Capture of the Peiho Forts
As there was nothing more to be done in these waters, the Admiral decided to leave for the northern part of the station, and on March 25, 1858, the Calcutta sailed from Hong-Kong, bound for the Gulf of Pichili. Lord Elgin had already sailed for that place, taking with him H.M.S. Pique, Furious, Nimrod, Cormorant, and Slaney. The north-east monsoon was blowing strong, and it took the old ship fifteen days to thrash up as far as the Rugged Islands, at the mouth of the Yangtze. The Admiral paid a short visit to Shanghae, and on his return we again put to sea, and after a tedious passage of ten days, during which we carried away our mainyard (see sketch below), we anchored off the Peiho river. The water in the gulf is so shallow that we had to anchor nine miles from land, which was scarcely visible from the deck. We found a large number of ships assembled here. Besides our own ships, there was a French squadron, several Americans, and a Russian. Lord Elgin was on board the Furious, and the French Admiral's flag was flying on the Audacieuse. The small craft, including gun-boats, the Coromandel, the Nimrod, and Cormorant, despatch-vessels, were anchored inside the bar, from
H.M.S. Calcutta in a Gale in The Gulf of Pichili.
AN ULTIMATUM DELIVERED.
which anchorage a fine view of the forts guarding the entrance to the river was obtained. These presented a formidable appearance, provided with heavy guns, and evidently well manned. Banners of many colours floated from the parapets, and it looked as if the Chinamen were well prepared to receive us.
From this time to the middle of May negotiations were carried on between the diplomats and the mandarins with a view to come to some conclusion satisfactory to both parties, but without success, and on the 19th it was known that we should have a fight.
The time had not been wasted on our side; the men had been regularly drilled, and landing-parties organised. On the evening of the 19th May the Admiral's arrangements were complete, and our boats with the landing-parties crossed the bar and went on board the Slaney gunboat. I had the good fortune to be in charge of the left wing of the storming-party. Another of our lieutenants was in command of the right wing, and Lieutenant Cator, our first lieutenant, was in charge of the boats.
The night before the battle we had a jovial party on board the Slaney to wish success to the undertaking. At daylight of the 20th all the gunboats were ready with steam up, and cleared for action. The Chinamen were also ready, and, it was reported, had sent a message off to say that if we were afraid they were not, and that if we did not begin they would. I can hardly credit it, because it was not our experience of their usual tactics. However, at nine o'clock Captain King-Hall landed in his galley with an interpreter, to give a final ultimatum to the head mandarin in command: if no answer was returned by ten o'clock we would open fire. What the ultimatum
CAPTURE OF THE PEIHO FORTS.
was about was no concern of ours - we didn't know and we didn't care; but we passed an anxious hour, fearing they might give in at the last moment. Ten o'clock came, however, without any sign, so our Admiral made the signal to begin.
Sir Michael Seymour and the French Commander-in-Chief hoisted their flags together on board the Slaney, and the boats with the landing-parties were sent to another gunboat, the Firm, which vessel towed us into action.
The Chinamen had stretched a boom across the mouth of the river to keep hostile vessels from entering. This boom was composed of spars, chains, and hawsers, and was sufficiently strong to keep out boats or junks, but not a steam vessel going at high speed. The Cormorant, Commander Saumarez, led the way in gallant style, snapping the chains like thread. The forts opened fire on her as she passed the barrier; but not a shot was fired in reply till the Admiral made the signal to " engage," when each vessel hoisted a yellow flag at the mast-head, and the action commenced.
The Cormorant was followed by a French gunboat, then by one of ours, then another Frenchman, and so on alternately. As each vessel passed the narrows where the boom had been she received a heavy fire, as the Chinamen had concentrated their guns on that spot, and did not seem to be able to fire in any other direction. From our position in the boats, towing astern, we had a good view of the proceedings. Although exposed to the enemy's fire, we could not return it, and had only to look on till our turn came. It was a lovely sight, the little gunboats making excellent practice, bursting their shells over the parapets
and in the embrasures. The Chinamen stuck to their guns well, and returned the fire with spirit, hulling each vessel repeatedly as she entered the river; but once inside, they turned their attention to the next.
