It is understandable that while South Africa is preoccupied with the centenary of the Anglo-Boer war, another centenary should have gone virtually unnoticed, despite its contribution to the subsequent decline of imperialism. The so-called Boxer Rebellion, which shook China and its foreign tormentors, was the subject of the curtain raiser given by committee member Marjorie Dean at the 8th June society meeting.
By the middle of the 19th century China had declined into a weak, corrupt and deeply divided country that was increasing recommending itself as a target for western imperialism. Britain fought two wars with China (1839-42 and 1856-60) mainly over the right to sell opium to pay for its imports of Chinese tea, and had acquired along with its rivals, valuable trading and territorial concessions..
China was mainly undeveloped, rural and poor, and in 1900 was ravaged by drought. In country areas, harassed by American missionaries, local men began to form secret societies whose rituals were associated with ancient Chinese martial arts. The only martial art known in the West was boxing. So when plotting broke out into open hostilities, this war against foreign interference became known as the Boxer Rebellion..
The Boxers' first target was the imperial capital Peking, now known as Beijing. The Dowager Empress, Tzi Hsi, found herself in a difficult position, having to keep a balance between this new movement, the foreign diplomats and traders, and the numerous princes of her own Manchurian dynasty. Matters came to a head on the night of 9th/10th June 1900 when 20 000 Boxers invaded the city. About 600 foreigners fled to the shelter of the various legations, where they had to depend on the empress's Manchurian troops for protection..
The British Ambassador, Sir Claude McDonald, sent an urgent call for help to Admiral Seymour, who commanded the small British fleet on the China Station. Accompanied by a detachment of Royal Marines, Seymour got the reluctant permission of the Chinese Governor of Tiensin (Tianjin), an inland port less than 160km south of Peking, to mount a rescue operation. At the head of a raggle-taggle army of 2 000 men, comprising British, French, American and even Italian nationals, Seymour set off along the railway, only to find himself and his expeditionary force trapped along the line..
By 15th June Boxer forces were laying mines in the North River (Pei Ho) now the only way open for rescue forces from the coast to reach Peking. On 13th June a scratch force of 5 000 European, American and Japanese troops attacked Tiensin, now in Boxer hands, and demanded the Chinese hand over the coastal forts. The Chinese refused and on 17th June fired on foreign shipping. By now foreigners in Peking were under attack and some had been killed, including the German ambassador. The survivors were now under siege in the British Embassy, where, it was assumed, they had all been massacred. When it was established that this was not the case, another rescue force was organised from Japanese, Russian, American and British (Indian) troops. The siege was lifted on 24th August 1900. The subsequent behaviour of the victors contributed to China's continuing humiliation..
The main lecture of the evening was given by former South African private soldier Harold Miller on his experiences as a prisoner of war in WW2. Harold was working for the Standard Bank in Johannsburg when the war broke out and he volunteered for service in the artillery. He arrived in Egypt in July 1941 as part of the 2nd South African Division. After numerous sorties in the desert, as well as taking part in the battles at Sollum, Bardia and Halfaya, his battery was captured on 13th June 1942. At the time it had been temporarily attached to the British 1st Armoured Division and was fighting tanks over open sights in support of the 2nd Battalion of the Scots Guards..
When his gun had received a direct hit Harold turned to call for an ambulance, only to find himself facing a German tank at the entrance to the gun pit with a crew member standing in the hatch brandishing a revolver..
That was the beginning of his captivity, through which his privations were intense and his stomach perpetually empty. Along with other prisoners he was moved along the coast by the Italians, to whom they had been handed over, to a camp at Suani Ben Adem near Tripoli. Harold stayed in this "hell camp", ase describes it, until mid-November 1942. He was then moved by various stages to Camp 52 in northern Italy. This was a destination with which, he says, he could find no particular fault. "I think we were fairly treated." When Italy changed sides the prisoners were moved to Poland, and although Harold promoted himself to sergeant to avoid having to work, he soon found himself slaving in a coal mine. There, conditions were harsh, and the heat intense. With the approach of the Soviet Red Army in August 1944 Harold was moved to another coal mine where the conditions were equally bad, only this time it was the cold that added to the misery. By January 1945 the Soviet advance resulted in another move, to Bavaria in south-western Germany, a march of 1200km in the depth of a mid-European winter. Here the prisoners were mainly employed in clearing bomb damage..
Deliverance came at the end of April 1945, when the guards abandoned their prisoners in the face of an advancing US Army. After a few weeks Harold was flown to the South African camp at Brighton in England for rehabilitation and eventual repatriation on the Athlone Castle. He rejoined the Standard Bank and was married in April 1946, none the worse for his long captivity, but much enriched in experience of life. They could never have survived if it had not been for Red Cross parcels, he added..
George Barrell (Scribe) (011) 791-2581
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