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The Launch into Hunan

Facing staggering odds, Canton’s KMT launched what seemed to some outsiders to be a romantic episode from a Chinese opera. On the verge of disintegration with inadequate materiel and only tentative Russian aid, the military campaign was a gamble. Chiang and his supporters had to count more on the weakness of their enemies than on their own powers. The expedition, warned against by the Russian experts,1 could well have proven to be another quixotic blunder, but it was victorious, at least in military terms. The record of the NRA offensive, except for a lengthy army chronology of the positioning of units, has been glossed over with a set of orthodox clichés and anti-KMT rhetoric. The Northern Expedition set in motion again centripetal forces that began to reunite China, this time as a modern nation—a process that continues under the CCP. This wide-ranging military campaign needs to be scrutinized in a chronological framework. Ideology aside, there is evidence that there was more military action involved than was admitted by those partisans who, in hoping for political solutions to China’s ills, wrote off the expedition as a tragedy.

Although such partisans described the expedition as an easy sweep northward led by a vanguard wave of Communist propagandists whose ideas knocked down warlord forces, there is more to be seen. The Com­munist propagandists only participated in the two-year campaign north from mid-1926 until the split with the KMT in early 1927—at best a period of nine months. I intended primarily to study the political techniques used by these successful propagandists, but a closer look at the actual combat 68could not be avoided. Part 2 will chronicle the military aspects of the expedition and Part 3 will focus on the political work.

Moving north, the campaign had both traditional and modern colorings. As with the founding of China’s innumerable dynasties, the NRA moved out of a defensible provincial basin (Kwangtung) and conquered one re­gional rival after another and gathered military allies until China had again the semblance of a political entity. The consolidation from such a hegemony into a single, centralized state would remain still another phase in the rebuilding. In 1926, however, there was something more than the usual charismatic strong man at the head of his personal army. To be sure there were personal armies within the NRA confederation, but, in addi­tion, at the core, there were the pooled modern talents of two political parties and the stirring vision of modern nationhood and progress. There was also a shared concern that the resulting political system should move toward democracy rather than revert to the ancient institution of imperial autocracy.

The Opening Episode—Hunan

The first phase of the expedition, against the rich middle-Yangtze pro­vinces of Hunan and Hupei under Wu P’ei-fu, began under less than propitious conditions. The route of the Northern Expedition into Hunan and Hupei, down the Yangtze, and then up the North China Plain toward Peking, followed that of the Taiping rebels who had also started in weak­ness. Then, Chiang’s buildup in 1927 in the lower Yangtze was also reminiscent of Chu Yüan-hung’s strategy preceding his capture of Peking as the first Ming emperor.

To enter Hunan, rather than count on its military power and authority, the KMT and Chiang were forced to consider heavily the realities of local politics. The situation in Hunan exemplified the inner workings of the Northern Expedition in other provinces. In 1926, before the Northern Expedition, Hunan—as with most of South and Central China—rankled under the domination of northern Chinese warlords—outsiders. An­tagonisms festered between the native subordinates and these regional overlords, providing unstable political situations with which the KMT could deal. Although avowedly nationalistic, the KMT played upon and manipulated local and provincial ambitions where they could weaken an overlord or win an ally. The exploitation of local interests and provin­cialism, or self-rule, was one of the weapons in the diverse KMT arsenal, along with modern and traditional political techniques and a military machine that had been energized by nationalism. But, how did the NRA manage to penetrate the first, highly defensible mountain barrier to Hunan?

In Hunan, the opportunity presented for KMT intervention or invasion was a provincial power struggle. The Hunanese gentry had kept alive the desire for provincial autonomy as delineated by the Hunan Constitution on 1922. The governor, Chao Heng-t’i, was a native of Hunan; he was subor­dinate to the Shantung overlord, Wu P’ei-fu.2 By 1926 a conflict emerged 69 among the four Hunanese division commanders, and Governor Chao favored Yeh K’ai-hsin, commander of the strongest provincial force, the Third Hunan Division, when awarding patronage. Governor Chao sought to weaken the local power of the division commanders while centralizing his authority over the province. Thus, he used Yeh to check the power of T’ang Sheng-chih whose Fourth Division was the largest. With his troops, T’ang held a sizable subfief in southwestern Hunan. T’ang’s defensiveness over Governor Chao’s move to assume grass-roots power attracted the attention of neighboring Kwangtung. The promoters of the long-postponed Northern Expedition turned their attention toward Hunan.

70Intervention in Hunanese provincial politics had required that the KMT utilize those of its members with personal connections there. The Party membership did include among those with personal ties in Hunan both civilian and military figures. As a national Party, the KMT enjoyed an advantage in that its membership transcended any single provincial or regional basis. Although some foreign observers misread the movement as a Cantonese affair, Party members working at Canton or at assignments elsewhere came from Central and South China predominantly, but also from North China. While the CCP may have had among its cadre men like Mao Tse-tung who worked with the rural masses of Hunan, the KMT had ties with those at the apex of Hunan’s power structure.

At Canton was KMT member and leading proponent of the Northern Expedition T’an Yen-k’ai. T’an had been the first governor of Hunan elected by the Provincial Assembly after the Revolution of 1911 and had then become active in the movement for federalism and Hunan self-rule. Although forced into exile by northern military might, T’an maintained an interest in Hunan and held in Kwangtung a force of 15,000 Hunanese troops, renamed the Second Army of the NRA. His own personal ideology epitomized the KMT accomodation of provincialism and nationalism. Prior to 1926, T’an had already led one military campaign to retake Hunan for Sun Yat-sen. Back in late 1924, during Sun’s final attempt to achieve a coalition with the northern powers, T’an had launched an ill-conceived and short-lived campaign, which was supposed to enhance Sun’s bargaining position in Peking. A military commander in Kiangsi had forced T’an and his troops back into Kwangtung to await a future opportunity.3 The failure of T’an’s rather crude invasion may have taught the lesson of the impor­tance of political as well as military preparations.

