War with China - 1856.

The seizure of the Arrow, sailing under British colours, by the Chinese, and their haughty refusal to make any reparation, compelled the British minister at Canton to apply to Sir Michael Seymour, commander-in-chief on the China station, to try the efficacy of his guns in inducing the commissioner, Yeh, to yield to his demands. The admiral’s flag was flying on board the Calcutta, 84; he had under him the Winchester, of 50 guns, the Sybil and Pique, of 40, and the Hornet and Encounter, screw-steamers, the first of 17 and the other of 15 guns, and three paddle-wheel steamers and three sloops of war. He was in a short time reinforced by the Sanspareil, of 70 guns, the Nankin, of 50, the Amethyst, of 26, several screw-steamers, and a considerable number of gunboats, well suited for navigating the Chinese rivers. The English admiral first sailed up to Canton, and took possession of all its outer defences, one of which, the Macao fort, situated in the middle of the river, he garrisoned with a force of marines. The Barrier Forts, armed with 150 guns, were stormed and captured, the guns spiked, and the buildings destroyed. These proceedings, however, had no effect on Yeh, and he still held out. Accordingly, bringing up other vessels, the admiral ordered an attack on Canton itself. The ships soon made a breach in the walls, when a body of seamen and marines under Captains Elliott and Stuart and Commanders Holland and Bate stormed the place, and in a short time the gallant Bate having scaled the walls at the head of one detachment, waved the British ensign on the top of the breach; the gate of the city was blown open, and in less than an hour Canton was in possession of the British. The blue-jackets and marines abstained from all acts of plunder, and treated the inhabitants so well that they came fearlessly alongside the vessels, bringing fresh provisions of all kinds. The admiral, not considering it advisable to retain the city, withdrew his men, leaving only a force sufficient for the protection of the factory. This place the Chinese attempted to burn, and made every effort to destroy the fleet with fire-rafts and enormous explosive machines, some of which, it is said, contained 3000 pounds of gunpowder. They were invariably, however, towed clear of the ships. Yeh then one night sent a fleet of 23 war-junks in the hopes of surprising the fleet. Getting news of the intended attack, the admiral despatched theBarracouta with a fleet of boats under Captain Wilson of the Winchester, the admiral himself afterwards joining, and in half-an-hour the whole of the fleet was destroyed, with the exception of the admiral’s vessel, carrying 60 guns, which was brought off.

Still Yeh refused to yield, and Sir Michael therefore attacked the Bogue Forts, which now mounted upwards of 200 guns, and the whole were captured with trifling loss the mandarins having run away and deserted their men, who began in their terror to throw themselves into the sea, till they were persuaded by Captain Hall that they would not be injured.

Meantime, the Chinese were beginning to repair the Barrier Forts, which, as they commanded the river, the admiral resolved to destroy. Two of them, the French Folly and Dutch Folly, were successively attacked. Captains Wilson and Cochrane landing at the head of 850 seamen and marines, stormed the latter, and blew up it and the 30 guns with which it was armed. The Dutch Folly was garrisoned by 140 seamen, under the command of Commodore Elliott, while, to protect the squadron, two strong booms were thrown across the river, one above and the other below it. This terminated the year 1856.

Early in the following year the Chinese having collected a fleet of 90 large junks and 30 row-boats, advanced from three different quarters, hoping to overwhelm the British squadron; but the ships, opening their fire, soon put them to flight, when they were followed by the boats and several more destroyed. For several months no active operations took place. Unhappily, the Honourable Captain Keppel’s ship, the Raleigh, on her way to Hong-Kong, struck on a rock and was totally wrecked. Sir Michael, however, gave him command of the Alligator, and placed under him the Bitternsloop and the hired steamers, Hong-Kong and Sir Charles Forbes, attached to the Raleigh as tenders. As soon as active operations were commenced, a squadron of gunboats towing about 20 ship’s boats, most of them armed with a heavy gun, was despatched up the Escape Creek in search of a large fleet of Chinese war-junks. As soon as the Chinese saw them, they took to flight up a shallow creek, where the gunboats pursuing them, grounded; but the officers jumping into the boats, continued the pursuit, when Commander Forsyth captured ten, and Mr Brown, mate of the Hornet, with a single boat’s crew, attacked and carried three large ones in succession. Altogether, ten were taken and seventeen destroyed.