The Firm got her share as she passed, and so did we in the boats; indeed it looked as though every vessel must be sunk, having to run the gantlet of heavy earth-batteries firing at her from both sides of the river at close range. And so they would have been if the Chinamen had kept their guns trained on
Attack oz the Peiho Forts
the ships; but they seem to have had no notion of being attacked in flank and rear, and were only prepared for an enemy in front, probably under the belief that. no ship could pass the boom at the river's mouth.
After a while the fire from the forts slackened, as well it might under the terrible hail which was poured upon them, and in an hour and fifty minutes they were completely silenced. The boats were then ordered to land the storming-parties. We were put
CAPTURE OF THE PEIHO FORTS.
ashore in a paddy-field, where we sank up to our knees in mud, and having formed our men in as good order as we could, we rushed for the forts. Fortunately for us, the Chinamen no sooner saw us coming than they bolted, the mandarins leading the way on horseback. The head mandarin was struck by a bullet and fell off his horse, and before we could come up to him to take him prisoner he drew his sword and cut his throat from ear to ear, and fell back dead in the mud. In a very few minutes from the time of landing the forts were in our possession, and the English and French flags were floating from the parapets.
The wisdom of Sir Michael Seymour's plan of attacking the forts at low water was most apparent, for in the event of any ship getting ashore, she might float off with the rising tide, whereas to get ashore at the top of high water in the face of an enemy and a falling tide would most certainly lead to disaster. Our work was by no means concluded with the capture of the forts - in fact, it had only commenced. We had to set to work dismounting guns and levelling the parapets, with the thermometer 100° in the shade. Amongst the guns were some of very beautiful design and large calibre. Some of them had inscriptions, such as "Barbarian destroyer" and other facetious mottoes: these, we were told, had been sent down from Pekin for our especial benefit.
We had not been long at work when a terrific explosion took place in the fort next to ours : the magazine had been blown up, killing and wounding some thirty-four Frenchmen. Whether this was caused by accident or, more likely, by a train having
A CURIOUS CASUALTY.
been laid and a fuse left burning by the Chinese, can never be known. These explosions are of frequent occurrence in Chinese warfare, owing to the careless way they leave powder lying about. In consequence of this, I was ordered to flood the magazine in our fort. Having entered the place, I found several large chatties more or less full of powder. We filled these to the brim with water, and having thus destroyed the powder as far as we could, I was leaving the magazine with my men when we met the carpenter of the Fury coming along and swinging a large hammer. He entered the magazine, and immediately there was a fearful explosion, wrecking the building and blowing the man to pieces. It is probable that the poor fellow struck one of the chatties with his hammer, thus causing a spark, and that the water had not had time to soak through the powder; but it may have been caused by a train laid by the Chinese.
I lost one of my men in a very curious way whilst storming the fort. We were running across the mud-flats from the boats in somewhat irregular fashion, and one was a good way ahead of the party, when, happening to see a Chinese tent, he went in, and finding a dead Chinaman inside, the silly fellow put on the dead man's hat and cloak, and coming out of the tent continued his course, when a sergeant of marines, seeing what he took to be a Chinese soldier running away, shot him dead. Finding it to be one of my men, I sent his body down to the boat. The boat-keeper was away, having joined in the attack with his shipmates. On his return one of the boat's crew called his attention to a bundle in the bottom of the boat covered over with
CAPTURE OF THE PEIHO FORTS.
an old bread-bag. "What's that, Bill?" says he. " Why," said the other, lifting up the corner of the bag and exposing the face of the corpse, " blowed if it ain't my poor cousin! "
After a very hard day's work dismantling the forts and spiking the guns we were glad of a rest. The men were billeted in the Chinamen's tents, which were left standing complete with cooking utensils and plenty of rice. The head mandarin's house made an excellent officers' quarters. Sentries were posted, and we made all snug for the night.
