The Seymour Expedition, was an attempt by a multi-national military force to march to Beijing and protect the diplomatic legations and foreign nationals in the city from attacks by Boxers in 1900. Seymour's force was defeated by the Chinese army and forced to withdraw to Tianjin (Tientsin).
In May and early June 1900 Boxer bands advanced on Beijing. The Qing dynasty was ambivalent about the Boxers, fearing that they might become anti-Qing. The Boxers became a serious threat to Western and Japanese citizens as well as Chinese Christians living in northern China. The diplomatic Legations in Beijing requested that Guards be sent to protect them and more than 400 marines and naval troops from eight countries arrived in Beijing on May 31. However, as the threat from the Boxers increased, it became apparent that additional troops were needed. On June 9 Sir Claude Maxwell MacDonald, the British Minister, cabled Vice-Admiral Edward Hobart Seymour, commander of the British Navy's China Station, that the situation in Beijing was becoming more serious and that troops should be landed with all arrangements made for an advance to Peking [Beijing] at once.
Responding to MacDonald's message, Seymour assembled in 24 hours a force of more than 2,000 Sailors and Marines from European, American and Japanese warships and prepared to embark for Beijing from Tianjin, 75 miles away, by train. His force consisted of 916 British, 455 Germans, 326 Russians, 158 French, 112 Americans, 54 Japanese, 41 Italians and 26 Austrians. Seymour's Chief of Staff was Capt. John Jellicoe. The commander of the Americans in the expedition was Captain Bowman H. McCalla, USN.
The diplomats in Beijing anticipated that Seymour would arrive there on June 11. Acting without the Chinese Imperial court's permission, they had, in effect, launched an invasion. The Chinese response was decisive.
Advance toward Beijing
Seymour commandeered five trains in Tianjin and departed for Beijing with his entire force the morning of June 10. The first day the soldiers travelled 25 miles without incident, crossing a bridge at Yancun over the Hai River unopposed, although Chinese Gen. Nie Shicheng and thousands of his soldiers were camped there, Nie's soldiers were "friendly" and did not attack. The next few days went slowly, as Seymour had to repair railroad tracks and fight off Boxer attacks as his trains advanced. On June 14 several hundred Boxers armed with swords, spears and clumsy gingals attacked Seymour twice and killed five Italian soldiers. The Americans counted 102 Boxer bodies left on the battlefield at the end of one battle. Seymour continued to repair tracks and advance very slowly. Chinese Gen. Nie let Seymour's army slip past in trains, because Ronglu deliberately issued contradicting orders that left Nie confused. However, the Muslim forces were not "confused", and immediately set out attacking the foreigners.
The Chinese government had reversed its earlier positions after learning of the invasion, deciding to absorb Boxers forces and order the army to defend against Seymour's march to the capital.
Gen. Dong Fuxiang, along with his Chinese Muslim Braves, prepared to ambush the invading western army. Gen. Ma Fuxiang and Gen. Ma Fulu personally planned and led the attack, with a pincer movement around the European force. On June 18 Dong Fuxiang's troops, stationed at Hunting Park in southern Beijing, attacked at multiple points including LangFang. The forces included 5000 cavalrymen, armed with modern rifles. The foreign troops, especially the Germans, fought off the attack, killing hundreds of Chinese at a loss of seven dead and 57 wounded. The Kansu Braves lost 200 and the Boxers another 200. The Boxers directly and relentlessly charged the allies during the attack, which unnerved them. The need to care for the wounded, a lack of supplies and the likelihood of additional Chinese attacks resulted in Seymour and his officers deciding to retreat to Tientsin. The unexpected attack on Seymour by the Chinese army was prompted by an allied European and Japanese attack on the Dagu Forts two days previously. As a result of the attack in Dagu, the Chinese government had decided to resist Seymour's army and kill or expel all foreigners in northern China.
During one of the battles at Langfang, Boxers armed with swords and spears charged the British and Americans, who were armed with guns. At point-blank range one British soldier had to fire four bullets into a Boxer before he stopped, and American Capt. Bowman McCalla reported that single rifle shots were not enough: multiple rifle shots were needed to halt a Boxer.
Seymour turned his five trains around and headed back toward Tianjin. However, he found the bridge across the Hai River he had crossed a few days before now destroyed by the Boxers or the Chinese army. Seymour and his officers had a decision to make for the army: to cross the river by boat and walk 18 miles to Tianjin along the railroad, or follow the river 30 miles to Tianjin. The sailors, perhaps more comfortable near water, chose to follow the river, although the railroad route was shorter and ran through open country. Along the heavily populated river banks were Boxer-infested villages every one-half mile.
Seymour's retreat down the Hai River was slow and difficult, covering only three miles the first day. Additional casualties included Capt. Jellicoe, who suffered a near fatal wound. By June 22 the soldiers were out of food and down to less than 10 rounds of ammunition per man, except for the Americans who had brought ample ammunition. However, "there was no thought of surrender," said Lt. Wurtzbaugh. "The intention was to fight to the last with the bayonet."
Seymour's 2,000 soldiers might have perished along the river except for good luck. On June 23, six miles from Tianjin, Seymour came across the Chinese army's Xigu fort and arsenal which, inexplicably, was nearly undefended. The foreign soldiers took refuge in the arsenal, which contained a wealth of arms and ammunition in addition to some food. Realizing their mistake in leaving the arsenal undefended, the Chinese army attempted to dislodge Seymour's forces, which were now well armed and repelled the Chinese attacks.
