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111-SC-75058 Italian soldiers, Bersaglieri, Marines, mounted Infantry and engineers in the Boxer rebellion.
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by Paul V. Walsh
[ NOTE: This article first appeared in the pages of the now defunct AMICI NEL MONDO: Publication of the
Association Militaria Italian Collectors International, Vol.XII, No.4 (July-August 2000), pp.15-20;
Vol.XII, No.6 (November-December 2000), pp.4-9.]
Even though Italian soldiers and sailors have served throughout the globe, it may come as a surprise to learn that Italians fought in China at the dawn of the twentieth century. Exactly one-hundred years ago Italian servicemen, albeit in small numbers, were part of the international forces that fought the Chinese people and the Chinese Imperial Government in what became popularly known as the Boxer Rebellion.
The rebellion was prompted by growing anti-foreign feelings among the Chinese people, exacerbated by a series of natural disasters. These anti-foreign feelings were generated by the activities of outsiders in China, including the work of Christian missionaries and a pattern of foreign governments seizing Chinese ports and territory. The anger of the Chinese people found expression in various secret societies, particularly the ‘I Ho Ch’uan’ (literally ‘Righteous Harmonious Fists’, a title which was transformed by westerners into the term ‘Boxers’).
The Imperial Chinese government, headed by the Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi, was ambivalent towards the Boxers. On the one hand, previous dynasties had been threatened and even overthrown by such grass-roots organizations. On the other hand, the Boxers could provide a tool with which the government could threaten the foreign presence in China, while allowing the throne to deny official involvement.
In the Spring of 1899, however, the Empress Dowager did not need the help of the Boxers to thwart Italy’s imperial designs in China. Italy’s goals were the same as all nineteenth century European (and Japanese) imperialists; to obtain sources of cheap raw materials for its growing industries at home and, in turn, overseas markets for the merchandise produced by these industries. To help secure these goals, Italy’s representative in China, Signor di Martino, demanded territorial concessions from the Imperial government. In particular Italy sought to obtain a lease on San Men Bay, located in Chekiang, one of only five remaining provinces which were not in the sphere of influence of a foreign power.
The Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi, aware of Italy’s defeat in Ethiopia in 1896, sensed that Italy was a weak power that could be resisted, so she flatly refused di Martino demands. Without bothering to confer with his superiors back in Rome, di Martino ordered the armored cruiser ‘Marco Polo’ to ‘demonstrate’ in the Yellow Sea (According to Janes, the Italian Squadron stationed in China during 1905-06 consisted of the armored cruiser ‘Marco Polo’ (built in 1895), and the protected cruisers ‘Puglia’ and ‘Liguria’. It is not clear whether the latter two vessels were present in China during 1899-1901). The Imperial government ignored this veiled threat, and di Martino was recalled for exceeding his instructions, thus conceding victory to the Empress Dowager. Many scholars believe that this diplomatic victory emboldened the Dowager Empress, leading her to believe that she could successfully oppose the ‘foreign devils’ after all, so that she began to favor the radicals at court who urged her to support the Boxers (Fleming, Peter. The Siege of Peking. New York: Dorset Press, 1959; 1990, pp.32-33; Keown-Boyd, Henry. The Fists of Righteous Harmony: A History of the Boxer Uprising in China in the Year 1900. London: Leo Cooper, 1991, pp.17-18; Preston, Diana. The Boxer Rebellion. New York: Walker & Co., 1999, pp.21, 336).
By November of 1899, Boxers were attacking Christian missionaries and their Chinese converts throughout China. In January of 1900 the Italian legation joined with their American, British, French, and German counterparts to send identical protests demanding the suppression of the Boxers (Fleming states it was on the 17th, while Preston gives the date as the 27th (Fleming, p.53; Preston, p.38)). However, as it became increasingly clear that the Boxer’s activities had the tacit approval of the Imperial government, the foreign legations, located in Peking (Beijing), sought to bolster their security by reinforcing their contingents of guards (Because the Wade-Giles system of spelling Chinese names was in use during the time of the Boxer Rebellion, it has been used in this article in place of the current system).
Between May and June these reinforcements, dispatched from the ships of the naval squadrons of the various foreign powers in China, arrived in Peking. One British witness, Capt. Francis Poole, provided a less-than-objective account of their arrival, stating that while the Royal Marines presented ‘the smartest’ appearance of any contingent, the Italian and Russian sailors looked ‘very dirty’ (Keown-Boyd, p.53; Preston, p.64). These reinforcements brought the total number of the Italian Legation Guard to two officers and thirty-nine sailors, so that they were second only to the Japanese as the smallest contingent in Peking. Altogether, the foreign forces in Peking on the eve of the Boxer Rebellion consisted of the following:
NATIONALITY Officers Men TOTAL
Austro-Hungarian 7 30 37
British 3 79 82
French 3 75 78
German 1 51 52
Italian 2 39 41
Japanese 1 24 25
Russian 2 79 81
United States 3 53 56
TOTALS 22 430 452
(Bodin, Lynn E. The Boxer Rebellion. Osprey Men-At-Arms No.95. London: Osprey Publishing, 1979, p.6; Fleming, p.114. Typically, these figures vary slightly according to the source consulted. After the siege commenced, two groups of civilian volunteers were raised. The first consisted of roughly seventy-five men, all of whom had performed prior military service. The second, calling itself the ‘Thornhill Roughs’, consisted of some fifty armed civilians with no prior military service (Bodin, p.6). There were twenty-eight Italian civilians in the legations at the time of the siege, so some of them may have served in one of these volunteer units (Gooch, John. Army, State and Society in Italy, 1870-1915. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989, p.115). With the civilian volunteers, the total armed force defending the legation during the siege (minus the forty-two men dispatched to defend Peit’ang Cathedral) was roughly 535)
In contrast to their size, the Italian contingent provided the valuable asset of the only artillery piece in the legations; a 1 pdr. quick-firing gun supplied with 120 shells (Bodin, p.6; Fleming, p.115; Keown-Boyd, p.55; Preston, pp.65, 131. By 8 July there were only fourteen shells left for the 1 pdr. Fortunately Armourers Mate Thomas of the Royal Navy was able to produce new shells using the empty shell casings (Keown-Boyd, p.123)). This small piece proved its worth throughout the siege. In addition, when a rifled cannon, belonging to the Anglo-French Expedition of 1860, was unearthed in the legation compound on 7 July, the spare wheels of the 1 pdr. were used in the construction of a carriage for what became known as the ‘International Gun’ (Bodin, p.8; Keown-Boyd, p.123. Along with the Italian gun and the ‘International Gun’, the Allied forces in Peking had three machine guns: an Austrian Maxim, a British Nordenfeldt, and an American Colt (Bodin, pp.6-7)).