By the spring of 1926, Chiang and other promoters of military reunifica­tion of China thought that their plans to invade Hunan were progressing well and the gamble worth the risk.

Aside from ex-governor T’an Yen-k’ai, the KMT at Canton included other men who had been associated with T’ang Sheng-chih of Hunan. Liu Wen-tao and Ch’en Ming-shu had been classmates of T’ang at the Paoting Military Academy where in 1912 they had collaborated in a student reform movement. As recently as 1925, Liu had utilized this connection in Hunan to arrange with T’ang Sheng-chih for a propaganda tour of the province. Liu Wen-tao, by then a professor of political science with a French doctorate, 71toured China lecturing on the Three People’s Principles of the KMT. T’ang had seen to it that Liu gained an audience with the officers and soldiers of not only his Fourth Hunan Division, but with other Hunan forces.4 Incor­porated into the KMT’s NRA was the Seventh Army of Kwangsi militarist Pai Ch’ung-hsi, another schoolmate of T’ang. Elsewhere in Hunan, the KMT had connections with another Hunan division commander, Ho Yao-tsu, through KMT member Ch’eng Ch’ien, who was Hunanese and a classmate from Tokyo’s Shikan Gakko, and commander of the NRA’s Sixth Army—primarily a Hunanese force.5 At the top of Hunan’s military-political structure was Governor Chao Heng-t’i whom Chiang Kai-shek tried to win over as late as the week before the July 1926 launching of the expedition. Chiang approached him as a fellow member of the old “Ko-ming Tang” (Revolutionary Party) and pleaded by telegram that they should be reunited in a new national movement that would strengthen China against her enemies.6 Thus, the leaders of the Northern Expedition could communicate with relative ease with the leaders of Hunan. If ambi­tious T’ang Sheng-chih in Hunan and others could be won over as mili­tary allies, the NRA could avoid a bloody struggle for the mountain passes guarding the Yangtze basin.

In southern Hunan, T’ang Sheng-chih, dominating the Hsiang valley with his 9,000-man division, derived provincial prestige from his father, an ex-Ch’ing mandarin, who continued on in the provincial office of Council­lor of Domestic Affairs—one of the five highest councillors of the provin­cial civil administration. The real power of T’ang centered in his division, the largest provincial military unit. T’ang also had ties with many of China’s warlords through Paoting, the alma mater of China’s warlords.7 From 1921 to 1926, T’ang Sheng-chih had carefully expanded his domain to include twenty-seven of Hunan’s seventy-five tax-collection districts. However, in early 1926, Governor Chao ordered all four Hunan division commanders to remit the local taxes they gathered to the provincial capital at Changsha.8 Obviously Chao’s move to centralize provincial authority would conflict with the local interests of his subordinates. The loss of revenue from taxes would have made T’ang dependent on the provincial governor for support of his division, and therefore T’ang began to evaluate his own chances for provincial leadership. According to one estimate made within Hunan, at stake were the following sources of revenue: T’ang’s twenty-seven tax districts in Hunan from which the land tax brought him a minimum of $800,000 monthly; the provincial lead and zinc mines at Shui-k’ou-shan worth $90,000 monthly; the “special tax” on opium collected in his dis­tricts, which brought him nearly $1 million monthly; and the monthly allocation from the provincial government of $240,000 for T’ang’s Hunan Fourth Division.9 The leadership in Canton responded to the signs of T’ang Sheng-chih’s resistance to Governor Chao by approaching T’ang with the prospect of an alliance.

Official talks between the KMT and T’ang Sheng-chih had begun at least as early as February 1926. At that point T’ang may not have favored direct intervention from Canton, Regional militarists had learned that invited 72allies often exhibited rapacious appetites while within a host’s domain and tended to stay on as unwelcomed guests. Since T’ang did control Hunan’s largest, if not the best, division he chafed under Governor Chao and overlord Wu. Merely the threat of Canton’s intervention might give T’ang bargaining power over Chao. T’ang also sought from the KMT the assur­ance that Hunanese T’an Yen-k’ai would not rush north to fill the vacant governorship once Chao was ousted. (In March 1926, T’ang also showed anxiety over the radicalism he observed in local KMT agents, which threatened his own local authority.10) By February 24, 1926, T’ang did accept Canton’s offer of an alliance. When T’ang Sheng-chih moved his troops out against Governor Chao in February, Canton had not yet sent reinforcements, but overlord Wu was preoccupied in North China with Feng Yü-hsiang. Thus threatened, Chao fled the capital city of Changsha for safer territory to the north.11 Significantly, as T’ang attacked Chao, he criticized the governor as a puppet of northerner Wu P’ei-fu and for ignoring the provincial constitution of 1922.12 These were arguments of provincial autonomism, not nationalism. T’ang did not mention the tax districts, nor did the KMT. On the other hand, a barrage of nationalistic propaganda went out from Canton on February 25 and 26 against the northern warlords in general and against Wu P’ei-fu in particular, whose territories straddled the proposed route of the expedition.13

