Battle of Baliqao 1860


General Collineau’s column stormed Baliqiao bridge, which ivas defended by Qing Imperial Guard. According to all accounts, these Qing troops were the most determined and professional of the Chinese forces.

The Battle of Baliqao was the culmination of the Second Opium War. An Anglo – French force of 4000 men soundly defeated a Qing Army of 30,000 east of Beijing. The allied victory was followed by the sacking of the Imperial Summer Palace northwest of the city, and the conclusion of the conflict.

Prince Seng-ko-lin-Chin, one of the most successful Qing generals and Prince Sengbao, brother of the Emperor, blocked the road to Beijing with troops drawn from the Green Standard Army, reinforced by Imperial Guard troops of the Banner Army. Outnumbered and outgunned, the Anglo – French force led by French General Cousin de Montauban and British General Sir John Hope Grant attacked the Qing positions at the front and flank. After hard fighting the Qing cavalry was repulsed. The Imperial Guard held the bridge at Baliqao, but French artillery, and a determined bayonet charge by experienced infantry, dislodged them with heavy losses for the Chinese.

The Second Opium War

The Second Opium War (1856-60) was brought to an end by the battle of Baliqiao (Palikao), which involved an Anglo-French advance guard of 4000 troops against a Qing army of 30,000 men. The five-hour engagement ended with a clear victory for the Allied forces, and with Beijing (Peking) at their mercy. In the days following the battle, the Anglo-French forces seized the Imperial Summer Palace northwest of the capital and sacked it. The battle of Baliqiao was not, however, a victory of an army with superior technology against an antiquated foe. Indeed, the technological disparities were minimal; the victory went to the more disciplined army with a superior officer corps. As was the case in Afghanistan in 1842, technology rarely decided the victory in wars of empire.

Rather, the key to victory was the European powers’ determination, aided by domestic factors among the conquered peoples. The sacking of the Imperial Summer Palace in September I860 was not a foregone conclusion. As with many of the colonial wars, the Second Opium War had begun with a humiliating defeat at the hands of the indigenous armies.

The Second Opium War began when the Chinese Imperial Government refused to comply with unfavourable commercial agreements forced upon them at the end of the First Opium War (1839-42). The China trade, in opium and other goods from India, was vital to Britain’s burgeoning imperial economy. For France, the emergence of the Second French Empire meant the attainment of Bonapartist glory on the European peripheries, as in the Crimean War (1854-56) or further extension of the empire in North Africa. At the moment a French military expedition prepared to sail for China in spring 1859, Napoleon III intended on committing the vast majority of his army to a major war in Italy. There were few troops to spare, and no more than a division was dispatched to Asia under General Count Cousin de Montauban (1796-1878). The French expeditionary force consisted of two brigades of infantry and a small cavalry contingent.

The British committed a division as well, and drew forces more easily from India, where they maintained a significant military presence; their expedition was commanded by General Sir James Hope Grant (1808-1875).

The Taku Forts

The governments in Britain and France wanted a rapid conclusion to this commercial war. The British and French commanders developed a strategy of the direct approach, seizing the port of Tangku and advancing rapidly upon Beijing along the Peiho river, compelling the Chinese to accept terms. The British sent Lord Elgin (1811- 1863), and the French, Baron Gros to accompany the armies and offer terms as quickly as possible. Anglo- French hubris was fortified by the speedy destruction of Chinese junks hardly capable of offering anything but targets to the combined Allied fleet.

The attempt to force their way past the Taku Forts, protecting the port, was met with unexpected fierce resistance, however, and a humiliating repulse. At the end of July I860, the Allied fleets landed their expeditionary forces and laid siege to the forts, taking them after fierce fighting, by the end of August. The Chinese Imperial Army, commanded by Mongol general Prince Seng-ko-lin-ch’in, tried to disrupt the siege but was repelled. The prince withdrew to the road to Beijing, hoping to stop the Anglo-French army as it advanced beyond the support of the guns of the European fleet.

The Qing Army

Prince Seng-ko-lin-ch’in was an experienced and successful general who had won a number of impressive battles against the Nien and Taiping rebels. At the time of the Second Opium War, two rebellions – the Taiping in southern China, and the Nien in central and eastern China – wracked the country. The Qing (Manchu) Dynasty had ruled China since the seventeenth century. Its military might was impressive, and extended at one time from Xiangiang to Mongolia to Indochina and Burma. The organization of its armies through the eighteenth century provided well-trained men and highly skilled officers of a professional standing army. The primary forces of the Qing were the Eight Banners armies. To police the interior, and ensure provincial security, the Qing created the Green Standard Army. Green Standard troops were dispersed throughout the empire, and by the nineteenth century officers were rotated from garrison to garrison frequently to prevent them from developing bonds with their troops – a product of the paranoia caused by internal rebellion.

