go to home page
go to home page

Chapter 14 — THE GREAT WAR
2. China at War

[click] GoTo: YouTube ... (updated: March 2023.)

Tyler writes:

In February 1917 America broke off diplomatic relations with the Central Powers, and it was plain that, with all the world lined up, it would be against China's interests to continue neutral. Thus there would be a new set of duties for the Chinese navy, and I got busy with the matter. I took the initiative in advising in this case; I was not asked to; but it had become a custom that I had the right to do so. So I wrote a memorandum for the Admiral setting forth the probable course of events: a breach of relations followed eventually — absurd as it might seem — by China declaring war against the Central Powers. Judging by what had happened elsewhere in the world it was certain that the captains of German steamers would have instructions to sink their vessels and cause as much inconvenience as they could in an enemy port; and they were likely to try to follow those instructions on a breach of relations.

The Admiral must therefore be prepared, when he got instructions from Peking, to seize the vessels; and if the attempts at destruction were to be frustrated, the seizures must be made with skill.

Sir Francis Aglen was helpfully appreciative of what I did, kept me informed about the situation, gave me good advice and, in general, trusted my discretion.

I do not propose to give the details of this business — though I happen to have most of my dossiers about it — for it would take up too much space to do so. In between the main facts as I give them there was a continuous string of difficulties: there was resentment at the moral pressure I had to bring to bear to get things done; a special Admiral was detailed for the work, and a day or two before the crisis he left, and with no arrangements for continuity; there was opposition from influential Englishmen who considered I was alarmist in my view; and so on. But I pushed steadily ahead, and when things were ready I notified Sir Francis. Two days later — on the 14th March at five o'clock in the morning — an officer brought me a message from the Admiral that diplomatic relations would be broken off that day at noon. Now I had made up my mind that, if the opportunity occurred, the seizure should be effected some hours before the diplomatic breach; but I told no one of it — not even my chief. It was the sort of thing that would never have been sanctioned; the sort of thing to make no one else responsible for; it could only be justified by subsequent proof of fell intent. There was a factor of psychology in this decision. I felt certain that the German captains had instructions to sink their vessels; equally I felt certain that those men — mild in their isolation and comparatively unaffected by the German crowd hypnosis — would not be keen about the doing of it. They would take steps to sink their ships at noon because they had to; but if we seized some hours earlier there would be a good excuse for non-fulfilment of the orders. So when at half-past five that morning I saw the Admiral and his Captains, I advised that they effect the seizure at nine o'clock.

The Senior Naval Officer — the American — and Sir Everard Fraser were informed at once of what was toward. The German Consul-General was to be informed at nine o'clock.

Then I went down river in a motor boat to watch proceedings, without, of course, taking any part in them. It all went like clockwork and without a single regrettable occurrence.(1)
1 The detailed instructions to the boarding officers, which may be of interest to some, are given in Appendix D.

Here is an extract from a leader in the local paper ` It is now evident that an act of difficult executiveness was carried out by the Chinese navy with a degree of discipline and courtliness that would have done credit to the naval forces of any country. Six vessels were taken police charge of, in circumstances where a measure of belligerent action was unquestionably intended, without — as far as we know — a single case of any untoward incident. The action taken was prompt, swift and effective. The need for these qualities is evidenced by the fact that in three vessels out of six preparations had been made for their destruction and for the consequently serious injury to the harbour.

Taken completely by surprise, the officers of the Sikiang were seen to throw their bombs overboard when the Chinese naval guard boarded. This vessel had her gangways hauled up and the boarding was effected by boarding ladders.

On the Deika Rickmers, the Captain, having been warned by the officer of the guard of the advisableness of giving information if he had any explosives on board, decided after an interval of consideration to act on that warning, and he showed the officer four bombs in one of the engine cylinders, the cover of which was removed. Unquestionably from the nature of these bombs — which will be described presently — they were not intended to be used in the cylinder; that was merely their storing place.

On the Albenga one bomb was found inside a boiler and another in the double bottom. This was subsequent to the crew's departure.

We also understand that in each of these three cases the bombs were of identical pattern. They were rectangular tins containing about three pounds of dynamite fitted with a detonator and a length of Bickford fuse — a slow match that would burn for several minutes after ignition. Such a bomb would, we understand, blow a very considerable hole through a ship's bottom, or completely wreck a boiler or engines.

The fact that these bombs were of the same pattern indicates that there was a concerted and organized official scheme to sink the vessels, which was only forestalled by the promptness of the Chinese naval action. We are prepared to believe, however, that individual captains would have been but unwilling agents in the matter.'