During February and March 1926, while Chiang struggled for the authority in the KMT to launch the Northern Expedition, T’ang’s rebellion proceeded on his own resources. Still confident in early March, T’ang rebuffed the conciliatory offer of Governor Chao and marched across his province into northern Hunan.14 In Canton at that time, the KMT’s Commissioner of Foreign Affairs stated that no real support had reached T’ang Sheng-chih but the expedition to aid him would start out from Kwangtung in late April.15 When T’ang captured Changsha in mid-March, a swell of gentry support from the Provincial Assembly encouraged him to accept the governorship. While his regiments overran Yochou on Hunan’s northern border, T’ang postponed his acceptance until Canton would further clarify the nature of their alliance. But in March the tensions between KMT factions, partly over the launching of the Northern Expedi­tion, made the future of the campaign insecure, indeed. The March 20 Coup expedited aid to T’ang in Hunan. Within days of the coup, on March 25, T’ang Sheng-chih had accepted from Hunan’s Provincial Assembly a post equated with acting governor—that of Councillor of Domestic Affairs. With his new authority, T’ang proceeded to purge his opponents from the provincial administration, again arguing as a provincial autonomist that they had not been appointed in accordance with Hunan’s constitution. T’ang then installed his own candidates.16

In late March 1926, Wu P’ei-fu responded to the threat against his hegemony in Hunan by threatening to return south with his Honanese troops. Although Wu’s forces were still engaged in North China against Feng Yü-hsiang, T’ang paused since Canton’s reinforcements still had not materialized. Aware of the defensiveness of Wu and his northern allies 73against the “radicalism” in the south, T’ang played down his connections with the KMT for a time and posed as a neutral provincialist. In Changsha, T’ang shut down a new “radical” KMT newspaper, Ta Hunan jih-pao [Greater Hunan daily] protected the vacant residence of Governor Chao against confiscation by KMT agents, and forbade partisans from commit­ting any hostile acts against foreign consulates at Changsha.17 When the northern alliance expelled Feng Yü-hsiang from the North China Plain in early April 1926, Wu had been freed to deal with the rebellion in Hunan. At that point Wu’s threat was effective.18 Since T’ang still stood alone, he recalled his regiments from northern Hunan, evacuated his forces from the provincial capital, and began to dig in defensively in his home valley.19

As with most of the overlords with provincial subordinates, Wu P’ei-fu understood the importance of conciliating provincial feelings. To rebuild his eroded authority in Hunan, Wu had tried the common device of appointing natives to manage a province for him. From the existing power structure of Hunan, Wu on May 5 named Hunan Third Division command­er Yeh K’ai-hsin to be the acting military governor, and the commander of the First Division, Ho Yao-tsu, to be civil governor. However, Wu backed down when Hunanese gentry for self-rule in the Provincial Assembly cried out immediately that this was a flagrant disregard of the authority guaran­teed them by the Hunan constitution.20 Thus thwarted, Wu reverted to the use of armed power to pacify Hunan—the most common solution to political questions in twentieth-century China.

During May 1926, T’ang Sheng-chih had suffered defeat and had fallen back on the defensive against the Hunan allies of Wu P’ei-fu. It was from this threat that CCP leader Ch’en Tu-hsiu argued for defense of Kwang­tung instead of an offensive campaign. Until the troops of the NRA climbed over the border mountains to reinforce T’ang’s crumbling defenses in the Hsiang valley, there was little to inspire his faith in his future or that of the National Revolution. Thousands of troops of the NRA’s Fourth and Seventh armies did begin to arrive during the latter weeks of May.21 But even then the zealous troops of the only CCP commander, Yeh T’ing, were still outnumbered and stymied in southern Hunan.22

Not until June 2, did T’ang accept from Chiang Kai-shek the long-offered title of commander of the Eighth Army in the NRA—a final symbol of his incorporation into the National Revolution. Besides renumbering the military units that defected to the NRA, the larger unit commanders were raised in status and pay by redesignation of their units as the next larger size. Thus, T’ang moved up from a divisional command to an army com­mand in the NRA, and his regimental commanders likewise became divi­sion commanders. This manner of promotion for a unit commander and his subordinate officers followed existing practices in warlord China and was used during the rest of the Northern Expedition. A few days after T’ang accepted his new status, the NRA forces in Hunan accepted T’ang Sheng-chih as front commander. It was not until July 9, 1926, when the offensive showed promise that the Northern Expedition was launched formally at Canton. T’ang’s local authority was further enhanced and legitimized when 74the KMT’s National Government notified him from Canton that it recog­nized his provincial preeminence. From his Hengyang stronghold, T’ang announced that in the name of the National Government he would head a provisional Hunan government as acting governor.23 Thus blended in Hunan the aspirations of T’ang Sheng-chih and the national rev­olutionaries.

Behind the word storm of nationalistic propaganda that swirled around the KMT’s reunification movement, the Party had been forced to hold out the lure of provincial autonomy and federalism. The launching of the Northern Expedition into Hunan was a marriage of convenience between the promoters of nationhood and the local power holders. Even among Chiang’s major supporters in the promotion of the expedition had been one whose career incorporated the ideologies of provincial self-rule and na­tional unification. T’an Yen-k’ai had developed his prior reputation in Hunan more as an advocate of provincial autonomy than as a nationalist.24 In the Hunan of 1926, provincialists and federalists could concede that only a united China could withstand the avarice of foreign imperialists. With the KMT apparently ready to allow a significant degree of provincial self-rule, the defection of provinces to the National Revolution would also speed the removal of the hated northern warlords, as well as end the exploitation by the imperialists. In mid-1926, some observers named the expedition the “Anti-North Campaign.”25 As overlord of Hunan, Hupei, and Honan, Shantung warlord Wu P’ei-fu was the first target. While the KMT carefully dealt with provincial feelings, it also had fostered its image as the source of national leadership. In bestowing titles and statuses on provincial col­laborators, Canton’s National Government asserted that it had the highest authority in the republic since it had evolved out of the National Assembly and the national election of 1912.

