I had no idea what the Boxer Rebellion was all about. I remember the name from school and knew it had something to do with China but, up until this week, I didn’t know anything else. Therefore, anyone who DOES know what the Boxer Rebellion was, I suggest you skip over the first bit of this post.
In 1899, a whole bunch of Chinese martial arts guys decided they didn’t like a number of things about the western powers. They didn’t like the Christian religion (who can blame them for that?) and they didn’t like the colonialist attitudes. They felt that their civilisation was being subsumed within a combination of American, Austro-Hungarian, British, French, German, Italian, Japanese, and Russian cultures and homogenised. Sort of like the way milk is combined from lots of cows before going into containers.
They decided to do something about it and collected themselves together into what the Chinese called the Yihetuan Movement. While that’s all very laudable and I can understand why they’d baulk at having their lives turned into the western ideals of how the world should live, they were under the impression that they were impervious to bullets.
(The reason the western overseers called it the Boxer Rebellion was because they had no idea what martial arts were. They saw a bunch of guys fighting with no shirts and figured they must be doing some sort of boxing. Colonialism gone mad! Anyway, given their ignorance of martial artists, the western powers called it the Boxer Rebellion.)
But back to the Yihetuan (or the Fists of Harmony and Justice), these guys with their Kung Fu and Karate* figured they could deflect bullets. This was a mistake which didn’t take long to filter down through the ranks.
Actually these guys were backed by our old favourite, the Dowager Cixi. Well, until she realised she was backing the wrong horse and changed her bet mid-battle. In fact the Boxer Rebellion effectively put an end to the long Chinese dynastic history.
The reason I’m discussing the Boxer Rebellion isn’t merely random. It’s because this week I researched a chap who fought in it. His name was Major George Newcome. Though he wasn’t a Major when he went off to China in 1900 with the 130th Baluchis.
George, born in 1876, was the son of a Major so, I guess, it was only natural that he’d follow in his father’s footsteps and go to war. Or wars as it turned out. Though George’s dad, Major Henry George (rtd) managed to survive whatever battles he attended.
I don’t have a date for when he enlisted but by 1896 he was already a 2nd Lieutenant, moving up the ranks to a full Lieutenant in 1898 shortly before being shipped off to China for a bit of Kung Fu fighting.
The 130th Baluchis Boys had a bit of a bad reputation among the other regiments. They were hard and they fought like lunatics (or Richard Sharpe, which is pretty similar). After playing their bit in Beijing (or Peking as it was pronounced back then by the western powers who didn’t see the point in calling it by its proper name) they were sent back to India where they were a part of the Indian Army.
By 1905, George had been promoted to Captain and, one feels, was well on his way to being a career soldier with lots of gold braid on his epaulettes. Then, at the beginning of the Great War, the regiment went a bit mad.
In Bombay there was a sort of mutiny. A whole bunch of sepoys (Indian born soldiers serving with the British army) refused to fight on the grounds that the people they were meant to kill were all of the same religion. I would have thought that would make it easier for any religious person given they’d be going to heaven. Still, what would I know.
The chief mutineer stabbed a commanding officer with his bayonet which is never a good idea. Anyway, the mutiny was eventually quelled with 200 soldiers being court marshalled. The final verdict was for two officers to be executed and the rest given a certain amount of hard labour…because fighting in the Great War wasn’t hard labour enough. The rest of the regiment were sent to Burma, somewhere no-one wanted to be sent.
Move a little ahead to 1915 and there was a bit of a problem brewing in Africa. A few German outposts needed to be removed. The British commander wanted the once reliable 130th Baluchis to come and help with the rout. They gratefully set off from Burma and headed down to Africa.
There was a bit of scattered fighting around various areas but, eventually, they arrived at the pass at Latema-Reata, or ‘nek’ as passes are called in that part of Africa (near Kenya).
And so began the battle for the pass. It started on the morning of 11 March 1916 and by the morning of 12 March 1916 was finished. The pass had been cleared of Germans and the British toasted their good fortune. Though it wasn’t as glorious as that sounds.
The Germans realised at some stage that they weren’t going to win, particularly when a bunch of Rhodesian soldiers appeared on their flank. The Germans figured fleeing was a much better strategy than slaughter so they left under cover of darkness.
The British kept firing, only stopping when they discovered they were actually exchanging gunfire with the Rhodesians who were on the same side. What a jolly jape it was.
Without putting too much of a downer on this marvellous story, there were only three casualties on the British side of this small and entirely un-noteworthy battle. Two of them were sepoys but the third was Major George Newcome.
I guess if you’re going to make a career in the army, the chances are you’ll not last long, particularly if there’s a big war on following your enlistment. At least George made Major and the grand old age of 39 before he bought it, a rare feat among the guys I’m researching.
* I know Karate is Japanese but the sentence works better with a bit of alliteration.