On 10 June all communications between the legations in Peking and the outside world were severed. Nine days later an ultimatum from the Imperial government was delivered to the foreign ministers demanding that all foreigners leave Peking (ostensibly to save them from the danger posed by the Boxers). Needless to say, this demand was refused, so that at 4:00 p.m. on 20 June the foreign legations were placed under siege by the Boxers.
THE SIEGE OF THE LEGATIONS IN PEKING: Part 1
Because all of the foreign legations were located within a few blocks along the south wall of the ‘Tartar City’ (a subdivision of Peking), they formed something of a compound that could be incorporated into a single defensive ring. Initially the Italian contingent joined the French in the defense of the eastern barricades (with the western barricades held mainly by Russian and U.S. troops) (Preston, p.78). This deployment was consistent with the location of the Italian Legation.
As the senior officer present, Capt. von Thomann of the Austro-Hungarian cruiser ‘Zenta’, assumed overall command of the legation forces. But less than a day later Capt. von Thomann panicked in the face of a Chinese attack, ordering everyone to abandon their first line of defense and fall back to the legations’ final line of defense. In general it was fortunate that the Boxers failed to exploit this mistake, but they did set fire to the Italian Legation building (Bodin, p.8; Preston, p.130. That the Italian legation building was rebuilt after the Boxer Rebellion is indicated by the photo taken sometime in the 1980s which appears in Keown-Boyd’s book (p.89)). Capt. von Thomann was immediately replaced as the C-in-C by Sir Claude MacDonald, who oversaw the defense of the legations for the remainder of the siege.
No longer having a legation of their own to defend, the Italians were ordered by MacDonald to join the Japanese in holding the northern sector of the defenses. This consisted of a mansion and grounds owned by a Manchu grandee, Prince Su, which was known as the Su Wang Fu. Prince Su had wisely fled, so that his estate was now occupied by some 2,700 Chinese Christians who had sought safety within the defense lines of the legation compound. Together a force of twenty-eight Italian sailors under Lt. Paolini and Col. Goro Shiba’s twenty-four Japanese sailors, supported by some civilian volunteers from the British Legation, would hold off repeated attacks by hundreds of Chinese for the length of the siege (Fleming, p.143; Keown-Boyd, p.110; Preston, pp.130-131).
THE FIRST RELIEF COLUMN
On 9 June, the day before contact between the legations and the outside world was severed, MacDonald had
sent an urgent request to the C-in-C of the British China Station, Admiral Sir Edward Seymour, for additional
troops. Admiral Seymour assembled a force of 2,129 men, including an Italian contingent of forty-two sailors.
Aboard five trains, they confidently set off from Tientsin (Tianjin), roughly seventy miles southeast of Peking (Bodin, p.11; Fleming, p.75. The First Relief Column was equipped with seven field guns and ten machine-guns (Fleming, p.75)).
Resistance increased as the relief column passed the half-way mark. On either the 12th or 14th of June, five
Italian sailors were killed while on picket duty near An Ting. They had been stationed several hundred yards from the trains, and were playing cards when they were taken by surprise and, in the words of one member of the expedition, “fell into [the hands of] the cruel brutes who literally cut them to pieces.” That night they were
laid to rest by an English Naval Chaplain in the presence of the entire Allied force (Keown-Boyd, p.66; Preston, p.95. Keown-Boyd places this event on the 12th, while Preston states that it occurred on the 14th of June).
By 15 June full-scale Boxer attacks had become so frequent that the column’s supply of ammunition was running low, and Admiral Seymour was having difficulty making contact with Tientsin because Boxers were tampering with the rail line behind him. He therefore decided to return to Tientsin. By now the relief force had suffered 294 casualties, including sixty-two killed and 232 wounded (among which were five Italians killed and three wounded). When it was found that the rail line was irreparably damaged, the column had to set out on foot, along the banks of the Pei-ho River. The remaining thirty-eight Italians sailors who were fit to march accompanied the Austrian, German, and Japanese contingents on the right bank of the river, while the Americans, British, and French traveled along the left bank, with the wounded and supplies carried on commandeered boats on the river. Admiral Seymour’s force, however, was unable to reach Tientsin, so that the first relief column was now itself in need of rescuing! (Keown-Boyd, p.93. For casualty figures, see Fleming, p.89)
What Admiral Seymour did not know was that the foreign legations around the city of Tientsin were now also in need of rescuing, as the Boxers had taken control of the city. At least these legations had a far more formidable force than those in Peking. Under the command of the Russian Col. Wogack, there were a total of 2,400 troops (including an unknown number of Italians), supported by nine cannons and a few machine guns. The Italians were grouped with what were presumably the other small contingents, those of the Austrians, Germans, and Japanese, along their sector of the defense line (Preston, p.115).
