line; the Austrian is two hundred yards down a side street on which is also the Customs Inspectorate";
and "The Austrian Legation is likewise a little too far away; but for the time being a triple line of barricades have gone up, having been constructed along the road between this Legation and the Customs Inspectorate. To-day, the i6th, carts are no more to be seen on these streets ; foot traffic is likewise almost at an end".
Meanwhile fighting had erupted in other parts of China. The forts at Tianjin had been stormed by allied forces, and it is apparently this which persuaded the Dowager Empress to enter on the side of the Boxers. China was now offically at war with the allied powers. On the 19th an ultimatum had been handed to the Legation residents informing them that the Central Government would no longer be responsible for their safety. They had 24 hours after 4pm to leave Peking.
During the 20th Boxer and Imperial troops massed around the Legation complex. There were also the Muslim militia of Tung Fu-Hsiang...
"Down beyond the Austrian Legation came a flourish of hoarse-throated trumpets those wonderful Chinese trumpets. Nearer and nearer, as if challenging us with these hoarse sounds, came a large body of soldiery; we could distinctly see the bright cluster of banners round the squadron commander."
"Pushing through the clouds of dust which floated high above them, the horses and their riders appeared and skirted the edge of our square. We noted the colour of their tunics and the blackness of the turbans. The manner in which they so coolly rode past fifty yards away must have frightened some one, for when I passed here an hour later the Austrian Legation and its street defences had been suddenly abandoned by our men. "
"At the big French barricades facing north an angry altercation soon began between the French and Austrian commanders. The French line of barricades was but the third line of defence here, and only the streets had been fortified, not the houses ; but by the Austrian retreat it had become the first, and the worn-out French sailors would have hastily to do more weary fatigue-work carting more materials to strengthen this contact point. "
"bang-ping, bang-ping, came three or four scattered shots from far down the street beyond the Austrian Legation. It was just where Tung Fu-hsiang's men had passed. That stopped us talking, and as I took a wad of waste out of the end of my rifle I looked at my watch 3.49 exactly, or eleven minutes too soon. I ran forward, pushing home the top cartridge on my clip, but I was too late. "A quatrecents metres" L , the French commander, called, and then a volley was loosed off down that long dusty street our first volley of the siege. "
Indiscrete Letters From Peking by BL Putnam Weale is an extremely readable account of the siege. Actually, it is more discrete than it appears, as the real name of the author was Bertram Lennox Simpson, an offical in the Chinese Maritme Customs Service. It is available online.