The next two days were devoted to embarking the guns preparatory to sending them to England: many of them were of brass, and of great value. The forts were then blown up, and I was sent up the river to Tientzin with the Calcutta's launch and pinnace, leaving a party to complete the destruction of the forts and shipment of the guns. The Peiho river is a dirty, muddy stream, very tortuous, and the current runs strong. We were towed up by the Coromandel; but owing to the current and the sharp bends our progress was slow, added to which the river was blocked with junks, so we had to cut their cables and send them adrift. Several gunboats, both English and French, followed in our wake; but as the latter kept constantly getting ashore, I was sent in the launch to their assistance. No sooner was one afloat than another got ashore, and we had to lay out their anchors and heave them off; so it is not surprising that it took us several days to reach Tientzin, a distance of sixty miles.
Arrived at Tientzin, I was ordered down again to help another French gunboat in distress. Having got her afloat, we had reached within a mile or so of the
THE BLUEJACKET AS CONNOISSEUR.
city when we came across another Frenchman, the Avalanche, high and dry, with the French Admiral's flag flying on board her. We promptly went to her assistance, and at length hove her off, and proceeded with both vessels to Tientzin. The French Admiral most kindly asked me to dine with him, but as I had no clothes but what I stood up in, I declined; whereupon the gallant old Frenchman lowered down a basket of good things into the boat, including some wine for the men - a very acceptable change to our daily fare of salt pork, biscuit, and rum. I am afraid the bluejackets did not half appreciate the vin ordinaire, for I heard one of them remark, " What do you call this stuff, Bill?" " Why, they calls it port, I believe; but I'm d----d if I wouldn't sooner have starboard! "
The city of Tientzin, like the generality of Chinese towns, is a filthy place surrounded by a moat. The inhabitants were greatly astonished at the barbarian fire-ships, the first they had ever seen. The Coromandel, being the only paddle-wheel steamer, attracted much attention.
On our arrival the people sent to warn us off; but as no attention was paid to this request, they pretended to believe we had come to trade, and wished to know what description of goods we had aboard. It is reported that Sir Michael's reply was, " Hardware." At all events, as soon as it was known that we required provisions, they were ready to do business, and we were quickly supplied with bullocks, sheep, fowls, fruit, vegetables, and ice in abundance. They swam off to the boats and exchanged baskets of fruit for ship's biscuits.
We soon settled down to the quiet monotony of
CAPTURE OF THE PEIHO FORTS.
boat life, to which we had so long been accustomed in the Canton river, but without the excitement, as there was no more fighting to be done. The sun was so hot during the day that it was dangerous to move about, and even sitting quietly in the boat under double awnings was almost unbearable. The thermometer stood at 110° Fahrenheit in the deck cabin of the Coromandel. Under these circumstances we seldom moved, unless there was work to be done, before 5 P.M., when we sometimes took a stroll with a gun to shoot pigeons, which abounded in the neighbourhood. The country was not very settled, and we were occasionally mobbed and once or twice stoned; but, as a rule, the people took no notice of us.
Lord Elgin and his Staff were established in a josshouse close to the landing-place.
One morning after my usual dip in the river I was sent to assist a French gunboat, the Dragonne, which we found high and dry. Having hauled her off, we proceeded up the river till night, when she anchored, as it was pitch-dark. At 11 P.M. the French captain asked me if I could pilot his ship up the river to Tientzin, and on my agreeing to do so, he got under weigh. The night was dark as pitch, but by climbing up the rigging I could just make out the windings of the river, and we arrived at our destination at 3 A.M. without accident. This sort of thing was of frequent occurrence, but we rather liked it, as it gave us some occupation. Fortunately I had for a messmate a charming companion, N. Bowden-Smith, so the time passed pleasantly. Smith was a mate at that time, and I was acting lieutenant, but by a turn of the wheel of fortune he has since gone ahead.
We had every variety of weather during our long
A LONG SPELL IN THE RIVER.
spell in the river. One night it rained heavily, wetting us to the skin; another time it blew a gale of wind, and we were half blinded and suffocated by dust: but we lived well, and had a plentiful supply of ducks and fowls. A pretty little bantam hen which I had looted out of a joss-house sat on her eggs in a cigar-box in the stern sheets of the launch, and there remained till she hatched out her family.
