Posted by: Sam Olsen | March 5, 2012

Battlefield New Territories

As someone always happy to investigate the past, I was pleased to be invited on a battlefield tour of the New Territories in Hong Kong. At first I thought this would be to do with the 1941 Japanese invasion, but apparently not. It was about a rather earlier period in local history that has long been forgotten – on purpose.

The Six Day War of 1899 came about as a reaction to the previous year’s leasing of the New Territories from China to Britain. It was a small colonial war, fought between highly trained British and Indian troops on one side and Chinese farmers on the other, and is so insignificant that it hasn’t even made it onto Wikipedia. Certainly one would be hard pressed to find anyone in Hong Kong or the Mainland that knew anything about it. The real interest though lies in how it reflects still modern politics and warfare, particularly that which the Britain and its Army has been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan this past decade.

The origins of the war lie in an issue that modern governments still struggle with today: poor communication. So hard was the then Governor of Hong Kong, Sir Henry Blake, intent on peaceably absorbing the extra 368 square miles of land that he and his staff forgot to tell the locals of their intentions: i.e., ‘benign and fruitful cooperation’ with the population. The Mainland Chinese government, obviously a bit piqued at handing over yet more land to the British devils, didn’t bother to tell the villagers either.

Sir Henry Blake

The local population therefore became a touch twitchy. Rumours started to abound of how the British would destroy their way of life – like banning them from keeping pigs. And with no communication, who could blame them?

The consequence was that 4,000 men started training for war. British intelligence was awful this far north, so the new fighting brigade was able to train for months without the British finding out. The Governor and his staff were thus a touch surprised to find themselves at war with thousands of locals, in and around the village of Tai Po.

Day 1 consisted of 20 policemen – armed only with pistols – being attacked by 1,200 Chinese men armed with cannon and light guns called jinglas. Not surprisingly the police beat a hasty retreat back to Hong Kong to wake up the Governor. Rather surprisingly, the Governor sent them straight back to Tai Po.

In a gracious move, Sir Henry did allow 120 men of the Hong Kong Regiment to reinforce the police. A small destroyer, HMS Fame (captained by a future Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keyes – as eccentric a figure as the Royal Navy has ever produced) was also in support. The Fame’s guns soon silenced the Chinese cannon, and Lt Keyes came ashore to lead the Hongkong Regiment in a bayonet charge through the village market.

The third day saw the surrender of the local uprising. A flag-raising ceremony to formally declare the area under British control went ahead, and everything seemed to be settled.

In fact, on day four, a press conference was called to announce the cessation of hostilities. No sooner had the General Officer Commanding, William Gascoigne, declared the conflict over when the Chinese started firing their cannon again. The press, who seemingly already thought General Gascoigne a bumbling fool, could hardly contain their mirth. The now 300-ish members of the Hongkong Regiment were immediately dispatched to beat off the 1,250 insurgents, dressed in their ceremonial finery and fighting alongside their Regimental Colours – possibly the last British unit to do so.

Some of the Chinese fighters, as seen on the cover of the book about the war

They soon arrived at the well-placed Chinese gun emplacements, several miles inland, which luckily were equipped with such old weapons that they couldn’t be moved quick enough to fire on the attackers. The soldiers, all Muslims from the North West Province of India, overran the positions, leaving about 300 local casualties.

That night the British retired to a nearby temple to sleep. A tropical storm lashed the sleeping men and so by morning they were all soaked. They were also very hungry, having had only one meal in 24 hours because General Gascoigne had messed up the logistics. He had refused to employ porters to move the food and ammo from the sea to their new location, and so the supplies just sat their rotting and rusting.

Knowing the state of the logistics, the British field commander of the Hongkong Regiment detail, one Captain Berger, marched most of his men back to Tai Po to fetch dry clothes and some of that food and ammunition. But no sooner had he arrived when a runner arrived from the few men he had left at the temple saying that a further 1,250 Chinese were about to attack. Capt Berger thus made his men run all the way back, not having had time to change or eat.

The Hongkongers were back at the temple just half an hour before the locals attacked. As most of them were armed with swords and antiquated guns they were no match for the Indian soldiers, who were armed with modern repeating rifles. In a matter of minutes the villagers were smashed as a fighting force and the war was all over: the village leaders soon came to offer their surrender.

Overall the Chinese suffered at least 500 dead. Some villages lost almost all their unmarried men.

The British and Indians, on the other hand, had only three casualties. One of these was ironically the only doctor who broke his arm. Another was a soldier whose toe was hit by a Chinese bullet. The third was unfortunately gored by a buffalo.

WIth such asymmetric casualty figures, why have the Chinese forgotten about this? If this had occurred elsewhere then there would be a high chance of an annual commemoration and at least one celebrity dictator jumping on the anti-British bandwagon.

According to the local historian that gave the tour, the reason is two-fold. First is that there were no reprisals by the British. Sir Henry Blake, the Governor, was determined to peaceably bring the New Territories into the fold of Hong Kong, so much so that within 24 hours of the last fighting all soldiers had been sent back to Hong Kong and security handed back to the police. The villagers had been fearing the worst – uprisings in China had traditionally been put down with the utmost severity – so were rather happy that there were no further actions against them. In actual fact, the heads of the revolution were rewarded for their actions by being made leaders of the new local council – after all, said the Governor, they had displayed excellent leadership qualities.

The second reason was that both sides wanted to forget the whole thing. It was in the interest of Sir Henry to not mention it otherwise London may have started asking awkward questions. The Chinese for their part apparently felt that they had been rather foolish in going to war based on false rumours. A simple mass grave and a small temple to honour the dead were enough to commemorate the fallen.

So quickly did things return to peace that when the Governor came to visit the locals a mere two weeks after hostilities he had a guard of only four policemen. The New Territories remained peaceful ever after.

Overall the Six-Day War was rather less contentious than its Middle Eastern namesake. It reflected British policy in Hong Kong at that time, one where peaceful, benevolent rule was much preferred to keeping the locals in fear. This is perhaps why us Brits remain so popular amongst the Hong Kong Chinese to this day.

It also remains in deep contrast to our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years. Although the cock-ups have been very similar – especially in terms of failed intelligence and faulty supply lines – the results, as we are reminded almost every day, have been rather different.

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