The Seymour Expedition was an attempt by a multi-national military force to march to Beijing and protect the diplomatic legations and foreign nationals in the city from attacks by Boxers in 1900. The Chinese army defeated Seymour's expedition and forced it to return to Tianjin (Tientsin).
In May and early June 1900 Boxer bands advanced on Beijing. The Qing dynasty was ambivalent about the Boxers, fearing that they might become anti-Qing. The Boxers became a serious threat to Western and Japanese citizens as well as Chinese Christians living in northern China. The diplomatic Legations in Beijing requested that Guards be sent to protect them and more than 400 marines and naval troops from eight countries arrived in Beijing on May 31. However, as the threat from the Boxers increased, it became apparent that additional troops were needed. On June 9 Sir Claude Maxwell MacDonald, the British Minister, cabled Vice-Admiral Edward Hobart Seymour, commander of the British Navy's China Station, that the situation in Beijing was becoming more serious and that troops should be landed with all arrangements made for an advance to Peking [Beijing] at once.
Responding to MacDonald's message, Seymour assembled in 24 hours a force of more than 2,000 Sailors and Marines from European, American and Japanese warships and prepared to embark for Beijing from Tianjin, 75 miles away, by train. His force consisted of 916 British, 455 Germans, 326 Russians, 158 French, 112 Americans, 54 Japanese, 41 Italians and 26 Austrians. Seymour's Chief of Staff was Capt. John Jellicoe. The commander of the Americans in the expedition was Captain Bowman H. McCalla, USN.
The diplomats in Beijing anticipated that Seymour would arrive there on June 11. Acting without the Chinese Imperial court's permission, they had, in effect, launched an invasion. The Chinese response was decisive.
Seymour commandeered five trains in Tianjin and departed for Beijing with his entire force on the morning of 10 June. The first day the soldiers travelled 25 miles without incident, crossing a bridge at Yancun over the Hai River unopposed, although Chinese Gen. Nie Shicheng and thousands of his soldiers were camped there, Nie's soldiers were "friendly" and did not attack. The next few days went slowly, as Seymour had to repair railroad tracks and fight off Boxer attacks as his trains advanced. On June 14 several hundred Boxers armed with swords, spears and clumsy gingals attacked Seymour twice and killed five Italian soldiers. The Americans counted 102 Boxer bodies left on the battlefield at the end of one battle. Seymour continued to repair tracks and advanced very slowly. Chinese Gen. Nie let Seymour's army slip past in trains, because Ronglu had deliberately issued contradictory orders that left Nie confused.
The Chinese government had reversed its earlier positions after learning of the invasion, deciding to absorb Boxers forces and order the army to defend against Seymour's march to the capital.
Gen. Dong Fuxiang, along with his Kansu (Chinese Muslim) Braves, prepared to ambush the invading western army. Gen. Ma Fuxiang and Gen. Ma Fulu personally planned and led the attack, with a pincer movement around the European force. On June 18 Dong Fuxiang's troops, stationed at Hunting Park in southern Beijing, attacked at multiple points including Langfang. The force of 5,000 included cavalrymen armed with modern rifles. The foreign troops, especially the Germans, fought off the attack, killing hundreds of Chinese at a loss of seven dead and 57 wounded. The Kansu Braves lost 200 and the Boxers another 200. The Boxers directly and relentlessly charged the allies during the attack, unnerving them. The need to care for the wounded, a lack of supplies, and the likelihood of additional Chinese attacks led Seymour and his officers to decide to retreat to Tientsin. The Chinese army's unexpected attack on Seymour was a response to the European and Japanese attack on the Dagu Forts two days previously. As a result of the attack in Dagu, the Chinese government decided to resist Seymour's army and kill or expel all foreigners in northern China.
