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The Peking Campaign:
Completion of the Military Unification

In the second week of May 1928, the NRA began to move north out of its bridgehead on the north bank of the Yellow River. Despite having been deprived of the use of the Tientsin-P’u-k’ou Railroad and thereby being forced to make a sixty-mile march, Ch’en T’iao-yüan of the First CA* took Tehchou on May 13.1 Having cleared northernmost Shantung of the Ankuochün, the First CA could now combine with Feng on the North China Plain in a common front facing Peking—still nearly 200 miles dis­tant. In the northwest, Yen Hsi-shan’s Third CA was in place to make up the left wing of the front, which arced around from the Yellow River all the way to the Great Wall near Peking.

The Shansi Sector

Yen’s Third CA had been fighting the Ankuochün since early in April when Chang Tso-lin tried to take on Shansi before the NRA arrived in the north. In mid-April in the rugged Shansi mountains that overhung the railroad to T’aiyüan, Yen’s capital, Chang’s offensive had been blocked. In northernmost Shansi, Chang had pressed deeply inside the ancient Great Wall, taking first Ta-t’ung and then Shuochou. On May 8, Yen was finally able to mount a counteroffensive, which retook Shuochou and pushed 163Chang’s Ankuochün back out of northern Shansi. By May 25, the eastern point of the counterattack along the railroad connecting T’aiyüan with the North China Plain pushed the Ankuochün down out of the Shansi high­lands. As Yen’s Third CA descended to the plain, there were on that ancient battleground nearly one million troops—more than half of which sided with Nanking.

Down on the plain, Feng followed the Peking-Hankow Railroad while Yen’s forces paralleled the route north through the highlands bordering Shansi. Both converged on Paoting, which they besieged. There, again, on the North China Plain was an example of what unified action could accomplish—however fleeting was that unity. In his attack from northern­most Shansi, Yen threatened the side gate to Peking and forced Chang Tso-lin to divide the Ankuochün defensive force. While the Ankuochün held on tenaciously at Paoting in the south, Chang-chia-k’ou, the strategic gateway of caravans and armies to Peking, fell to Yen on May 25, followed a day later by Nan-k’ou, the last mountain pass defending the route to Peking.2 Yens contribution was, thus, quite valuable and placed him first in line to enter Peking.

The Battle for the North China Plain

The joint operation by the three Collective Armies under KMT coordi­nation had not moved north unopposed. In early April when the Ankuochün had attacked Yen in Shansi, it had also moved south against Feng Yü-hsiang’s bridgehead along the Yellow River. Had this double offensive succeeded, the Northern Expedition might well have bogged down during the Tsinan episode with the Japanese. At that point the three components of the Ankuochün still numbered around one-half million troops and enjoyed the advantages of shortened rail communications. However, by mid-April, Feng’s Second CA had halted the thrust south and not only had managed to hold onto the bridgehead, but had thrown the Ankuochün back. While south of the river, units of Feng’s Second CA aided Chiang in his move against Tsinan, to the north, the Second CA main force took Han-tan, a station on the Peking-Hankow line, on April 17.

Hampering progress up the North China Plain was the effective bom­bardment of the long-range heavy artillery that the Ankuochün had had mounted on railroad cars. While the northern warlords continued to enjoy superiority of firepower, they also had become overdependent on their rail lines. As had happened successively earlier in the expedition, once the NRA was in position to threaten the enemy’s arterial rail link rearward the northern commanders retreated to defend it. Thus, when Yen’s Third CA broke out of the Shansi highlands and confronted the Ankuochün down on the plain at the rail crossroads of Shih-chia-chuang, Chang Tso-lin began to withdraw northward defensively. Following the Ankuochün retreat, Feng joined Yen in the siege of Shih-chia-chuang from the south. Compressed from two sides, that important rail and highway crossroads fell to the joint offensive on May 9.3

