Northern Expedition ( 1926-1928)

Northern Expedition ( 1926-1928)

The Northern Expedition was a military campaign led by the National Revolutionary Army under Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) (1887-1975) lasting from 1926 to 1928. The Nationalist forces were split into leftwing Communist and Right-wing Guomindang (GMD, or Kuomintang, KMT; Chinese Nationalist Party), whose goal was to put an end to warlord rule in mainland China and unite them under the Nationalist banner. Jiang led his troops in a three-pronged attack: one up the Guangzhou (Canton)Wuhan railway or along the Xiang River to Changsha, one up the Gan River into Jiangxi (Kiangsi), and one up the east coast into Fujian (Fukien) Province to end the Warlord Period (1916-1927) in China.

Jiang would attempt to make treaties with the warlords he came across and, if successful, incorporated their armed forces into the military of the GMD. Jiang’s National Revolution Army (NRA) numbered over 100,000 and were better trained than their warlord counterparts. They were also armed with superior Russian and German weapons. At the start of the operation, Communist (CCP, or the Communist Party of China) and GMD party members moved ahead of the military and organized local peasants and urban workers to disrupt warlord forces in preparation for the assault. Railroad workers were also recruited to disrupt transportation services in the enemy-held territory. Many peasants were utilized as porters to carry the vast amounts of supplies that would be needed for the expedition.

Several warlord commanders began feuding amongst each other, and one Hunan commander began to express sympathy for the Northern Expedition. This commander agreed to integrate his troops into the Guomindang army, and Jiang Jieshi decided that the time was ripe to begin the attack. The mobilization order was given on July 1, 1926, and the Nationalist troops began to head out. The troops under Jiang pressed forward from Guangzhou, with the Hunan troops fighting through Changsha, the capital city of Hunan Province. By the end of August, Nationalist forces seized many bridgeheads that guarded the approaches to Wuhan, and more warlord forces began joining Jiang’s army. On the approach to Wuchang, the warlord who controlled the city put up strong resistance. Attempting to hold out against the Nationalists, the warlord instituted severe punishment of those he deemed sympathetic to the enemy. After rounding up the suspects, he began beheading them and displayed the severed heads in the surrounding lake cities of Jiujiang and Nanchang in Jiangxi (Kiangsi) Province. After a prolonged siege, however, the populace was on the brink of starvation. The warlord finally relented on October 10 and allowed Nationalist troops to take the city.

By late 1926, GMD and Communist forces consolidated their control over Wuhan and began to turn their attention toward Jiangxi. The Nationalist armies proved equally successful in these future attacks, and by December 1926, they controlled Guangdong, Hunan, Hubei (Hopei), Jiangxi, Fujian, Guangxi (Kwangsi), and Guizhou (Kweichow). The successes of the Northern Expedition led to diplomatic recognition of the Guomindang government by the British, who sent a minister to China to hold talks with the Nationalist foreign minister.

Nationalist forces next began to turn their attention toward Shanghai, and at the beginning of 1927, arguments broke out among the various commanders on how to approach the city. Labor unions, who were hostile to the local warlord, made strong headway in Shanghai during this time. In February 1927, these labor unions organized a general strike to support the Nationalist forces, but were put down by warlord forces, who beheaded the leaders and put an end their meetings. This produced a backlash, with many Shanghai city leaders meeting in secret with Jiang Jieshi and offering him their support. On March 21, 1927, workers once again launched a strike and also began an armed insurrection against their warlord. With strict orders not to harm foreigners, Nationalist troops marched into the city and took control of it.

In April 1927, Jiang consolidated the national government of the Republic of China (ROC) and carried out a purge of Communists from his Nationalist forces. The massacre of several thousand Communists caused a rift between the GMD and CCP. The leftist leaders in Wuhan maintained their loyalty to the CCP and condemned the actions of the GMD.

In July, Jiang’s military was badly defeated by warlord armies at a battle near the railroad junction of Xuzhou (Hsu-chow). This, coupled with other hostilities with Wuhan leaders, forced Jiang to surrender control over his posts. After a series of political maneuvers, however, he was proclaimed commander in chief in January 1928. Fighting intensified in March of that year in an effort to wrest control of Beijing from its warlord ruler. Deciding to flee, the warlord leader, Zhang Zuolin, made his way out of the city, and the Nationalist forces successfully occupied Beijing. After the Northern Expedition concluded, Nationalist forces controlled much of China. By the end of 1928, the Warlord Period came to an end, and the GMD brought an era of stability to China.

Michael Molina

See also: China, Republic of; Chinese Communist Party; Guomindang; Jiang Jieshi; National Revolutionary Army; Soviet Union; United Front; Warlord Period; Whampoa Military Academy.


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