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  The Long March Begins
Updated: 2004-06-25 10:08

Communist-nationalist alliance breaks up 

The Chinese Communist Party had its origins in 1921. The shaky alliance with the Nationalist Party headed by Chiang Kaishek came to a halt on the morning of April 12th, 1927 with a feast of heads. Thousands perished. Some were shot; some beheaded; some hurled alive into the glowing furnaces of steam locomotives. So many heads were chopped off that the weary arms could hardly raise their great scimitars from their sides. What few escaped, including Zhou Enlai fled to the west to Jiangxi Province. The remoteness of Jiangxi was so great in the 1930s that the government had almost no control over this area. Roadless, as was most of China in those years, it was traversed only by mountain footpaths by people carrying bundles on their backs, horse-and-mule caravans, single file, too narrow for even carts, made Jiangxi a haven for rebellion. Everywhere flourished illiteracy, disease, poverty, and ignorance. It was here that Mao Zedong set up his new Soviet Communist zone.

The Soviet Zone in Jiangxi

For seven years the communists prospered despite everything Chiang Kaishek and his Nationalists Koumingtong (KMT) could do in The First, Second, Third, Fourth, and now the Fifth, "annihilation" campaign against the "Red Bandits" as he referred to them. Until the Fifth Campaign, the Communists had played hit-and-run. They sucked the KMT deep into their territory and sandbagged them with deadly ambushes. The Communist captured huge quantities of guns and ammunition and from the thousands of KMT prisoners, they replenished losses in their ranks. Now in the Fifth Campaign, thanks to Hitler who had dispatched one of his best Generals, Hans von Seeckt, to come to China to direct the newest tactics. Von Seeckt moved the KMT troops forward very slowly and then built concrete reinforced blockhouses and pillboxes (some 3,000 in the past year). This allowed the KMT to control every path and road. The noose was being drawn around the Red Army slowly but surely. Now the Red Army was confronting the KMT in costly head to head battles. For Chiang, the end to the Red Bandits was near at hand and he took great comfort in this.

Moscow had sent their German, Otto Braun, to advise the Chinese communist group. The Red Army was now under the leadership of Otto Braun, (Chinese name of Li De) Bo Gu, (a Moscow trained Chinese), and Zhou Enlai. Mao was not in a leadership role and had no say in the operations, military or otherwise. After a year of terrible losses (about 60,000 men), one disastrous battle after another throughout Chiang's Fifth Campaign, the end was near. As autumn 1933 gave way to winter 1934, the Fifth Campaign chewed into Communist territory. The Soviet Republic contracted again and again. By autumn of 1934, the Communists had lost 58% of their territory. It was decided that the Red Army must leave the area in order to survive. On October 16th, the move began. No one was sure where they were heading, they were just leaving.

The Long March Begins

86,000 men and woman began the trip that would last over a year until October 19, 1935 in Yan'an in Sha'anxi Province. Some of the prominent Chinese leaders that began the Long March were Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, Zhu De, Peng Dehuai, leading the Third Army Group, Lin Biao, leading the First Army Group, Nie Rongzhen, political commissar of the First Front Army, Liu Bocheng, Ye Jianying, (the preceding from Zhu to Ye would later be declared Marshals in 1955), and Li Xiannian, who would become the President of the People's Republic of China. He Long, (also to be named a Marshal) had been sent ahead leading the Second Army Group and to-be-Marshal Chen Yi was left behind with the wounded and sick.

By its standards, the Red Army started the Long March quite well armed. It had 33,243 rifles, carbines, pistols, submachine guns, light machine guns, and heavy machine guns. It processed 38 mortars. They brought along a store of 1,801,640 cartridges, 3,523 mortar shells, and 76,526 hand grenades. A KMT force of 300,000 to 400,000 men opposed them. Numerous deals were made with local KMT warlords about passing through their territory unmolested. The Red Army agreed to just pass through and leave and the warlord promised to look the other way for a short period while they passed through.

The Crossing of the Xiang River

The first major battle was crossing the Xiang River. It was fought for a week --- November 25th to December 3rd. By most accounts, it was a disaster. By the time they reached Zunyi, a month later, the Red Army had about 30,000 troops left. One of the major problems was the baggage train of equipment carried by porters stretched out for 50 miles. A great deal of equipment was tossed into the Xiang River. Things were not going well for the leadership of Li De (Otto Braun) and discontent was spreading. The Red Army was heading south and west to join He Long's army. Because many KMT troops blocked the way, they wheeled south into Guizhou Province to draw off forces guarding the Yangzi River crossings. By January 7th they had taken and occupied Zunyi.

