A French officer describes attacks on foreign legations (1900)

Pierre Lotti was a French military officer who was sent to Peking to help defend French diplomats and foreign legations against the rampaging Boxers. Here he recalls the events of 1900:

“They were attacked from all sides and in every possible manner, often at the most unexpected hours of the night. It usually began with cries and the sudden noise of trumpets and tom-toms; around them thousands of howling men would appear. Gongs outside the walls added to the tumult. Occasionally, from a suddenly opened hole in a neighbouring house, a pole twenty or thirty feet long, ablaze at the end with oakum and petroleum, emerged slowly and silently, like a thing out of a dream. This was applied to the roofs in the hope of setting them on fire.

They were also attacked from below; they heard dull sounds in the earth, and understood that they were being undermined, that their executioners might spring up from the ground at any moment; so that it became necessary, at any risk, to attempt to establish countermines to prevent this subterranean peril. One day, toward noon, two terrible detonations, which brought on a regular tornado of plaster and dust, shook the French Legation, half burying under rubbish the lieutenant in command of the defenses and several of his marines… All but two succeeded in getting clear of the stones and ashes that covered them to the shoulders, but two brave sailors never appeared again. And so the struggle continued, desperately, and under conditions more and more frightful.

One time they saw with their field-glasses the posting of an imperial edict commanding that the firing against foreigners cease. What they did not see was that the men who put up the notices were attacked by the crowd with knives. Yet a certain lull, a sort of armistice, did follow; the attacks became less violent. They saw that incendiaries were everywhere abroad; they heard fusillades, cannonades, and prolonged cries among the Chinese; entire districts were in flames; they were killing one another; their fury was fermenting as in a pandemonium, and they were suffocated, stifled with the smell of corpses.

Each day, [those inside the legations] felt that Chinese torture and death were closing in upon them. They began to lack for the essentials of life. It was necessary to economise in everything, particularly in ammunition; they were growing savage… when they captured any Boxers, instead of shooting them they broke their skulls with a revolver.

One day their ears, sharpened for all outside noises, distinguished a continued deep, heavy cannonade beyond the great black ramparts whose battlements were visible in the distance, and which enclosed them in a Dantesque circle; Peking was being bombarded! It could only be by the armies of Europe come to their assistance! But they kept up their resistance, until all at once not a Chinese head was visible on the barricades of the enemy; all was empty and silent in the devastation about them; the Boxers were flying and the Allies were entering the city!”