The famous Long March, a year-long military retreat undertaken by the Communist Chinese Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army (the forerunner of the People’s Liberation Army), led by Mao Tse-tung (1893-1976) and Chou En-lai (1898-1976) to escape annihilation by Nationalist troops commanded by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975), came to an end on October 22nd, 1935.
This series of marches by various Communist armies from the Soviet Republic of China in Kiangsi province in the southeast, presided by Mao in 1931/32, had begun on October 16th, 1934 and ended in Yan’an, Shaanxi Province, in the far northwest close to the Great Wall.
Between 1930 and 1934, Chiang launched five encirclement campaigns against the Communists, who successfully employed guerrilla tactics to resist the first four attacks.
Though during the fifth, which lasted from September 1933 to October 1934, Chiang raised up to one million soldiers and built fortifications around the Communist positions. A return to more conventional warfare by the Red Army proved catastrophic and led to its decimation.
With defeat imminent, military commander Chu Teh (1886-1976) organized a break-out. Women and children as well as the wounded were left behind and many of them were massacred. Weapons and supplies had to be carried on men’s backs or in horse-drawn carts, generally at night.
To just go straight north across Hubei, whose capital Wuhan recently gained notoriety, would have been the easiest, but also the most obvious choice.
Deemed too dangerous, a circuitous route was taken, starting westwards and then turning north. In consequence, the route would pass through high mountains, over wild rivers and often across uncharted territory.
In November 1934, Nationalist forces blocked the way across the Hsiang River in Hunan Province. When the Communists finally broke through the fortifications after a week, they had lost around 50,000 men.
After that debacle, Mao changed strategy by avoiding direct assaults on enemy positions and breaking his force into several columns that would take varying paths to confuse his counterparts.
The Red Army crossed the Wu River into Kweichow Province instead, capturing the city of Tsuni without encountering major resistance, as the area was too remote to be heavily fortified by their adversaries.
Having proven his capability, in January 1935 Mao was made Chairman of the Politburo and became the de facto leader of both the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the Red Army.
The arduous journey continued through the provinces of Yunnan, Szechwan and Kansu. By crossing the Yangtze River on May 9th, 1935, the Communists finally had avoided determined pursuit.
While details of skirmishes and occasional battles were exaggerated or simply made up by Peking’s official historiography, the whole operation must be considered a remarkable achievement.
The longest continuous march in the history of warfare, although not remotely as heroic as Maoist legends suggest, marked the emergence of Mao as undisputed leader with great personal prestige.
On October 1st, 1949, he would proclaim the People’s Republic of China after winning the civil war. Chiang’s defeated Nationalists retreated to Taiwan and never set a foot on the mainland again.
Estimations about the covered distance vary hugely between 3,000 and 8,000 miles, but there seems to be a consensus that fewer than one in ten of those who started the trek reached the end of it (about 8,000 of some 100,000), also due to desertion, starvation and disease.
The venture, often portrayed as a remarkable feat of determination and endurance, made the survival of the imperiled CPC possible and changed the Middle Kingdom’s history forever.