The final push to Peking saw great masses of troops converging on a 164diminishing field. While from the southeast the route was still nearly 200 miles long to the ancient imperial capital, Yen’s outposts in the northwest could practically look down on Peking, a mere two day’s march down through foothills. The southern sector was divided into three routes: with part of Yen’s Third CA moving north through the Shansi border highlands, Feng’s Second CA pressing up the Peking-Hankow Railroad, and the First CA centering on the Tientsin-P’u-k’ou Railroad. While the main force of the First CA had detoured around Tsinan, some units did stay behind as a guard force ringing the city. There remained considerable anxiety among the NRA leaders over the Japanese intervention, since the Japanese were reinforcing Tientsin and Peking on the route ahead.4

In mid-May, the end of the Battle for Peking was not yet in sight. Throwing 200,000 troops against the south, Chang Tso-lin staged a desper­ate counterattack from May 17 to 25. When Chang concentrated on the gap between the First and Second CAs, the First CA crumpled and fell back to the south. The First CA managed to make a stand at Tungkuang, but could not regain the momentum of attack until late May. In the central sector the counterattack not only smashed Feng’s siege of Paoting, it forced the Second CA back thirty miles south along the Peking-Hankow Railroad to Tingchou, where Ankuochün artillery kept Feng’s troops immobilized. It was not until May 25, when the Ankuochün failed against Feng’s flank east of the railway, that the northern tide began to ebb.5

The counterattack had stirred a feverish high pitch of cooperation among the Collective Armies. From Honan, Li Tsung-jen rushed his Fourth CA under Pai Ch’ung-hsi north on the Peking-Hankow Railroad to aid Feng in his hard-pressed sector. Yen’s taking of Nan-k’ou far to the north contri­buted to the weakening of the Ankuochün southern push. Speeding by rail from sector to sector, Chiang Kai-shek catalyzed the diverse components with promises and coercion. Finally, on May 25, the NRA regained the momentum of attack.

Sending out cavalry units, Feng Yü-hsiang pressed quickly north be­tween the two north-south rail lines to threaten Ankuochün commu­nications.6 In the hills bordering the plain, Yen Hsi-shan’s units fought their way down to the flatland and took Manch’eng on May 27. From Peking, Chang Tso-lin saw: his several hundred thousand Manchurian troops among the Ankuochün, as well as his hold on the plain, endangered; growing pressure on the two railways, from the flank along Shansi’s border and from behind; and that Yen’s troops had reached almost to the Western Hills suburbs of Peking.

Thus, on May 30, Chang Tso-lin, head of the Ankuochün, began to consolidate his defense of what remained to him of the North China Plain. 165To shorten his communications lines and concentrate his forces in a more compact area, Chang began to transfer units from the south back toward Peking on May 30. To save his western flank from Yen’s offensive, Chang threw more troops into that sector in a desperate counterattack against Manch’eng. However, with the arrival of the Fourth CA from Central China, that flank became untenable, and, with his counterattack repulsed, Chang pulled his troops back from their defense of Paoting as well. Chang’s eleventh-hour assault on Manch’eng failed, but inflicted heavy casualties on Yen’s Third CA—4,300 dead and 15,000 wounded—as well as on Chang’s own troops.7

On the right wing along the Tientsin-P’u-k’ou Railroad, the First CA had been pushed back to Tungkuang earlier, but in late May joined in the new offensive. On May 28, the First CA was again moving forward along with the other sectors, covering the thirty miles to Tsangchou in five days. The NRA progress northward quickened as the Ankuochün called a general retreat—to shorten its defense perimeter to the more defensible line along the Ting River, the Wen-an swamp, and across the Grand Canal at Manch’ang. Meeting with Feng on May 29 at the Lowei railroad station, and with Yen on May 30 at the Shih-chia-chuang station, the leaders of the Collective Armies arranged the final assault and occupation of Peking.