The Allied naval commanders off shore had become increasingly concerned, first over the fate of the legations in Peking, and now over the fate of Admiral Seymour’s expeditionary force and the legations around Tientsin. In particular, without control of Tientsin, it would be impossible to relieve Peking. Therefore, on 16 June, they decided to capture the forts at Taku, which guarded the entrance to the Pei-ho River, and, in turn, relieve Tientsin.
In the early morning of 17 June the Allied flotilla (which did not include any Italian vessels) sailed up the Pei-ho River, past the Taku forts. On the mud flats north of the forts a force of 895 troops, including twenty-five Italian sailors, was landed. Following a bombardment from the Allied ships, the landing-force launched their assault at 4:30 a.m. The Italian contingent joined with British, and Japanese troops to make up the first wave, with the Austrians, Germans, and Russians following in the second wave. At the cost of 172 casualties (none of which appear to have been Italian) the forts were captured (Keown-Boyd, pp.80, 82). A short time afterwards the legations around Tientsin were rescued and the Boxers were driven out of the city.
THE SIEGE OF THE LEGATIONS IN PEKING: Part 2
The defenders of the legation compound in Peking were oblivious to the Allied efforts to come to their rescue. They were under constant pressure from Boxers and, after 21 June, Imperial Chinese troops as well, the Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi having openly declared war on all of the foreign powers in China. Fighting was particularly intense at the Su Wang Fu, where the combined Italian-Japanese force held the perimeter. There was fierce fighting throughout 24 June, with the Chinese fire fading in the evening, only to resume the following day. According to contemporary sources, the styles of combat of the Italians and Japanese were a study in contrasts: while the Italian sailors, like the French, were considered to be ‘generous’ with their fire, the Japanese excelled in the use of the bayonet (Keown-Boyd, pp.110, 115. The U.S. Marines were considered the best marksmen, while the British Royal Marines, by contrast, were felt to be rather poor marksmen (Keown-Boyd, p.115)).
On 30 June the ‘Fu’ was threatened by Imperial troops who, armed with a Krupp artillery piece, were moving ever closer. Lt. Paolini offered to lead a sortie to capture the gun, and both Col. Shiba and MacDonald agreed to his proposal. On 1 July Lt. Paolini secretly led a mixed force of thirty Italian and Japanese sailors (including five British civilian volunteers) beyond the Fu, through narrow alleys, presumably in an effort to take the Chinese from behind. Unfortunately Lt. Paolini became lost, Capt. Francis Poole stating, “[he] appeared to have lost his head and taken wrong turnings.” In fact Lt. Paolini’s difficulties were due to a faulty map. In any case the Lieutenant and his party found themselves trapped in an alley, being fired upon from both a barricade to their front and a high wall on one side. With great difficulty the detachment managed to extricate itself, retreating back into the Fu through a hole in a wall. The cost was two Italian sailors killed, one British civilian volunteer mortally wounded, and several others suffering lesser wounds, including Lt. Paolini himself (Bodin, p.8; Keown-Boyd, p.118; Preston, pp.150-151).
On 13 July Imperial troops using four Krupp built artillery pieces at a range of only 150 yards bombarded the Fu. Col. Shiba ordered his Italo-Japanese force to withdraw to the second-to-last of nine defensive lines in the Fu, thus yielding three-quarters of the estate to the enemy. Nonetheless, the defenses held, but they were increasingly worn down by their efforts. Since the beginning of the siege, over three weeks ago, none of the men of the Italian-Japanese force had gotten more than four hours of sleep consecutively. Therefore MacDonald agreed to provide them with a relief of twenty-four hours, beginning at 7: 00 a.m. on 16 July, during which time a detachment of Royal Marines and civilian volunteers would take their place at the barricades (Keown-Boyd, p.132; Preston, p.165). However grueling the siege of the legations in Peking may have seemed, another siege of even greater intensity was taking place within the city.
THE SIEGE OF PEIT’ANG CATHEDRAL
Before the outbreak of the rebellion, men from the legation guard were dispatched to defend the complex of the Peit’ang Cathedral (also known as the North Cathedral), where some 3,420 Chinese Christians had sought
protection from the Boxers (the complex also contained seventy-one Europeans, including a group of Italian nuns) (Keown-Boyd, p.193; Preston, p.266). On the morning of 1 June a detachment of thirty sailors from the French vessel ‘D’Entrecasteaux’ arrived under the command of Enseigne de Vaisseau (Sub-Lieutenant) Paul Henry. Four days later reinforcements were sent in the form of ten Italian sailors under the command of a twenty-two year old Midshipman named Olivieri (Bodin, p.6; Keown-Boyd, p.52; Preston, p.71, 266. Preston refers to the defenders of Peit’ang Cathedral, both French and Italians, as ‘marines’, rather than sailors. While she may be correct with regard to the French (though all other sources use the term ‘sailors’), she is most certainly wrong with regard to the Italians (Preston, p.266)). The task this French-Italian force had ahead of them was formidable.
The complex was surrounded by a wall that varied between twelve and fifteen feet high and which was a mile in circumference. Although the French-Italian force was joined by roughly 100 Chinese Christians armed with pikes and some obsolete guns, they still had to defend a perimeter half the length of the legation compound
with only one-tenth the number of armed men against some 2,000 Boxers. As the C-in-C of the defenders, Henry set to work fortifying the complex as best he could. The first clash with Boxers occurred on 15 June, five days before the legations were placed under siege. On 22 June the complex came under a bombardment that would continue for most of the siege. On one particular day, for instance, fourteen Chinese guns fired some
400 shells into the complex. Despite the constant shelling, only two sailors had been killed by 18 July: one Italian and one French (Bodin, p.9; Keown-Boyd, pp.193-197).