A Chinese servant of the British slipped through to Tianjin and requested rescue for Seymour. A force of 2000 Allied soldiers marched out of the city to the arsenal on June 25, and next day escorted Seymour's men back to Tianjin. The Chinese did not oppose their passage. A missionary reported their arrival in Tianjin: "I shall never forget to my dying day, the long string of dusty travel-worn soldiers, who for a fortnight had been living on quarter rations, and fighting every day . . . the men were met by kind ladies with pails of tea which the poor fellows drunk as they had never drunk before – some bursting into tears." Seymour's casualties were 62 dead and 232 wounded.
The besieged foreigners trapped in the Legations in Beijing thought that Seymour was close to them and that they were going to be saved, oblivious to the defeat of Seymour's forces.
The Chinese government at the time did not know either that their own forces had halted Seymour's armies in their tracks.
The Seymour Expedition was "a serious failure." and a "humiliation". Seymour underestimated his Chinese opponent, trusting that he could push through to Beijing quickly with little or no opposition. Instead, "Seymour's expedition became a large moving target for the Boxers and Imperial troops. The would-be rescuers now required rescue themselves." The Western and Japanese soldiers and civilians in Beijing were subjected to a 55-day siege by the Chinese army and it took more than a month after Seymour's rescue to organize another larger and better equipped army to defeat the Chinese and march on Beijing to relieve the siege.
The Boxers charged the foreigners with swords, spears, rifles, and gingalls; most of them were boys and common peasants, rather than professional troops, taking up arms against the invaders. The Boxers sometimes faked death and then sprang back up at the troops to attack; an Allied soldier, Bigham, said they had no "fear" or "hesitation".
The expedition failed for several reasons, the main one being the underestimation of Chinese resistance, which no one had thought at all likely or possible to such a degree. The London Spectator pointed out that the expedition was "to embark on the assumption that any force of Europeans however small can beat any force of Chinamen however large." Further reasons include the lack of communication between the expedition and Tianjin-based command, due to the cutting of telegraph lines, the overreliance on rail transport and lack of preparedness in guarding the railway lines, and the overall lack of strategic planning and vision of Admiral Seymour.
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- Leonhard, Robert R. "The China Relief Expedition Joint Coalition Warfare in China Summer 1900" (PDF). The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. p. 12. Retrieved 31 October 2010.
- Jonathan R. Adelman, Zhiyu Shi (1993). Symbolic war: the Chinese use of force, 1840-1980. Volume 43 of Institute of International Relations English monograph series. Institute of International Relations, National Chengchi University. p. 132. ISBN 957-9368-23-6. Retrieved 1-9-2011. "Council issued a decree recruiting Boxers to the army, attacking the advance of Seymour, pacifying the Boxers and ordering local troops to march northward to protect the capital. The next day the Empress Dowager declared that, "Now they have started the aggression and the extinction of our nation is imminent. If we just fold our arms and yield to them, I would have no face to see our ancestors after death."44 In the words of the imperial decree"
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- Nat Brandt. Massacre in Shansi. p. 181. Retrieved 1-9-2011. "the Court decided finally to expel te entire diplomatic corps and had an ultimatum of its own handed to each foreign minister: All dipomats and their families were to leave Peking and proceed to Tientsin within twenty-four hours. The diplomats wer also misinformed. Unaware that Admiral Seymour's sailors and marines had run into stiff resistance and were running out of supplies, they believed the relief force from Tientsin was nearby. So they stalled for time and requested a meeting for the next day."
- Peter Fleming (1990). The Siege at Peking: The Boxer Rebellion (illustrated ed.). Dorset Press. p. 97. ISBN 0-88029-462-0. Retrieved 1-9-2011. "The Imperial Council seems to have had no clear idea of the difficulties which Seymour, although he was only thirty-odd miles from Peking, was encountering. Two of its members were ordered to go south, intercept him and dissuade him from entering the capital."
- Marilyn Blatt Young (1969). The rhetoric of empire: American China policy, 1895-1901. Volume 36 of Harvard East Asian series. Harvard University Press. p. 147. Retrieved 1-9-2011. "might defeat the foreigners; Seymour's humiliation outside Tientsin would encourage such a conclusion. The empress dowager can perhaps be seen takinga middle course between the moderate officials, anxious to reform China and fearful of foreign wars, and the extremists, whose"
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- Paul Henry Clements (1915). The Boxer rebellion: a political and diplomatic review, Volume 66, Issues 1-3 (Issue 160 of Columbia studies in the social sciences). NEW YORK: Columbia University. p. 134. Retrieved 1-9-2011. "ranks, and together they retreated safely to Tientsin, reaching that city on the 26th of June. Admiral Seymour's column had been in the field for 16 days, some of which had been spent in hard fighting and in imminent peril, and returned with the respectable casualty list of 62 killed and 228 wounded.1 It was a noble effort but failed because Chinese resistance, which no one had thought at all likely or possible in such degree, was underestimated. It was fortunate for the small number of Allies then at Tientsin that the 1,800 Russian troops on their way from Port Arthur did not arrive in time to join Seymour's column, as had been intended. Their coming too late was a stroke of fortune, for on June 17th, at three o'clock in the afternoon, the Chinese attacked in force the foreign concessions in the city and reduced them to a state of siege. The day before, at one in the morning, the great Roman Catholic Cathedral had been burned and scores of native Christians butchered. This siege of the concessions in Tientsin was glorious enough in itself, a companion act to the drama which was being so curiously strung out in Peking. 1 The killed and wounded of the Seymour expedition: Killed Wounded British 27 97 American 4 25 French 1 10 German 12 62 Italian 5 3 Japanese 2 3 Austrian 1 I Russian 10 27 Total 62 228 Report of Seymour to Admiralty, China No. 3 (1000), no. 219."
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- Xiang, Lanxin (2003). The Origins of the Boxer War: A Multinational Study. Psychology Press. ISBN 0-7007-1563-0.