In 1900 China imploded. A massive peasant uprising marched on Peking, massacring any aspect of non-traditional China, mainly foreigners and Christians. The weak Imperial government decided that could be turned to their advantage and threw in their lot with the Boxers. In Peking, hundreds of miles from the sea and any relief, the foreigners huddled together in the Legation Quarter, sandbagged the gates, and prepared to sell their lives dearly.
The Austrian Embassy was outside the central block, and though ornamental, was judged indefensible, at least by the Austrian commander, Captain Thomann. The Austrian sailors and civilians moved in with the French, which led to recriminations as it involved abandoning a large part of the perimeter. And it was jumping out of the frying pan into the fire, the French Legation was to see some of the most desperate fighting of the siege. The Chinese front line was only 50 ft away, negating a lot of the fire power advantage of the Europeans, even Boxers armed with spears and swords stood a chance of reaching the walls, and could attack at any time, day or night.
There was also a strong suspicion that sappers were digging under the walls, which did nothing for the nerves of the 78 Austrian and French soldiers, and 17 civilian volunteers guarding the Legation. The civilians included the Austrian Legation Secretary, Arthur Von Rosthorn, who had studied Chinese at Oxford in 1883 and had many business contacts amongst the Chinese. He and his wife Paula later wrote an account of the siege. But the quotes here come from highly readable account left by a British survivor, Putnam- Weale.*
For several days after June 20th, nothing happened. Not least because no one was in true command on either side. Within the Legation complex the candidates in terms of seniority were the Austrian captain, Thomann, the British Sir Claude MacDonald and the Japanese commander. It has to be said that there is speculation about Thomann, and his suitability for command. Responsibility for not just his troops but all the women and children in the legation, with many in the garrison believing their end was only a matter of time, would have daunted many men. Anyway, the Japanese had orders to defer to the British, and in the end MacDonald assumed command. In a way. Each nationality more or less defended it´s own embassy, and eye witnesses tell time and time again of lack of coordination. It is a tribute to MacDonalds diplomatic skills, as well as his military prowess, that the siege was survived at all.
The whole defence nearly collapsed on the 23rd. Thomann suddenly ordered the Austrians, French and Italians to fall back on the British compound, the citadel of the defence. Troops poured into the legation, followed by the American Marines from the Tartar wall who feared they were being abandoned and their flank would be turned. It was now that McDonald really took command, with everyone in his embassy he held all the cards. He calmed everybody down and ordered them back to the outer defences, which, incredibly, had not been rushed, although the Italian embassy had been torched. The front was stabilised once more.
The Austro-French lines were defended by piquets, spread, desperately weakly, along the front. Putnam- Weale describes one consisting of four Frenchmen and two Austrians
"Here on roofs, squatting behind loopholes, and even on tree-tops, though these are very dangerous, French and Austrian sailors exchange shots with the enemy. Half a dozen men have been already hit here, but in spite of the strictest orders men are fearlessly exposing themselves and reaping the inevitable result.One giant Austrian had spread himself across the top of a roof near which I passed, with two sandbags to protect his head, and looked in his blue- black sailor clothes like an enormous fly squashed flat up there by the anger of the gods. Now leaning this way, now that, he flashed off a Mannlicher there towards the Italian Legation, where only one hundred hours ago no one ever dreamed that Chinese desperadoes would have made our normal life such a distant memory".
For a week Putnam- Weale wrote no notes, too tired and busy. During this time the Austrians lost their first casualties. Though suffering many wounded they had somehow still survived, but in the defence of the French legation Joesf Dettan fell on the 25th, then Marcus Badurina-Perić and Alfred Tavagna on the 26th and 29th.
The Austrians and French "still sullenly cling to the ruins of the French barricades" but the Chinese now bought up two cannon.
" Under this devastating bombardment, almost a bout portant, as the French say, the last line of French trenches and their main-gate blockhouse became untenable. Pieces of shell tore through everything; men were wounded more and more quickly, ...... The French commander, disheartened by the treatment he had received from the commander-in-chief, and convinced that all his men would be blown to pieces if they remained where they were, ordered his bugler to sound the retire. The clarion's notes rose shrilly above this storm of fire, and dragging their dead with them, the Franco- Austrian survivors retreated into the fortified line behind them the Peking hotel.
Here they manned the windows and barricades of the intrepid Swiss' hostelry, which had already been heavily damaged by the Chinese guns. A determination was arrived at not to be driven out of this hotel until the last man had been killed ; it was necessary at all costs to prevent the enemy from breaking in so far. More volunteers were brought to reinforce this line, and the sinking spirits of the French were restored; for within half an hour of their retreat the bugler had sounded the advance again, and with a rush the abandoned positions were reoccupied and the Chinese driven back. Then the guns stopped their cannonade, and a breathing space was given which was sufficient to repair some of the damage done."