On 30 July the defenders suffered their most grievous loss when Sub-Lt. Paul Henry was killed. For the remainder of the siege the defenders were commanded by Midshipman Olivieri. Olivieri himself very nearly lost his life in one instance.
Along with artillery fire, rockets, and hand thrown bombs, the defenders were also threatened by mines. The Chinese dug a total of seven mines under the complex, though, fortunately for the defenders, only four of these were detonated. The largest, containing 1,800 lbs. of explosives, was detonated at 6:30 a.m. on 12 August under the northern end of the complex, where the hospital was located. The dead included five Italian sailors, eighty adult civilians, and fifty-one children. Olivieri would have been numbered among the dead but for a miraculous rescue. Parties were digging through the rubble when, as Olivieri recorded, “They succeeded in uncovering one of my hands, and finding it still warm, redoubled their efforts until my whole body was free.” Remarkably Olivieri had only a slight wound in his head and on his right foot, so that he immediately resumed command of the defenses (Bodin, p.10; Keown-Boyd, p.202; Preston, p.72. Bodin states that Olivieri was rescued two hours after the explosion, while Keown-Boyd says it was eleven hours before he rescued, while Preston simply notes that it took forty-five minutes to dig him out).
THE HOME FRONT
The plight of their citizens trapped in Peking captivated the attention of people around the world during the summer of 1900. The citizens of Italy were no exception. The Times correspondent in Rome reported that news of a massacre in Peking induced a ‘painful stuper’ throughout Italy. Like the other European powers (along with the U.S. and Japan), the Italian government was forced into taking action (Fleming, p.131).
On 5 July the Minister of War issued orders for an Expeditionary Force to be assembled at the port of Naples within two weeks. Apparently Italy did not have any contingency plans for the use of such a force, so that it had to be assembled in an ad-hoc fashion. Naturally this led to confusion and waste. Units where committed which contained only new conscripts. Supplies were packed in the holds of ships in no particular order, so that, for instance, sacks of flour burst as other supplies were piled on top of them. In one ship overcrowding led to an outbreak of typhoid. Nonetheless, an Expeditionary force was eventually assembled and dispatched to China. Undoubtedly the question in everyone’s mind was, “would it arrive too late?” (Gooch, John. Army, State and Society in Italy, 1870-1915. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989, p.115)
THE SECOND RELIEF COLUMN
Having secured Tientsin, the Allied commanders assembled a second Relief Column, using both sailors and marines from their respective naval squadrons and, in the case of Britain, France, Japan, Russia, and the United States, additional forces that had been sent to China. Out of a total of 20,111 men, Italy provided fifty-three sailors (Bodin, p.16). The second Relief Column left Tientsin on 4 August.
Instead of relying on the heavily damaged rail line, the column advanced along both banks of the Pei-ho River; the Italian contingent marched with its Austrian, French, German, and Russian counterparts, on the left bank, while the American, British, and Japanese contingents marched on the right bank. However, because of flooding along the left bank, the various contingents, including the Italians, crossed over to join the other half of the column on the right bank. The Austrians, Italians, and Germans had virtually no mules or horses, so presumably their men would have had to have carried a good deal of their supplies on their backs. Added to this was the fact that, as sailors, they were not used to long marches in what was oppressively hot weather. It is not surprising, then, that, as their men could not keep up with the column, their respective commanders decided on 7 August that they should return to Tientsin. However, three days later an intrepid French officer, Gen. H. Frey, who was looking for an excuse to participate in the relief of Peking, convinced the Austrian, Italian, and German commanders to make another attempt. The Italo-Germanic force managed to reach Peking, but it arrived several days after the legations had been rescued by the main Relief Column (Fleming, p.183, 186, 188-189, 194; Keown-Boyd, p.159; Preston, pp.219, 224. This is contrary to the scene in the popular American film ‘55 Days at Peking’ (Samuel Bronston Productions, 1963), in which a unit of Bersaglieri is shown as part of the group of different national units who arrive to relieve the besieged legations. Although Bersaglieri were indeed part of the Expeditionary Force sent from Italy, this force did not did not actually land in China until 29 August, fifteen days after the relief of Peking).
ENDING THE SIEGES IN PEKING
By August the situations in both the legations compound and the Peit’ang Cathedral complex were becoming desperate. In order to convince the Chinese that there were more defenders present than there actually were, Col. Shiba was reduced to ordering his men to bang pots and pans, while the Italian sailors whistled and shouted ‘Bravo’. Nonetheless, the Italian-Japanese force actually managed to launch an attack on the Chinese troops who occupied the Fu on 14 August, the very day the second relief column reached the legations compound. While the relief force did not contain any of their compatriots, there can be no doubt that its arrival was greeted by the Italian sailors with as much joy as by anyone else in the besieged legations (Keown-Boyd, p.182; Preston, p.231).
Remarkably, no one seems to have given any thought to rescuing the defenders of the Peit’ang Cathedral complex until two days later! At 8:30 a.m. on 16 August Japanese troops arrived at the complex, followed soon after by French troops. When one of the Italian sailors saw the Japanese soldiers, he ran up to Midshipman Olivieri shouting with joy, “We are saved!” (Keown-Boyd, p.203; Preston, p.273)
The survivors had good reason to be happy, since the cost of defending these positions had not been light. Of the Italian contingent in the legations compound, thirteen out of the twenty-eight men had been killed, while all of the remaining men, along with Lt. Paolini, had suffered wounds of one sort or another (altogether the defenders had suffered sixty-four killed and 156 wounded). In the Peit’ang Cathedral complex the defenders also suffered heavy casualties: the fatalities consisted of six out of the eleven Italians, five out of the thirty-one French, thirty-eight out of the roughly 100 Chinese defenders, and some 400 civilians. Yet the conclusion of the sieges had a humorous side as well. When the allied forces held a victory parade in Peking on 28 August, the Russian band had difficulties coordinating eight different national anthems as the respective contingents passed the reviewing stand, so that the Italian sailors marched past to the sound of the “Marseillaise!”