I did the examination of the bombs myself. There was one — a single one from a certain steamer — which was purposely not referred to in that leader. The pattern of the case was the same as the others; but it contained no dynamite. Instead it was filled with signal lights, whose only effect would be to make a smell. That captain was determined not to sink his ship; but there were his officers to consider, and later there might be the need to explain why his bomb had not exploded; and those burnt-out signal lights would evidence that the dynamite had been defective.

So that was that; we had set a good example of efficient action, and that in particular is what I wished to do.

Four months went by with no events worth mentioning.

Then on the 14th August Sir Francis telegraphed ` Urgent.

War with Germany Austria declared ten o'clock to-day.'

There had hitherto been no breach with Austria, and she had several liners in the harbour. On the 10th I had written to a new Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Yeo, then at Nanking, asking if, in what was coming, he wished for my advice.

He did, and later had the Government instructions to be guided by it. So I had made my preparations and answered Sir Francis' telegram: ` Preparations for seizure of Austrian ships will be completed to-morrow.' The Austrians took it cheerfully, gave all assistance possible, and they had no bombs.

On the declaration of war an English-speaking official, Mr. Sah, was appointed Taoyin — the Chinese representative in the settlement — and at once got in touch with me; so I had some hope of being able to guide the difficult policy that would be needed in the settlement. I had thought of it for long, as will be seen from the following letter to Sir Francis dated the 20th August:-

` When in April last, war with Germany seemed imminent I was anxious regarding the development of the situation in respect to the authority that would be used within the settlement for extraordinary action.

` Would the settlement authorities realize that it was not the settlement that was at war but China, and that the only authority within the settlement for extraordinary action in connection with a condition of war must be China's? I felt no considerable assurance on this point . . . .'

In view of these considerations I wrote a memorandum on the subject and salted it down. A copy of that memorandum is enclosed. (1)
1 — See Appendix E, which is given as an example of the sort of thing I did.

Later there came a reaction against the state of war. The majority of Chinese officials were pro-German. They liked the way their vanity was pandered to; they liked their birthdays to be remembered with a present; above all, they liked the men who understood the etiquette of bribing and of the arrangement of commissions. So what with this and that, I dropped out of consultation with Mr. Sah.

Sir Everard Fraser knew, of course, that it was I who had been — behind the screen — responsible for what in neutrality affairs he had disapproved of; but that never affected our personal relationship. I think he had a sort of doubtful regard for me; and in spite of all, I had a very real regard for him; liking and approval are two very different things.

In my dealings with Mr. Sah I had Sir Everard's cordial approval, which pleased me very much in view of what had gone before; so I was tempted to try my hand at something else.

The settlement had originally been British; it was we ourselves who made it international. The Municipal Council had by Mr. Alcock's introduction in 1860 been given a status of great dignity; but, as already said, it was replaced by subordination to the Consuls. That change, by itself, might either be a benefit or a detriment; but, coupled with the fact of the growing number of Consuls in the place and that the Consul of Cuba had a vote equal in potency to that of the British Consul-General, it indicated an anomaly at least. In the meantime the Council remained predominantly British.

Now came the war. The enemy Consuls went away; there were left belligerents and neutral, some of the latter pro-German, some not. The Consuls as a body thus became inoperative.

So here was the opportunity — now was the time — to deal with this question if a consideration of it pointed to a desirable change. Tentatively I viewed with favour a reversion to the Alcock principle: a curtailment of the power of the Consuls as a body; a re-institution of the original status of the Council with some provision to secure a greater efficiency in general policy than had been exercised before; and one object of this change would be to increase the British influence in the settlement, where British interests were so much greater than were those of Cuba.

Now I put this matter to Sir Everard; I put it privately, of course, tentatively and academically, as an idea that might be worth considering in view of the great future of the place, and the importance of the foundation of its governance, and the opportunity that was now presented. Again was exhibited a strong difference of judgment. He took my memorandum very seriously and expressed the strongest condemnation of it.

It was at the end of this year of 1917 that the French Government conferred on me the Gold Medal of Honour —

` à vous marquer la reconnaissance du gouvernement français pour les éminents services que, depuis vingt ans que vous appartenez à l'administration des douanes chinoises, vous avez rendu à la Marine française, à la science et à l'humanité.'

The personal explanation was made that, had it not been for the crowded list for Legion of Honour consequent on the war, I would have been given that decoration. Such a very pleasant surprise ! The more so as I knew that I could never hope to get a British recognition.

I had asked, however, some time before, that, in view of my position as an administrative sailor in a foreign service, I be given suitable rank in the Naval Reserve for the use that I could make of it; but the reply was that the regulations had no provision to meet my case.