Orders, Decorations, Medals and Militaria (13 January 2021)

Date of Auction: 13th January 2021

Sold for £30,000

Estimate: £30,000 - £40,000

The unique ‘Defence of Legations’ C.G.M. group of five awarded to Chief Signal Bosun H. Swannell, Royal Navy, who ran into No Man’s Land beyond the British Legation defence lines to help a wounded man under “close and accurate” enemy fire; he twice stood up on the Tartar Wall in full view of the enemy, first to re-hoist the British flag after it had been shot away and the next day to use his signal flags to direct British units of the International Relief Force, ensuring that they were the first troops to reach the Legations, arriving two hours before contingents from other nations

Conspicuous Gallantry Medal, V.R., 2nd issue, scroll suspension (Harry Swannell, Leadg. Signalman. R.N. China. 1900) officially engraved naming; China 1900, 1 clasp, Defence of Legations (H. Swannell Lg. Sign., H.M.S. Orlando) officially impressed naming; 1914-15 Star (Sig. Bosn. H. Swannell, R.N.); British War and Victory Medals (Ch. S. Bosn. H. Swannell. R.N.) mounted as worn, light contact marks, otherwise very fine or better (5) £30,000-£40,000


Provenance: Sotheby, January 1972; Christie’s, April 1984; Dix Noonan Webb, December 2011.

C.G.M. London Gazette 14 May 1901: ‘In connection with the recent operations in China.’

The following is extracted from the enclosure by Captain F. G. Poole to the main despatch by Captain Wray, R.M.L.I., published in the
London Gazette of 11 December 1900: ‘Sir, I have the honour to bring to your notice particularly the conduct of Leading Signalman H. Swannell, Her Majesty’s Ship Orlando. On the 5th instant being in command of the Hanlin outposts, at 10.30 a.m. I heard that Mr Oliphant, her Britannic Majesty’s Consular Service, had just been wounded. I ran out to the spot and found Leading Signalman Swannell attending to Mr Oliphant, who was mortally wounded, under the close and accurate fire of the enemy. He remained with Mr Oliphant until he was brought into a place of safety.’

Two Conspicuous Gallantry Medals were awarded for the Defence of Legations. The award to Sergeant Preston, R.M.L.I., is in the collection of the Royal Marines Museum, Eastney. This C.G.M. was presented to Swannell at a parade held on the exact spot where he had performed his act of gallantry.

Harry Swannell was born in Camden Town, London, on 22 December 1877. After working as a Carter, Swannell joined the Royal Navy as a 16 year-old Boy 2nd Class aboard H.M.S. St Vincent on 26 February 1894. This ship, permanently moored at Haslar in the Solent, was an ancient wooden first-rate ship of the line that was used to train boys for a career in the Navy.

Swannell became a Boy Signaller in January 1895 and remained in the Signals branch throughout his naval career. On reaching his 18th birthday in December 1895, he entered a 12-year service engagement. He was recorded as being about 5ft 3” tall, with brown hair and light blue eyes. In March 1898 he joined the brand-new Armoured Cruiser H.M.S.
Terrible on the China Station. He was promoted to Leading Signalman and transferred to the Armoured Cruiser HMS Orlando in February 1899 when she joined the China Station.

The Defence of the Foreign Legations at Pekin

The Boxer Uprising, called by Chinese the Yihetuan Movement, was an anti-foreign, proto-nationalist insurgency mounted by members of the Fists of Righteous Harmony in north China between 1899 and 1901. The insurgency took place during a period of severe drought, combined with economic disruption caused by the growth of foreign spheres of influence. Russia and Germany sought to seize large tracts of north China. The Boxer grievances ranged from foreign interference with Chinese culture and ancient traditions, economic incursions and above all strident missionary evangelism, which put local Christian converts in a privileged position versus their Chinese peers. Following many bloody attacks on isolated mission stations and Chinese Christian converts, the most famous episode of the Uprising was the defence of the foreign legations district in central Pekin. Just over four hundred lightly armed allied officers and men held out behind improvised defences for 55 days against vastly superior numbers of Chinese regular and irregular forces, who were all intent on using murder, arson and any other means to drive out of the country every ‘foreign devil’ and ‘Chinese Christian’, including women and children.

