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1. The Beginning

WEIHAIWEI was a secondary naval port inasmuch as it had no dry dock nor workshops for heavy repairs; but for training and administrative purposes it was so much more convenient than Port Arthur — with its constricted area and narrow entrance — that it was the one more used.

The port takes its name from a small walled city which lies on the western extremity of a bay. This bay, some six miles wide and four miles deep, is open to the north-east except in so far as it is sheltered by Liukungtao Island which lies across its mouth. It was on this island that the naval establishments existed — the Admiral's offices and residence, a hospital and repairing shops for minor works. There also were the Yamens of the Taotais — civil administration officials — and of the General Commanding.

A little town had come into existence — shops of all kinds, one kept by a German, and there was a foreign club to meet the needs of the score or so of foreigners that in one way or the other were connected with the place.

Both Liukungtao and the mainland, and also the islet Itau, which lay in the middle of the Eastern Entrance, were strongly fortified, this work having been done by von Hanneken a few years before. It was all quite up to date except for two curious omissions. The southern mainland forts were unprotected on their inland side, from which in a war attack could be expected, and on the island and elsewhere there was no provision for finding the range.

In the summer Weihaiwei is a delightful spot — it is a resort of Shanghai foreign residents today — but in the winter with blizzards from the north, when the shore was clad in snow and fringed with frozen slush, and communication between ship and shore was difficult, it was a very dreary place.

The country to the north and west of the city is mountainous, then comes a sweep of beach between the city and the site of the Southern forts situated on low cliffs with undulating land stretching to the mountains in the south.

When I rejoined the Flagship there I was very warmly welcomed. They thought something of the fact that the Yalu fight had not caused me to desert them,' and Liu Poo-chin, in spite of our past relationship, was very friendly and Ting was charming to me.

Of the Yalu battle there were but a few disjointed incidents to tell. In this Weihaiwei affair the case is very different.

Here I am embarrassed by the plethora of material I possess, both in memory and in records. The Yalu battle was a single canvas as it were; Weihaiwei was a cinematograph fluttering for three months long. [click]

I rejoined on the 19th November, and I was now supposed to be senior executive officer, with Li Ting-sing to help me; but in reality it never quite came to that, though I had considerable authority. Those two months before the Japanese attacked were very busy ones for me: re-stowing shell rooms, gauging projectiles and finding many misfits; getting watertight doors in order; fire arrangements; cleaning the lower deck and flats, which had become very dirty. The ship had gone back badly since I left her at Port Arthur. Above all, the men were out of hand; they meant to fight, of that there was no doubt; but there was staleness between them and their officers. They obeyed such orders as they knew were needed for the working of the ship; there was nothing like a mutiny and the ship's police remained effective with some curious limitations, for certain orders were quite deliberately ignored by the men en masse. It was a condition that could not have existed elsewhere than in a Chinese ship.

1 — I was the only foreigner who served at both the Yalu battle and the siege of Weihaiwei.

Li Ting-sing could not go to the flats where the men were quartered — it would be as much as his life was worth, he quite frankly stated; control had gradually slipped from him, and to regain it now was impossible. My sympathies were strongly with him; he was vastly distressed and very frank about his difficulties.

The job I had to tackle meant failure or success. There could be nothing in between, but I thought my chances good, for the men were keen as mustard for a fight and they knew their officers were not; they wanted leadership and not mere orders. As I went down to that lower deck where the men were disobeying orders by making tea in their little charcoal stoves at the wrong time of the day, I think I felt a squirm of doubt. But such fear as I had was inspiring; the thing was a great adventure. I judged it best and safest to take no one with me. I spoke to them in English, which many of the Petty Officers knew from the days of Lang. ` Now up you get on deck.' The groups squatting round their stoves looked up with a somewhat doubtful scowling. I kicked over a stove and sent the burning charcoal flying; kicked over three or four of them. I grinned cheerfully at most of them and scowled at those who showed resentment and cuffed their heads; and all the time I emitted strings of English oaths — the only onomatopoeic language in the world, which all can understand. After the first impact and momentary hesitation they took it like a joke. A few stayed behind to pick up the burning charcoal. The rest scuttled up on deck, laughing at the entertainment, where Li took charge of them.