FIGHTING FOR PEACE
While the allies celebrated their victory in saving the legations in Peking, the war had yet to be concluded. When the relief column arrived in Peking, the Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi departed on a ‘Tour of Inspection’ of her realm. Thus, while the Italian Expeditionary Force arrived at the port of Tientsin on 29 August, fifteen days after the relief of the legations in Peking, it still had a role to play. The Expeditionary Force consisted of the following:
24th Line Regiment.
Bersaglieri Battalion - Composed of eight companies, each provided by the following Bersaglieri
Regiments: 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 8th, 9th, and 11th.
Alpini - Some volunteers.
Engineers - A small number.
One Battery of Machine Guns.
One Battery of Field Guns - Supplied by the Italian fleet.
Total - 83 officers and 1,882 men (Bodin, p.29).
Because Italy lacked territorial concessions in China, her Expeditionary Force had no place of its own to disembark, nor any supplies waiting for them, so that they were forced to rely on help from the other allies. Various other deficiencies soon came to light. There was a shortage of doctors and hospital beds. Too few engineers had been included and more communications equipment was needed. Even uniforms were found to be inadequate; the Khaki summer uniforms made of linen were not durable, so that they wore out quickly. Fortunately the troops had brought both their summer and dress uniforms, so with the approach of the winter of 1900-1901, they changed into their warmer blue uniforms (Bodin, p.34; Gooch, p.115).
Italy’s soldiers would need warmer clothing, as they accompanied other allied troops in punitive expeditions across the countryside. Armed with their 1891 model 6.5 Parravicino-Carcano rifles, the Italian troops must have seen their fair share of action (Bodin, p.34; Gooch, p.115. Keown-Boyd records that the Italian forces used both the Mannlicher Carcano 11mm and the Commission 8mm rifles, though this may have been the armament of the Italian sailors, as opposed to the arms of the soldiers of the Expeditionary Force). At this point in the war, the strategy of the allied commanders was to force the Chinese to the negotiating table by raiding the countryside, apprehending and executing any Boxers that they came across. It was not until 7 September, 1901, that the signing of the Peace Protocol of Peking officially ended the war, though the fighting had ceased long before.
Admittedly, even if we include her Expeditionary Force, Italy supplied a very small fraction of the total allied forces that fought in the Boxer Rebellion. And her forces had more than their fair share of problems, some of which were out of her control, others which could have been avoided. But, overall, Italian servicemen displayed admirable courage in this conflict. In particular, the sailors of the armored cruiser ‘Marco Polo’ showed tremendous bravery in very desperate circumstances. The defense of the Peit’ang Cathedral complex, which unfortunately has been overshadowed by the defense of the legations compound, in the length of its siege and the balance of defenders versus attackers, supersedes such famous clashes as the Alamo (1836) and Camerone (1863). Brave men such as these deserve to be remembered.
A NOTE ON SOURCES
As the footnotes demonstrate, this article was based on the little information that could be gleaned from a small number of secondary works, which are listed below. The study by Peter Fleming (Ian’s brother) is a classic and, even after forty-one years, remains a solid source of reliable information. Although the standard format of the Men-At-Arms series restricts the amount of material an author can place between two covers, Lynn Bodin provides a good deal of information that is not present in any of the other sources I consulted, particularly the order-of-battle of the Italian Expeditionary Force and information on their uniforms. Henry Keown-Boyd’s book was the first serious study of the Boxer Rebellion since Fleming’s, and is very thorough. Although Diana Preston’s work was obviously published to take advantage of the centennial anniversary of the rebellion, it is an excellent work of scholarship. Lastly, while John Gooch limited his discussion of Italy’s participation in the crushing of the Boxer Rebellion to a single page, his use of a number of Italian language sources provides the English reader with a unique insight into the formation and fortunes of the Expeditionary Force. For those who would like to pursue this subject further, Gooch’s sources consist of the following works:
Canevari, E. and G. Comisso. Il generale Tommaso Salsa e le sue campagne coloniali. Milan: 1935.
“La guerra della Cina.” L’Italia militare e marina. (23 / 24 July, 1900).
Tosti, Amadeo. La spedizione italiana in cina (1900-1901). Rome: 1926.
“Truppa di sbarco.” L’Italia militare e marina. (13 / 14 July, 1900).
Bodin, Lynn E. The Boxer Rebellion. Osprey Men-At-Arms No.95 .London: Osprey Publishing, 1979.
Fleming, Peter. The Siege of Peking. New York: Dorset Press, 1959; 1990.
Gooch, John. Army, State and Society in Italy, 1870-1915. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989.
Keown-Boyd, Henry. The Fists of Righteous Harmony: A History of the Boxer Uprising in China in the Year
1900. London: Leo Cooper, 1991.
Preston, Diana. The Boxer Rebellion. New York: Walker & Co., 1999.
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I am seeking feedback on the information, particularly in the shape of corrections and additions.
What is the correct protocol - should I add it to this thread or start a new one, please?
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I think perhaps add to this thread is a better idea. Putting related information in one thread sometimes can save a lot of time on searching.Mike Blake wrote:This is an old thread. I have some more detailed information about the Italian contribution in terms of OOB, uniforms and weapons.
