Jump to content

The Storming Of The Taku Forts


Recommended Posts

These lines from a modern ballad put very clearly a truth that is too often forgotten. Victories are remembered and commemorated by medals and names inscribed in letters of gold on our regimental colours’ but people do not talk about defeats. Yet when brave men fail against desperate odds, the story of their gallant efforts to carry their flag to victory is quite as well worth the telling and the remembering as if the chance of war had given them the converted prize of success.

So it is that among the battles of the century that should not be forgotten we count the one solitary defeat that English sailors or soldiers ever suffered at the hands of the Chinese Admiral, Hope’s failure to force the entrance of the Pei-ho River at the Taku Forts on June 25th 1859: a failure amply improved by the gallant storming of the same forts in the following year.

Taku is a town near the mouth of the Pei-ho, which flowing between low, muddy banks, runs into the Gulf of Pe-cho-li. Thirty-four miles higher up the river is Tien-tsin, built at the junction of the Pei-ho with the Greand Canal. It is the port of Pekin, and a busy and prosperous place. Pekin, the capital, is some eighty miles still further inland. In the year 1858 the French and English had forced their way to Tien-tsin, passing the forts near Taku at the river mouth with but little difficulty, for the works were badly armed and held by an irresolute garrison which made but a poor defence.

When Tien-tsin was occupied, the Chinese asked for peace, and a treaty was signed there containing among other stipulations, an agreement that the envoys of England and France were to be received at Pekin within a year, and that the treaty was to be solemnly ratified there. Now the Chinese, as soon as the allies withdrew from Tien-tsin, began to regret having consented to allow the foreign ambassadors to enter their capital, and endeavoured to have it arranged that the treaty should be ratified elsewhere. But England and France insisted on the original agreement being carried out, and when the envoys of the two countries arrived off the mouth of the Pei-ho in June 1859, and announced their intention of proceeding up the river to Pekin, an English fleet under the command of Rear-Admiral Hope escorted them.

It was found that not only had the forts at the river mouth, which had so easily been silenced the year before, been put into a state of repair, but also the river was blocked against anything larger than rowing boats by a series of strong barriers. The admiral was informed that these had been placed on the river to keep out pirates and it was promised that they should be removed; but so from keeping this promise, the local mandarins set to work to strengthen the defences of the river. On June 21st, the admiral sent the Chinese commander a letter warning him that if the obstacles were not cleared out of the channel of the Pei-ho by the evening of the 24th, he would remove them by force.

The three days grace thus given to the Chinese he employed in preparations to make good his warning message. He had several powerful ships in his squadron, but none of these could take a direct part in the coming fight, for the entrance to the Pei-ho is obstructed by a wide stretch of shallows, the depth of water on the bar being only two feet at low water, and hardly more than eleven at high tide; and this only in a narrow channel scoured out by the river. Thus, for the actual on the forts, he had to rely on the gunboats of his fleet, a number of small wooden steamers of light draft built during the Crimean war for service in the shallow waters of the Baltic and Black Seas. The gunboats with which Admiral hope crossed the bar and anchored below the forts on the 23rd were the following: -

Plover, Banterer, forester, Haughty, Janus, Kestrel, Le, Opossum, Starling each of four guns; Nimrod and Cororant , each of six guns.

Each had a crew of about fifty or sixty officers and men, so that the eleven little steamers brought forty-eight guns 500 men into action. The heavier the ship outside the bar were to send in 500 or 600 more men, marines and blue-jackets it steam launches, boats and junks; this force being intended to be used as a landing party when the fire of the forts had been silenced. No one expected that this would prove a difficult business.

It was true that there was a big fort on the south side, with mud ramparts nearly half a mile long, and heavy towers behind them, and another large fort on the north bank, placed so as to sweep the band of the river; but on all previous occasions the Chinese gunners had made very bad practice with their guns, and had soon been driven from them by the fire of English ships; and, besides, it was not supposed that there were any large number of guns in position on the forts, for very few embrasures had been cut in the mud walls, so far as anyone could see.

