Nathan Reich
The Relief Expedition of Vice-Admiral Seymour

The relief expedition of Vice-Admiral Seymour was a early, multinational military action that attempted unsuccessfully to come to the protection of British and other diplomats in Peking before the Boxers closed around them. In 17 days (June 10 to June 28), Seymour's men saw 14 days of battle, with 62 dead and 228 wounded.

On May 28, Sir Claude McDonald, the ranking British diplomat in Peking, telegraphed Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Seymour, commander of the British navy in China, that “the Boxers were troublesome and a guard was wanted” (Purcell 59). Seymour's personnel received a second telegram on June 9 stating that "unless Peking was relieved it would be too late" (Preston 90). On June 10, a British expedition under Seymour maneuvered past the Taku forts and ships to land at Tongku, from which it rode a train to Tientsin. In Tientsin, Seymour's ranks swelled to more than 2,000 with men from Russia, France, Germany, America, Austria, Italy, and Japan. They boarded a train to Peking, and all went well until they neared Lofa, when they had to contend with Boxer rail sabotage. On June 11, the expedition was attacked by Boxers for the first time en route to Langfang: "They came on us in a ragged line, advancing at the double... Not more than a couple of hundred, armed with swords, spears, gingalls... and rifles, many of them being quite boys. To anyone who had been some little time in China it was an almost incredible sight, for there was no sign of fear of hesitation, and these were not fanatical 'braves', or the trained soldiers of the Empress, but the quiet peace-loving peasantry - the countryside in arms against the foreigner" (Preston 94). The soldiers passed the next five days stopping to repair rails and fending off Boxers. Tanks of water needed for the locomotive and for the men were being destroyed; scouts were sent out ahead of the train. On June 14, contact with Tientsin was lost and supplies were halted back at Yangtsun. One June 15, Boxer resistence stiffened. On June 16, the expedition backtracked to Lofa in order to restore communication with Tientsin, only to finding extensively damaged tracks. Seymour acknowledged: "we were now isolated, with no transport or means to advance, and cut off from our base behind" (Preston 96). Plans were drawn: a German, Captain von Usedom, would hold Lanfang while Seymour and the bulk of the force made their way, trains or not, back to Yangtsun. Usedom fell under attack by 5,000 Kansu imperial troops under Tung Fu-Hsiang, suffering 12 losses and more than 50 wounded, but retreated and joined Seymour in Yangtsun on June 18. On June 19, commandeering Chinese junks to carry wounded and equipment down the Peiho River, they set out back to Tientsin on foot, imperial troops on their backs, battling heat, hunger, and a Boxer presence in village after village. On June 22, Seymour and his men stumbled across the Hsiku Arsenal and took it after intense but brief fighting. Inside were copious supplies of armaments, rice, and medical supplies. For the next two days, they endured attacks from imperials and Boxers. On June 24, a Chinese servant swam, brushed with Boxers and imperials, and dodged the bullets of a French outpost before finally bringing word to allies in Tientsin on the status of Seymour's expedition. On June 25, a multinational relief force of 1,800 led by Sherinsky, a Russian, arrived at Hsiku. On June 28, the two armies destroyed what they couldn't carry and marched uneventfully back to a Tientsin now under siege itself.

Seymour, having failed to reach Peking in time to prevent the June 20 legation siege, was remembered as "Admiral Seen-no-more" (Preston 89). However, train was by far the fastest means of getting to Peking 80 miles away and would have, and under more favorable circumstances would have taken Seymour only hours. To proceed further on foot, in an environment rich with vastly larger numbers of Boxers and hostile imperials, would have been suicide. Conversely, Seymour also endured criticism for acting too quickly, before he could muster could secure the formal consent of London or the permission of the Qing government. However, events parallel to Seymour's expedition would seem to have justified his urgency; for instance, on June 10, the day after McDonald's distress call, the telegraph line from Peking to Tientsin was cut and the British summer legation was torched. The second expedition to Peking, which also drew from a coalition of 8 foreign powers but dwarfed Seymour's attempt in numbers, was ultimately successful.

Preston, Diana. The Boxer Rebellion: The Dramatic Story of China's War on Foreigners that Shook the World in the Summer of 1900. New York: Walker & Company, 2000.
Purcell, Victor. The Boxer Uprising: A Background Study. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1963.