The Forbidden City

  • by Pete O'Brien
  • 08-15-2020
Handsome Jack and the Righteous and Harmonious Fists…

The Italian author and foreign service officer Daniele Vare wrote that: “A characteristic of foreign communities in Eastern Lands is their incredulity concerning the danger of attack from the population among which they live.” Having been stationed in a country which went through several attempted coups during my tour, I would have to agree with Vare.

Just such a situation existed in China at the turn of the last century. In his excellent work on the Boxer Rebellion, Peter Fleming noted that on the night of May 24th, 1900 - Queen Victoria’s 81st birthday - Sir Claude MacDonald, the Queen’s Minister to the Imperial Chinese Court, threw a party at his residence for some 60 guests, followed by dancing under the stars on his tennis court. Life was good in the Foreign Legation’s section of the city, which abutted the walls of the Forbidden City.

But outside the walls, things were brewing.

The Boxers - so called because many members were practitioners of martial arts, had been referred to by many names: the National Righteousness Group, the League of Harmony and Justice, and the Militia United in Righteousness - but they came to be known as the Righteous and Harmonious Fists, or, more simply, as the Boxers.

By the mid 1890s the Boxers had been involved in a series of violent protests against the European and Japanese presence in China. One of the rallying cries of the Boxers was  “Destroy the Foreigners.” The Dowager Empress - herself Manchu and thus, a foreigner in the capital in her own right - was quite adept at playing off all sides against each other, and  secretly backed the Boxers. 

The Dowager Empress had, as early as January 1900, implied in an Imperial Edict that she would support those who “combined to protect their people,” and this was correctly interpreted by some of the foreign delegations that trouble was afoot.

The foreign delegations, who were all located in the same section of the city, had just sufficient intelligence and warning, and so, on 30 May, less than a week after the Queen’s birthday, they wired for aid and troops, even as they began to look to themselves for defense in their quarter of the city.

If you recall a story from a few months ago, about the Perdicaris Incident during the Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, there was a supporting player in the incident, a Marine Major named John Myers, or more completely: John Twiggs Myers, known to his friends and classmates as “Handsome Jack.”

JT Myers was the son of Abraham Myers, Quartermaster General of the Confederate Army, and his wife Marion Myers, nee Twiggs. They moved to Europe at the end of the Civil War and Handsome Jack, also known as “JT” was born there in 1871. JT went on to graduate form the US Naval Academy in 1982. Per the rules of the day he remained a “Naval Cadet” until 1894 when he became an assistant engineer. On March 6th, 1895 he received a commission as a 2nd LT in the Marines.

In 1898, after several schools, JT (now a 1stLT) joined USS Charleston and, as the Spanish-American War got underway, commanded the landing party put ashore in Guam. The landing party consisted of Charleston’s Marine detachment and a team of Naval Infantry made up of members of Charleston’s crew; they seized and disarmed the Spanish garrison on Guam (June 21st, 1898).

USS Charleston then proceeded to the Philippines, JT was promoted to Captain, and in July 1899 he transferred to USS Baltimore. In September of 1899 he lead another landing party ashore, to destroy a Spanish gun position at Port Olongapo, and then in October lead another landing party ashore under fire, at Bacoor. Later in the year he briefly commanded Subic Bay Naval Station.

In May 1900 he transferred to USS Newark and shortly thereafter Newark was dispatched to China in response to calls from the US delegation to China requesting increased security in response to the rise of the Boxers. Myers went ashore commanding a landing party of 48 Marines and 3 sailors. Of note, one of the Marines was Pvt Dan Daly, who would later receive 2 Medals of Honor (as well as a Navy Cross, a Distinguished Service Cross, a Croix de Guerre, and a Medaille Militaire).

A force of 435 troops, from 8 countries, came ashore in Tienjin in response to the urgent request for aid, and immediately departed for Peking, arriving in that city just before the rail line was cut on June 5th. 

Of note, a young American engineer who was among the foreigners besieged in Tienjin, spent the next several weeks riding around the “foreigners” section of the city on his bicycle supervising the construction of some of the defensive positions and barricades for the city; his name was Herbert Hoover.

Tensions continued to rise with the arrival of the foreign troops and on June 19th the Dowager Empress, who was the de facto ruler of China, sent notes to each of the foreign delegations informing them that China could no longer guarantee their safety and advising them to leave the city for the coast within 24 hours. The delegations met and agreed that such a move would mean certain death as they would be attacked repeatedly along the road seaward. The various ambassadors advised their citizens to take refuge in the International Quarter by sunset on the 20th. 

On June 21st, 1900 the Empress issued an Imperial Decree essentially declaring war on all foreigners. The Boxers attacked and laid siege to the foreign delegation in Peking (Beijing).

The Siege at Peking had begun.

Myers and the Marines were assigned the “Tartar Wall,” a 45 foot high wall that looked down on the International Quarter of the city. The Boxers built a series of barricades and each day moved them closer to the wall. On another segment of the wall was a small German force. 

With the rail line and the telegraph lines cut, those inside the Foreign Legation had no idea what was happening - if anything - to affect their rescue. In fact, a multi-national relief force that eventually numbered more than 55,000 was assembling in Tientsin

But this was unknown in Peking; that the situation looked desperate can be shown by a note Myers wrote, a diary entry of sorts, in which he commented: “It is sure death to remain here… the men all feel that they are in a trap and simply await the hour of execution.”

The Boxers attacked with artillery and drove the Germans off the wall on the 1st of July, making it necessary for Myers and his Marines to fall back. Myers wasn’t going to let that stand and several hours before dawn on 02 July Myers led his Marines, plus 26 Royal Marines and 15 Russian soldiers, in an assault outside the wall and destroyed parts of the Boxer barricade - manned by an estimated 2,000 Boxers. Myers was wounded in the leg by a spear, 2 Marines and 1 Russian were killed, but the raid was successful. Myers was later promoted to Major for the action. It was the deciding action in the siege, and while sniping and other small actions continued, large attacks never again threatened the legation and the relief column arrived on August 14th.

Of note, one of the very first men from the relief column who climbed over the walls was a Royal Navy Lieutenant, Roger Keyes, who would later rise to the rank of Admiral of the Fleet.

JT Myers returned to USS Newark, and in 1903 was transferred to USS Brooklyn where, as commander of the Marine Det, he took part in the Perdicaris Affair. He would later command the 1st Marine Regiment in the Philippines, and would rise to the rank of Lieutenant General.

But perhaps it all really began in Peking, 120 years ago today…