During May and early June 1900 Boxer fighters converged on Pekin, proclaiming “Support the Qing, Exterminate foreigners.” No foreign troops or garrisons were allowed in or near the city, as the Imperial Government assumed responsibility for the safety and security of all authorised residents. Foreign Legations were unwanted by the Imperial Government but had been forced upon it. The Legations were not fortified. They were grouped together on separate plots of land in a single district within the 14th century walls of the ancient Tartar city, and close to the walled and moated Imperial City and the enclosed Forbidden City, where the Emperor and his formidable and powerful mother, the Empress Dowager Cixi, lived. Chinese officials had concentrated the eleven Foreign Legations together to keep them as far as possible out of sight and out of contact with the citizens of Pekin. The district was approximately two miles long and a mile wide. It also housed the Imperial Maritime Customs, foreign businesses such as banks, hotels and a post office and a large number of shops and dwellings.

As Boxer violence became an increasing threat, the foreign powers with economic interests in China activated plans to defend those interests militarily. Most sent warships, with contingents of marines and/or soldiers aboard, to the treaty ports of North China. By May the security situation in Pekin was steadily deteriorating, and on 30 May 1900 the diplomats, led by Sir Claude Macdonald, the widely-respected British Minister, requested that the Imperial government agree that foreign military contingents be sent to Pekin to secure the Legations. The Chinese reluctantly acquiesced to a total of 400 lightly armed servicemen from eight countries. The Royal Navy was ordered to provide a guard force for the British Legation by landing bluejackets and marines from warships in the Gulf of Bohai.

The British Legation Guard arrived in Pekin by train from Tientsin at 7 p.m. on 31 May 1900, then marched five miles in full equipment through the dust and filth of Pekin’s squalid streets to reach the Legation. It comprised 79 men of the Royal Marine Light Infantry (three officers, seventy-five non-commissioned officers and men and one bugler) and three Royal Navy ratings - a signaller (Swannell), an armourer and a sick-berth steward. Each of those three bluejackets were destined to be mentioned in despatches, both for their conduct and for their important contribution to the defence of the Legations.

The arrival of 83 guards, who were well-trained but had no machine-guns, artillery or even an ample supply of small arms ammunition, did not make the British Legation safe. It was a sprawling complex and on its eastern side was the shallow and fetid Imperial Canal, which was ineffective as a moat or even an obstacle. The Legation Guards were primarily intended to deter, not to defend. They had arrived in Pekin in the nick of time. On 5 June the railway line to Tientsin was cut by a strong force of peasant Boxers, and Pekin was isolated from the coast and the outside world. Standard guard duties were performed for almost two weeks of rising tension. Then, on 13 June, a Japanese diplomat was murdered and Boxers entered the streets of the Legation District for the first time. From this date, the British detachment was continuously in a state of readiness. Boxers burnt Christian churches in and around Pekin, killing priests and many Chinese Christians, whom they regarded as the collaborators of the foreigners. German, British and American marines made forays into the city to rescue the 500 or so foreigners who lived outside the Legation district and bring them into the Legations. Nervous about the risk of being surrounded and overwhelmed while away from their main forces, they opened fire on groups of Boxers who came within rifle range to deter any thoughts of attack.

The Chinese government had initially viewed the Boxers as a threat to the Imperial regime, but on 17 June the foreign powers seized the Taku forts and several Chinese warships that guarded the mouth of the river leading to Pekin. As a result, on 19 June, an Imperial Note was sent. It demanded that all ministers and foreigners leave Pekin within twenty-four hours. The senior diplomats met and decided that the risk of being massacred by the Boxers as the foreigners slowly traversed by foot or in carts a bitterly hostile countryside to reach safety on the coast was too great. The German Minister was murdered as he travelled to the Chinese Foreign Ministry to discuss the issue. The senior diplomats decided to remain in Pekin and defend the Legations. This was not a decision that was taken lightly. An improvised defence line of barricades and shelters some 2 kilometres long, snaking through difficult urban terrain, had to be protected by just 400 troops. Inside the defence line were 473 foreign civilians and 2,800 Chinese converts, though 150 of the civilian men and many Chinese converts agreed to participate actively in the defence. All the foreign women and children were brought into the British compound, which was to be the site of any last stand.

Hostilities began on the night of 20 June and, except for a period of semi-truce and communication between the two sides from 17 July to 5 August, an active and bloody state of siege continued for 55 days. After some hesitation, the Empress Dowager Cixi, urged by the conservatives of the Imperial Court, supported the Boxers. On 21 June she authorised her generals to wage war on the foreign powers. The number of Imperial bannermen and other troops available to attack the Legations is uncertain, but amounted to many thousands. On at least three occasions during the Siege, the defenders thought that they were about to be overrun and massacred. In addition, they faced the danger of losing the firefight, due to an insufficient supply of ammunition and the Chinese establishing sniper positions which dominated the Legations’ defence lines.

