Thursday, 4 December 2014

Return to the Taku (Dagu) Forts, China

A couple of years ago I found time to visit the Taku Forts area of Tianjin during a family holiday in China. Time was limited and I did not have an interpreter with me so my battlefield walk consisted of a cursory exploration of the area immediately surrounding the recently built Taku Forts Museum. Earlier this year I was invited back to China by Chinese State Television (CCTV) to re-enact my original walk (and more) for the benefit of an Asian television audience.
The view from my Hotel in Tianjin
This fantastic trip provided access to the resources I needed in order to undertake a 'proper' battlefield walk covering not only the actions at the Taku Forts but also the subsequent events in Pekin (now Beijing). I also found time to visit some truly wonderful places such as the totally bizarre Binhai Aircraft Carrier Theme Park (covered in a previous entry). Some of the trip was tightly choreographed by the Chinese authorities whilst at other times I had a free hand with just one cameraman tracking my movements.
Filming at the Wei Bastion

My starting point was the Wei Bastion. As far as I knew this was all that remained of the largest of the forts on the south side of the Hai River (Peiho). This is the structure that has been incorporated into the new museum. It was good to meet the museum staff  although the long days of filming in the hot sun were quite demanding. In between takes I managed to get access to the local archive and although I don't speak or read mandarin some of the pictures and maps were easy to interpret.

The film Crew in action

The whole area has been transformed into a major international port. Waterways have been re-routed, land has been reclaimed and the causeways and paddy fields of the 19th century are now buried under high rise flats, fast food restaurants and urban freeways. Indeed the site of the Northern fort where the British and French troops broke Chinese resistance is now marked by a shopping mall and massive McDonalds restaurant.

In the archive I'd spotted a map which interested me. It showed the Wei Bastion as part of a string of three forts on the south side of the river. 
The Three Bastions - Southern Bank
I'd seen this on Elgin's Campaign map in the National Archives at Kew but the Chinese map was good validation. On the campaign map back in London the river was spanned by a string of submerged junks which appeared to be part bridge and part barrier. In modern Tianjin the line of these junks is now marked by a massive road bridge. 

Lunch with the Director
On the second day of filming the film crew and I crossed this bridge to visit a local restaurant for lunch. As we headed east I looked to my right and saw two areas of disturbed ground on the foreshore. My intuition told me that they were connected with the military history of this area. 

Lunch with the Crew
The Museum Director and TV personnel were adamant that there was nothing left of the Forts apart from the single bastion in the Museum grounds. Despite protestations that further investigation would be a "waste of time" and (rather mysteriously) "dangerous"  I eventually convinced my hosts that if they wanted my ongoing co-operation then they would need to let me take a walk down to these sites. I was accompanied by a mobile cameraman and some of the footage is available on You Tube (see below).

The Port Area - Hai River

Outside of the sanitised area of the Museum, the ground is blighted by industrial refuse and to get to the areas I'd seen it was necessary to pass through a wreckers yard where workers were dismantling huge sea going ships with the use of lump hammers and oxyacetylene equipment.

The Zhen Bastion
However, my intuition was right, the remains I had spotted from the road were those of the middle Bastion known as the Zhen Fort. How do I know this? When I asked my Chinese companion to interpret the words on a rusty old sign near the structure, he confirmed this site as the Zhen Bastion. Eureka!

I knew there were three Bastions originally and sure enough I could now see the final strongpoint known as 'Hai' further along the coastal path immediately adjacent to the road bridge. On the picture above the Zhen Bastion is on the right of the picture and the Hai is to the left in the distance.
The Zhen Bastion

 The Zhen Bastion had obviously gone through several iterations. The structure which I explored having navigated my way through a barbed wire fence, was early 20th century with hard protection and loop holes for heavy machine guns as well as coastal artillery.

In many ways the Hai Bastion is the most impressive. It is accessed via a causeway from the busy highway leading onto the modern road bridge. There is evidently a network of underground turrets as at several vantage points there are concrete cupolas which originally provided fire positions for various calibers of gun. The picture shows the highest cupola being used as a mooring position for a tanker in the breakers yard below.