Since Yen was already in place at Nan-k’ou and the hills overlooking Peking’s plain, it was agreed that he would enter first. Yen’s position before Peking, gained on May 26, paralleled the First Army’s wait outside Shang­hai in March 1926 when the threat of isolation from its rail communica­tions to the north had drawn the Ankuochün back north of the Yangtze without an open fight for the city. Once again Chiang became anxious over the prospect of foreign intervention. Certainly Chiang’s worst fears had been realized at Tsinan with the Kwantung Army. In his conferences with Feng and Yen, Chiang informed the commanders of the dangers in the circumstances that confronted them, in which the foreign garrisons in Peking were on standby and another 4,500 troops of four nations were poised in Tientsin and along the railroad to Peking.8 As earlier, Chiang cautioned against any incidents that could result in a major foreign inter­vention. An allied operation of the powers on the order of the Boxer suppression could have prejudiced Chiang’s hopes for a quick conquest of the north and made more difficult Nanking’s acceptance as the national government.

In North China, Japan’s military leaders kept alive an air of crisis over the potential danger to foreigners of the NRA. What happened to North China had to affect Manchuria, especially in a national movement intent on mak­ing into an entity all parts of China. During Chang Tso-lin’s counteroffen­sive on May 18, an official Japanese memorandum, addressed to Chang but with copies sent to NRA leaders, warned both sides against carrying the civil war into Manchuria. Should Chang Tso-lin’s army be destroyed, “Japan may take appropriate and effective steps for the maintenance of peace and order in Manchuria.” The arrival of Japanese reinforcements at Mukden, Manchuria, underlined the threat. At Peking, 400 more Japanese 166troops brought the total there to 1,900 manning a cordon around the Legation Quarter and the Japanese hospital.9 In Shantung, the Kwantung Army commander there with 15,000 troops not only refused to evacuate Tsinan, but on May 25 sent an ultimatum demanding the removal from Tsingtao of all Chinese troops to an area twelve miles inland from the port.

Trying to disassociate the Ankuochün cause from the Japanese, Chang Tso-lin replied to the memorandum of May 18 that in the light of the Washington Conference principles he could not recognize Japan’s interest in Manchuria.10 These were certainly not the well-chosen words of a Japanese “running dog.” However, KMT propaganda linking the Ankuochün and the Japanese had its effect so that Japan’s posture in North China and Manchuria distracted the Ankuochün and weakened the fight­ing spirit of its leadership. This was evident in the ensuing conversion of Chang Tso-lin’s son and heir, Chang Hsüeh-liang, to Nanking’s national cause.

Suffering from this spiritual malaise, by early June the three elements were trying to hold on to their new defense perimeter. Strategic Paoting had fallen and NRA propaganda continued to eat away at Ankuochün morale. From the Kwantung Army came pressure for an immediate Ankuochün withdrawal back within Manchuria, which could be better defended against the NRA. Actually, the Ankuochün still had not been decisively defeated in North China and probably enjoyed superior firepower. Defending the northern line were: Chang Tso-lin’s forces on the western sector, Sun Cn’uan-fang on the center, and Chang Tsung-ch’ang’s Shantung troops on the eastern sector near Tientsin.

When Chang Tso-lin on June 3, 1928, decided to remove finally himself and his headquarters’ staff back to Manchuria by train, Ankuochün morale ebbed further. As KMT propaganda stressed the hopelessness of the northern position and publicized Chang’s having sent his family back to safety in Manchuria, a special KMT agent moved in on Sun Ch’uan-fang. Since early 1928, KMT agents had been working on Sun, and, in early June, Nan Kuei-hsiang’s persuasions provided the coup de grace. On June 4, Sun withdrew his troops suddenly from the center of the northern line at Ku-an.

