The History of the China Command 1911
Courtesy of the Australian Division
* Copyright 1995 Lt. Col. (LF) J. Henley, ACM, AMM, GCdO. Legion Press (1995)
When we talk of China today it is a country we tend to think of in terms of semi-modernisation, a vast party state bureaucracy with a rigid law and order policy. It also seems to have a huge population who wear Chairman 'Mao' hats and coats with their main form of transport being bicycles.
Not so long ago however, it was perceived of very differently. It was thought of as a country with a largely peasant population under a 300 year old Manchu Dynasty, rich in treasure, with ancient monuments covering the landscape. Images of river junks, mountains made of jade with mist covered peaks or beautiful woman with golden skin and lustrous dark hair wearing silk "Chang Fu" dresses would fill the minds of men when the word "China" was mentioned.
Even the names of its cities seem to cast a spell over some with such exotic and unpronounceable titles as Shaouang, Wanshowkung or Tingszikiag. This was a country of magic, where fortunes could be made in Chinese silver "Taels". So came the fortune hunters as did the missionaries, traders, soldiers and politicians.
Before the Legion of Frontiersmen were formed General Charles Gordon whose connection to the Legion is well known through the legend of the motto on his ring was to serve in this country. It was here during the Taiping Rebellion (1850 - 1864) that he gained the title "Chinese" Gordon for his commanding of 4,000 irregular troops against a larger rebel force which he defeated.
Within three years of the founding of the Legion of Frontiersmen in 1904, a "China Seas Command" was established in 1907. This was organised by a Captain Walter Kirton in Shanghai. Although not much is recorded about these first years, one of the most well known stories about the Legion in China at this time would seem to be that of a Frontiersmen named Charles Manson. It is reported that he was employed by the Imperial Customs and stationed at Yang-Tse where he obtained much information which he sent through Legion channels to England. Eventually he became involved with a group called "The Triad" (a political party whom had been established in the 1850's), their objective was to overthrow the Manchu Dynasty. Mason found himself commanding three Battalions of their irregular troops.
About this time it is reputed that he inherited £7,500 with which he travelled to Hong Kong and purchased small arms and ammunition. These were shipped on a coastal steamer bach to mainland China. However when it neared the forts of Woo Sung, two Chinese cruisers escorted the steamer into Shanghai. He is said to have then gone ashore with a servant carrying two cases of revolvers slung from the ends of a bamboo pole. He took these to his home, but was betrayed and sentenced to the Consular Prison at Shanghai. He was then deported to England.
He was succeeded as leader of the Triad rebels he commanded by Doctor Sun Yat Sen who established a new party called the "Tung Meng Hui" (Brotherhood League) in the early 1900's. Dr. Sen was to become the first president of the Republic of China in 1911. In England Mason took part in Legion activities for some time but then left for abroad again.
By 1909 the Legion in China had become the "Far East Command" (covering China, Hong Kong, Kobe and Singapore). It was now commanded by a Lt. Col. R. Bate, FRGS. Bate was a former Royal Naval Officer whom had also served in the Field Force during the Boer War. The Headquarters for the Legion was now in Newchwang. This town was in the region the Chinese called the North East Provinces but it is more commonly known by its Japanese name of Manchuria.
The Legion noted signs of civil unrest and as early as 1910 requested from the War Office (UK) that they should have first call to any stored arms in time of trouble. The War Office pointed out that the Legion was a civil organisation and that no such request could be acceded to, they then made discreet further enquiries and sarcastically noted that the Far East Command was only 32 men.
However the Legions assistance during the Chinese revolution is well documented by the many intelligence reports sent from Tientsin to London, which no doubt the War Office would also have found of interest.
In 1911 with the Legion Headquarters relocated at Tientsin about 500 km south of their old position and now in the Province of Hopei, the civil war began in earnest. The Legion of Frontiersmen were immediately ready for active service, they had field units in over ten main towns across China. including:
"Headquarters" in Tientsin with a seperate Intelligence Unit
"A" Division in Newchwang (Manchuria Province)
"B" Division in Tientsin (Hopei Province)
"C" Division in Shanghai (Kiangsu Province)
"D" Division in Hong Kong (Crown Colony)
"G" Division - Maritime Unit in Shanghai (Kiangsu Province)
"H" Division- Engineering Unit in Shanghai (Kiangsu Province)
One member of the Maritime Division was Frontiersmen D. Palmer who in April 1911 was serving on the ship "Meifoo" when it was run into by the "Kwanglee" and sunk. Frontiersmen Palmer was to save the life of the Chief Officer Mr. Smith and also the lives of others on board as the "Meifoo" was going under. As a result of this act he was awarded the Royal Humane Society Stanhope Silver Medal.
Other rescues were also made by the Legion on Land when a Legion Expeditionary Unit of nine men under Lt. Arthur De Carle Sowerby was dispatched to the Western Province of Shensi. Their task being the relief of two missionaries cut off by rebel forces. A report of this action by 2/Lt. Denver-Jones who was part of this Expeditionary Unit stated:
"On arriving at Yennan Fu we found that the missionaries Borst and Smiths had already left. The country being over-run with bands of robbers and other undesirables Sowerby felt it inadvisable that they should go far unaccompanied and detailed Key and Palmer to try to catch up with them and rejoin us. This they did overtaking the missionaries the following day and contacting us two days later. When we arrived at Ichun they took us for bandits and the city gates were shut on us. We expected to be fired on at any moment and probably would have been had not Sowerby with his usual coolness and courage, ridden up to the muzzles of their guns and convinced them that we were on a peaceful errand. It was one of the bravest things I have ever seen. About this time we were always meeting armed bands but they sheered off after one look at us, deciding that we were tougher than they were. On one occasion Palmer was cut off from the main body by one of these gangs but when they found him to be a foreigner - and when they saw him bring his revolver into action! - they let him go".