In July 1926, when Fourth Army divisions under Chang Fa-kuei and Ch’en Ming-shu arrived at the front, the combat changed from defensive to offensive. At that point, Wu’s main forces were still far off in North China and the Hunan allies on whom he relied were soon to be outnumbered by the KMT troops pouring in from Kwangtung.

It was in these circumstances that Wu’s governor, Chao Heng-t’i, de­fended himself during July and August along the north banks of two rivers tributary to Hunan’s major watercourse, the Hsiang. From late June to early July, the KMT prepared to ford the Lien River on the west of the Hsiang basin and the Lu River on the east. Down the Hsiang lay the provincial capital, Changsha. Poised along the Lu were two Fourth Army divisions and Yeh T’ing’s Independent Regiment from Canton and a Hunanese regiment of T’ang Sheng-chih as chaperone. On the Lien gathered the Kwangsi troops of the Seventh Army with the remainder of T’ang Sheng-chih’s Eighth Army. As the first major allied offensive began, T’ang had the status of general director of the Hunan front as well as acting provisional governor of Hunan. The presence of T’ang Sheng-chih and his troops helped the Hunanese to identify with the movement instead of resisting the Northern Expedition as another incursion of outside troops—this time a “Cantonese” invasion.

75The breakthrough along the Lien-Lu line began first with the Seventh and Eighth armies on the left wing on July 5. By the tenth, the Fourth Army elements on the right flank had joined the enemy in a battle that took the NRA down the valley through Changsha.26 In that eastern sector, Hunan bordered Kiangsi, a satrapy of Sun Ch’uan-fang, overlord of the lower Yangtze, where the NRA scrupulously avoided any provocation that would bring in Sun to aid Wu. For as long a period as possible, the KMT strategists wished to enjoy the advantage of taking on one adversary at a time.

The NRA also gained advantage from the flooding Yangtze, which backed water up the streams of northern Hunan and greatly slowed enemy communications from the north. With reinforcements from Wu’s head­quarters at Wuhan thus impeded, his subordinates in Hunan faced the threat of being trapped in a vulnerable, outnumbered position. On Wu’s western flank, two Kweichow militarists watched ambiguously the tide of battle. Their presence endangered the western end of Wu’s Hunan de­fenses. The poor growing season further strained the fouled communica­tions in Hunan, since the defenders became unusually dependent on food from farther north at Wuhan, which even with the use of Wu’s Yangtze navy could not be moved in adequate amounts to the southern front. Also complicating the feeding of Wu’ forces was the passive resistance of Hunanese peasants who hid their produce from his supply masters.

The loss of the Lien-Lu line left Changsha defenseless, so that on July 11 the defeated troops merely retreated through the provincial capital to a more defensible line to the north. By mid-July, General Director of the Hunan Front T’ang accepted the fruits of victory as he collaborated in setting up the provisional Hunan administration.

With new units entering Hunan from Canton and Kwangsi, and with Hunanese joining the army,27 the NRA gathered strength and began again to move north sporadically along the flooded lowland roads. The offensive ground along slowly from the capture of Changsha on July 11 until mid-August when the front had moved northward a mere fifty miles. Rein­forcements and materiel for the NRA could be moved only half way from Canton by rail. Crossing the tortuous pass from Shaokuan, Kwangtung, into Hunan took more than a back-breaking week on foot. Soldiers had to march the distance as did the coolies hired to carry needed supplies and arms. This form of transportation limited the largest weapon used to small field cannon, which were carried by teams of carriers. In spite of the precautions followed by the sanitation teams of the NRA, cholera picked off the overheated, exhausted soldiers and civilians. Ch’en Kung-po, in his memoirs, tells of hundreds dying daily in one mountain town on the route north.28 In August, both sides gathered their strength along the new front—the Mi-lo River. A Second Army advisor wrote in his letters that “Sometimes there are no provisions, my colleagues tear off some sort of grass, chew it and are full.”29

The northern side could not counterattack without the full support of Wu P’ei-fu’s main force, which was still supporting Chang Tso-lin’s offensive in North China against Feng Yü-hsiang’s Kuominchün. Casting about for aid, 76Wu tried in vain to gain loans or aid from his former protégé Sun Ch’uan-fang, who was now a rival ruler in southeast China. The British refused Wu, as did the Japanese who considered Wu and the Yangtze to be within the British sphere.30

Despite floods and cholera, C-in-C Chiang was able to rendezvous at Hengyang with a considerable force in early August 1926.31 By this time the commanders who gathered at Hengyang represented around 100,000 troops of the NRA in Hunan.32 These numbers had swelled to include the troops of the Kweichow militarists, P’eng Han-chang and Wang T’ien-p’ei, who were attracted by the victory against the Lien-Lu line. The Kweichow force moved in West Hunan to clear out pockets of resisting soldiery.33 In the expedition, warlord defectors tended to join the NRA when it was winning. With the aid of willing Hunanese coolies and auxiliaries, the NRA moved smoothly to set up the offensive against the line on the Mi-lo River. The peasantry, suffering from floods in the north and droughts to the south, were quite willing to work for pay for the NRA, both as carriers and army recruits, thus greatly increasing its mobility.34 In contrast, Wu’s Hunanese troops, low on ammunition and scrimping on short rations, went unpaid.35 In NRA-controlled territory, the Hunanese peasants sold what produce they could spare, but in a year of natural calamities the Supply Corps had to rely heavily on rice carried north from Kwangtung.36 The NRA’s prudent policy of paying for services and goods instead of shanghai-ing coolies and confiscating food was a primary motivation for the cooperation of the peasantry.37