The vast majority of the troops under the command of Seng-ko-lin-ch’in were Green Standard soldiers, supplemented by Banner troops and cavalry. Unlike the infantry of the Banner armies, the cavalry remained relatively provincial and largely Mongol. The weapon used by the Chinese element of Seng-ko-lin-ch’in’s cavalry was primarily the lance, but it had little adequate battlefield training. For their part, the Mongols rode smaller steppe ponies and used the bow and lance. As the army withdrew closer to the imperial capital, the prince was reinforced by troops of the Imperial Guard, whose yellow silk clothing edged with black made a distinct impression on the battlefield.

The Chinese did not suffer from a lack of firepower. They had invented gunpowder, and their infantry carried muskets, but unlike their European contemporaries, both the Banner and Green Standard armies were equipped with flintlocks. Prince Seng-ko-lin-ch’in’s troops had, until recently, been armed with matchlocks! The flintlock provided an increased rate of fire over the matchlock, but they remained smooth-bore, and therefore limited in range and accuracy. They did not, however, lack artillery. The prince’s army boasted more than 100 cannon to support approximately 20,000 cavalry, including 6000 Mongols, and 10,000 infantry.

Victory at Chang chi wan: 18 September 1860

After failing at Tangku, Prince Seng-ko-lin-ch’in withdrew his army to Tanjian and then to Chang chi wan. There he waited for the Allied advance guard to approach the open ground where he could take full advantage of his superiority in cavalry. The Allied commanders, Grant and Montauban, coordinated their march as well as one could expect of Anglo-French cooperation. The French had little cavalry, not more than a troop of Spahis and Chasseurs d’Afrique, and therefore advanced with the Peiho River on their right and the British column to their left. General Grant’s command included the brigade of cavalry, which guarded the Allied left as they advanced along the Peiho. Combined, Montauban and Grant’s forces numbered 3000.

Grant and Montauban marched on Chang chi wan. On 18 September, reinforced by the arrival of Michel’s British battalions and more artillery, the Allies advanced towards Toung-chou (Tungzhou). A short distance before Chang chi wan, Grant and Montauban spied 15,000 of Seng-ko-lin-ch’in’s army deployed in a wide arc more than 5km (3 miles) in length. Artillery covered their front, with infantry in the town on the Allied left. The prince hoped to dissuade the Allies from continuing their advance. The British and French deployed their guns, which supported the rapid advance of the French and British columns. The Chinese possessed far more cannon, but their pieces were in a poor state, and the powder compromised. Accurate Allied gunnery, particularly from the British Armstrong rifled cannon, took a devastating toll on the cavalry. The infantry advanced with great discipline, and the combined effort of artillery fire, volleys and esprit de corps shattered the resolve of Seng-ko-lin-ch’in’s troops. His army fled, leaving 1500 dead and 60 guns on the field to 35 Allied casualties.

Battle of Baliqiao (Palikao): 21 September 1860

The victory at Chang chi wan over vastly superior lbrd. es gave Grant and Montauban even greater confidence in reaching the capital. As the Allies were en route to Toung-chou, the 101st Regiment under General Jamin arrived, further increasing French strength. After spending the night ; encamped outside the walled town, Grant and Montauban followed a canal tributary of the Peiho towards Baliqiao and its stone bridge, which carried the metalled road to the imperial capital. On the morning of 21 September, as the British and French columns moved out of their encampments past Toung- chou, they found Prince Seng-ko-lin-ch’in’s army, reinforced by Imperial Guard soldiers under General Prince Sengbaou, brother of the emperor. Some 30,000 strong, it stood in position before Baliqiao bridge.

The Chinese position was formidable, with its left on the canal, reinforced by the village of Baliqiao, another village in the centre, and a third on the far right. The road to Beijing passed through the rolling and wooded terrain and veered towards the canal and its stone bridge. Seng-ko-lin- ch’in had brought order to his routed army, and strengthened its resolve with several thousand troops from Beijing. The prince’s position was supported by more than 100 guns in the villages, across the canal defending the bridge, and along the entire front. His army included a division of Banner soldiers, but the majority were drawn from the Green Standard Army and assorted cavalry. The Imperial Guard were kept in reserve at the bridge, but the main army under Sengbaou was disposed with strong cavalry on the flanks deployed in depth of squadrons and interspersed between the infantry battalions in and behind the villages. The Chinese front covered a distance of 5km (3 miles) but lacked substantial depth. Yet, there were significant knots of trees, which obstructed the line of sight of both armies.