A quite important principle was involved in this affair.

If I had takén Li or the Master-at-Arms with me, I should have had to deal with a crowd of one mentality in its resentment to those two. By going alone I dealt not with a crowd, but with an aggregate of individuals. There was no crowd hypnosis.

What little there may have formed, within the week or so that I had been on board, would tend to be in my favour; and so the thing came off. Thereafter discipline improved, though it never became anything to boast about.

There remained the factor of punishments; they were vindictive. Delinquents were slashed on the shoulders by swords or flogged so that one out of three died, and apart from other considerations these people, plus the crowd of malingerers — whom the Chinese doctors could not deal with — overflowed the sick-bay. I discussed the thing with Li; the sword slashing and the barbarous flogging had to be stopped; for otherwise I could not stay. Li and the Commodore agreed. Flogging was retained with greatly limited strokes and so as not to disable the men for more than a day or two, and the main punishment now adopted with my concurrence was that of chain-kneeling. Small chain was flaked on deck, the wretched culprit had to kneel on it and, if he squatted on his heels, the sentry pricked him with his bayonet in the tail. Half an hour of it was ample; it inflicted pain but not an injury.

The next problem was that of the large number of malingerers — a difficult proposition, for even a doctor may be in doubt about such cases. The solution of the problem was my own.

I had them fallen in on deck, sent for a bucket of engine-room castor-oil — the most nauseating stuff imaginable — and forced each man to drink a half-tumbler of it. It was not that they would not drink this awful stuff, they simply could not; so it was administered as one gives medicine to a dog. Two days later the sick-bay was nearly empty.

With Li Ting-sing supporting me and on good terms with the Commodore, I had no trouble with the officers, with one solitary exception. I sent for a Lieutenant and he did not come, and on being sent for again, he came and was insolent.

The matter was reported to the Admiral, who expressed great regret and said he would consider what should be done. Then he sent for me and asked what I advised. I recommended the full penalty of war time — death. Again he sent for me and in effect he said: ` I made a mistake in asking your opinion; it would not be right for you to be both accuser and the judge; in such a case there can be nothing between death and an apology. Will you be satisfied with the latter in a public form ? ' Thus that dear old man who tried so hard to do his duty. Of course I gladly acquiesced. In later years I had considerable dealings with that officer, but we never spoke of Weihaiwei.

On the 20th January the Japanese landed at the N.E. Promontory some forty miles from Weihaiwei; but it was not until the 30th that they actually attacked us. I had always assumed that they would attack, but I had come to hope that they might not do so. There were no grounds for this hope, only a cause: I now knew with certainty that the forts on the mainland would not fight. They would be evacuated without a blow; and then, unless they were first destroyed, their heavy guns would be used against us. So I urged provision for the destruction of guns and magazines when evacuation took place. There was much opposition to this scheme, but eventually Ting agreed and placed the matter in my hands. Soon after, however, I undertook night patrol duty and handed over demolition work to Howie the American.

With him were gunners Thomas and Walpole, Lieutenant Choo and some warrant officers and men. They did the work at a great risk, for on more than one occasion they were nearly murdered by the soldiers. Let us look ahead and see what happened as to this. The forts were evacuated one by one without a blow, but when the demolition party entered they found the wires cut and the batteries broken. There were traitors in those forts. I had anticipated it, and to Li, a Ting Yuen's gunner, who was the first to volunteer for demolition work, I explained the likelihood of treachery and the need to guard against it. ` You no wanchee fear. S'pose cuttee wire, I no savey what thing do for gun. But magazine b'long easy.

I usee joss stick.'
This means: ` You need not fear I won't do my job. If traitors cut the electric wires to the charges in the guns I don't know what I shall be able to do about that; but about the magazine the thing is easy. I'll fire it with a joss stick.' But he did not; he fired it with the flash from a pistol; and there you have the real Chinese in the raw.