Mao Takes Over Command

At Zunyi a conference took place that would forever change the face of China. Mao emerged from the conference as the leader of the Communists Party and overall commander of the Red Army. Otto Braun was out. There was much change taking place. With Mao in command the men felt at ease. Now the men were told what they were doing and what was happening. The plan had been to forge to the north, join with He Long's Second Army group and cross the Yangzi River. Red Army intelligence reported that the KMT had 400,000 crack troops poised to block such an attempt. As the Red Army left Zunyi to the north Mao had about 35,000 troops including many he had just recently recruited. Now Mao changed course and the Red Army doubled back to the south and west.

Loushan Pass Victory

Close calls were the common thing. As they approached Loushan pass blocking Zunyi, Peng Dehuai set his men off at the double (they had been at the double for several days). Peng's troops reached the pass minutes ahead of the KMT who arrived about 200 yards down the pass on the other side. In the next two days, they smashed the enemy forces, knocking out two divisions and eight regiments, killing or driving into the mountains some 3,000 KMT troops and taking 2,000 prisoners. They captured 1,000 rifles and 100,000 rounds of ammunition. The Nationalist press admitted "extremely great losses." At the River Wu, KMT General Wi Qiwei was caught with half his army on the wrong side of the river. More than 1,800 men surrendered and handed over their weapons. About 800 signed up to serve in the Red Army.

Chiang's KMT is set in disarray

Mao sent his men in several directions trying to confuse Chiang. Chiang had between 500,000 and 750,000 men on the chessboard to prevent Mao from escaping north across the Yangzi. The KMT leader sent men to this place and that to defend where he thought Mao would attack next. A feint was made to Guiyang and KMT forces were sent to defend that city. A feint was made to Kunming and KMT forces were sent to defend that city. In fact, the Red Army was everywhere. Probably never before or afterward has it been so scattered, moving simultaneously in so many directions. Red Army forces were, by this time, down to 20,000 men. The feints succeeded in opening a way for the Red Army to cross the Golden Sands River, a tributary of the Yangzi.

Crossing the Luding Bridge

Next was the crossing of the Luding Bridge, about a 1,000 li to the north. A li is an interesting distance measurement. An uphill li is shorter than a downhill li. So, it measures how long the journey will take not how far. They had to beat Chiang to the river, and they did. Next was the race to the Luding bridge. It was an ancient structure built in 1701. This bridge is situated to the west of Luding County. The bridge measures about 100 meters long and 2.8 meters wide. Thirteen chains supported the side supports as well as those for the bridge floor. Irregular planking lay on the flooring. The bridge is still there today. They had 100 miles to get to the river in two days and then take the bridge. Abandoning their equipment except rifles and bullets, they raced to the bridge. On the other side of the river, a KMT unit was also racing to the bridge. The KMT unit stopped for the night and the Red Army beat them to the bridge. On May 29, 1935, the Red Army arrived here. Despite of the heavy gunfire from the enemy troops stationed at the bridge and the fact that the KMT had removed the planking, the Red Army assault team of 22 crawled forward, exterminated the enemy force and took the bridge with a loss of only 7 men.

Crossing the Great Snowies

Next was the Great Snowy Mountains that would take the lives of so many. The 14,000 and 15,000-foot height would kill many men who would just die for lack of oxygen. Halting at the top proved to be fatal. It was terrible not to rest, but rest meant death. The best was to sit down and slide. Let the ice take you to the bottom. Some were lost, catapulted off cliffs, other suffered broken bones, but many survived. To most of the Red Army, the Snowies were the worst experience of the Long March.

Meeting with Zhang Guotao

On June 24th Mao arrived at the town of Lianghekou to meet up with Zhang Guotao, the commander of the Fourth Front Army. Zhang had been in the field establishing a series of base areas for five years. There were questions about the size of the respective forces. Zhang had about 100,000 troops. Both were exaggerating their forces. Zhang had about seventy to eighty thousand combat troops and perhaps seventy thousand non-combat personnel. But Mao had exaggerated more. He had about 10,000 troops. Wisely, Mao had dispersed his troops so Zhang could not know the exact number, but it was obvious that he out-numbered Mao greatly. Friction soon developed. Mao had sent Peng Dehuai of the Third Army and Lin Biao of the First off in different directions. Perhaps he did not trust Zhang, but he was taking precautions. A great celebration took place with cordial outward appearances, but underneath, and not far underneath, there ran a current of bitterness, hostility and suspicion.

Crossing the Grasslands

Next, they had to cross over the grasslands. It was a five to seven day journey across an inland Sargasso Sea, which lies on the eleven-thousand-foot plateau between the watersheds of the Yangzi and Yellow Rivers. It looks innocent, but it was a deadly trap for the unwary. It was covered with flowers but beneath the flowers lurked bogs that could swallow a man in a minute. Also, there were no people, no food, and no firewood to cook. The temperatures were just above freezing. The grass roots shifted with each step. The muck was not only slippery, it was like glue. Once in it, you sank deeper and deeper. The more you struggled, the faster you went down. Once they found a pig and ate it. The following troops ate the pigskin left by the leading troops. Mao lost more men the in the Grasslands than in the Snowies.

