An upcoming Christie’s sale in London, of the Hanshan Tang Reserve Collection, includes (lot no. 96), a gorgeously illustrated copy of an album of handpainted scenes of battles in the Second Opium, or Arrow, War. This is described on p.63 of the catalogue, from which the illustrations reproduced here are taken. As it was completed before the Anglo-French assualt on north China in the autumn of 1860, it concludes on a triumphal note with the allied defeat at the Dagu Forts on 25 June 1859. Well it might, for this was a comprehensive victory for the Qing, and a complete disaster for the British forces.
The British were attempting to force their way to Beijing to secure ratification of the 1858 Treaty of Tianjin, and thought the forts, which guarded the entrance to the Beihe, would be a pushover, not least as the forts had been captured a year earlier without a struggle. Then, the garrisons had simply fled. In the interim, however, the defenders had been improving their discipline, their weaponry, their defences, and their artillery targetting. The progress made was revealed, with considerable effect on 25 June. So confident was the British belief in Qing incompetence and cowardice, however, and so hysterical was the response to the drubbing received, that the only explanation many Britons accepted was that the Russians were behind it all, and must have equipped and trained the Chinese forces, if not helped out in the fighting.
Four hundred Bitish soldiers and sailors were killed, many cut down as they waded across mudflats towards the forts in a frontal assualt, and tried to negotiate pallisades. Four ships were lost. The British retreated from north China. Qing officials who opposed compromise gained the upper hand in discussions about what to do about the foreigners. Everybody settled down to coninue the war.
Felice Beato, Scene inside the Dagu forts, August 1860
The Dagu forts are best known, visually, through Felice Beato’s war photography. That might serve to counterpoint the colourful images of Qing victory, for unfortunately for the Manchus, and the garrisons at Dagu, the British and French came back in August 1860, and they took the forts from the landward side. Then they marched on Beijing. Behind them they left the death and devastation caused by their more advanced weaponry, including the new Armstrong Guns that they were testing in action. Ahead of them lay the Yuanmingyuan – the Old Summer Palace. The destruction of the complex later that year by the British was one of the greatest acts of cultural vandalism of the nineteenth century. Partly driving that act, aside from the sheer difficulty of the fight in 1860, and the killing and maltreatment of allied prisoners, was a desire for revenge, not least for the bitter defeat of June 1859.