Mao’s Long March is considered one of the most significant military campaigns of the 20th Century and one of the most amazing physical feats ever attempted.
Surrounded by hostile armies, 87,000 Communist troops escaped and started walking. It was a retreat that covered nearly 6,000 miles in one year.
It was a desperate retreat for Mao’s Communist Chinese Army (PLA) from the Nationalist forces (the KMT) of General Chiang Kai-shek . The KMT had a huge advantage with a much larger military force big enough to surround their enemy.
Many say The Long March was a brilliant military maneuver. Others claim it was a series of strategic blunders. However, most historians agree that what was accomplished was astounding. In this documentary, the survivors reveal what happened.
In the 1920s, eighty percent of the 450 million Chinese people were poor peasants who lived in the countryside. Over half owned no land and often worked for little more than food for an absentee landlord.
The difference between the Communists and Nationalists was vast. The Communists wanted to give the land to the peasants while the Nationalists wanted to maintain the old social order.
The US and Great Britain supplied bombers, fighters and reconnaissance aircraft to Chiang Kai-shek’s troops and wanted Chiang to attack the Japanese. Instead, he went after the Communists and signed a truce recognizing a Japanese government in Northeast China.
Chiang wanted to fight the PLA the old fashioned way, army to army.
However, Mao had his forces avoid a direct assault and fought using hit and run tactics. Advisors from Soviet Russia pressured Mao to be bolder but he refused, while Chiang was getting advice from a Nazi General from Hitler’s Germany.
When the Red Army finally stood their ground as the Soviets urged, the Communists lost sixty-thousand troops. They could not hold the lightly fortified positions they had built, because Chiang’s KMT were better armed.
In October 1934, Mao’s forces streamed out of their territory after suffering horrible losses. The Long March had begun. Nearly 87,000 troops moved in two main columns to the West and to the South.
It would be several weeks before Chiang learned the PLA had retreated. At the time, Mao came down with a severe case of malaria and had to be carried most of the time.
During the retreat, the PLA brought along the machinery for their government—printing presses, typewriters, etc. The Party’s leaders argued about what to do. Mao wanted to break through the Nationalist lines and attack from the rear but was voted down.
Instead, the decision was for a full-scale retreat and to link up with another Red Army in its stronghold deeper in China. The Nationalists used hundreds of aircraft to bomb and strafe the PLA columns.
As much as one-third of the Communist forces were killed by air attacks. To avoid this, the PLA started to move at night and hide during the day.
A new obstacle, a rugged river, stood in the PLA’s path, and a brutal battle was fought to cross the river. After a small force reached the far side, the survivors were ferried across on bamboo rafts. It took eight days for the army to cross.
The biggest problem was the heavy supply column with the machinery of government, so the Communists left the printing presses and coin minting machines behind along with the government’s records. After suffering horrible losses and not knowing what to do, Mao argued for a change of tactics saying they didn’t have to win every battle.
Mao argued that the most important rule for a military commander was to preserve and strengthen his forces. He had never been to Russia for military training but had read the Chinese military and literary classics.
Since most of the other leaders had been to Moscow to be indoctrinated in Communist ideology, they considered Mao’s thinking dangerous. However, he came out of the conference co-commander of an army that had lost two-thirds of its troops. Meanwhile, the Japanese were expanding their territory in Northeast China, while Chiang Kai-shek was still determined to destroy the Communists.
Mao changed plans and decided to move west toward the fourth Communist army. He took a route so rugged that no one had ever tried it before.
He also broke the army into smaller units and scattered them over the countryside so they would be harder to spot from the air. For a time, this fooled the Nationalists.
While moving across the rugged terrain, it was difficult to stay in touch with all the scattered units so Mao used teenagers as couriers. He also had spies keeping track of the Nationalist army’s movements.
Mao’s first significant battle was for control of an important mountain pass and his troops defeated two Nationalist divisions. It was Mao’s first victory as a commander, which helped him gain the trust of the troops.
Mao’s army began to win more battles. One of Mao’s battalions marched 85 miles in one day and night to seize a Nationalist fort without firing a shot. The fort commanded an important river crossing. When Chiang Kai-shek discovered what Mao’s forces had achieved, he was furious. Meanwhile, Mao was gaining new recruits and support from the peasants.
Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist army had a proven reputation for dishonesty, corruption and heavy taxation — the same policies that contributed to the collapsed of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, and the KMT was the faction the United States supported.
Most peasants trusted the Communists, who treated them with respect and refused to take any food while Nationalist troops confiscated the food and supplies they wanted without paying.
One challenge stood in Mao’s way—the Yi minority, who had stayed free of Chinese rule for decades due to their fierceness. Mao sent an envoy to negotiate and an agreement was reached.
In fact, many Yi warriors joined Mao’s army.
However, there was another river to cross and Chiang’s army was moving to trap the Communists. A bridge built in 1701 was the key. The race toward this bridge would lead to the most important battle of the Long March.
In the race to the bridge, advanced elements of the PLA arrived first.
The bridge was about 100 yards long and nine feet wide. Thirteen chains held up the side supports along with the bridge’s flooring. The troops for a local warlord guarded the bridge, and they had removed the flooring. Only the chains were left since the local people refused to cut them.
