Disaster in the Peiho : Taku Forts 1859.
Not surprisingly, the British authorities have never awarded medals and clasps for defeats. Some battles rewarded with medals have been “near run things” – like Albuhera, Chilianwala and Ahmed Khel to name but three – but on the whole they naturally choose to reward and commemorate the triumphs of British arms, not the failures. During the China Wars of 1856-60, usually divided into two phases, 1856-58 and 1860, a number of successful actions, naval and military were eventually commemorated by clasps to the China Medal. These were Fatshan 1857, for the ferocious naval action near Canton, Canton 1857, for the capture of the city, Pekin 1860 for the occupation of the Chinese capital and two clasps for actions against the same defences – Taku Forts 1858 and Taku Forts 1860.
Medals for the successful attacks on the Taku Forts in 1858 and 1860. No clasp for 1859!
The fact that there were two clasps for attacks on the same forts over the space of two years gives some idea of how important and powerful they were, though both clearly fell to British and French assaults in the end. But in fact there was a third attack on the Taku Forts during the period of the Second China War, and this, in 1859, was a complete disaster.
The Taku (or Dagu) Forts lie near the town of that name at the mouth of the Peiho (Beihe) River and were vitally important, guarding the river approach to the major city of Tientsin (Tianjin) and, more importantly, the main route via the Grand Canal to the Manchu capital, Peking (Beijing). Attacked on 20th May 1858 by a combined Anglo-French force under Admiral Sir Michael Seymour, which included a powerful gunboat squadron and landed 1200 soldiers, sailors and marines, the forts had been easily overwhelmed, their mud earthworks offering no protection from the gunboats. The clasp Taku Forts 1858 was given for this action. Allied land and naval forces then made their way to Tientsin and as a result, the Chinese Imperial Government sued for peace. The Treaty of Tientsin, signed on 27th June 1858, ended the China War of 1856-58.
But as is often the case with complex international arrangements – especially those imposed by force and accepted unwillingly – things did not go smoothly. The British and French soon accused the Chinese government of bad faith in delaying the implementation of the treaty terms; trade agreements were not being kept, European merchants were being harassed in Canton and the forts guarding the Peiho were being rebuilt and re-armed.
In April 1859, it seemed to the British naval commander on the spot, the newly-appointed Rear Admiral Sir James Hope, that another show of force was necessary to jog the memory or force the hand of the Chinese government. He hoped to repeat Admiral Seymour’s success of a year earlier by destroying the Taku Forts, forcing the passage of the Peiho and advancing on Tientsin. But the resulting attack on the Peiho on 25th June 1859 is one of the great forgotten disasters of British naval and military history.
Since the capture of the forts at Taku in June 1858, the Chinese had spared no effort to rebuild and strengthen their defences: the forts, after all, guarded a principal route to Peking. The channel between the forts had been blocked by three successive lines of barriers – the first (in terms of approach) of vertical iron stakes, the second a boom of heavy, linked spars and the third of linked wooden casks or “baulks”. On either side of the blocked channel were deep and wide mud-flats, fully exposed at low tide. The defences themselves comprised two forts – one to the south of the channel carrying ten guns and a larger one to the north. Along the south side of the channel was a series of embrasures and gun-emplacements mounting (as it turned out) 58 heavy guns, well concealed and protected by lines of stakes, ditches and entanglements. All in all, it was in 1859 a formidable defensive position, whose relatively easy capture in 1858 must have blinded the commanders on the spot to the potential difficulties they now faced.
Having decided to force the passage of the Peiho and take on the forts, Admiral Hope assembled his naval force prior to the attack. It should be noted that though Hope acted in concert with the French squadron, their ships did not in fact take part in the assault. On June 18th, Hope took his squadron into the mouth of the Peiho; it then comprised the screw steamers Chesapeake (51 guns), Highflyer (21), and Cruizer (17), the paddle-steamers Magicienne (16) and Fury (6), two store-ships, Assistance and Hesper and a squadron of small gun-vessels and gun boats. Diplomatic moves to try to get an agreement to remove the Peiho barriers and allow the British to bring envoys along the river to Tientsin unsurprisingly came to nothing and on the 24th June, the action began.
That evening, three boats of the Chesapeake, Cruizer and Magicienne under Capt. G. O., Willes, drew up to the first and then second line of barricades and attempted to pull or blast them away to make a passage, in the hope that the ships could then pass through at speed, land a naval brigade beyond the forts and capture them from the land side. But they could do nothing to breach the third line. No passage was therefore possible past the river obstacles and Hope concluded that the only thing he could do was to attack the forts and defences from the channel itself and hope to silence them by naval gunfire and then land a force to attack them from the front.