On the evening of the 24th, no answer having been received from the shore, it was announced that the attack would be made next day, and after dark the admiral sent in one of his officers, Captain Willes (now Admiral Sir George Willes, G.C.B.), to examine the obstacles in the river and see what he could do to remove them. Three armed boats, provided with explosives, accompanied Willes. Rowing up quietly under cover of the darkness the boats came first to a row of iron stakes, each topped with a sharp spike and supported on a tripod base, so that they were just in the proper position to pierce the bottom of a ship coming up the river at high water.

This first barrier was just opposite the low end of the South Fort. Passing cautiously between two of the spikes, the daring explorers rowed up the river for a quarter of a mile, when they came to a second barrier, formed by a heavy cable of cocoa fibre and two chain cables stretched across the channel, twelve feet apart, and supported at every thirty feet by a floating boom securely anchored up and down stream. Two of the boats were left to a fix mine under the middle if this floating barrier, while Willes pushed on further into the darkness with the third. Just above the bend of the river he came to a third barrier, formed of two huge rafts, moored as to leave only a narrow zigzag channel in mid stream, this passage being still further secured with iron stakes.

Willes got out on one of the rafts and, crawling on hands and knees, examined it carefully, and decided that mere ramming with a gunboat’s prow would not be enough to displace it. As he crouched on the raft he could see the Chinese sentries on the riverbank, but was, happily, unseen by them. Returning to his boat, he dropped down to the second barrier. The mine was ready, and having lighted its fuse the boats pulled down the stream to the flotilla. The explosion revealed their presence to the Chinese, and a couple of harmless cannon shots were fired at them from the South Fort. The plucky little expedition had been a complete success; but before morning the Chinese had repaired the gap blown by the mine in the floating boom.

Early on Saturday June 25th, the gunboat flotilla cleared for action. Admiral Hope’s orders were that nine of the ships should anchor close to the first barrier and bring their guns to bear on the forts, while the two others broke through the barriers and cleared the way for a further advance. High water was at 11.30 am, and it was expected that all would be in position by that time; but the difficulty of working so many ships in a narrow channel, not more than 200 yards wide, with a strong current and with mud banks covered by shallow water on each side, was so great that it was not till after one that the ships had anchored, and even then two of them, the Banterer and the Starling, were stuck fast on the mud in positions from which it was not easy to get their guns to bear.

All this time the forts had not shown the least sign of life. Their embrasures were closed; a few black flags flew on the upper works, but not a soul was to be seen on the mud ramparts. It was a bright summer day, blazing hot, with a cloudless sky of deep blue overhead, and all round the little flotilla the dark waters of the river came swirling down on the ebb, so that already patches of yellow mud were showing here and there under the rush-covered banks.

The Plover, with all steam up and the admiral on board, was close to the first barrier of iron spikes, and the Opossum, now commanded by Captain Willes, lay close by her, the special task of this ship being to deal with this first obstacle. At a signal from the admiral the Opossum hitched a cable round one of the iron stakes, and, passing it over one of her winches, reversed her engines and tried thus to tear the stake out of the river. But it was so well fixed that it was not until half-past two, after half-an-hour of anxious work, that the obstacle gave way.

The admiral in the Plover now steamed through the gap thus formed followed by the Opossum. As the two little ships approached the floating barrier beyond, a flash from the long rampart on the left, the boom of a heavy gun, the whistle of a round shot in the air, warned them that the Chinese meant to resist.

Along the walls of the forts on either side banners were hoisted on every flag pole, embrasures were opened, guns run out, and from some six hundred yards of the rampart on the left, and from the North Fort out in front, the Chinese artillery, rapidly served and well laid, poured a storm of shot upon the leading ships.

Promptly came the English answer. Admiral Hope’s signal, “Engage the enemy,” flew from the masthead of the Plover; her four guns opened, three of them on the big fort away to the left, not more than two hundred yards off, the other replying to the North Fort, while the guns of the rest of the flotilla took up the loud chorus.

