go to home page
go to home page

2. After The Battle

After the Yalu battle the sad remnant of the fleet limped back — like a wounded animal — to its lair Port Arthur, where the inspecting of the ships and reporting on their damage devolved on me. The Lai Yuen was gutted out by fire. The Tsi Yuen's guns had been disabled by a sledge-hammer to serve as an excuse for her fleeing at the beginning of the battle.

For this and for a previous act of cowardice Fong, her Captain, later had his head cut off. The other ships though riddled were quite serviceable, except for the shortage of their ammunition. But the first thing I did on arrival was to take precautions about M`Giffin. I knew he would become a Yalu-maniac and send telegrams galore, so I arranged for a censorate and was only just in time to stop a message to the world at large that we had won a glorious victory. M`Giffin was injured early in the fight by the blast of the ten-inch guns, while gallantly enough helping the fire brigade — for he was not an executive officer. The shock rendered him completely hors de combat; but otherwise unwounded. That, however, did not prevent him from writing articles giving wondrous but entirely imaginary descriptions of what he had seen and done, and illustrations of himself with his many bandaged wounds.

He lectured at an American staff college and succeeded in being taken quite seriously for a time. It was a curious case of partial brain affection; but he was queer before the fight.

Later he shot himself, poor chap.

We buried Nicholls with naval honours, and I read the burial service so as to serve for Purvis also. Then, because defeat had been accepted, because we knew that nothing more would happen for some time to come, and because we both were badly knocked about, von Hanneken and I proceeded to Tientsin.

Perhaps the real truth about the fight was hidden from the Throne, or perhaps the idea was to encourage us to further efforts; but whatever was the reason, von Hanneken and I got the Order of the Peacock's Feather and the Double Dragon and thus was fulfilled my father's curious prophecy.

K'ung Ch'ueh Ling (the Peacock Feather): the highest distinction available to servants of the state, Chinese and foreigners alike. Awarded in three classes as follows:
San Hen Hua Ling (the three eyed peacock feather) - Princes of the Blood of the first six ranks, distinguished officials or military leaders.
Shuang Yen Hua Ling (the double eyed peacock feather) - in recognition of public service.
Tan Yen Hua Ling (the single eyed peacock feather) - in recognition of public service, but frequently obtained by direct purchase.

Now came a very wretched time for me.

Both my ear drums were ruptured; never again would I take part in a general conversation or adequately hear a concert; my heart pumped like a water-ram and I thought it was affected, but it was not.

Of course, it was my nerves — a minor form of shell-shock, but the word was not then known. I could say a lot about that foul complaint and the cruel foolishness of doctors in regard to it; for there was I in that condition, unhelped by adequate advice, fighting against the hopelessness which is the most disgusting feature of the thing, and very miserable. I think I did not show it much; but in that state I had to make decisions.

Von Hanneken had decided not to rejoin the fleet. I could not blame him; he was a soldier, and now proposed to form a foreign officered battalion, which became nicknamed the Salvation Army.' He wanted me to be a Major in it. I did not know then that he thought, if I rejoined the fleet, it would reflect on him for not doing the same. Of course, I never thought of such a thing. It was twenty years later, after a growing coldness of manner on the rare occasions that I met him, that he suddenly and apropos of nothing blurted out that by rejoining I had not played the game with him, and that on me rested the responsibility for the loss of reputation with the Chinese that he had suffered from. It was most distressing, for I had the highest regard for him; and of course it was most unjust.

I refused the Majorship because I felt my place was with the fleet. I felt it but did not think it, and there is a big difference between the two. There was not a dog's chance for the fleet. Weihaiwei would be attacked by an invasion of the peninsula; the place would fall inevitably and our ships would either be destroyed or given up. This was not a mere opinion it was absolutely certain. On the other hand, there was that surly old Scotsman Howard — surly to me at all events — an engineer on shore, who would certainly stay till the bitter end there was my friend Kirk, the hospital doctor, who could not go away; and now my friend Basse joined. I am describing the hesitation inspired by my condition of health; in the end it came to that factor which must have been the basis of so many decisions. Should I regret it for ever if I did not ? There could only be one answer to that question. Yet my doubt and hesitation was only in respect to returning of my own accord, for I find this forgotten entry in my diary: '11th November. In the evening von Hanneken sent for me and asked if I would rejoin the fleet; he said that Ting and the Viceroy had asked whether I would, and Ting had promised that, if I returned, I should really be Executive officer. I told him in reply that I had always said that if I was wanted I would go, and that was still my answer.'

Detring was with von Hanneken, and both looked somewhat strained. There was silence for a moment and von Hanneken fiddled with his pencil as if he were choosing words. I think I ought to tell you that it has been decided to send M'Clure as Co-Admiral.' The words reached me as a shock, and I felt very angry. Ought to tell me? You ought to have told me before I gave you my decision. To keep it back was a rotten thing to do. I doubt if I would have gone if I had known of this before; but I have said I'd go and I not draw back.'