The battle for the bridge began. Volunteers from the Red Army started to crawl along the chains while covering fire was focused on the warlord’s troops on the other side.
The warlord’s troops used mortars and machine guns shooting at the Red Army volunteers as they crawled toward them. After fierce fighting, Mao’s troops took the bridge and the Red Army crossed.
The Nationalists had made a mistake by not cutting the bridge’s chains.
However, The Long March was not over. The Red Army was heavily outnumbered, and they had some of the highest mountains in the world to cross before reaching the Fourth Red Army and safety deep in Western China.
In June 1935, eight months and over three-thousand miles into the Long March, Mao’s Red Army moved into Western Sichuan Province. For a time, Mao’s troops were safe from Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists.
Meanwhile, the Japanese launched an attack on another northern Chinese province. The Japanese now occupied most of Northern China and the Chinese living there knew little about the struggle between Mao and Chiang Kai-shek.
Feeling abandoned, they were alienated from the Nationalist government.
Meanwhile, the PLA had to cross the Snowy Mountains with peaks as high as 15,000 feet. Because these mountains were so rugged and dangerous, the Nationalist Army stopped the pursuit and waited for the mountains to kill Mao.
Some historians believed crossing these mountains was a blunder, but Mao had no choice. Only defeat waited behind him, and there was no turning back.
The thin air and the steep, snow-covered mountains exhausted the troops. A shortage of food, lack of firewood, and snow blindness all contributed to the challenge. While crossing the mountains and linking up with the Fourth Red Army, thousands were lost.
Once joined, the combined PLA armies numbered 100,000 troops.
The next challenge was the deadliest obstacle of all—a high-desert grassland. There was no choice. All the easy routes were controlled by Chiang Kai-shek’s troops.
Then heavy rains came, which turned the grassland into a swamp.
There was no drainage in the grasslands. As it rained, the water saturates the soil and turned it into a swamp. Beneath the flowers and grass were hidden bogs that swallowed men and animals whole.
With temperatures were slightly above freezing, food became scarce and was rationed.
When there was no food, the troops boiled the grass and added a touch of salt. Everyone was weak. Those who collapsed were left to die, because the survivors did not have the strength to help.
The Red Army lost more troops in the grassland than from the Snowy Mountains. A Nationalist army followed the Communists into the grasslands but turned back because of the difficulty and risks.
One reason the Nationalists turned back was that Chiang Kai-shek suffered from a lack of loyalty among his troops and generals. He even feared that one of his generals might kill him.
On the other hand, the loyalty of Mao’s troops was unquestioned.
However, the general of the Fourth Red Army argued with Mao and the two armies split.
Mao’s army was weak and still had hundreds of miles to go to reach safety. One obstacle remained—the dangerous Lazikou pass, which had been fortified by Nationalist troops.
To survive, Mao’s troops would have to take the pass or return through the grassland.
Not wanting to return through the grassland, Mao issued orders to take the pass. The fighting was fierce and the PLA took heavy losses without success.
Then Mao stopped the direct assaults and sent skilled climbers up one of the canyon’s walls. From the high ground, they shot down at the Nationalist fortifications blocking access to the pass.
One volunteer wrapped his body in explosives, leaped from the cliff into the middle of the Nationalist fortifications and blew himself up opening the pass.
Mao’s First Red Army finally reached desolate and rugged Shaanxi Province. The Long March was over, and Mao’s troops linked up with other Red Army elements that already had a base there.
Of the original 87,000 that started the Long March, fewer than 6,000 survived. These survivors would recruit and train a new army.
The Long March turned Mao into a leader with a following from the common people of China.
Eventually, the Fourth Red army arrived, but two-thirds had been killed in battles.
Chiang Kai-shek planned a new campaign to defeat Mao, but Chiang’s supporters and generals forced him to cooperate with the Communists to defeat the Japanese.
After World War II, the Chinese Civil War resumed, and in 1949, Mao won China and Chiang Kai-shek, distrusted by most rural Chinese and still supported by America, fled to Taiwan with the remnants of his army.
Meanwhile, Mao’s six thousand survivors from the First Red Army ruled a country of a half-billion people. Most of the Communist government’s highest-ranking officials from the 1950s through the 70s were the survivors of The Long March.
In one year and one day, the First Red Army covered six-thousand miles, the distance between New York and San Francisco and back again. They averaged about 24 miles a day, climbed 18 major mountain ranges and crossed 24 rivers.
The First Red Army wasn’t the only Communist army to make this march. Two other Red Armies followed and overcame the same obstacles to join Mao’s forces in Shaanxi Province.
Map of the Long March
Click on this link to see an active map of the Long March
Many outside China see Mao as a ruthless dictator, without realizing that his sworn enemy, Chaing Kai-shek, was a brutal dictator too.
However, few can deny what Mao achieved as the commander of the First Red Army during the Long March.
Mao could not have succeeded without the loyalty of the common people and his troops, and loyalty must be earned and maintained, which is something that Chiang Kai-shek never accomplish.
In fact, to rule Taiwan after losing the mainland to Mao, Chiang Kai-shek imposed a brutal and harsh military imposed martial law on the island’s people.
This post first appeared on July 24, 2010, as a ten-part series with The Long March – Part 1
Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of The Concubine Saga. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.
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