During one of the battles at Langfang, Boxers armed with swords and spears charged the British and Americans, who were armed with modern firearms, the British with .303 Lee-Metford rifles, the Americans with the M1895 Lee Navy. At point-blank range one British soldier had to fire four bullets into a Boxer before he stopped, and American Capt. Bowman McCalla reported that single rifle shots were not enough: multiple rifle shots were needed to halt a Boxer.
Seymour turned his five trains around and headed back toward Tianjin. However, he found that the Boxers, or the Chinese Army, had destroyed the bridge across the Hai River he had crossed a few days before. Seymour and his officers had a decision to make: to cross the river by boat and walk 18 miles to Tianjin along the railroad, or follow the river 30 miles to Tianjin. The sailors, perhaps more comfortable near water, chose to follow the river, although the railroad route was shorter and ran through open country. Along the heavily populated river banks were large Boxer forces in villages every one-half mile.
Seymour's retreat down the Hai River was slow and difficult, covering only three miles the first day. Additional casualties included Capt. Jellicoe, who suffered a near fatal wound. By June 22 the soldiers were out of food and down to fewer than 10 rounds of ammunition per man, except for the Americans who had brought ample ammunition. However, "there was no thought of surrender," said Lt. Wurtzbaugh. "The intention was to fight to the last with the bayonet."
Seymour's 2,000 soldiers might have perished along the river except for a chance encounter. On June 23, six miles from Tianjin, Seymour came across the Chinese army's Xigu fort and arsenal which, inexplicably, was nearly undefended. The foreign soldiers took refuge in the arsenal, which contained a wealth of arms and ammunition in addition to some food. Realizing their mistake in leaving the arsenal undefended, the Chinese army attempted to dislodge Seymour's forces, which were now well provisioned and so repelled the Chinese attacks.
A Chinese servant of the British slipped through to Tianjin and requested rescue for Seymour. A force of 2000 Allied soldiers marched out of the city to the arsenal on June 25, and next day escorted Seymour's men back to Tianjin. The Chinese did not oppose their passage. A missionary reported their arrival in Tianjin: "I shall never forget to my dying day, the long string of dusty travel-worn soldiers, who for a fortnight had been living on quarter rations, and fighting every day . . . the men were met by kind ladies with pails of tea which the poor fellows drunk as they had never drunk before - some bursting into tears." Seymour's casualties were 62 dead and 232 wounded.
The besieged foreigners in the Legations in Beijing thought that Seymour was close to them and that they were going to be saved, oblivious to the defeat of Seymour's forces.
The Chinese government at the time did not know either that their own forces had halted Seymour's armies in their tracks.
The Seymour Expedition was "a serious failure." and a "humiliation". Seymour underestimated his Chinese opponent, trusting that he could push through to Beijing quickly with little or no opposition. Instead, "Seymour's expedition became a large moving target for the Boxers and Imperial troops. The would-be rescuers now required rescue themselves." The Western and Japanese soldiers and civilians in Beijing were subjected to a 55-day siege by the Boxers and Chinese army, and it took more than a month after Seymour's rescue to organize another larger and better equipped army to defeat the Chinese and march on Beijing to relieve the siege.
The Boxers charged the foreigners with swords, spears, rifles, and gingalls; most of them were boys and common peasants, rather than professional troops, taking up arms against the invaders. The Boxers sometimes faked death and then sprang back up at the troops to attack; an Allied soldier, Bigham, said they had no "fear" or "hesitation".
The expedition failed for several reasons. The main reason was the foreign underestimation of Chinese resistance, which they had not thought at all likely or possible to such a degree. The London Spectator pointed out that the expedition was "to embark on the assumption that any force of Europeans however small can beat any force of Chinamen however large." Further reasons include the lack of communication between the expedition and Tianjin-based command, due to the cutting of telegraph lines, the overreliance on rail transport and lack of preparedness in guarding the railway lines, and the overall lack of strategic planning and vision of Admiral Seymour.
Report of Seymour to Admiralty, China No. 3 (1000), no. 219.