Several smaller expeditions were made with the like success. Still, the main fleet of the Chinese remaining in safety in Fatshan, the admiral resolved to lead against it an expedition he had organised of 11 gunboats and between 50 and 60 boats of the fleet, carrying 2000 men. Each division of boats was commanded by the captains of the ships to which they belonged. The fleet they were to attack consisted of 80 of the largest junks, manned by 6000 of the best Chinese sailors and warriors. It was drawn up under heavy batteries on either bank; across the stream 50 junks were found moored side by side, the large guns in their bows pointed down it. The admiral waited till dead low water, the most favourable time for making his attack, and he hoped that the junks would be unable to move till he got up to them, while should any of his own gunboats take the ground, they would soon again be afloat with the rising tide. The Chinese had further strengthened their position by sinking junks laden with stone, against one of which the Coromandel, carrying the admiral’s flag, grounded. He, on this, landing with a party of blue-jackets and marines, stormed one of the batteries, the garrison of which soon took to flight. Meantime, the Haughty, the leading gunboat, attacked the largest of the junks; her crew jumping overboard, the example was followed by those of the rest of the fleet, when the whole squadron was immediately set on fire. Commodore Keppel attacked and carried a second battery, and then sent his division of boats against another squadron of junks. These having been destroyed, he pushed on three miles till he saw before him the main body of the largest junks moored compactly across the stream with their heavy bow-guns pointing at him. These opened so tremendous a fire that in a few moments every boat was hit. The commodore’s coxswain was killed, and scarcely a man in the boat escaped. While Lieutenant Prince Victor of Hohenlohe was engaged in attending to a wounded man, a shot whizzed between him and the commodore, and had he not been bending down, he would have been killed. So full of water was the boat that Keppel had to jump on the after-thwart to keep his legs out of it, when another round-shot passed through both sides of the boat scarcely an inch below him. At length, as the boat was on the point of sinking, he and his companions, taking the wounded men, got into one of the Calcutta’s boats. The rest of the flotilla had suffered in the same way, and numerous officers and men had been killed or wounded. The commodore, seeing that there was little hope of success at that moment, ordered the boats to retire, and the deck of the Hong-Kong was soon covered with the wounded men brought on board. The fire of the Chinese still reaching her, several more men were killed on board. The admiral, however, hearing the firing, had sent up reinforcements, and Commodore Keppel, calling to the rest of the boats to follow, again dashed forward in the Raleigh’s cutter, in a style which so daunted the Chinese that, cutting their cables, they pulled away up the stream. The British seamen cheered and, opening fire from their big guns, were soon up to the sternmost junks. These were quickly captured, their crews in many instances leaping overboard. The rest were pursued for seven miles, till the British boats found themselves almost in the middle of the large city of Fatshan. Here the commodore landing put a considerable body of troops to flight, and would have captured and held the town had not the admiral considered the enterprise useless. He contented himself, therefore, with towing away five large junks, the only portion of the Chinese fleet which had escaped destruction. This success was purchased at the cost of 84 men killed and wounded. Chuenpee, further down the river, was next captured without difficulty, for though considerably strengthened, so disheartened were the Chinese that they did not attempt to defend it.