Winning the C.G.M.

Swannell distinguished himself on 5 July, during the time when the enemy had mounted four muzzle-loading cannons on the main gatehouse of the Imperial City wall, where they did considerable damage to the buildings of the British Legation. The British had established advanced positions in the Hanlin Yuan, between the north end of the British Legation and the Imperial City, and the Chinese also fired on a working party that was trying to build barricades to strengthen the Hanlin defence line.

The incident is described in detail in the diary of Captain Poole, commander of the International Volunteers, the man who recommended Swannell for a decoration: ‘Smooth bore gun appears in Imperial wall opposite Hanlin about 350 yards off, black doors in front open before being fired, and it fires round shot into the Hanlin and Students’ Quarters. Bring Italian gun into the Hanlin and silence it for a while - detail a man to fire every minute into the doors, Myers, Johnson, and Mellors, Marines.

Working party of coolies and Europeans in the Hanlin, outside the line of defence, with a covering party we were bringing in bricks - cutting down trees to make abatties, Enemy opened fire on the working party, I ordered them in as I had misgivings and I was looking after something else, suddenly I heard a cry and rushed out in the direction outside our line of defence. David Oliphant was lying on his back wounded with a signalman (bluejacket) alongside him kneeling. He had been foolishly cutting a tree, after I had given the order to retire - I knelt down beside him and could see he was badly hurt - the enemy were dropping shot all round us, the students brought out a door, and a couple of marines ran out and covered us, and we brought him in.

Poor chap, he died after 3 hours, buried behind Bax’s house, 11th burial here, 24 years old, very promising man, clever, keen, active, it was his desire to make himself useful that brought him working into the Hanlin. Report re behaviour of signalman.’

The death of David Oliphant is also recorded in the diary kept by his elder brother, Nigel Oliphant, of the Chinese Postal Service: ‘5th July. - We had a quiet night; but it has been a day of sorrow for me, and for all who knew and loved D. He was well and happy when he got up this morning, but, as he often did, he went off somewhere soon after breakfast, and the next thing I heard of him, as I was working away at the Main Gate, was that he had been wounded, and was then in hospital. It appears that he had volunteered to go with a party who were to cut down some trees in front of our positions in the Hanlin Yuan. While they were at this work the Chinese began to fire from an elevated post at the gate of the Imperial City, directly north of us. Captain Poole ordered the fatigue party to come in under cover, but D., who was at the time wielding an axe on a big tree, called out that it was all right, he was under cover where he was. A few seconds afterwards he was struck and fell to the ground. Some of the students who were of the working party and the signaller of the Marines rushed out and carried him in under a hot but fortunately erratic fire. From the first he knew that he was mortally wounded. They took him to hospital and sent for me... At 3 p.m. he passed quietly and peacefully away. His death cast a gloom over the whole community; certainly among the British no one could have been more sincerely missed.’
‘Enter by Sewer’

Swannell was active throughout the Siege – a series of photographs that appeared in the Royal Marine magazine Globe and Laurel later in the year show him fully armed alongside the marines guarding the front gate of the British Legation and with a group of Marines who were defending the Hanlin on 16 July.

The Eight-Nation Alliance of foreign powers, after being initially defeated in an attempt to use 2,000 marines and sailors to reinforce and supply the Legations garrison, turned back to the coast and bought in reinforcements, the largest contingents being supplied by Japan, Russia, the British Empire, France and the United States. An allied army of 19,000 men, under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir Alfred Gaselee, raised the siege of the Legations on the afternoon of 14 August 1900. Out of the 400 Legation Guards, 55 were killed and 135 wounded during the Siege, a casualty rate of 47%. Civilian casualties totalled 37, plus many of the Chinese converts, whose casualties were not recorded but certainly ran into several hundreds. On the penultimate day of the siege, 13 August, as promised in a message sent to General Gaselee by Sir Claude MacDonald, the British Minister to China, who had been elected to lead and co-ordinate the Defence of the Legations, the Union Jack, the Stars and Stripes and the Imperial Eagle of Russia were hoisted on the short and exposed section of the Tartar Wall still held by the Allies. The flags made excellent targets for Chinese marksmen. When the Union flag was shot away, it was quickly re-hoisted by Armourer’s Mate Thomas and Leading Signalman Swannell. Swannell was stationed on the Wall to direct the Relief Force once it broke through the outer walls of Pekin. (Lieutenant-Commander A. L. Bleby RN, The Royal Naval Brigades in the Boxer Rebellion, The Naval Review, Jan 1996 page 63 refers).