A final conference at Changsha on August 12 brought together Chiang’s allied commanders and the Russian advisors headed by Galen. On the fifteenth, orders went out for the general attack on the Mi-lo line that would secure Hunan and carry the NRA into Hupei. The right wing was to be prepared to defend that eastern flank should Sun Ch’uan-fang come to Wu’s aid from Kiangsi.38 Across the northern horizon beckoned Wuhan with its Hanyang Arsenal, its commercial revenues and industry, and its gateway down the Yangtze. Chiang sent his generals off to battle with a spirited address:

The importance of this fight is not only in that it will decide the fate of the warlords. But, whether or not the Chinese nation and race can restore their freedom and independence hangs in the balance. In other words, it is a struggle between the nation and the warlords, between the revolution and the anti-revolutionaries, between the Three People’s Principles and imperialism. All are to be decided now in this time of battle … so as to restore independence and freedom to our Chinese race.39

The general plan was to break through the Mi-lo River line and quickly press north to take Wuhan. Speed and timing were vital in this gamble to gain the objective before either Wu’s main force returned south or neigh­boring Sun Ch’uan-fang could enter the war to keep the revolutionaries from the Yangtze valley. Canton feared a combination of warlords forming against the thus far victorious “Red Army.” From northern Hunan to 77 Wuhan, the NRA attacked an enemy of about equal numerical strength. Sun Ch’uan-fang’s potential to the east was much greater—probably dou­ble to what Chiang could muster.40

78Thus, when the Fourth and Sixth army units crossed the Mi-lo River, the position of the NRA in North Hunan was precarious indeed. The crossing on August 17 did successfully flank the line and ease the downstream crossing of the left wing of the Seventh and Eighth armies. By August 19, Wu’s troops had been forced up out of their trenches and resisted only sporadically as they retreated north from Hunan into southern Hupei.41 The northern force split up during its two-day retreat, the western flank taking refuge in Wu’s naval stronghold at Yüehchou, Hunan. The port was to have been heavily fortified, but its location at the point where the Tung-t’ing Lake meets the Yangtze allowed the backed-up floodwaters to cover much of the defenses.42

Continuing its speedy thrust, the NRA cut across Yüehchou’s railroad link to Wuhan and surrounded the vulnerable enemy.43 Wu had ordered the naval base held until he could detach himself from his Hopei operations and return to assume command himself. However, while Wu conferred at Paoting, Hopei, with Chang Tso-lin, his Hunan remnants embarked on naval vessels, river craft, and sampans and headed downstream for Wuhan.44 With the fall of Yüehchou on August 22, 1926, Hunan was practically cleared of Wu’s regular forces. His navy did continue to harass the NRA along the banks of the lake and the Yangtze, but was finally turned back by a mass of flaming rafts.45 As the NRA pursued the retreating enemy, its way was eased by the cooperation of railroad workers on the line into Hupei. These workers helped by cutting rail and telegraph lines to obstruct the northern retreat from Yüehchou. Blocked in that manner, whole trainloads of troops and ammunition fell into the hands of the pursuing NRA.

The end of August had seen Chiang’s well-timed gamble pay off. Although gravely threatened by potentially hostile forces in Kiangsi, the NRA had been able to face successfully just one warlord in Hunan. Its victory was not lost on the various warlords in surrounding provinces. As the Kweichow generals came over to the KMT after Changsha had been won, the Mi-lo victory influenced Sun Ch’uan-fang in Kiangsi. Some of his subordinates there began to reconsider their loyalty to him, while Sun’s anxieties over the “Red” menace heightened.

In hindsight Sun could see that if he had intervened in Hunan during June or July the NRA could have been defeated, possibly prejudicing the course of the Northern Expedition and even the future of the Canton “Reds.” If Kwangtung, the Revolutionary Base, had not fallen to a Sun-Wu invasion, the KMT might very well have either withered away in impo­tence or been supplanted by the contending CCP cadre. Chiang’s role in decision-making would certainly have been curtailed, if not ended, by the stigma of defeat. However, success in Hunan proved Chiang’s calculations and popularized the expedition and his leadership. Including the activity of the vanguard in May, the Hunan campaign had cost the revolutionaries in 79blood and hardships during four months of combat. In late August, with intelligence reports of the southward movement of Wu’s reinforcements, Chiang ordered a bold strike against Wuhan while his luck held.46

The Battle of Wuhan

Attacking north toward the three-city complex were mainly regiments of the Fourth Army under Ch’en Ming-shu and Chang Fa-kuei. The retreat from the Mi-lo line from August 22 to 25 had allowed Wu’s Hupei forces to fortify a highly defensible line behind which his mauled units from Hunan could recoup. The key Canton-Hankow railway followed a narrow land route between the Yangtze and upland ranges, and crossed several flood-swollen bridgeheads. To further narrow the land route to a few defensible bridge crossings, the northerners breached the nearby dikes of the Yangtze. Ting-szu Bridge (Ting-szu-ch’iao) was one such barricaded strongpoint.