It was a fight at close quarters, and men who knew their business worked the English guns; but the Chinese fire, instead of slackening, seemed to grow heavier every minute. If a gun was silenced, if a shell burst in an embrasure and swept away all within reach of its explosion, another gun was promptly placed in battery, another band daring gunners took the places of the slain. They fired so steadily and aimed so truly, that to this day many hold that they had trained European artillerymen helping them. The iron storm of which they were exposed began to tell upon the two leading ships. The Plover had thirty-one out of her crew of forty killed or wounded in the first half-hour. Her commander, Lieutenant Rason, was literally cut in two by a round shot; the admiral was wounded in the thigh, but refused to leave the deck; and Captain McKenna, who was attached to his staff, was killed at his side. Nine unwounded men only were left on board, but they, with the help of some of their wounded comrades, kept two of the guns in action, though they fought on a deck slippery with blood, and with the bulwarks, boats, and spars of their ship cut to pieces by the Chinese shot.

It was about this time that a boat flying the stars and stripes came pulling in from an American cruiser that lay outside the bar. Commodore Tatnall of the United States navy was on board, and he had come to the Plover, regardless of the Chinese fire, to offer some help to the English Admiral. As a midshipman he had fought against the British in the war of 1812, but, as the old sailor said to admiral Hope, “blood is thicker than water”; and though, as a neutral, he could not join in the attack, he offered to send in his steam launch and help to convey the wounded out of danger, an offer that was gratefully accepted. When he bade good day to the admiral and went back to his boat, he had to wait a little for his men. They came aft, looking hot and with the black marks of powder on there hands and faces. “What have you been doing, you rascals?” Said Tatnall. “Don’t you know we’re neutrals?” “Beg pardon, sir,” said the spokesman of the party. “but they were a bit short-handed with the bow-gun, and we thought it no harm to give them a hand while we were waiting.” The incident is remembered in the navy to this day as a good deed done for the old country by Brother Jonathan.

At three o’clock Admiral Hope ordered the Plover, now almost disabled, to drop down the river to a safer station, and transferred his flag to the Opossum, the Lee and the Haughty steaming up to the place left vacant in the front of the fight. A few minutes more, and a round shot crashed through the Opossum’s rigging close to the admiral, knocking him down and breaking three of his ribs; but though suffering severely the brave commander made light of his injuries, a bandage was adjusted round his chest, and seated on the deck of the gunboat he still kept the command, and later on even insisted on being lifted into its barge in order to visit and encourage the crews of the Haughty and the Lee.

“Opossum, ahoy!” hailed an officer from the Haughty. “Your stern is on fire.”

“Cant help it,” shouted back her commander. “Can’t spare men to put it out. Have only enough to keep our guns going.” But, in her turn, the Opossum had to give up the fight for a while and drop down to the first barrier. The Lee and the Haughty now bore the brunt of the fight, and suffered severely. Everything that could be smashed on their decks was knocked to pieces, and the Lee was hit badly in several places at and below the water line. Woods, her boatswain, informed her commander, Lieutenant Jones, that unless the shot-holes could be plugged she would sink, as her pumps and donkey engine could not get the water out as fast as it came in. “Well, then, we must sink,” said the lieutenant; “you cant get at the worst of the holes from inside, and I’m not going to order a man to go over the side with the tide running down like this, and our propeller going.” But Woods replied by promptly volunteering to go over the side and see what he could do. His commander warned him that the screw must be kept going, or the ship would drift out of her place-so, besides the chance of drowning, he would risk being killed by the propeller blades; but Woods, remarking that the chance of being killed was much of a much ness anywhere just then, went over the side, with a line round his waits, and a supply of shot-plugs and rags in his hands, and, diving again and again, and more than once sweeping down with the tide under the stern and rising just clear of the wash of the screw, he successfully plugged several shot-holes. But for that the ship continued to fill, and before long had to give up her place in the fight and run aground to prevent her sinking.