Rushing into the evacuated center, Feng’s Second CA cut the railroad link connecting Peking with the port of Tientsin on June 6. Sun Ch’uan-fang managed to escape again, this time to Japanese Dairen. In the western sector, Yen’s Seventh Division commanded by Sun Ch’u moved quickly around the Ankuochün flank and by the morning of June 6, 1928, marched triumphantly through the magnificent gates of ancient Peking.11

The occupation of Peking agreed upon by the Collective Armies was bloodless but not without incident. Demanding their protection in the northern capital, in the interim between the Ankuochün withdrawal and 167Yen’s entry, the powers gained from Nanking the affirmation that the Manchurian regiment of Pao Yü-lin could remain in Peking to maintain order and then be permitted passage to Manchuria. When a subordinate of Feng Yü-hsiang broke the agreement and held the Manchurians captive, there was temporarily a crisis, which was resolved in their reluctant release and repatriation.12 The tensions manifest in that episode revealed those latent in the division of North China into zones by the commanders of the Collective Armies. It was but a prelude to the dissolution of the ephemeral combination the very next year.

In Chang Tsung-ch’ang’s defense sector, resistance was more dogged. Chang had bargained futilely for a “contribution” of $2 million from the Tientsin merchants’ associations in return for a bloodless and orderly retreat from their city. Thus frustrated, he laid down a vigorous barrage of heavy artillery against the approaching First CA’s attempt to ford the Hai River, upstream from Tientsin.13

Because the large foreign concessions at Tientsin were situated on the south bank of the Hai River, the First CA approached from the west in order to avoid them—especially the Japanese concession, which would have been in a direct line of fire if Tientsin were approached from the south. Chiang had instructed the foreign diplomatic corps in Tientsin to “disarm all northerners who try to enter the foreign concessions …” and ordered the First CA to “… make no attempt to enter the foreign concessions…. We will do our best to handle the difficult situation in the most pacific manner.”14

KMT agents had been active in contacting Ankuochün officers since late 1927, and in the Tientsin campaign the efforts paid off. Dispatched from Nanking in late December 1927, Lu Ho-sheng had been working with northern officers offering them various incentives to defect or surrender. By June 1928, Lu had been able to deal with General Hsü Yüan-ch’uan of the Manchurian Sixth Army, units of which were reinforcing Chang Tsung-ch’ang’s sector around Tientsin. During a secret meeting on the night of June 7, Lu was so persuasive as to the futility of further efforts with the Ankuochün that Hsü turned himself and his troops over to the First CA outside Tientsin on June 11. The defection so weakened Chang Tsung-ch’ang’s line that it ended any hopes oi his retaining Tientsin and the remaining portion of the North China Plain.15 For Hsü the defection meant his reassignment to the Third CA of Yen Hsi-shan, in which he commanded his force as the Eleventh Corps (chün-t’uan),16 an arrangement that had many precedents in the Northern Expedition.

From June 11 when the Tientsin campaign ended through to September 3, the NRA under the Kwangsi general, Pai Ch’ung-hsi, directed mopping-up operations against stragglers and isolated pockets of resistance east of Peking. Not until September 7, 1928, did Pai’s force, made up of elements of the four CAs, see real action. On that date the NRA found Chang Tsung-ch’ang’s force lined up behind a defense system around T’angshan. After a two-day conflict, Chang was again in retreat toward Shan-hai-kuan, the gateway to Manchuria. His last stand along the Lüan 168River from September 15 to 23 failed when the NRA broke through and overwhelmed the defenders.17

The Kwantung Army’s response to Chang Tso-lin’s uncooperative at­titude was typical of samurai direct action. As Chang retreated by train from Peking back to his base at Mukden, Kwantung Army zealots blew up his private train nearing Mukden on June 4. The outcome was not as the Japanese had hoped. Although they may have considered Chang’s heir, the “Young Marshall,” who was a known drug addict, to be pliable, he had already been subverted by nationalistic propaganda and had hostile feel­ings toward the Japanese assassins of his father (the assassins had blamed the bombing on Chinese nationalists). When Chang Hsüeh-liang seized the reins of power left by his father, he proved to be even less of a Japanese puppet than his father had been. With his considerable military presence secure behind the passes into Manchuria, Chang Hsüeh-liang negotiated with Nanking’s representatives from June till the close of 1928. During this period Chang also had to consolidate his hold on the region since it was vigorously challenged by his father’s ambitious subordinates. Finally, with the flying of the KMT’s national flag from Chang’s Mukden headquarters on December 29, 1928, all China appeared to be under that banner.