Considerable reinforcements were now sent out from England, including the Shannon, Captain W. Peel, the Pearl, Sanspareil, and numerous gunboats; but news of the Sepoy mutiny having reached the admiral, he immediately despatched them to Calcutta with a force of Royal Artillery and other troops. During the eventful struggle which ensued, the crews of the Shannon and Pearl, formed into naval brigades, did good service. In November, 1857, the Indian mutiny being nearly quelled, operations in China were recommenced. Yeh proved as obstinate as ever, and to bring him to reason Canton was again attacked. Besides 800 regular troops, the British force consisted of the marines and 1550 blue-jackets, well trained to act on shore. They were formed into three divisions under Captains Stuart, Key, and McClure, the command of the whole being confided to Commodore Elliott. The French, who had now joined the English, had also a naval brigade of less size. The smaller vessels and gunboats having arrived before Canton, began and kept up a ceaseless fire on the walls as well as on the heights both inside and outside the city, replied to by the cannon, jingalls, and rockets of the Chinese. On the morning of the 29th the naval brigade stormed and captured a large temple close to the walls, and at daylight the artillery, which had been landed, opened fire and soon effected a breach. The signal was now given for the scaling parties to advance, and rushing forward with ladders in hand they were quickly up to the walls. The French had the honour of getting over first, not having waited for the signal. The British seamen in different directions were not long after them, Commander Fellowes, of the Cruiser, being the first to mount. The Chinese fought bravely, and many of the British seamen fell. Among them was Captain Bate, of the Actaeon, who was killed while about to mount a scaling ladder. Captain Key with his brigade seizing a battery turned its guns upon the foe; and division after division having got over, swept the Chinese before them, till by nine o’clock the city was won. So large was the city that it took some days before it could be thoroughly occupied. Among those captured were Yeh himself and several other mandarins of rank. As a punishment for his conduct he was sent as a prisoner to Calcutta. The whole loss of the allies was under 130 men killed and wounded, the larger portion belonging to the naval brigade. After this the fleet proceeded to the Peiho, at the mouth of which stands the town of Taku, to which the emperor had despatched a new commissioner named Tau, to negotiate with Lord Elgin. As, however, Tau behaved exactly as Yeh had done, the English and French admirals sent a squadron to capture the forts which guard the entrance to the river. They had been of late greatly strengthened, and from the ditches and wide extent of mud spread before them, were truly formidable. The force consisted of the Cormorant, Commander Saumarez, the Nimrod, Slaney, several French vessels, and a number of the smaller British gunboats, Opossum, Bustard, Staunch. The two admirals going up on board theSlaney. The Cormorant leading, broke through a boom of great strength, passed across the river, and various vessels quickly taking up their position, opened their fire on the forts, which, though defended for some time, at length yielded, their garrisons taking to flight. A squadron of gunboats, with the English and French admirals on board, then made their way up to Tientsin, a large city midway between Pekin and the sea. The emperor, now fearing that his capital itself would be attacked, came to terms. The fleet, however, remained ready to compel him to keep to them, should he attempt to evade fulfilling his engagements. In the meantime a small squadron, consisting of the Retribution, Captain Barker, the Furious, Captain S. Osborn, the Cruiser, Commander Bythesea, the gunboat Lee, Lieutenant Jones, and surveying-vessel Dove, Commander Ward, made a voyage up the Yang’tse Kiang, 600 miles above Nankin, to a city of importance called Hang-keo. From the shallowness of the water the larger vessels frequently grounded, and on passing Nankin, then in possession of a formidable army of rebels, which attacked them, they had to fight their onward way. At length the Retribution could proceed no farther, but Osborn leading the rest reached Hang-keo in safety. On their way back the larger vessels again grounded, but being released by a flood, the whole succeeded in returning to Shanghai.