I am seeking feedback on the information, particularly in the shape of corrections and additions.
What is the correct protocol - should I add it to this thread or start a new one, please?
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‘On the whole, numerically and morally the value of the Italian Contingent is small.’
- Col G M Grierson, British Deputy Adjutant General Pekin, 1900
When the fighting began, Italy's immediate contribution was sailors from its cruiser squadron then in China waters. These served in the three best known campaigns. A larger force was formed in Italy and sent to China, arriving after the main hostilities had finished, but taking part in some of the punitive expeditions.
The later Italian Contingent was considered to be composed of small strong, healthy looking men, who were, Grierson adds ‘… without exception the dirtiest troops ever seen on active service.’ Doubts were also expressed about men from the warm Mediterranean coping with the severe weather of Northern China. Their discipline was described (Grierson again) as ‘… indifferent, and from all quarters there were constant complaints of looting and other crimes committed by them’.
Others were as critical, Mary Hooker saying ‘(The Japanese) are so game, in great contrast to the Italians who are with (them) defending the Fu. One can only hope for Italy’s sake that her soldiers in Peking are the worst she has.’
Despite opinions like these, others had praise for the Italians. Sir Claude MacDonald said ‘The Italians… gallantly, by bayonet charge, repulsed an attack of the enemy…’, but then he was a diplomat and had to find nice things to say about all the defenders.
Prior to June 1900
3 Naval detachments: Commander (Naval Lt, Tenente di Vascello) Sirianni & 40 Sailors, Commander Carlotto & 20 Sailors, Commander Paolini from Royal Italian Navy ship Tenca & 24 Sailors.
1st International Relief Expedition 10-26 June 1900
38 or 49 sailors, under Naval Lt Sirianni; 29 from Elba and 20 from Calabria.
1 Maxim 1-pdr 1”/37mm QF Pom-pom from either Elba or Calabria.
Casualties: 5 killed, 3 wounded.
The Taku Forts 17 June 1900
Naval Lt and 11 (or 17) seamen from Tenca.
Siege of the Peking Legations & Northern Cathedral 20 June-14 Aug 1900
"...the Italian quick-firing 1-inch gun was brought up... This Italian quickfirer was by far the most useful of the machine-guns (sic) brought by the various detachments. …. Unfortunately there were only 150 rounds brought up with (it). In the course of the siege the entire gun detachment of this quickfirer, consisting of five men, were either killed or wounded."
-Sir Claude MacDonald
"First, there is the Italian one-pounder firing ballistite. It is absolutely useless. Its snapping shells are so small that you can thrust them into your pocket without noticing them. This gun is merely a plaything. And yet it is the best we have. It is wheeled unendingly around and fired at the enemy from a dozen different points. It may give confidence but that is all it can give."
Italian defenders were in two groups: Naval Lt (Commander, Tenente di Vascello) Paolini and 28 seamen, from Elba, at the Fu in the Legations, Naval Lt Olivieri and 11 seamen in the Northern Pei t’ang cathedral (with the French).
1 pdr Maxim QF Pom-Pom Landing gun had 120 (Hewlett) or 150 (MacDonald) rounds. When the ammunition for the gun ran out, the armourer of HMS Orlando devised a new cartridge reusing empty copper cases. Conical solid shot was cast from melted down pewter vessels, tea-pots, candlesticks etc, with a charge of pebble powder from the redundant Russian 9pdr shells. The old shell cases were reprimed with a cap from a .45 cal revolver bullet.
2nd (Gaselee) International Relief Expedition 4 Aug-14 Aug 1900
35 or 53 Italian sailors, led by Naval Lt Sirianni, ‘who was the first officer to enter into the Chinese capital’. (Del Col)
Italian China Expeditionary Force 1900-1901
Italian Minister of War in Rome ordered the creation of the ‘Italian China Expeditionary Force’, (ICEF) to be sent to protect Italian interests in China. Col Vincenzo Garioni, 24th Line Infantry Regt, was given command. It was to be organised:
(is there a way to get tables into a post intact? Copy And Paste just scambles them!)
The troops were carried on the troop carriers Giava, Singapore & Minghetti. The escort consisted of the cruisers:
Vettor Pisani , heavy-cruiser (Incrociatore Corazzato) 7242 tons, 486 men. Armed with 12 x 152/40 guns, 6 x 120/40 guns, 2 x 75mm guns, 10 x 57mm guns, 10 x 37mm guns, 2 machine-guns and 4 x 450mm torpedoes. Max speed: 19 knots.
Ettore Fieramosca , 3rd class Ariete class battle-ship, 3745 tons, 315 men (14 officers, 301 sailors). Armed with 2 x 254/20 guns, 6 x 152/33 guns, 6 x 57mm guns, 8 x 37mm guns, 2 machine-guns and 3 torpedoes. Max speed: 17.5 knots.
Stromboli 4th class battle-ship 3820 tons, 12 officers and 296 sailors. Armed with 2 x 254/20 guns, 6 x 152/33 guns, 5 x 57mm guns, 2 machine-guns and 4 torpedoes. Max speed: 17 knots.
Vesuvio 4th class battle-ship 3797 tons, 12 officers and 296 sailors. Armed with 2 x 254/20 guns, 6 x 152/33 guns, 5 x 57mm guns, 3 machine-guns and 4 torpedoes. Max speed: 18 knots.
ICEF had officers and men from units of the army. The men were from re-engaged men (Non-Commissioned Officers), men of the contingent of 1898 who had to serve 3 years, and men of the contingent of 1899. Preference was given to volunteers, but, if they were insufficient, the numbers were made up by drawing lots in the units furnishing the force. All officers and men had to be medically certified as fit for service in tropical climates. For detailed organisation see below.