By the next morning, the 25th June, when Hope began a formal naval assault, the Chinese had repaired the slight damage to their barriers. British warships took up their positions, Hope relying on the shallower-draught gun vessels and gunboats to do most of the close fighting. This gun boat squadron comprised the small 2-gun vessels Oppossum, Starling, Janus, Plover, Lee, Kestrel, Banterer, Forester and Haughty, the much more powerful sloop Nimrod (6) and the gun-vessel Cormorant (4). In what looked to be a “classic” naval bombardment, the Starling, Janus, Plover, Lee, Kestrel and Banterer would be lined up parallel to the fort and emplacements on the south bank; Nimrod took position behind them, to shell the north bank fort and Forester and Haughty remained in reserve, to take the place of any ship forced out of line by enemy fire. Opossum was to force a passage through the first barrier and take on the north fort. The larger ships Chesapeake, Cruizer and Magicienne lay beyond the mouth of the Peiho in deeper water. Other vessels would fire on the north fort.
When all was ready, by 2 .00 p.m., Opossum forced her way through the first line of stakes and was followed through by Plover, Lee and Haughty, all heading for the second barrier. At once, the Chinese guns opened up on the ships and Admiral Hope ordered all his vessels to return fire. There followed a classic bombarding action, with the ships in line hammering away at the forts and emplacements and the Chinese heavy guns replying – with great accuracy. The ships within the lines of obstruction – Opossum, Plover, Lee and Haughty were immediately in trouble. Taking hit after hit and losing officers and men to the close and accurate Chinese fire, they were quickly being shot to pieces. Admiral Hope was himself wounded aboard Plover, which was so badly damaged that her guns were put out of action, their crews dead or wounded, and she had to be towed away by Cormorant, which had been engaging the south emplacements. There was nothing to do but order the four ships back through the two barriers and out of range. Plover was so shot-up that she took no further part in the action.
In the absence of the wounded Admiral Hope, command devolved on Captain C. A. F. Shadwell of Highflyer, but the day only got worse. At 5.40, Kestrel was so badly holed that she sank at her position, Banterer ran aground, to be come a sitting target and Lee had to be deliberately grounded on the mud flats to prevent herself sinking. It was at this stage that a famous incident occurred – when the (technically neutral) US cutter Toey-whan pulled up alongside Plover and began to help remove the wounded and – it was said by some – to help keep her bow gun in action. Its commander, Flag Officer Josiah Tatnell, is said to have uttered the immortal phrase “blood is thicker than water” to explain his unexpected intervention.
Despite all the damage and heavy casualties to the smaller gun boats, the fire of the other British warships eventually began to tell. Between 6.30 and 7.00 p.m. – five hours into the action – firing from the Chinese defences finally began to ease and it was decided that the time had come to launch a land attack, employing about 350 marines under Lt. Col. Thomas Lemon, a detachment of Sappers and Miners under Major Fisher, R.E., and some sailors from the squadron. A small party of French sailors also took part. The whole force was under the command of Capt. Shadwell of Highflyer.
The force was rowed ashore and landed on the flats near the southern fort, where the ships’ guns could be brought to bear, but was immediately met with a terrific fire from rifles, muskets and small-arms. The men, encumbered with their weapons, ammunition and equipment, were held up initially by thick, clinging mud, then by rows of sharpened stakes and defensive ditches and were shot down in large numbers without making any effective response. All the section commanders – of the marines, sappers and sailors – were casualties within minutes and only 50 men got anywhere near the outer wall of the fort. Command ashore had now fallen to Commodore John Commerell, V.C., who consulted his colleagues and decided that, since there really was nowhere to go, the only recourse was an immediate retirement. This too was a nightmare – getting the men (and the many wounded) back to the boats across deep mud and under heavy fire. Most of this was done under failing light – indeed, it was 1.30 a.m. on 26th June before everyone had been taken off and returned to the warships.
Of the ships which had gone into close action with the forts, Lee, run aground to stop her from sinking, had to be abandoned and was lost; Plover, although towed away by Cormorant, later went aground on the mud and was abandoned; Cormorant herself grounded trying to help Plover and was also abandoned in the face of heavy fire on the 28th. Three British warships lost in one small action was a major embarrassment, to say the least. Happily, Kestrel and Banterer were both re-floated under fire and saved, but the loss of life was inordinately large – 25 officers and men killed and 93 wounded to various degrees in the naval bombardment; 64 killed and 252 wounded in the land assault – for those days, a staggering total of 89 officers and men killed and 345 wounded.
The British fleet, ignominiously repulsed and laden with its wounded, left the mouth of the Peiho on 3rd July and headed for the repair yards of Shanghai. When it returned to take on the Taku Forts again a year later (August 1860) it did so in much greater strength and with a much larger landing force. On that occasion, it was successful: hence the clasp Taku Forts 1860.
Of course – to return to the point which started this article – since the 1859 attack was such a sharp defeat, no medal or clasp was issued for Taku Forts 1859 and there were no other honours or promotions associated with it – despite the gallantry of many officers and men, naval and marine. But medal collectors with naval awards for any of the 1856-60 China actions may well find that “their man” took part in what was one of the worst naval defeats the Victorian navy ever suffered – and one which has, for fairly obvious reasons, fallen out of sight!
The Taku Forts, soon re-built and re-armed, were attacked again (successfully) in 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion and the third Taku Forts clasp (this time undated) was awarded.
The forts are today national monuments.