As part of the Regimental Museums Project, Dr Andrew Hillier explores photographs reflecting the short but significant contribution of the 1st Chinese Regiment to Britain’s military presence in China.
Raised in 1898 to protect the Royal Navy’s newly-acquired deep-water base at Weihaiwei (Weihai) against foreign incursion, within two years, soldiers of the 1st Chinese Regiment were engaged against their own people in the Boxer Uprising (1900). Whilst Major Arthur Barnes (Wiltshire Regiment) would maintain that it ‘more than fulfilled the high hopes formed by its officers, and by those in high military authority’, it never saw active service again and was disbanded six years later on the grounds that it was an unnecessary extravagance. Nonetheless, its history forms an important aspect of the British military presence in China, entailing, as it did, British officers and NCOs raising and commanding a regiment comprising exclusively Chinese rank and file. Although there was a precedent in the formation of the Canton Coolie Corps during the Second Opium War and an excellent relationship would be forged between officers and men, there were inherent ambiguities in Chinese subjects serving in a British regiment. These are well-reflected in the rich collection of photographs and other material that can be found in a number of regimental museums and other public archives.
From the outset, the Chinese government objected to Chinese subjects being enlisted and, as a compromise, the British government initially agreed that they would only be deployed on defensive duties relating to the naval base. However, this seems to have been quickly forgotten, and when it came to the Boxer Uprising the following year, at least one third of the men deserted. According to British military intelligence, this was because they did not want to fight against their fellow-countrymen or there had been threats against them and their families by alleged Boxer sympathisers.
It is unclear how officers were selected for assignment to the Regiment save that the War Office stipulated they should all be of high calibre. Drawn from some ten regiments in the early stages, the Duke of Wellington’s Own West Riding Regiment was particularly well- represented, providing three officers – Major C.D. Bruce, Captain W.M. Watson and Lieutenant Bray, all of whom subsequently rose to the rank of Brigadier-General- and one NCO, Sergeant Brook.
In July 1900, twenty-two British officers and 363 Chinese other ranks took part in the relief of Tianjin under the overall command of General Dorward (Royal Engineers). After eighteen days of intense fighting, it was the only British Army regiment to be engaged in the final assault, in which both officers and men distinguished themselves.
Of the thirteen Distinguished Conduct Medals awarded in the whole campaign, the Regiment received three of them – Colour Sergeant Purdon, Quartermaster Sergeant E. Brook, and Sergeant Gi-Dien-Kwee, for ‘his command of a half-company without any European’ during the advance, and who may have been the first Chinese national to be so decorated and would certainly not be the last. Attended by his interpreter, ‘the faithful Liu’, and his bugler, Li Ping- chen, Barnes was full of praise for the men’s ‘cold-blooded courage and stamina’, which included ‘escorting heavy guns over broken and swampy country’.
However, it was Captain Ollivant who, in Barnes’ words, performed ‘one of the bravest acts amongst many’. Instructed to take extra munitions to the U.S infantry, ‘the Fates were against him and he had only gone a few steps when he was shot through the head … We laid him quietly to rest the next day, in the little cemetery near the Recreation Ground’. ‘His loss’, continued Barnes, ‘was very keenly felt by us all, for his genial good heart and his cheery, never-failing sweetness of disposition had endeared him to us all.’
Thus was the Regiment’s esprit de corps forged and, in recognition of its valour, it was authorised to wear a representation of Tianjin’s city gate as its cap badge. Keen to repeat the performance, it prepared for the march and relief of Peking. In this, however, it would be disappointed, as we shall see in the next post. Arthur Alison Stuart Barnes, On active service with the Chinese Regiment : a record of the operations of the first Chinese Regiment in North China from March to October 1900 (London: Grant Richards, 1902), p.1. For the British occupation of Weihai, generally, see Pamela Attwell, British Mandarins and Chinese Reformers, 1898-1930 (East Asian Historical Monographs) (Oxford University Press, 1985).  TNA CAB 8/2 no. 173M, Memorandum by Colonial Defence Committee, ‘Colonial Garrisons Utilisation of Native Troops’, April 1899.  Despatch from Major-General Dorward, to Secretary of State, Colonial Office, 12 December 1901, TNA CO 521/2.  An anonymous account of the campaign was later published in the regimental journal, The Iron Duke: see “Onlooker”, ‘With the 1st Chinese Regiment, 1898-1902’, volumes 26 (1933), pp. 218-221 and 27 (1934), pp.65-69. Providing detail about individual contributions, it was almost certainly written by Brigadier – General Bray’s widow, based on what she had been told by him. I am grateful to Scott Flaving, Hon. Secretary to the DWR Museum Trustees at the Regimental Archives at the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment (West Riding), Halifax, for drawing my attention to these articles and other relevant material.  The DCM was awarded only to other ranks.  Barnes, On Active Service, p.81.
Our latest guest appearance is from author and historian Melanie King. While researching her latest book, The Lady is a Spy: The Tangled Lives of Stan Harding and Marguerite Harrison she found H.I. Harding, the brother of one of her subjects in a handful of photographs on Historical Photographs of China. Here she introduces one of them, and tells us a little more about a consul with a singular reputation.
The year is 1922, and the British Vice-Consul to Kashgar, in Central Asia, sits proudly on a grey pony, wearing a turban and distinctive Uyghur clothing. It’s not exactly the attire in which one would expect to find a middle-aged diplomat, a longtime veteran of the Chinese Consular Service. But then Harold Ivan Harding was never one to follow convention.
Born in 1883 in Toronto, Harold and his sister Constance were brought up strict Plymouth Brethren, a religion both siblings were adamantly to reject. Harold’s father, Edwin, had emigrated to Canada in 1874 and, despite being the son of a humble London tailor, married well. His wife, Grace Elizabeth Lesslie, was from a prominent family of Scots who had left Dundee in the 1820s and opened several dry-goods stores in Canada. By the time Constance was born in 1884, one year after Harold, Edwin had emphatically declared his profession on her birth certificate as ‘Gentleman’.
Edwin Harding had been converted to his religion by the founder of the Plymouth Brethren, John Nelson Darby, and the Lesslie family were also keen followers. Edwin was not an affectionate man, forever obsessed with the lurking prospect of eternal damnation. His strict views profoundly affected the Harding siblings. Only a year apart, they were very close as children, so when Constance announced at the age of 13 that she no longer believed in God, her punishment was to be separated from her beloved brother and locked in her room for a week. By this time, Harold no longer believed in God either, but he wisely kept his counsel. Meanwhile, he worked out an escape by studying to pass the British Foreign Office exams.
Harold’s first posting to China was in 1902. Harold learned Mandarin fluently, but he deliberately chose to converse in the crudest version—one of his many contrarian acts. He gained a reputation for being ‘rude, hot-headed, undisciplined and insubordinate’, and one colleague described him as an ‘eccentric crank’. These eccentricities ranged from his embrace of Buddhism and vegetarianism, to more whimsical pursuits, such as forcing his dinner guests to race cockroaches across the dining table. These fun-filled evenings always ended abruptly when, at 10 pm, an alarm sounded and Harold trekked off to bed, leaving his guests to their own devices. Yet another of Harold’s quirks was to remove his trousers in hot weather and receive callers to his office without what he regarded as the dreary protocol of putting them back on. Any guests in 1922 were therefore no doubt relieved to find the Vice-Consul fully dressed—albeit in his Uyghur tunic and turban.