Quite simply, an amazing feat. It ranks as the longest known continuous march by a body of troops in the annals of warfare. The march lasted over 6,000 miles, or roughly twice the distance between New York City and San Francisco.
Civil war had broken out in China in 1927. On one side you had the Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek, on the other, the Communists, led by Mao Zedong. The brand new Soviet Republic of China was headquartered in the southwestern province of Kiangsi. Between the years 1930 and 1934 the Nationalist had tried to break the backs of the Communists by trying to encircle them and cut them off from the rest of the country. The first four attempts were warded off by the Communists and their supporters through the use of guerilla tactics. In the last effort, the Nationalists raised over 700,000 thousand troops and managed to built fortifications around the Communist encampment and hemmed them in. Estimates are that hundreds of thousands of peasants caught in the encirclement campaign either were killed or died of starvation.
Disenchanted with the present leadership, the powers that resided within the government decided to replace Mao Zedong as chairman of the Communist Central Committee. Those brought in to replace him decided that a strategy of more “conventional warfare” was in order. This turned out to be a huge mistake and the newly formed Chinese Red Army suffered staggering losses.
With defeat at its doorstep, the Communists resorted to drastic measures. The decision was made to try and break out of the encirclement at its weakest point. In order to do so, portions of the Red Army were pretty much sacrificed in diversionary tactics that were designed to confused the opposing Nationalists.
The tactics seemed to have worked because on October 16, 1934 the main body of Communist troops managed to sneak through a hole in the surrounding Nationalist army. It would take several weeks for them to realize that they were basically surrounding a skeleton force left behind for just that purpose.
Those in retreat numbered consisted of about 86,000 troops and 15,000 other assorted personnel. They toted their weapons and whatever supplies they had on either on their backs or on horse drawn carriages. The line of marchers extended approximately 50 miles.
About two weeks after their departure, disaster struck. Early in November, Nationalists forces blocked the retreat at the Hsiang River. The powers that be within the Communist forces decided that a direct confrontation was in order. That strategy proved disastrous and cost the Communists over 50,000 troops. It also served as a signal to the Communists that their present leadership was inadequate. Re-enter Mao Zedung.
His first course of action was to institute a complete change in strategy. Rather than march as one force, he broke the contingent up into several columns that used varying routes throughout the countryside. Also gone was the concept of direct assaults upon the Nationalist forces and guerrilla tactics were re-implemented.
Almost a year later, on October 20, 1935, the columns finally arrived at the Great Wall of China. During that year, the troops had crossed 24 rivers and 18 mountain ranges, most of them covered in snow. They managed to survive direct attacks, aerial bombardments and the prospect of starvation. Despite the difficult terrain and conditions, they averaged over 16 miles a day and only about 4,000 out of the original 86,000 troops finished the trek.
So what happened?
Well, first of all Mao Zedung was hailed as a hero. Word spread throughout the country about his exploits and the number of people willing to support the Communist cause grew larger and larger. Enlistment in Mao’s Red Army increased dramatically. It took about another 15 years of skirmishes and direct conflict with Nationalist forces before the Communist forces finally won their struggle. In 1949 the People’s Republic of China was born and Mao was installed as the chairman. He held on to that post until his death in 1976.