Howie was a man of extraordinary daring. The rest of us, I think, took risks because self-respect demanded that we should. Howie took them because he liked them. He had arrived at Weihaiwei with an American inventor of a scheme to destroy our opponents' vessels. A gunboat fitted like a watering cart was to sprinkle a special chemical on the surface of the sea; the enemy was somehow to be inveigled into coming on the treated area, and with the detonation of the film their ships would be destroyed. The stock of chemical for this mad scheme was burnt in Chefoo harbour, and doubtless at the instance of the Japanese. So that was the end of that affair; but Howie begged to stay and help in any way he could, and without pay.

When the Japanese landed at the Promontory, there was an exodus of those Chinese who considered they were entitled to leave. Among these, curiously enough, were the doctors, dressers and the rest of the hospital staff. Their argument was this: they were under the Taotai, the civil official, not under the General or the Admiral; they were civil servants.

Had it been intended that they should be militant, other administrative arrangements would have been provided.

Apparently no attempt was made to keep them.

Ting held a council of his Captains — I was never invited to these — and it was decided not to attempt to interfere with the enemy landing. The fleet was to be kept to defend the harbour. There were some reasons, of course, for this decision.

The battleship Chen Yuen

had some time before struck a rock and holed herself. The damage was merely patched by divers; we had no dock; she was not considered seaworthy. Of other vessels only Ting Yuen, Ching Yuen, Tsi Yuen and Lai Yuen could be called effective, and we had three small torpedo boats. These alone, well handled, should have been able to inflict serious damage among the transports, whatever might be the covering enemy fleet; but they would certainly be destroyed — except perhaps the Ting Yuen; and Weihaiwei would merely fall the quicker for the deed. Then there was the question of the future. The war was already lost; China would have had her drastic lesson; there was a central government in those days, and the authority of the vermilion pencil ran throughout the length of the great land. Surely the foundations of another fleet would be laid at once; but if all the officers were now killed there would be no nucleus for it.

That was a reason of some potency; but all these reasons — good or bad — were but covering excuses. The fact is we did not want to fight. Even the desperate Howie did not urge the thing on me.

It is, however, recorded in my diary that I thought we ought to do it. I think if I had been responsible I should have felt the obligation. It would, if well done — a very doubtful if — have provided a minor epic that might prove more useful to the country, in the end, than that nucleus of officers. But I was not responsible; I was not called in council. Yet, had I wished, I could have got a hearing and pressed the matter.

But I did not. Not only so; I heaved a sigh of relief when I heard we were going to funk it in the harbour; but as a set off against that confession let it be said that Howie and I with the four British bluejacket gunners at our back were prepared for any reasonable adventure that we controlled ourselves. We had a shot at two and failed — as will be told. All this about what we might have done but did not has no historic interest.

The Yalu made history; Weihaiwei did not. I give the story merely as a human document.

Events moved quickly and were recorded fully in my diary, daily and even hourly; but yet, as already stated, there are curious hiatuses — the leaving out of all personal experiences which were not factors in the issue. The mutiny of the Ting Yuen is but faintly touched upon; once I nearly had my head cut off, but I can barely trace the date of that affair. There is a third adventure of which not one word is entered; but searching the recesses of my memory I find an explanation. The venture was a failure; there was more than annoyance in the matter; there was shame of sorts. I had got the Admiral's authority for independent action and had made a mess of it, so I threw it from my mind and made no entry of it. The episode was this: — When the council decided that the fleet should not go out, Howie and I talked the matter over. We thought something should be done to mark the event. There were three torpedo boats in order. If we each took one and put an English gunner in the other, we might have a shot at doing something with those transports. I put the thing to the Admiral and he, of course, agreed. The idea was that I should lead; if I attacked, the other two would do the same; if I concluded it was not good enough, we should all turn back.

Signals were arranged for these two possibilities and our speed was fixed. So we started; Gunner Mellows, I think, being in the third boat. Of course we had no lights, and the night was very dark. It was near the Promontory that I Iost touch with my next-astern with Howie in her; there may have been a mist; presumably I signalled, and eventually slowed down.

My memory is blank about these things. I only know that after a time I gave it up and turned back for Weihaiwei. One of our boats arrived before me, the other later; we had all lost touch of one another. So that was that, and I made no entry of it in my diary, which is significant of how I felt about it.