Keeping to the line of battle used at Chang chi wan, Grant took the left and Montauban the centre and right with the canal to protect his flank. Montauban used the wooded terrain to mask his paltry numbers, sending the first column in a slightly oblique attack against the Chinese centre. General Jamin would move to Collineau’s right and against the Chinese left. Grant moved to the far left of Collineau, hoping to flank the Qing army with his column. General Collineau’s advance guard comprised the elite companies of the 101st and 102nd Regiments, two companies of the 2nd Chasseurs a pied (elite light infantry), an engineer detachment, two batteries of horse artillery and a battery of 4-pound foot artillery. Montauban and Jamin commanded the 101st Regiment along with two more companies of the 2nd Chasseurs a pied, a battery of 12-pounders and a Congreve rocket section.

Collineau’s infantry advanced through the woods towards the Chinese centre. The rapidity of the movement startled Sengbaou, and he moved much of the cavalry from the wings to protect his centre. The French advance guard moved in skirmish order, and formed out along the road towards Baliqiao. Montauban ordered Jamin’s brigade forward. Two large bodies of Qing cavalry, some 12,000 in all, charged each of the French columns. Collineau’s artillery poured fire into the serried ranks of Mongol and Manchu cavalry, while the elite companies found security in the ditch that ran along the main road. Accurate fire took its toll on the cavalry, but Collineau soon found himself embroiled in hand-to-hand fighting around his position. Generals Montauban and Jamin also managed to deploy their guns and fire with devastating effect while their infantry formed two squares just before the cavalry hit their position. The French 12-pound battery was positioned between Collineau and Jamin’s brigades and continued to pour canister into the enemy. After some time, the cavalry broke off their attack, having failed to break the French squares or overrun Collineau’s precarious position. The respite allowed Montauban to take stock, re-form and advance upon the villages held by the Green Standard battalions.

Cavalry Redeployed

Sengbaou and Seng-ko-lin-ch’in did not renew their cavalry assault, as Grant’s column moved against their right. Montauban could not see the British advance because he was in one of the squares during the attack. Grant’s appearance forced the Qing generals to redeploy their cavalry to the flank, thereby allowing Montauban to attack the village closest to the centre. With an abundance of cavalry, it remains unclear why Singbaou or Seng-ko-lin-ch’in did not leave a substantial body to retard the advance of the French. Grant’s force was larger, had more guns and cavalry, and one can only surmise that they perceived this threat to the flank as a priority and underestimated the elan of the French assault.

The 101st stormed the village of Oua-kaua-ye in the centre, dispersing with ease the infantry defending it, and suffering little from their ineffective artillery. Following up, Montauban ordered both brigades to attack the village of Baliqiao, which was defended by more determined troops. Qing infantry defended the road across which Collineau advanced. His elite companies made short and bloody work of these soldiers and continued towards the village. Large cannon in the streets and across the canal fired on the French columns. Jamin brought up his batteries to silence the Chinese guns while the infantry moved in from two directions. The village and bridge at Baliqiao were defended by the Imperial Guard. These soldiers did not give ground. Collineau brought his cannon up to form crossfire with Jamin’s batteries.

Collineau Storms the Village

After tearing the Imperial Guard troops apart, Collineau formed his troops into an attack column and stormed the village. Fighting raged at close quarters for more than 30 minutes. Montauban led the 101st to Collineau’s support securing the village. Not wanting to lose momentum, Collineau re-formed his command and advanced rapidly upon the bridge, with the French batteries providing effective and deadly fire. The Chinese artillerists manning their guns were killed, and the Imperial Guard gave ground under the canister, followed by Collineau’s attack. The bridge was taken.

Grant’s column helped the Chinese along as its attack on the left dislodged the Green Standard troops from their village, while the British and Indian cavalry rolled up the line, overwhelming Qing cavalry that tried to hold their ground. The British attack was swift, but hard-fought. Grant’s line of attack brought him within sight of a wooden bridge that crossed the canal some 1.6km (1 mile) west of Baliqiao. The arrival of the British on Seng-ko-lin-ch’in’s far right, and the collapse of his forces in the face of their attack, compelled the general to pull his army from the field before it was trapped on the far bank of the canal. By noon, only five hours after the battle began, Grant’s British were on the far side of the canal across the wooden bridge, while Collineau’s elite companies established a bridgehead at Baliqiao. The victory sealed the fate of the imperial government.

The Allied expedition sacked the Imperial Summer Palace northwest of Beijing, and the emperor capitulated to European demands. Napoleon III, flush with victory over Austria the year before, rewarded Montauban with elevation to the rank of Count of the Empire, as Comte de Palikao’. Little did Montauban know that he would end his illustrious career as Minister of War in 1870, presiding over the collapse of the Second Empire and the fall of France to German armies.