There, barbed wire and machine guns along the northern riverbank confronted the vanguard of the NRA.47 Its attack on August 26 only revealed the strength of the line. By that time both sides were being reinforced. Again the mobility of the NRA became decisive, greatly aided by local carriers and scouts who helped move the right wing upstream and then around the enemy’s flank. When the Fourth Army thus threatened enemy rail communications to Wuhan, Wu’s forces were vulnerable. Still made up mainly of the troops just defeated in Hunan, they were tired and also poorly coordinated. When assaults about the bridgehead joined with the flanking attack, the line disintegrated. During the night of August 26, the NRA stormed the defensive points one by one and by sunup the defenders were in flight. Again, some escaped by means of Wu’s navy on the Yangtze; the rest tried to flee by train toward Wuhan.48

Ting-szu Bridge was taken, but heavy casualties limited the effective pursuit of the enemy to a vanguard. Once more, flooded lowlands slowed the advance. The top of the Yangtze dike was barred to troop movement by gunfire from Wu’s river fleet. In addition to casualties suffered in battle, Wu’s troops were furthered weakened by dwindling food supplies. Sig­nificantly, the opposite was the case with the NRA. In the environs of Ting-szu Bridge, following the evacuation of Wu’s troops, a market sprang up and local people brought food to sell to hungry KMT troops as they passed.49 By that time, word of the NRA’s policy of paying for its needs must have preceded it. In sharp contrast stood the rapacious warlord forces, which often forced the peasantry to exchange goods for worthless printed scrip.

Immediately to the north, Hosheng Bridge lay fortified on a large scale athwart the route. On August 28, Hsien-ning, the local hsien seat, fell to the advancing NRA, but when the army reached Hosheng Bridge it found the defenses formidable and under Wu P’ei-fu’s personal command. Re­turning south to his Hankow headquarters on August 25, Wu had received word of the loss of Ting-szu Bridge and had then proceeded to the front. Wu could not understand the defeat at the defensible bridgehead and 80blamed the cowardice of his subordinates. Upon his arrival at Hosheng, Wu gathered his officers as witnesses to the execution of the commanders of a brigade, a regiment, and six smaller units. On hand with him as he supervised his mercenaries was his Big Sword Corps, which functioned as on-the-spot executioners.50 Wu hoped to soon change the defensive stance of his allies in Hupei—enlarged by a portion of his regulars returned from North China.

On August 29, Wu moved south against the NRA vanguard units of Li Tsung-jen’s Seventh Army south of Hosheng Bridge. Wu’s counterattack pressed on until slowed by the main units of the Fourth and Seventh armies arriving at the front. The NRA vanguard had been in dire straits and had withdrawn before Wu’s thrust. In the predawn darkness of August 30, Wu attacked against what had become the NRA’s line of defense south of the bridge. Probing for a weak point, Wu aimed for the sector dividing the Fourth and Seventh armies and pressed his offensive until the NRA managed to threaten him with a flanking movement. A well-coordinated barrage of artillery and rifle fire from the infantry took a heavy toll among Wu’s attacking force.51 To stiffen resistance, Wu’s sword-wielding ex­ecutioners served up the heads of several more timorous officers, but the northern attack broke up into a rout.52 In attempting to gain the offensive, Wu lost the advantage of his superior defensive line along the river. When his troops fell back across the bridge, the Seventh Army flanked Wu upstream and took a small bridge, which threatened Wu’s lifeline—the railway back to Wuhan. By noon of August 30, Wu’s Hunan and Hupei troops were in a general retreat north.53

The defeat in Hunan and southern Hupei had been costly to Wu P’ei-fu both in men and materiel. During the retreat from Hunan, NRA flankers had cut off the vulnerable railway and captured three trains laden with troops and arms.54 Within several days, Wu lost at the two bridgeheads more than 8,000 troops—over 1,000 killed, another 2,000 wounded, and 5,000 captured along with their rifles. Following this debacle Wu failed to regain the offensive and repeated his pleas to Sun Ch’uan-fang down the Yangtze for aid and reinforcement.

Calling another warlord into one’s satrapy was fraught with danger. All Sun and Wu had in common was antipathy for the Canton Reds and a craving for territory in the Yangtze basin. Upon Wu’s return to Central China, he had telegraphed Sun from Hankow requesting that Sun threaten the NRA’s flank from Kiangsi, cut off its supply lines back to Kwangtung, and isolate it in Hunan.55 In late August, Sun still dallied, ambiguous to outsiders and undecided as to where his best interests lay. In that invaluable interim, the NRA fortified its Kiangsi flank as best it could, tried to reassure Sun, and rushed its attack toward the prized Wuhan complex.

In full retreat Wu P’ei-fu breached dikes behind him to slow the enemy’s approach to Wuchang, the provincial capital of Hupei on the south bank of the Yangtze. Leaving behind a garrison of 10,000 within the sturdy city walls, Wu ferried most of his force across to Hankow to avoid being trapped 81with his back to the unbridged Yangtze.56 Across the Yangtze, Wu divided his troops further—one part holding the coveted Hanyang Arsenal and another defending the metropolis of Hankow, Wu’s headquarters. By then, three of Wu’s Honan divisions had arrived to reinforce his defense.