The next day, when the first British troops were sighted in the streets of the Chinese City, which was separated from the Legation District by the massive Tartar Wall (40 feet high and 60 feet thick), Swannell stood up on the ramparts in full view of everyone in the vicinity, coolly made the famous semaphore signal “Enter by Sewer”, and finally pointed down to the culvert [‘Water Gate’] through which the Imperial canal passed through the Tartar Wall. Within minutes the Relief Force had breached an ancient iron grating that barred the culvert and Indian troops were wading through the foul canal bed to enter the defenders’ perimeter. They reached the defenders fully two hours ahead of any other national contingent. This was made much of by the British press corps.

After the Siege

On 14 February 1901, the 23 year-old Swannell was promoted to Yeoman of Signals (a Petty Officer rating) and on 29 June 1901 “Sir E. Satow [British Minister to China, successor to Sir Claude MacDonald] presented a "gallantry" medal to Signalman Swannell, of H.M.S. Orlando, for conspicuous bravery on the occasion of the death of David Ollivant (sic) during the siege last year. The troops were turned out, and the presentation took place on the spot where Ollivant was shot. Swannell must have felt a very proud man.” My Service Days by Major-General Sir Norman Stewart (London 1908) refers. A £10 annuity was granted with the C.G.M. award, on condition of attaining Petty Officer 1st Class rank.

Swannell left Orlando in July 1902 to attend a course that qualified him to be a Signals Instructor, and he did this job in the Training Establishment H.M.S. Boscawen until his next sea-going assignment in the battleship Mars in January 1904. In July 1905 he was transferred into the newer battleship Canopus. Swannell was promoted to Signal Boatswain at the early age of 28 and joined the Armoured Cruiser Sutlej in April 1906. This promotion changed his status from Petty Officer to Warrant Officer and his service record was transferred to the (warrant) officers section. He was now a member of the Warrant Officers Mess, where he lived alongside other technical specialists such as the Gunner, the Warrant Engineer and the Clerk/Writer. His rapid promotion to Warrant Officer meant that he could not complete the length of service as a bluejacket which was needed to qualify for the Naval Long Service and Good Conduct medal.

Swannell’s character had been consistently noted as ‘Very Good’, but when he was discharged from Sutlej into the Cruiser Devonshire in September 1907, he was described by Sutlej’s Captain as “not very reliable”. However, Devonshire’s Captain assessed him as “strong, hardworking, zealous and capable.” Late in 1910, Swannell applied to change his Manning Port Division, probably because of circumstances in his private life that made it desirable for him to leave Portsmouth. The application was most unusual, because Warrant Officers retained their association with the Manning Port Division which they had chosen on entry to the Navy, and progressively built up a wide range of contacts within its dockyard and Depot. Each dockyard and Manning Depot had its own local procedures, enabling those with the right network to obtain ‘favours’. Swannell’s application was refused, but he was recommended for posting to a Flagship.

War Service with Orkney and Shetlands Command – the ‘Hampshire’ disaster

At the outbreak of war in August 1914, Swannell was serving in the Armoured Cruiser Berwick, where he was much appreciated by his Captain (“Above the average, very pleased with this most trustworthy, able, and useful officer”). This assessment and recommendation by Berwick’s Captain led to Swannell joining the staff of Vice-Admiral Frederic Brock, the newly appointed V-A Commanding the Orkneys and Shetlands (VACOS), the main base of the Grand Fleet, on 29 February 1916.

Swannell got off to a poor start, being noted in May 1916 by a Captain R.N. on VACOS’s staff as “not a smart man [‘smart’ in this context and era would refer to his turnout and appearance in uniform rather than his intelligence] is getting fat and continues to be lazy. Vice Admiral Brock concurs that he is not up to the usual high standard of Signal Bosuns”. This adverse report was made just before the Orkney and Shetlands Command suffered the major embarrassment of the Secretary of State for War, Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, being drowned on 5 June 1916, due to enemy action within its Area of Operations.