The Cormorant replaced the Lee, the admiral by his own request, being seated in a chair on her deck. He had already once fainted, and the doctors now persuaded him to allow them to send him to the hospital ship on the bar, and Captain Shadwell, the next senior officer, took the command of the attack. At half-past five, when the battle had lasted three hours, the Kestrel sank at her anchors. Of the eleven gunboats, six were disabled or put out of action. But the fire of the Chinese batteries was slackening, and at 6.30, after a hurried council of war on board the Cormorant, it was resolved to bring in the marines and sailors who had been waiting in boats and junks inside the bar to act as a landing party, and try to carry the South Fort by a bold rush.

It was after seven, and very little daylight was left for the daring attempt, when the boats were towed in by the Opossum and the Toey ‘Wan, a little Chinese steamer. Captain Shadwell took command of the landing party, which was made up of blue jackets under Captain Vansittart, and Commanders Heath and Commerell, R.N. Sixty French sailors, under Commander Tricault, of the French frigate Duhalya, the marines under Colonel Lemon, and a party of sappers with scaling ladders, under Major Forbes, R.E.

As the boats pulled into the shore, the fire from the North Fort had ceased, and only an occasional shot was fired from the long rampart of the South fort. The landing place was five hundred yards in front of the right bastion of this fort. The tide had fallen so far that it was not possible to get any nearer, and the column had to make its way across these five hundred yards of mud covered with weeds and cut up with ditches and pools, the ground being so soft in places that the men sank to their waists in it. And as the first boat’s crew landed on this mud bank, suddenly, to the surprise of everyone, the whole front of the South Fort burst into flame.

The silence of its guns was only a clever ruse, to lure the British to a closer attack. Now every gun opened fire again, while Chinese, regardless of the covering fire from the gunboats, crowded on to the crest of the rampart, and opened fire with small arms upon the landing party. As they struggled onwards to the river bank round shot and grape, balls from swivels and muskets, rockets, and even arrows, fell among them in showers. Captain Shadwell was one of the first to be wounded; Vansittart fell, with one leg shattered by a ball; dead and wounded men lay on all sides, and the wounded had to be carried back to the boats to save them from being smothered in the mud.

Three broad ditches lay between the landing place and the fort. Not 150 men reached the second of these and only fifty the third that lay just below the rampart. Several of these gallant bands were officers-Triacault, the Frenchman, Commerell and Heath, Parke and Hawkey of the Marines, and Major Forbes of the Engineers. Their cartridges were nearly all wet and useless, and they had only one scaling ladder. It was reared against the rampart, and ten men were climbing up it, when a volley from above killed three and wounded five of them, and then the ladder was thrown and broken.

There was no help for it but to retire.

It was now dark, but the Chinese burnt flaring blue lights and sent up rockets and fireballs, and by their light fired on their retiring enemies. Sixty-eight men were killed and nearly 300 wounded, in the advance and retreat of the landing party. Several of the boats had been sunk, and many of the men had to wait up to their waists, and even their necks, in water, on the river’s brink, till they could be taken off.

It was 1 a.m. before Commanders Heath and Commerell, the two last of the party, re-embarked. Then the gunboats slipped down to the bar, a party being sent in next day to blow upon or burn those of the grounded ships that could not be got off.

So ended the disastrous battle on the Pei-ho. Next year an allied force of British and French troops, under General Sir Hope Grant and General de Montauban, taught the Chinese that, notwithstanding their victory over Admiral Hope’s little gunboats, they were in no position to cope with the great Powers of the West. While the allied fleets watched the entrance of the river, 11,000 British and Indian troops and between 6,000 and 7,000 Frenchmen were landed at Peh-tang, some eight miles north of Taku. A wide expanse of marshes separated Peh-tang from the forts which were to be the first object of the allied operations; but these obstacles were turned by a march inland, in which the allies defeated the Chinese field-army at Sin-ho, on August 12th, and coming down the north bank of the Pei-ho, seized the walled town of Tang-ku, three miles above the forts, on the 14th.