Nanking legitimized the hold on Manchuria that Chang Hsüeh-liang already enjoyed. On December 30, 1928, the National Government at Nanking appointed Chang commander of what was to be renamed the Northeast Border Defense Army (his own Manchurian troops).18 In theory, this gave China its first nominal unity in twenty years. Real unity had been fictitious after the mid-nineteenth century. As a military objec­tive, the reunification of China had required a little more than two years. Speeding this military phase were several technological developments that aided the cause of nationalism, including rail transportation, telegraph, the press, and modern logistical support. Still facing Chiang and his supporters at Nanking was the political consolidation required in the past of each Chinese regime. As early as June 11, when Yen Hsi-shan entered Peking with Pai Ch’ung-hsi, Yen had called for cooperation and had struck an ominous note in a warning to Feng and Nanking that there were those spreading rumors to “… stir up inner dissensions.”19


1. N. Exp., vol. 4, pp. 1980-1982. SCMP (May 14, 1928), p. 10, cites the Shanghai Hua-ch’iao jih-pao of May 13.

2. N. Exp., vol. 4., battle map no. 2 following p. 1356.

3. Ibid., p. 1352.

4. Kuowen (May 27, 1928), n. p.

5. N. Exp., vol. 4, p. 1381, and battle map on p. 1380a.

6. Ibid., p. 1402.

7. SCMP (May 31, 1928), p. 22, cites Reuter, Tokyo. TSKY, vol. 2, p. 578. Kuowen (June 2, 1928), n. p. N. Exp., vol. 4, pp. 1386-1389, includes a list of casualties and ammunition consumed in the battle.

8. N. Exp., vol. 4, p. 1409. SCMP May 15, 1928), p. 10, and (June 2, 1928), p. 16.

9. SCMP (May 21, 1928), p. 10.

10. Kuowen (June 10, 1928), n. p. Ko-ming wen-hsien, vol. 19, p. 1410.

11. Kuowen (June 10, 1928), n. p.

12. N. Exp., vol. 4, p. 1427. Dispatch to U.S. Secretary of State from Minister J. MacMur­ray at Peking, July 3, 1928, U.S. National Archives (893.00/10174), and the July 7, 1928, report from Consul General C.E. Gauss of Tientsin, U.S. National Archives (893.00/10185).

13. SCMP (June 12, 1928), p. 10. N. Exp., vol. 4, p. 1428.

14. SCMP (June 2, 1928), p. 16, quotes from Hua-ch’iao jih-pao, May 31.

15. SCMP (June 13, 1928), p. 10. N. Exp., vol. 4, p. 1428.

16. N. Exp., vol. 4, p. 1431.

17. Ibid., pp. 1450-1456.

18. Ta-shih chi, p. 320.

19. SCMP (June 13, 1928), p. 10.

* The NRA sectors may already have merged since Ta-shih chi and James E. Sheridan, Chinese Warlord, the Career of Feng Yü-hsiang (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1966), p. 238, concur that Tehchou fell to Feng’s Second CA the prior day, May 12.

Chu P’ei-teh, supervising the guard force, avoided large-scale fighting with the Japanese, but was subjected to daily harassment from what had grown to be a division-sized Japanese force complete with aircraft that bombed Chinese units, which returned rifle fire against the reconnaisance flights. Quite likely, the intelligence gathered found its way to the Ankuochün at Peking. (SCMP [May 28, 1928], p. 10, and [May 31, 1928], p. 12. N. Exp., vol. 4, p. 1283.)

Bergamini claims evidence showing this to have been a trap planned to include the assassination of Chang as his train neared Mukden (Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy, pp. 381-385, where Bergamini cites Murofushi Tetsuro, Nihon no terorisuto [Tokyo: Kobunsho, 1963], pp. 209-213.)

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