Cupola on the Hai Bastion
I ended the day feeling pretty pleased with myself. I'd not only had a fascinating walk through territory that, in every aspect, was totally unfamiliar to me but I'd also identified and photographs important elements of the surviving sea defences on the Peiho River that would otherwise have been overlooked. The reality is that three Taku Forts remain - a somewhat surprising fact given the huge amount of development that has occurred in Tianjin Province.

The next day I explored the Northern shore. This was the area fought over in 1860 where the most Easterly Fort was the scene of a major battle in which my Great, Great Grandfather (67th Regiment) was involved. There is nothing left of the sea defences in this area. The whole topography is totally transformed by modern development.
The Hai Bastion - End of the Walk
There is plenty more to tell. After the Taku Forts, we travelled to Beijing in an hour or so using the local 300 Km Per Hour bullet train (it took Elgin two weeks to make the same trip in 1860). In a future entry I will talk about the trials and tribulations of filming in Beijing and the hugely sensitive Old Summer Palace.

For the Mystery of Thomas Strong at the Taku Forts click here.
To read about the 67th Regiment in China click here.
To read about the wonderful Binhai Aircraft Carrier Theme Park click here.
To read my first post on the Taku Forts click here.
To watch the Tianjin Military History documentary featured in my blog click here.
To see me discovering the Zhen Bastion click here.
To see me remembering the fallen at the Taku Forts click here.
For a small number of photos from the trip click here.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Ulundi - The End of the Old Zulu Order (1879)

The road up to Ulundi from the old Natal border winds through the Zulu heartlands. The beauty of the landscape is breathtaking and the towns en-route are marked by the hustle and bustle of the local culture. We stopped off to admire the fantastic landscape of Twin Peaks and when we reached the top of the the adjoining plateau it felt like we were on top of the world.
Crossing the Tugela River
Twin Peaks
The British column that trod this route in the Spring of 1879 had one objective only. To defeat the Zulu Army in a decisive battle and put an end to Cetshwayo's rule. The Zulu king had tried in vain to negotiate but after the debacle of Isandlwana Lord Chelmsford was a man with a reputation to restore and nothing was going to get in his way.
Ulundi Battlefield Memorial Park
For the final fight in Ulundi Chelmsford deployed a total of 5,317 men in the form of a rectangle bristling on each side with formidable fire power. The infantrymen were supported by two gatling guns, four artillery pieces and three squadrons of cavalry. This 'square' was formed up and then moved, in formation, up to the King's kraal where some 15,000 Zulu warriors stood ready to fight.
The Ulundi Mausoleum
The battle lasted less than hour with hundreds of warriors killed outright as they tried in vain to penetrate the defensive walls of the 'laager'. The left horn got to within nine paces but most the Zulu rushes stalled 300 or 400 metres out. As the Zulus faltered Chelmsford released his cavalry reserve - the 17th Lancers - who put the survivors to flight. 
The Path to the British Cemetery
It is estimated that the Zulus lost about 1,000 killed and a similiar number wounded. Sadly the names of these fallen warriors are lost in antiquity. British losses were modest - just eleven killed. A Captain and farrier from the 17th Lancers, two from Shepstones Horse, an interpreter, an artilleryman and six infantrymen. all are buried in a small cemetery on the battlefield.
Ulundi Military Cemetery
The battlefield park is in the middle of a vast Zulu township and it is only the area of the British position that has been preserved. This, in itself, is interesting though. The square was larger than the command position at Khambula but considerably tighter than the loose perimeter at Isandlwana where the defenders paid such a heavy price in January.
The End of the Old Zulu Order
The battle marked the end of the old Zulu order. Cetshwayo was captured shortly afterwards and was imprisoned in Cape Town before spending time in London and eventually returning to his Ulundi where a new Kraal was built to replace the original homestead which had been destroyed by the British.
The New Kraal at Ulundi
The old Zulu order was not to return however. The country was split into spheres of interest with chieftains nominated by Britain as the colonial power. Over several decades after the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War there were a series of bloody civil conflicts which served only to split the Zulu nation even further apart.

For the Battle of Hlobane click here.
For the Battle of Khambula click here.
For the Battle of Isandlwana click here.