In close pursuit of the retreating troops, Ch’en Ming-shu’s Fourth Army vanguard division took a high point overlooking Wuchang on August 31. As other Fourth Army units arrived during the next two days they filled in a circle around the city. On September 2, 1926, the NRA began frontal assaults to test the defenses, but lacking heavy siege cannon, and with inadequate communications, the attackers lost several thousand casualties before pulling back to more permanent siege works.57

More successful were the efforts against Wu’s Hanyang Arsenal. Once Wu had withdrawn his river fleet downstream for patrol off Hankow, the NRA was able to cross to the north bank of the Yangtze upstream from Hanyang. By September 5, Hanyang was surrounded on land. Defending the Hanyang perimeter was the Hupei division of Liu Tso-lung, dug in on high points fortified with artillery battalions.58 The advantage of this de­fense was lost to Wu from within. During what should have been a futile assault of the fortified heights by the NRA, Liu Tso-lung and his division defected and joined in the capture of Hanyang and its arsenal.59

With his arsenal gone, the vanguard of the NRA already sweeping north to threaten his rail link to Honan, and the support he awaited from Honan still en route, Wu decided to salvage what units he could for a last ditch defense in the border hills to the north between Hupei and Honan. By retreating up the railroad to Wusheng Pass, Wu hoped to hold out until more troops could move south from Honan. Once again the mobility of the NRA proved decisive in that Wu was deprived of the time he needed to dig in at the pass. After a succession of aborted stands, Wu lost the pass and fell farther back—into Honan.60

The walled city of Wuchang did not fall along with Hanyang and Han­kow. This portion of Wu’s forces did have the will to resist—for well over a month. Without siege guns and distracted by the threat from nearby Kiangsi, the NRA had to wait until hunger and lowered morale worked on the city’s defenders. Wu had never imagined that the Red rabble from Canton would take Hunan and then Hupei so quickly, and so had not prepared the provincial capital for a long siege. Along with the 10,000-man garrison, hundreds of thousands of civilians were locked within the walls.61 Inside were also the first foreigners in sizable numbers that the NRA encountered on the expedition.

Although most foreigners were across the river in the sanctuary of Hankow’s foreign concessions, a group of missionaries, educators, and doctors remained at Wuchang. Within sight of the besieged city, a fleet of foreign gunboats gave grim reminder to the NRA of the threat of an international intervention. Arriving at the front near Wuchang, Chiang wired Foreign Minister Eugene Ch’en that he should inform the Hankow agents of the world powers that “… on the matter of protecting foreign nationals, I have already informed the armies to observe my prohibition 82against the military occupying or obstructing affairs in foreign-established churches, schools, and the like….”62 Apparently Chiang’s personal surveillance of the matter proved effective, for there were no antiforeign incidents of significance at Wuhan.

Back in mid-August at the Changsha conference of NRA commanders, Chiang had called for the capture of the Wuhan complex within one week.63 Although secret negotiations between Canton and Sun Ch’uan-fang had been in progress at least since February 1926,64 Sun’s leanings were unclear and intelligence reports claimed he was massing troops where his provinces of Kiangsi and Fukien bordered KMT territory.65 Sun’s excuse was that he was responding defensively to the NRA buildup in Hunan. One allegation was that Chiang and Sun had agreed that the NRA would take Changsha while Sun would be freed to concentrate against Chang Tso-lin in Shantung.66 Earlier, Canton had apparently approached Sun with the prospect of a nonaggression pact, and the invitation to join the National Revolution upon Sun’s submission to the National Government at Canton.67

However, Sun had been unable to reconcile his personal rule of his five “United Provinces” with the prospect of a lesser role under the KMT. In late August, Sun moved to answer Wu P’ei-fu’s pleas for aid. Meeting then with his confederated provincial subordinates in Nanking, far downriver from besieged Wuchang, Sun ordered them to prepare a two-pronged attack from Kiangsi and Fukien west into KMT territory. Sun’s potential force of 200,000 troops was mainly on paper since they were divided among provincial subordinates and difficult to assemble in concentrated numbers outside their home provinces.68

Chiang was aware of Sun’s potential, and chose to gamble on another offensive. In the past, the NRA had done well by keeping on the offensive. The invasion of Kiangsi was by three routes over the north and central highlands, and over four passes converging on Kanchou, southern Kiangsi.69 Quickly building up momentum, the well-coordinated attack rolled across the Kiangsi border on September 4. By this move, Chiang committed the NRA to a fight for the lower Yangtze.


1. Chang Kuo-t’ao, vol. 1, p. 525, describes the pessimism of Galen and Borodin.

2. Lucian W. Pye, Warlord Politics (New York: Praeger, 1971), p. 129.

3. J.C. Huston, U.S. consul general at Hankow, MS report to State Department. “General Historical Sketch of Political Conditions in the Hankow Consular District from the Revolution of 1911 to March 1925,” April 4, 1925, State Dept. no. (SD) 893.00/6206, pp. 39-41, 143-144. Hereafter cited as Huston, “Sketch.”

4. Boorman, vol. 2, pp. 419-420. Ch’en Ming-shu’s biography is in vol. 1, pp. 213-214.

5. Boorman, vol. 1, p. 281 on Ch’eng Ch’ien. China Yearbook 1928, p. 1106.

6. Chiang’s telegram to Chao, dated July 5, 1926, in the collection of the National Military Museum, Taipei.

7. U.S. Changsha Consul C.D. Meinhardt to State Department, March 12, 1925, SD 893.00/6148. Consul Meinhardt to State Department, March 12, 1926, SD 893.00/7314.

8. From a report of the Russian mission at Canton in early 1926 entitled “Characteristics of Prominent Men of the Kuomintang,” included in the documents seized in the Russian Legation at Peking in April 1927. Translated by the staff of the Army Attaché of the U.S. Legation. U.S. National Archives, Military Records Division (MRD), file no. 2657-I-281(111), document no. 30. Hereafter cited as Seized Documents with MRD numbers.