Sir Michael Seymour returning home, was succeeded by Admiral J. Hope, with his flag on board the Chesapeake. Besides six larger vessels, he had under his command a squadron of nine gunboats. Each boat was armed with two long guns and two howitzers, and before they went into action the admiral sent on board each from the Chesapeake an additional 32-pounder and an organised crew to work it. Those who knew the Chinese best were very sure, as the result proved, that the emperor did not intend to keep the terms of the treaty. Admiral Hope arrived off the Peiho on the 8th of June, and as soon as he attempted to ascend it for the purpose of proceeding to Pekin to announce the arrival of the British ambassador, he discovered that the forts had been greatly strengthened, and that obstructions of all sorts had been placed across the river. Strong booms had been carried from side to side, and iron stakes driven into the bottom at intervals, reaching within two feet of high-water mark. The Chinese having neglected to remove the obstructions, after the admirals had waited several days, Mr Bruce and the French ambassador having arrived, the admiral sent in to say that unless his demands were immediately complied with he should force his way. A force of blue-jackets and marines 700 strong were told off to storm the forts, and the admiral, shifting his flag to the Plover, led his squadron of gunboats, accompanied by those of the French, towards the forts. During the night Captain Wills with three boats had broken the first boom with barrels of gunpowder, and pushing on, was examining the inner one, when the moon rising revealed his position to the Chinese, who opened so warm a fire on him that he was compelled to retire. The plan proposed was to attack the works on the river side with the gunboats, and the batteries being silenced, to storm with the landing-party. The gunboats, as far as they were able, took up the position allotted to them, but from the shallowness of the water, the Starling and Banterer got aground. No sooner did they open fire than the Chinese began blazing away from a line of heavy guns, which, in a short time, played havoc among them. The Plover was almost knocked to pieces, and her commander killed, 30 of her crew being killed or wounded, and the admiral himself severely hurt. He, however, shifted his flag on board the Opossum, whose commander was shortly afterwards wounded, and her screw becoming fouled, she drifted down the stream. On this Admiral Hope went on board the Cormorant, and on her deck, lying in his cot, issued his directions till overcome by loss of blood. Captain Shadwell then took the command. The engagement continued with great fury on both sides, but the Lee and Haughty were both nearly destroyed. The tide having sunk several feet, the English guns produced less effect on the fort than at first. At the end of four hours, however, nearly all the Chinese guns on the left bank were silenced, though those on the right still continued their fire. It was determined, therefore, to storm the forts on that side, and late in the evening the force destined for that purpose was landed, led by Captains Shadwell and Vansittart and Colonel Lemon, of the marines, and supported by Commanders Commerell and Heath. The gallant Captain Tricault led a body of French, and the boats of an American man-of-war assisted in landing the men. Scarcely, however, had they jumped on shore, unable to obtain the slightest shelter, than the Chinese opened a tremendous fire on them with jingalls, rifles, and muskets, and every gun that could be brought to bear. In a few minutes numbers were hit, Captain Vansittart was mortally wounded, Captain Shadwell’s foot was smashed, and Colonel Lemon fell, severely hurt. The command now devolved on Commerell, who gallantly led forward his men; but two ditches and a wide extent of mud intervened between them and the fort, and so thickly did the shot rain down on them that, before they got twenty yards, 300 were killed or wounded, and they were compelled to retreat—many unfortunate fellows being suffocated in the mud. Of the numerous vessels which had run on shore, all were got off with the exception of the Cormorant, Plover, and Lee, which were knocked to pieces to prevent them falling into the hands of the Chinese. In this disastrous affair above 80 men had been killed and 350 wounded, many of whom died from their hurts.

The Chinese were not allowed, however, for any length of time to boast of their victory. The Peiho was again entered, the town of Pehtang was occupied and the Taku Forts again attacked from the sea and land. Though the army lost a good many men in the operations, not one on board the gunboats was killed. The booms across the river were broken through, the iron stakes drawn, and Admiral Hope pushing on in the Coromandelwith a squadron of gunboats, arrived before Tientsin, which yielded to the first summons.

After this the duties of the steamers consisted chiefly in conveying the heavy siege trains of baggage and provisions for the supply of the army in the neighbourhood of Pekin, when after his army had been thoroughly defeated, and at the moment that his city was about to be stormed, the emperor yielded to all the demands of the allies. The emperor had acted with great treachery in the negotiations for peace, imprisoning and torturing the English envoys and escort, so as a lesson to him and his people, his celebrated Summer Palace was burnt to the ground, thus showing them that had they thought fit Pekin itself might have been treated in the same manner.