Friday, August 26, 2011

Indiscreet Letters From Peking – by Bertram Lenox Simpson

Indiscreet Letters From Peking Being the Notes of an Eye-Witness, Which Set Forth in Some Detail, from Day to Day, the Real Story of the Siege and Sack ... in 1900-The Year of Great Tribulation  (US Edition) (UK Edition)

That title is a mouthful! This is an account of the Boxer Rebellion siege of the foreign legations in Beijing, written by Bertram Lenox Simpson, a British author who wrote under the pen name "B. L. Putnam Weale".  He was in China at the time of the siege, although some historians believe this not the first-hand account it purports to be.

At eight o'clock, while we were hurriedly eating some food, word was passed that fires to the north and east were recommencing with renewed vigour. The Boxers, having passed two miles of neutral territory, had reached the belt of abandoned foreign houses and grounds belonging to the foreign Customs, to missionaries, and to some other people. Pillaging and burning and unopposed, they were spreading everywhere. Flames were now leaping up from a dozen different quarters, ever higher and higher. The night was inky black, and these points of fire, gathering strength as their progress was unchecked, soon met and formed a vast line of flame half a mile long. There is nothing which can make such a splendid but fearful spectacle as fire at night. The wind, which had been blowing gently from the north, veered to the east, as if the god's wished us to realise our plight; and on the breeze leading towards the Legations, some sound of the vast tumult and excitement was wafted to us. The whole city seemed now to be alive with hoarse noises, which spoke of the force of disorder unloosed. Orders for every man to stand by and for reinforcements to be massed near the Austrian quarter were issued, and impatient, yet impotent, we waited the upshot of it all. Chinese officialdom gave no sign; not a single word did or could the Chinese Government dare to send us. We were abandoned to our own resources, as was inevitable.

And later as the siege takes hold:

You are sitting at a loophole, half asleep, perhaps, during the daytime, when crack! a bullet sends a shower of brick chips and a powder-puff of dust over your head. You swear, maybe, and quietly continue dozing. Then come two or three rifle reports and more dust. This time the thing seems more serious, it may mean something; so you reach for your glasses and carefully survey the scene beyond through your loophole. To remain absolutely hidden is the order of the day. So there is nothing much to be seen. Far away, and very near, lie the enemy's barricades, some running almost up to your own, but quite peaceful and silent, others standing up frowningly hundreds of yards off, monuments erected weeks ago. These latter are so distant that they are unknown quantities. Then just as you are about to give it up as a bad job, you see the top of a rifle barrel glistening in the sun. You ... bang! perilously near your glasses another bullet has struck. So you pull up your rifle by the strap, open out your loophole a little by removing some of the bricks, and carefully and slowly you send the answering message at the enemy's head. If you have great luck a faint groan or a distant shout of pain may reward your efforts; but you can never be quite sure whether you have got home on your rival or not. Loophole shooting is very tricky, and the very best shots fire by the hour in vain. I have seen that often....

Well, if it is not firsthand, it is close enough to the action to make interesting reading . . .

The native Christians in the Su wang-fu are already getting ravenous with hunger, and are robbing us of every scrap of food they can garner up. Their provisioning has almost broken down, in spite of every effort, and the missionary committees and sub-committees charged with their feeding are beginning to discriminate, they say. These vaunted committees cannot but be a failure except in those things which immediately concern the welfare of the committees themselves.

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