These forts were four in number. There were, first, the North and South forts, which Admiral Hope had attacked the year before, and a little higher up the river there were two others, known as the small North fort and the small South Fort. They stood on opposite banks of the river, and did embattled walls of sun-dried mud enclose both alike-square structures, a few heavier guns being placed on a high platform in the centre, and the whole being surrounded with a double ditch, full of water, too deep to ford. Between the inner ditch and the rampart were broad belts of sharpened bamboo spikes, about fifteen feet wide. The swampy nature of the country rendered the approach to the forts difficult for artillery.

At first there was a difference of opinion between the two generals as to how the forts were to be attacked. It was agreed that as they were built to protect the river mouth, and their strongest fronts were toward the sea, they should be assailed from the landside; but General de Montauban wanted to cross-river, and take the great South Fort first of all. Sir Hope Grant, however, insisted that a much better plan would be to begin with the small North Fort, and predicted confidently that if it were taken all the other forts would be quickly surrendered, as each of them in turn could bring it’s fire to bear upon those still in the hands of the Chinese. Happily, this plan was adopted, though the French General was so dissatisfied with it that he only sent a few hundred men to help in the attack of the fort, and came to look on him, without even wearing his sword, as if he wished to disclaim all part in the business.

The swamps so narrowed the available ground in front of the small North Fort that the attacking force was limited to 2,500 English and some 400 French. On the evening of the 20th of August, Forty-four guns and three 8-inches mortars had been placed in battery before the fort.

At five a.m. on the 21st they began the bombardment, which was to prepare the way for the storming party. The English fire soon began to silence the Chinese guns, and about an hour after the bombardment began, a shell from the mortar battery penetrated into one of the magazines of the fort. It blew up with a deafening explosion, and so dense was the cloud of smoke that settled down upon the scene of the disaster, so utterly silent was every Chinese gun in the work, that at first it seemed as if the fort had ceased to exist; but as the smoke cleared the Chinese bravely reopened fire.

Down at the mouth of the river, Admiral Hope’s ships were once more engaging the two outer forts; but this was done merely to keep their garrisons well occupied, and to prevent them sending help to the smaller fort. Here, too, fortune helped the British, and one of Hope’s shells blew up a magazine in the South Fort, doing a fearful amount of damage to its defenders.

Soon after six o’clock the storming column was ordered to advance against the small north Fort, the English force being mainly composed of the 44th and 67th regiments. In front of the column a party of marines carried a pontoon bridge for crossing the ditches; but as they approached the walls they were met with such a heavy fire of musketry that the attempt to bring up the pontoons was abandoned. Fifteen of the men carrying them fell under a single volley.

The French had adopted a simpler plan. They had bamboo ladders, which were carried for them by Chinese coolies. Heedless of the fire of their own countrymen, the coolies laid the ladders across the ditches, and, standing up to their necks in water, supported them while the Frenchmen scrambled across. “These poor coolies behaved gallantly,” wrote Sir Hope Grant in his journal, “and though some of them were shot down, they never flinched in the least.” The fact is, that a Chinaman does not seem to know what the fear of death is; and while these men were exposing their lives for a few pence, their countrymen on the ramparts were just as recklessly standing up on the very crest of the wall in order to get a better shot at the stormers.

The English crossed the ditches, partly by swimming and struggling through the muddy water, partly by the French ladders, partly over a drawbridge which Major Anson of the Staff very gallantly brought into use by crossing the ditch almost alone, and cutting through with his sword the ropes that held it up.

The stormers were now crowded together between the inner ditch and the rampart. The Chinese muskets, but they dropped cannon shot, big stones, explosive grenades, jars of lime, and stifling stinkpots on to their heads. The scaling ladders were replaced against the rampart, but the Chinese caught them and pulled them into the fort, or threw them down, spearing and shooting all who mounted them.