During the first part of our stay we were much annoyed by dogs, which kept up such a chorus that we could not sleep; but I had an air-gun, and used it with such beneficial effect that during the latter part we were not molested, and perfect silence reigned.
One day there was a disturbance ashore, and some Chinamen came off with broken heads to complain of my boat's crew. I believe they were guiltless on this occasion, but as there had evidently been some misunderstanding somewhere, I was sent back to the ship in the pinnace to change the crew. We had a very pleasant trip, shooting our way down, and reached the forts at the mouth - sixty miles in two days - without accident, beyond striking on a sunken rock, on which the boat hung; and as she would not come off, we all jumped overboard, when she floated : we then had another ten miles to reach the ship outside the bar. Having changed my crew, I returned to Tientzin.
On the 26th June Lord Elgin arranged to meet the Chinese Commissioners to sign a Treaty of Peace. Several officers came up from the fleet to be present on the occasion. Having donned our full uniforms, we joined the procession, his Excellency Lord Elgin leading the way in a sedan-chair, followed by the Admiral with his Staff and the rest of the officers.
CAPTURE OF THE PEIHO FORTS.
The ship's band and marines accompanied us, and everything was done to make the ceremony as imposing as possible. On arriving at a joss-house, Lord Elgin was received with a guard of honour and a burst of Chinese music. We were shown into a room illuminated with Chinese lanterns. Three tables were arranged side by side. Lord Elgin took his seat in the centre, the Admiral and the highest mandarin on the right, the second highest mandarin on the left. These two officials were said to be the highest in the empire, and wore the pink opaque button, denoting their rank.
The ceremony occupied a very short time, after which tea and cakes were handed round; the band struck up "God save. the Queen!" and the treaty of peace with China was concluded. How it was shamefully broken the following year, when our poor fellows were so roughly handled at the Peiho Forts, is a matter of history, and is no part of this narrative. We left Tientzin, re-embarked on board our respective ships, and sailed for Nagasaki, in Japan, where Lord Elgin presented the Tycoon with a beautiful steam yacht from her Majesty Queen Victoria.
After a most delightful stay at this beautiful place, we left for Hong-Kong; and soon afterwards the Calcutta sailed for England, where we arrived without further adventure after an absence of three years and nine months. Before leaving the station the English merchants presented Sir Michael Seymour with a magnificent service of gold plate in recognition of his eminent services - a compliment which was appreciated by all who had the honour of serving under his flag, for never was a commander-in-chief more respected and beloved than our gallant and courteous Admiral.
At Singapore we shipped a lot of parrots for passage home. Most of the birds died before we reached England, but one of the survivors, belonging to my servant, an old marine, contracted some very bad language. Old "Forty-eight," as the marine was called, being desirous of curing his bird of this bad habit, took him into the parson's cabin (" Forty-eight "was also the parson's servant). Next morning the parson saw the bird and said, "Good morning, pretty Polly!" "Go to the devil!" said the parrot. The parson sent for "Forty-eight," and asked him what he meant by bringing such a foul-mouthed bird into his cabin. "Why, to learn him some good discourse, to be sure," said "Forty-eight." The last I saw of poor old "Forty-eight" he was scudding along on the crest of the waves in his coffin! The poor old fellow died at sea, and being a great favourite on board, he was put into a coffin, instead of, as by usual custom, being sewn up in his hammock and committed to the deep. The coffin was well ballasted with shot, and holes were bored in it to let the water in; but notwithstanding these precautions it floated, and when last seen was making good weather of it ; but I expect it struck soundings in time.
Whilst we were at St Helena, a party of us rode to Longwood to see Napoleon's grave. The body had lately been removed to France, but a guard of French soldiers remained. We shipped some of the poor fellows, who were suffering from dysentery, and a day or two afterwards one of them was reported to be dying. He asked if he might smoke his pipe in his hammock, a request that was readily granted. The band played the Marseillaise, the pipe was finished, and the gallant soldier lay back in his hammock, dead.
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