Avoiding Disaster

The date was September 10. Trouble was building up. Mao and Zhang Guotao had joined up together after the grasslands. Their talks had gone badly. Rumors were flying. Mao had taken the precaution of changing the codes. He had restricted communications between his troops to protect security. Again, Mao had dispersed his troops for fear of what might happen. Peng and the Third Army were stationed 4 miles away, Lin and the Third Army was two days distant. Zhang wanted to move to the North and West to establish a base near Russia in a non-Chinese area. Mao wanted to move to the North and East into a Chinese base. Intercepting a secret message from Zhang, Ye Jianying, the commander of Zhang's troops secretly relayed the message to Mao.

Zhang was possibly trying to take over the entire Red Army and oust Mao. Ye escaped away with Mao and Mao's troops, out of Zhang's reach. Zhang considered sending his more powerful army after Mao. Asking his commander, future Marshal Xu Xiangqian, "Shall we send troops after then?" Xu replied, "Have you ever seen the Red Army attacking the Red Army?" That was it. It was a dangerous moment in the history of the Party. Xu and Ye both got credit for stopping an open conflict. Both generals Ye and Xu would become Marshals in 1955 and would be protected by Mao during the Cultural Revolution. Zhang Guotao was enraged and held Zhu De and Liu Bocheng captive for over a year. Zhang Guotao was going south; Mao was going north. In 1938, Zhang would join Chiang and the KMT, eventually then to exile in Hong Kong and then Canada.

Conquering Lazikou Pass

On September 15 an order came through, "In two days we must conquer Lazikou." They skirmished with a battalion of the KMT Fourteenth Division and scattered them. From prisoners they learned the Fourteenth had built blockhouses at Lazikou. The pass at Lazikou was extraordinary narrow. The right side had a cliff that rose almost perpendicularly for a thousand feet. Across the pass, one hundred feet wide and narrowing to twelve at its throat, rose another cliff, not quite so high. It was jagged, not sheer. It could be climbed, perhaps, but not with machine guns looking down at you. The position, as anyone who observes it today can see, is impregnable.

The order was given, "We must take the Lazikou Pass or go back through the Grasslands." Three KMT regiments and two battalions defended the pass. A succession of night attacks failed. There were heavy casualties. Mao ordered direct assaults halted. A band of experienced mountaineers assembled for a new plan. These men, thirty to sixty in all, about twelve Miao and other minority fighters gathered in the darkness. There was no alpine climbing gear. From prisoners they learned additional KMT forces soon would arrive. Toward dawn, explosions came from the mountain. The mountain men had reached the peak and rained down grenades. Within minutes, the KMT soldiers ran for their lives. The Red Army would not have to return to the Grasslands.

Ma Cavalry

The Red Army had some Ma cavalry of the KMT harassing the rear. On the 20th, Mao set up a trap in the Wuqi area. Three rivers cut through the loess at this point. Mao put his men in a half-moon formation to lure the Ma cavalry up the valley. The Ma cavalry moved up to the attack, four regiments, about a thousand men in each. Mao's forced numbered about the same. Within two hours, the Ma fled the battlefield carrying the remains of their forces. The Red Army was home and no enemy faced them. Of the 86,000 who began, only 4,000 remained. The Long March ended. They had marched 25,000 li -- 6,000 miles.

Those left Behind

What of General Chen Yi who had remained back in Jiangxi with the old and wounded? When the Red Army moved out in October 16, 1934, Chen Yi had about 30,000 men of which 10,000 were wounded including Chen Yi. A KMT force of 100,000 inexorably moved in on them. By February, 1935 they had about 2,000 troops and 2,000 wounded. Chen Yi summoned a meeting of the area leaders. He spoke with great emotion. Yi said, " Take these wounded men into your homes. They are our sons. They are very young. They can make good sons and good sons-in-law for you. They can marry your daughters. They can work for you and you will have one more pair of hands in your family. You will have their labor and perhaps someone to take revenge for you."

Before Chen Yi had finished, tears had come to the eyes of the peasants and of the wounded, and to those of Chen Yi as well. Within half a day, every wounded man had been placed with a peasant family, dispersed invisibly in the countryside; each equipped with several silver dollars, medicine for treating their wounds, and 3 pounds of salt, a priceless gift in this region of a KMT blockade. The remainder of the men moved off on the morning of March 4, 1935. Chiang offered 50,000 Yuan for the capture of the leaders. By March 9, after fearsome losses they had only about 80 men left. Living off the land, never sleeping in the same place twice they would spend the next two years making their way to join Mao. It would be 1937 before they would be able to join Mao.



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