Men and officers tried to scramble in where the bombardment had broken down the embrasures for the guns. One brave Frenchman reached the top of the wall, fired his rifle at the Chinese, and took another, which was handled up to him and fired it, and then fell speared through the face.

Another, pickaxe in hand tried to break down the top of the wall. He was shot dead, but as he fell Lieutenant Burslm, of the 67th, seized his pick and went on with the work.

He and his comrade-Lieutenant Rogers, of the same regiment (now Major-General Roger, V.C.)-Climbed into a embrasure, only to be thrown out; but Rogers got in through another, helped up by Lieutenant Lenon, who made a stepping place for him by driving the point of his sword well into the mud wall, and holding up the hilt. Rogers helped up Lenon and the others near at hand, and at the same time Fauchard, a drummer of the French storming party, got in close by.

Behind him came the standard bearer of his regiment (the 102nd of the Line), and as the Chinese gave way there was a race between the Frenchman and Young Lieutenant Chaplin (now Major-General Chaplin, V.C.), who carried the colours of the 67th, to see who should first get a standard fixed on the top of the fort. Chaplin, though he was wounded in three places, won this gallant race, and planted the British flag on the high central battery of the fort.

“The poor Chinese now had a sad time of it,” writes Sir Hope Grant. “They had fought desperately, and with great bravery, few of them apparently having attempted to escape. Indeed, they could hardly have affected their retreat by the other side of the fort. The wall was very high, and the ground below bristled with innumerable sharp bamboo stakes. Then intervened a broad ditch, another row of stakes, and finally another ditch. The only regular exit-the gate-was barred by us. Numbers were killed, and I saw three poor wretches impaled upon the stakes, and yet a considerable number succeeded in getting off. The fort presented a terrible appearance of devastation, and was filled with the dead and dying. The explosion of the magazine had ruined of the magazine had ruined a large portion of the interior. Many of the guns were dismounted, and the parapets battered to pieces.”

The Chinese lost 400 men out of a garrison of 500. The English loss was 21 killed and 184 wounded. The loss would have been heavier if the Chinese had had better cartridges. Thus, for instance, Sir Robert Napier (afterwards Lord Napier of Magdala), who led the advance of the storming column, was hit in five places by bullets, but none of them had force enough to do more than inflict a bruise.

The capture of the remaining forts was an easy matter. The smaller South Fort, only 400 yards from the North Fort, and commanded by its guns, was at once abandoned by the Chinese, and white flags were hoisted on the two larger forts; but on the great North Fort being summoned to surrender the garrison sent back a refusal. The guns of the captured fort of turned on it; other guns were brought up from the English batteries, and the attack was about to be begun by a bombardment, when General Collineau, of the French army, noticing that there was no one on the rampart nearest him, marched forward rapidly with 600 men, sent a lot of them in through a big embrasure, opened a gate, and took the fort without firing a shot. About 2,000 prisoners were taken here, and, to their great delight, they were simply disarmed and told to go home. They evidentially expected to be massacred. In the fort some of the guns taken from the ships lost in the fight of June 25th 1859.

In the afternoon the fort on the south bank was summoned to surrender, and, after some parleying, Hang-Foo, the officer in command agreed to hand it over the next day. Early on the 22nd Sir Robert Napier took possession to the southern forts, in which he found no less than 600 guns, large and small.

The same day Admiral Hope’s gunboats steamed up the river, and cleared away the barriers below which the fierce fight of the year before he raged so long, and thus the defeat on the Pei-ho was avenged and the way to Tien-tsin and Pekin was opened.

A few weeks later, the armies of England and France marched in triumph into the imperial city.

Battles of the Nineteenth Century . Pages 27, By Archibald Forbes

Someone was asking about mid 19th century battles that involved rivers and the use of boats in similar ways to what happened to the AngloSikh Wars, so here's a relatively detailed account of one that took place around that time.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.
Note: Your post will require moderator approval before it will be visible.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

  • Create New...