Detring glared at me and left the room in anger at my words, and slammed the door. Von Hanneken was tactful and explained that it was not his doing. Later in the day I met Detring in the street. He stopped me: 'You are a very foolish young man; you do not realize where your interests lie.' — ` Mr. Detring, if you want men who'll fight, you cannot expect them to be lambs as well.' For a moment he looked astonished, then smiled, shook my hand heartily without another word, and thereafter our relationship was excellent.

The trouble was that M'Clure was the skipper of a local tug-boat, and little more if nothing less. He had been a coasting captain and presumably was a man of some reputable family, for socially he was persona grata with the Detring family; but he was past middle age, and it was well known that at one time he had drunk heavily. The old sportsman doubtless jumped at the opportunity of this grand adventure; but it was a cruel and stupid thing to send him on such a mission, and especially cruel to Ting. A relapse to drinking was a certainty; we all knew that it must happen — all except Detring in his absurd Bismarckian rôle. What von Hanneken thought I never knew. It can be admitted that the difficulty of the situation was very great. Without a foreign Co-Admiral Ting's head would be in danger. The choice lay apparently between M'Clure and myself; to appoint me offered serious difficulties — there was my youth and the fact that I was Commander of the Flagship. I should have loathed the absurdity of the post, yet it would have been the lesser evil of the two.

M'CIure made no history good or bad. We should, under leadership, have made a better stand at Weihaiwei and got some credit out of it; but nothing could have saved the situation. And presumably M'Clure served his main purpose of saving Ting from execution.

Li Hung-chang's modern army — German trained and skilled in goose-step and parades — was defeated in Korea; and now one saw the pathetic sight of troops from neighbouring provinces marching to the front — troops in old-time uniforms, their rifles and their packs in carts. They had passed through a district where little birds, tied by the leg to a strip of bent bamboo, were sold; and nearly every soldier carried one of these, and all had a fan stuck slant-wise in the back of the collar of their coats: and so they marched to war.

In a sense it was Li Hung-chang and not China that was fighting, and it may well have been that the majority of the Chinese people knew nothing of the war. But in the north they knew, of course, about it; and at Newchwang, the northernmost treaty port in China,

an old Major was considering the situation. He had charge of the fort commanding the entrance to the Liao river. The fort was old and dilapidated it was only made of mud, and its armament consisted of a few old cast-iron guns. But it was a fort and there was war; so on his shoulders now rested great responsibilities; quite plainly he must pull up his socks, eschew opium and keep his weather-eye lifting. Yet he hoped with earnestness that great issues would not fall on him for settlement. But luck was not his way; for on the wide mud flat which lay between his fortress and the sea, on which hitherto he had rarely seen a soul, there now appeared each evening a group of foreigners, whose actions were undoubtedly mysterious and suspicious.

He watched them with his telescope, and in the morning, when the place was clear, he scrutinized the little holes and the larger banks which they had made and the flags that they had left behind. Then he sat down and wrote a formal letter to the Taotai, reporting what had happened.

'He would have felt it his duty to report in any case, but doubly so in these very critical times. The foreigners had made small cylindrical holes in the ground and carefully and skilfully lined them with metal; they had dug short trenches here and there — a most suspicious fact. They were each armed with various shaped weapons, with which they propelled white projectiles for long distances. The whole proceeding was most mysterious and he could form no opinion as to what it meant. He could not say for certain that these operations were connected with the war, but he begged the Taotai to instruct him what to do.'

On receipt of the letter, the Taotai sent it to the Senior Consul with a covering despatch referring to the war and the need for utmost caution. He concluded by saying that whatever might be the purpose of the operations on the mud flats, they must now be stopped. Would the Senior Consul please take note and the necessary action.

The Senior Consul was an Englishman. He would reply very formally and politely, but one can imagine the inner sense of what he wrote would be something like this My dear Taotai, that old Major of yours is really rather a silly ass.

What my co-nationals are doing is playing a well-known game which is played at every other port. It is usually done on grass, but as none exists here they are making the best they can of that deserted mud flat. They are merely amusing themselves that is all. I regret that permission was not first applied for and beg to ask it now; but unless I hear further from you I propose to take no action.'

The Senior Consul's letter was now sent to the Major with instructions from the Taotai for a further report by the light of the information given in it. So once more the old man took his brush in hand and wrote those upright columns of complicated characters. I am an ignorant soldier, and this problem is beyond me. If these operations have no military significance, I have wondered whether they might not be connected with prospecting for minerals. It is the only suggestion I can make. As for the Senior Consul's so-called explanation, I have admitted that my ignorance disables me from saying what they are doing; but it is not so great as to disable me from saying, quite positively and without a shadow of doubt about the matter, that they are not amusing themselves.'