9. U.S. Changsha Consul C.D. Meinhardt to State Department, March 5, 1926, SD 893.00/7319, MF 329-51, probably in Chinese dollars, which were valued at approximately 2/U.S. dollar.

10. Seized Documents, MRD 2657-I-281(111), no. 30.

11. Ta-shih chi, p. 202.

12. U.S. Changsha Consul C.D. Meinhardt to State Department, March 5, 1926, SD 893.00/7319.

13. SCMP (March 1, 1926), p. 8.

14. U.S. Changsha Consul C.D. Meinhardt to State Department, March 5, 1926, SD 893.00/7319.

15. U.S. Canton Consul Douglas Jenkins to State Department, March 10, 1926, SD 893.00/7293.

16. U.S. Changsha Consul C.D. Meinhardt to Secretary of State, April 3, 1926, SD 893.00/7372.

17. Ibid.

18. U.S. naval attaché Peking to Department of Navy, April 29, 1926, SD 893.00/7448.

19. Hsiang Tao, July 14, 1926, p. 1606, “Hunan in the Midst of the Noise of the Northern Expedition,” published by the CCP in Shanghai.

20. Report of U.S. naval attaché, May 7, 1926, SD 893.00/7466.

21. SCMP (June 1 and 8, 1926) reports the movement of large NRA units across the border.

22. SCMP (July 7, 1926), p. 8, and (July 8, 1926), p. 8, in which reports state that the vanguard including Yeh T’ing had been defeated and was awaiting reinforcements. Ko T’eh, “pei-fa sheng-chung-chih Hunan” [Hunan in the midst of the northern expedition], Hsiang Tao (July 14, 1926), p. 1608, where the official CCP organ states that the fighting had stopped in preparation for an “official battle of North versus South.”

23. Ta-shih chi, p. 213.

24. Jean Chesneaux, “The Federalist Movement in China, 1920-3,” in Modern China’s Search for a Political Form, ed. by Jack Gray (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), chap. 4, p. 107, which translated Chesneaux’s article in Revue Historique, October-December, 1966.

25. See China Yearbook 1926, pp. 1038-1043.

26. N. Exp., vol. 2, pp. 350-351.

27. SCMP (July 27, 1926), p. 9. Some recruits went first to Kwangtung for training and then returned north to combat.

28. Ch’en Kung-po, Han feng chi [Collection of the north wind] (Shanghai: Association of Local Government, 1945), p. 40. Hereafter cited as Ch’en Kung-po. Akimova, p. 242.

29. Akimova, p. 242.

30. Kuowen (August 5, 1926), p. 3.309

31. SCMP August 5, 1926), p. 9. Ta-shih chi, p. 219, states Chiang arrived on August 9.

32. Kuowen (August 5, 1926), p. 23.

33. Ko-ming wen-hsien, vol. 12, pp. 162-163. Ta-shih chi, p. 219, claims Chiang on August 6 ordered P’eng’s Ninth Army and Wang’s Tenth Army to concentrate at Ching-li.

34. SCMP (August 18, 1926), p. 9.

35. New York Times (August 24, 1926), p. 4.

36. Ch’en Kung-po, pp. 45-46.

37. Ibid.

38. TSKY, vol. 2, p. 524.

39. Ibid.

40. SCMP (August 20, 1926), p. 8.

41. Pei-fa chien-shih [Simple history of the northern expedition] (Taipei, May 1961), pp. 53-54.

42. SCMP (August 26, 1926), p. 9.

43. SCMP (August 29, 1926), p. 8.

44. Kuowen (August 29, 1926), p. 8.

45. SCMP (August 28, 1926), p. 10.

46. N. Exp., vol. 2, p. 4.

47. TSKY, vol. 2, p. 525.

48. Ibid., pp. 411-412.

49. Ch’en Kung-po, pp. 54-55.

50. N. Exp., vol. 2, p. 426.

51. Ibid., pp. 423-430.

52. TSKY, vol. 2, p. 525.

53. N. Exp., vol. 2, p. 427.

54. New York Times (September 1, 1926), p. 7. Huo Jan “Chin-shu yüeh lai Hunan-te kung-jen yün-tung” [The Hunan workers’ movement in recent months], Chan-shih chou-pao [Soldiers’ Weekly] (November 14, 1926), quoted in 1st Workers’ Movement, pp. 323-324.

55. Kuowen (September 5, 1926) n. p. N. Exp., vol. 2, p. 405.

56. N. Exp., vol. 2, pp. 414, 430-433.

57. Kuowen (September 12, 1926), p. 4. SCMP (September 8, 1926), p. 8. N. Exp., vol. 2, p. 443. Akimova, pp. 245-246.

58. N. Exp., vol. 2, p. 434.

59. SCMP (September 16, 1926), p. 9. N. Exp., vol. 2, p. 464.

60. N. Exp., vol. 2, p. 433.

61. Kuowen (September 19, 1926), p. 2.

62. Kuowen (January 2, 1927), n. p. in the published diary of a minor administrator besieged in Wuchang.

63. Ko-ming wen-hsien, vol. 13, p. 2003, quotes from Chiang before 1926.

64. Documents, pp. 367-368.

65. Letter in the National Military Museum, Taipei, collection from Chiang Kai-shek to Li Chi-shen dated August 6, 1926.

66. Kuowen (August 8, 1926), n. p.

67. Documents, pp. 367-368.

68. Kuowen (September 12, 1926), “The Situation in Fukien and Kiangsi.”

69. Ibid., p. 4, agrees with N. Exp., vol. 2, chap. 6.

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