Both the British and Swedish Consuls appreciated the return of their nationals and in a letter to Lt. Sowerby stated:
"Sir - We beg that you will accept for yourself and will convey individually to Messrs. Nystrom, Long, Evans, Warrington, Denver-Jones, Fairburn, Keyte and Palmer our heartfelt thanks for the valuable service your party has rendered to the British and Swedish Governments by undertaking the relief of the missionaries in Shensi. We have kept our Governments as fully informed as possible of the progress of your expedition and now that we have the pleasure of welcoming your safe return with the parties rescued from different parts of the Province we shall not fail to express to yourselves our appreciation of your courage and devotion which has enabled you and your companions to carry your undertaking to a successful conclusion".
The extent of active service the Legion undertook during this period can be judged by the report sent from Lt. Col. Bate to Imperial Headquarters in London in which he stated:
"Grave development anticipated here. Big slaughter of Manchus feared American Consul General accepts offer of Legion guard Tientsin. Scott informs Legion guarding British Consulate Kiukang. Hollandby doing everything necessary Shanghai. Baytagh isolated Ichang. Trouble expected Tientsin if Government forces defeated Hankow. Far East Command putting up fine show".
The Legion's service was not however without its own casualties, a Frontiersman Nicholson from "G" Division was killed in action whilst defending his ship from attackers. He killed four of the enemy before being fatally shot.
The service of the Legion continued into 1912 with regular reports to Headquarters Tientsin. In July 1912 Sgt. Dyson in Wuhu reported riots, of which he gave a very detailed description as could only have been obtained by having an observer at the site. It included "200 soldiers mutinied, 4 shops burned, ten shops looted, 80 mutineers captured. Indefatigably trying to glean all information possible".
Captain Hunt in Newchwang reported "Three days ago many Japanese troops passed up north with guns. All non-Russians are being expelled from Siberia by various methods. Preparations can only be for the purpose of holding the country against some countries other than Japan of Russia".
Lt. Anderson in Tientsin received a "Special" appointment with the Chinese Government which was to take him all over China. He was also authorised by Lt. Col. Bate to contact any Legion units and obtain information from them during this tour.
Lt. Col. Bate himself stated in a letter to Captain Burton in "B" Division that:
"As I looked at the men assembled I was struck by the combined experience of the gathering to say nothing of the all round hard fitness of all there, and am quite confident that every man in the Tientsin Division will render a good account of himself if called upon to do so."
"I understand from high quarters that you will be used in the next big trouble and for very important work, which I know will be welcomed by you, and in conclusion I congratulate you and your Division for the way you respond and hope to see you on active service in the near future".
For an organisation whom the War Office referred to as "only 32 men who were not prepared to take part in any officially organised scheme", the Far East Command seem to have been very well organised in conducting a form of warfare which had few fronts or flanks but which seemed to be everywhere. A nominal roll for 1912 would also seem to show that they were more than twice the size the War Office estimated!
Of course no story would be complete without a romance and the Legion is no exception. Even in the middle of a civil war, Sgt. Sims from "B" Division found time to get married with a full "Legion Marriage" taking place at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Shanghai. The Rev. Lt. Crofton ("C" Division) assisted with the ceremony, Lt. Charmichael ("HQ" Shanghai) gave the bride away, Captain Hollamby ("C" Division) was the best man, two sisters who had a brother in Bradford Squadron (UK) acted as bridesmaids. The bridal carriage was escorted by Sergeants Ladd and Wagstaff riding in full kit on each side of the carriage. A Troop ("C" Division) provided a Guard of Honour and as a sign of the close links between the Frontiersmen and Lord Baden-Powell's Boy Scouts, the Shanghai Boy Scouts lined the aisles of the Cathedral.
In the following years unrest continued in China and it would not be until 1917 that Dr. Sun Yet Sen finally founded the Kuomintang (KMT or National Peoples Party) and established the Provisional Government in Canton.
As no Battle Honour was ever awarded to the Far East Command for it's service in China during these years a Streamer is therefore attached to the Colours of different Legion Commands. This streamer is 2 3/4 inches wide and 4 foot in length, gold with a wide central maroon stripe on which is embroidered in gold letters the title "CHINA 1911".
By 1912 the Far East Command had expanded its area of operations. These new units were:
"E" Division in Manilla (Philippines)
"F" Division in Kuala Pahi (Malaysia) and in Java/Sumatra (Dutch East Indies - now Indonesia).
The members of these units are not included on the China 1910 - 1912 Nominal roll as it covers only Frontiersmen who were known to be on the Chinese mainland or Hong Kong.
The Far East Command did not end in 1912 as it is known that an Australian Legion officer was in China in 1938 and that he met with General Chiang Kai-Shek (the then head of the KMT). At this time China was already at war with Japan and many western volunteer's are known to have served with the Nationalist Government. Could some have been Frontiersmen? Did the Far East Command continue to exist in Hong Kong after the Communist Party came to power on the mainland in 1949? At this time the history of the Legion in China from 1912 - 1949 is still being researched, when this is completed maybe we will know then the answer to some of these questions.