Reserves of Arms
In addition to the ordinary reserve arms and ammunition carried by the units, there were additional reserves sent: 144 rifles M1891 with sword bayonets, 32 rifles M1891 for special arms, 90 revolvers M1889, 648,000 rounds M1891 small arms ammunition, 23,040 rounds revolver ammunition.
Force sailed 19 July 1900 via Port Said, Aden and Singapore. Bad weather in the China Sea forced the fleet to sail to Hong Kong, where it remained for a number of days. It was dependent on the Germans, British and Russians for disembarkation and transport, as it had neither equipment nor systems suitable for landings and resupply from the sea or rivers. The transporting ships had no light steam launches or tugs with pontoons, which were the only vessels suitable for close-in coastal work and the rough seas.
Battaglione Marinai (Naval Battalion) 1 Sept 1900
Peking, 26 officers, 552 sailors, 1 landing gun, 2 machine-guns and 10 mules. Strength varied over time. Separate detachments were:
Taku 10 men under Midshipman Eugenio Minisini
Tientsin 20 men under Sub-lt Camillo Premoli
Yang-tsun 10 men under Sub-lt Marcello Arlotta
Tung-chao 30 men under Lt Pietro Civalleri
8-14 Sept 1900. Expedition from Tientsin to Tu-liu
Italians: 4 companies (350) Bersaglieri in Richardson’s column. Col Vincenzo Garioni’s central column, 3 companies line infantry (600 men), 1 section engineers (with other British units). 150 Bersaglieri in Dorward’s column.
19-21 Sept 1900. Expedition from Tientsin to Pei-tang
1 Bersaglieri (4 companies) and 1 line infantry battalion, with detachment engineers; 27 officers, 840 other ranks, 40 mules and horses.
21 Sept 1900. Col Garioni authorised by Admiral Candiani, Commander of the Italian Oceanic Naval Forces, to transfer the headquarters of the expeditionary force to Peking. Italian troops billeted in two areas of the Tartar City.
2 Oct 1900. Expedition from Tientsin to Shan-hai-kuan
Maj Agliardi with the HQ and 2 Bersaglieri companies, 14 officers and 312 men, 1 company sailors, totalling 470 men.
Small detached Italian force under Lts Gillio and Orso clashed with a larger Chinese force of 2-3,000 and some artillery. They took refuge in a fort where they were joined by a patrol of Bersaglieri under Lt Tonolo.
7-9 Oct 1900. Expedition from Tientsin to Pao-ciao-jing
One (or two, sources differ) Bersaglieri companies.
12-20 Oct 1900. Expedition from Tientsin & Peking to Paoting-fu
Tientsin column contingent Maj Luigi Agliardi, 2 companies Bersaglieri, 6 gun mountain battery, engineer detachment; 14 officers, 371 men and 111 horses and mules. Part formed the advance guard.
Peking contingent Col Salsa, 1 line infantry battalion, 13 officers and 276 men, 1 naval brigade 10 officers and 217 men, 86 horses and mules.
Took part in the successful attack on Kungan-ysien. In the subsequent German report recognition given to the fine fighting quality of the troops.
Detachment of 2 Italian artillery sections under Lt Ferrero (with 2 companies German infantry) attacked at Hsiu-schon-sien in skirmishes with Chinese rear guard cavalry.
22-30 Oct 1900. Expedition from Paoting-fu to Ji-ciao
Col Salsa, 1 battalion Italian infantry.
Expeditions against the ‘most rebellious areas’ continued. Col Garioni, 1 Bersaglieri company and Line Infantry detachment joined Austro-German expedition to attack large numbers of regular Chinese troops assembled in the Tsha-tan and Kalgan localities 100 km north west of Pekin.
Italians left contributions to garrisons: Uan-can 13 Nov, 1 Midshipman and 25 soldiers and sailors; Ciao-toa 14 Nov, 1 Midshipman and 34 soldiers and sailors; Huai-lai 42 soldiers and sailors under Midshipman Bichi, who was the only Italian injured when on 19 Nov about 40 Boxers attacked. They were not armed with firearms, 15 were killed, 3 captured, the rest escaped.
January 1901. Italian troops active in expeditions in the country around Pekin.
4 August 1901. ICEF returned to Italy on the troop carriers Singapore and Washington, less Lt Col Salsa and 619 Bersaglieri who remained in China. Area of land in Tientsin remained as an Italian concession until the end of the World War II.
12 Sept 1901. Italian Expeditionary Force reached Naples, met with a great welcome by the King and the local population.
1902-1905. The last troops of the Italian Expeditionary Force, under Maj Ameglio, went home to Italy.
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Regia Marina (Royal Navy)
In the Italian Navy at this time every battleship and cruiser had its own Compagnia da Sbarco, (Landing Companies) for amphibious operations. These detachments were formed by ordinary seamen who were given extra training for this role. In major operations these were grouped in provisional Battaglioni da Sbarco. There were no Italian Marines at that time.
Italian sailors from ships which reached the area were landed ad hoc in small parties as available. 1 September 1900 formal Battaglione Marinai or Battaglioni da Sbarco (Naval Battalion or Landing Battalion) was formed in Peking (see above).
The style followed the universal form for all navies at the time, in both dark blue and white. The universal badge of the Italian armed forces was a white or silver five-pointed star, worn in the front corners of the collar. Ratings had the star in the corners of their blue collars, which had two white stripes around the edges. The peakless cap had a band with a small bow on the left side. Trousers were either worn loose or tucked into gaiters.