H.M.S. Hampshire, which was carrying Kitchener on a diplomatic mission to Russia, was sunk, just three hours after sailing from the Grand Fleet’s anchorage, by a German naval mine, one of a field of 22 that had been laid off Marwick Head on the west coast of Orkney. Three days before, another of these mines had sunk the drifter Laurel Crown on 2 June, but no attempt had been made to re-route ships leaving the naval base. Hampshire took 15 minutes to go under, during which time survivors reported hearing cries of “Make way for Lord Kitchener” but most of the cruiser’s lifeboats either could not be launched at all or were smashed against the ship’s side by mountainous waves.

Hampshire never managed to transmit any distress signal. She was, however, being watched from the shore and five minutes after she hit the mine a telegram was sent by Birsay Post Office to Kirkwall and Stromness (the location of VACOS’s Headquarters): “Battlecruiser seems in distress between Marwick Head and the Brough of Birsay”. 15 minutes later at 2005 a second telegram was sent “Vessel down”. At 2010 the Stromness R.N.L.I. Secretary arrived at Naval H.Q. and offered to launch his lifeboat. This was refused. He demanded to see a Senior Royal Navy officer, who told him: “It is none of your bloody business. And, what’s more, if you attempt to launch a lifeboat, it’s Mutiny. Mutiny, do you hear? Any more nonsense or argument and I’ll have the whole lot of you locked up!” Nine destroyers and numerous patrol vessels were ordered to sea in the face of a furious gale. They arrived just after midnight and found no living survivors in the water. About 0100 three Carley floats surged onto rocks near Skaill Bay. They had left Hampshire with about 120 men on board, but due to the terrible conditions only 12 survived. 650 officers and men died. Kitchener’s body was never found.

The extent of Swannell’s involvement in handling signals connected with the search and rescue efforts following the Hampshire disaster is not known, but by the end of the year there had been a complete and positive re-evaluation of his capability. Swannell had clearly made his mark as far as Vice-Admiral Brock and his two successors were concerned: in their words he was considered “very useful, capable, good, has good memory and attentive to duties, intelligent and hardworking, most capable, good powers of organisation”.

The Scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet in Scapa Flow

In January 1918, just before he handed over his Scapa Flow command to Sir Herbert King-Hull, Admiral Brock recommended Swannell for a Mention in Despatches. An M.I.D. award has not been verified, but Swannell was promoted to Chief Signal Boatswain on 13 September 1918. He stayed on at Scapa Flow after Rear Admiral Prendergast replaced Vice Admiral King-Hull in March 1918. By mid-1919 the naval base at Scapa was being rapidly scaled back and Swannell was notified of a new sea-going appointment.

A week before he left Scapa Flow, 52 warships of the interned German High Seas Fleet were scuttled in the Flow as a protest against the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. On 21 June, Vice-Admiral Sir Sidney Fremantle, Commander of the British First Battle Squadron, which was responsible for guarding the German vessels and for seizing them by force if they resisted the internment regime, took his entire Battle Squadron to sea for exercises, giving the Germans an opportunity to act. Swannell’s job as Chief Signal Boatswain to Rear Admiral Commanding Orkneys and Shetlands at Scapa Flow meant that he was probably responsible for making the urgent signal sent at 12.20 by Rear Admiral Prendergast to Vice Admiral Fremantle informing him of the German treachery: “German battleship Kaiser Friederich class sunk. All battleships and cruisers hoisting German ensign. Crews of destroyers preparing to abandon ship.”

The view from Prendergast’s flagship H.M.S. Victorious was a scene such as no man had witnessed before and none is likely to see again. Every ship of the German High Seas Fleet, stretching out into the haze of distance, was settling or heeling over at its mooring. The signal from Scapa caused Fremantle to return at full speed and enabled the British to prevent the sinking of a battleship, three cruisers and 18 destroyers, in the course of which they killed 9 German sailors and wounded 16. This was the last act of hostilities between Briton and German during World War One.


Swannell returned to Armoured Cruisers, this time H.M.S. Europa, which was based in the Mediterranean. In the early Spring of 1920 Europa was listed for disposal, paid off and Swannell returned to England. The Admiralty assigned him to the modern Battleship H.M.S. Barham, but he had other ideas. He retired at his own request on 22 November 1920, just before his 43rd birthday. In the mid-1930s he was living at Emsworth, near Portsmouth, just before emigrating in his late fifties. In 1935 he reported his address as Louvain Street, Whakatane, Bay of Plenty, New Zealand. Swannell returned to England and died at Portsmouth on 9 September 1946, while undergoing treatment for a duodenal ulcer.