For landings, leather equipment and gaiters were worn. Photos of Italian sailors in China in landing rig show them in all blue, blue and white together (eg white cap top, blue jumper, white trousers, black gaiters), and all white.
Red embroidery Branch badges, and the chevrons denoting rank, were worn on both upper arms. Petty officers wore one to three gold chevrons, point down, on the upper arms.
Warrant officers wore officers' caps without rank lace. Their jackets had dark blue shoulder brides (patches at right angles to the seam) with one to three gold lace stripes. On the frock coat they wore a single medium-width cuff stripe with the branch badge above.
Officers’ hats were like the British RN; flag officers had broad gold embroidery around the edges, with black ostrich feather plumage. The full-dress garment was a coatee with two rows of five buttons, four of which buttoned, with rank stripes on the sleeves; and the silver regular service star at the ends of the collar, in gold for flag officers. Flag officers wore gold twisted cords on the shoulders, with hanging cords on the right shoulder; the other officers had brides: of plain gold lace for junior officers; of dark blue cloth for senior officers, with a gold edging, and a gold anchor cable in the middle; and gold shoulder scales with a plain or vandyked edging and thin or thick bullions respectively. The dress trousers had gold stripes.
The service coat had the star at the ends of the collar, and rank stripes on the cuffs; it was double-breasted, with two rows of five buttons, and brides, like the double-breasted jacket, which had only three buttons in each row. Officers' peaked cap had gold crowned anchor in a laurel wreath above the peak, and the fairly wide band had the same stripes as on the cuffs around it. Naval officers wore the Savoy blue shoulder sash as in the army.
Weapons & Equipment
The Regia Marina often took a different tack to that of the army in its Ship's Arms Locker equipment. In 1900 sailors were using either M1882 Vetterli-Bertoldo or M1890 Vetterli-Ferracciu rifles. As adopted by the Italian navy, the Bertoldo was M1870 Vetterli with a tube magazine which loaded through the top of the open action. The cleaning rod was fitted in a channel cut into the left side of the fore-end. In 1890 some Vetterli-Bertoldos were converted to Vetterli-Ferracciu, using the 4-round Ferracciu box magazine. The old rifle’s stock was retained, keeping the heavy look, but balance was improved.
An experimental cutlass-bayonet, which had a narrow cup guard so as not to block the firer’s view, was issued for the rifle. A photo shows the Legation guards from the Elba had these rifles but with the normal regulation bayonet. By 1900 some ships had also M1891 Carcano Rifles and 91 TS (Naval Model) Short Rifles.
POs and officers were issue with regulation Bodeo M89 or Glisenti M74 revolvers, or the more recent M99 Mauser Marina (M1896) 7.63x25 Broomhandle Semi-Automatic Pistol. The ‘Broomhandle’ Mauser had an integral box magazine in front of the trigger, a long barrel, a wooden holster which could double as a shoulder stock. The Mauser C96’s shoulder stock, long barrel and high-velocity cartridge gave it superior range and better penetration than most other standard pistols; 7.63x25mm Mauser cartridge were the highest velocity commercially manufactured pistol cartridge in existence. As the Mausers were issued first to ships on ‘Overseas’ postings, ie Africa & China, it is likely they were used in China. Officers were also permitted to privately purchase sidearms. Many did so, resulting in a variety of Brownings, Roths, Mannlichers and German automatics.
Naval officers’ swords had a gilt brass solid half-basket hilt with lion’s head pommel & backpiece, white fish-skin grip bound with gilt wire, prominent tang button in the form of the crown of Italy, slightly curved flat back blade with etched foul anchor surrounded by rays. Black leather scabbard with gilt brass mounts, 2 suspension rings and a long chape. At least one M1868 sword was carried in China and the blade later engraved to commemorate it. POs swords had deeply scalloped plain black grips.
Cutlasses (sciabole da abbordaggio) were based on the French, brass hilt with the guard in 3 bars or branches, pommel in the form of a dolphin head for POs, and a broad slightly curved single-edged blade. The scabbard was black leather with brass top locket, frog stud and long chape, worn, unusually, on a frog from a broad leather shoulder belt.
Boarding axes (accetta da abbordaggio) were still carried, simple blade and spike models with wooden handles. They were carried in a waist ‘frog’ or had a metal belt clip on one side.
Equipment was similar to the army’s in form and construction.
A bugler in a photograph has his bugle slung around his neck on the usual dark (blue?) large-tasselled cords, the bugle resting horizontally across the cartridge boxes.
Italian Naval machineguns and small landing guns were made to be easily taken from their pedestal ship’s mountings and put on 2-wheeled carriages, carried by every ship. Photos of Italian Naval landing parties show guns on a small low 2-wheeled carriage like a mountain gun’s.
Gardner, Gatling and Maxim in 10.4x47 cal Vetterli and 6.5mm Colt M1895 machineguns were all used by the Regia Marina. The Gardner was originally to be used by the China expeditionary force.
The 1-inch 1-pdr Maxim ‘Pom-Pom’ Automatic Cannon was designed as quick-firing Naval deck gun. Developed in 1885 by the Vickers-Maxim Co, it had a manageable rate of fire of 250-300 rpm and a high degree of accuracy to relatively great distances. The gun has a distinctive back-projecting shoulder-rest for the operator and a pistol-grip type trigger mechanism. It was chambered for the existing ‘one-pounder’ 37mm (1.457”) cartridge, as originally designed for the Hotchkiss revolving cannon. The round was black powder with a fuse, which enabled the gunner to see from the smoke where the projectiles were exploding, and thus adjust aim quickly. The guns were made in belt- and hopper-feed versions, and from the rather unclear photos the Italian guns look belt fed. Photos show a gun being pulled manually by a team of sailors in China.
See Artillery for Landing Guns.