The Siege of Wuchang
Part of the Kuomintang's Northern Expedition of 1926-28

USS VILLALOBOS and ELCANO in China c. 1920

Central government troops in the Northern Expedition, 1927. These divisions were commanded by graduates of Whampoa Military Academy in Canton, and likely equipped with Comintern funds. Trained in Bolshevik-era Russia, Chiang Kai-shek was the superintendant of the academy, which provided his primary source of power. Marrying the beautiful Shanghai heiress Soong Meiling in 1927 provided Chiang's second wellspring of influence: ties to China's westernized banksters and gangsters. A Wellesley College graduate with strong American connections, "Madamissimo" carefully placed a Bible by Chiang's bedside and hung a portrait of Washington on his wall whenever western correspondents called on the Generalissimo. In reality, Chiang was no Christian, but the last Confucian leader of China.

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The Northern Expedition: Introduction

Chiang Kaishek in full Gimo regaliaIn The Sand Pebbles, there is a colorful description of the Siege of Wuchang, describing an important actual battle in China's ongoing strife of the first half of the twentieth century. In 1926, Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang Party (KMT) set forth from its base in Canton on an epic march of national unification. In the two-year Northern Expedition, Chiang (right) and his allies defeated some warlords and bought off others, achieving unification of a sort, though not lasting loyalty in all cases. It was the KMT's finest hour, although some analysts would classify the early days of resistance to Japan as a close second. The KMT's right-wing factions siezed the opportunity to betray and slaughter the Communists, nominally their allies, in Shanghai and other cities that came under their control.

Shanghai and Nanjing had not yet fallen to the KMT when their forces encountered resistance from the warlord Wu P'ei-fu at Hankow, the capital of Hubei Province, halfway up the long river. Wu elected to fight and the KMT-allied army laid siege. Hankow is a great river port located 600 miles from the mouth, at the confluence of the Han and the Yangtze. It has boasted a railway to the coast since 1905. It has long made its living as an entrepôt exchanging goods from the coast and those from the interior. It is the head of navigation on the Yantze for oceangoing ships, and a center for transshipping goods in smaller junks and steamers that could navigate the gorges upstream. Hankow's surrounding area is a tri-city complex, with Hanyang to the south of the Han, Hankow to the north and also on the west bank of the Yangtze, and Wuchang across the main channel on the east bank; together called Wuhan, the metropolitan district was officially conjoined in 1927. It was the second biggest city in China in the 1920s, with a population of two million, Hankow being the commercial hub and Wuchang the political center. Its strategic position has long made Wuhan a target of military and political takeover. It played a significant part in the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64), the Huangxing (Republican) Rebellion of Yuan Shikai (1911), the Northern Expedition (1926), the early attempts by the Chinese Communist Party to incite urban insurrection (1930), and most recently the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Perhaps its most famous defense was the Nationalist battle against the Japanese in June-October 1938, following the notorious Rape of Nanjing. Though it has endured more than its fair share of suffering as a result of its strategic position, on average the triple city has prospered mightily since the 19th century.

Incredibly, as McKenna describes below, the gunboat crews gathered to protect foreign property in this treaty port witnessed the entire 1926 battle from within spitting distance, anchored in midstream opposite the Bund: the choice waterfront real estate appropriated by foreign merchants during this colonial period, and entirely administered by foreign law under the extraterritoriality clauses of the Unequal Treaties. This same immunity from Chinese law guaranteed their safety even during China's latest birth spasm of nationhood.

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  • The Text - from The Sand Pebbles

    All hands manned the rail when the San Pablo steamed into Hankow. They were excited. They passed the native city first, to port, the bund six deep in junks and boiling with people. The gearwheel [KMT] flag floated from every high place... Across the river, the walled city of Wuchang was under siege. General Wu's five-barred flag floated from a hilltop inside the walls. On Pagoda Hill back of Wuchang a gearwheel battery was firing into the city. They fired about one shell every five minutes and a smoke hung above the gray walls.

    Map of Hankow in 1915The big white stone Customs House marked the beginning of the foreign concessions. That bund was wide and tree-bordered, with pontoons for steamers. Treaty power flags and company house flags flew in profusion from every building, as if they were trying to match the gearwheel show in the native city. But what outmatched the gearwheel was the long gray line of warships down the middle of the river. They were sited so that their big guns could fire straight up the streets. As the San Pablo passed each ship, the sailors along the rail saluted in unison to bugled signals. The Sand Pebbles stood proudly and they snapped their salutes. They passed HMS Cockchafer, shot full of holes and covered with glory, and they waved their hats and cheered...

    "God, ain't they pretty?" Duckbutt Randall kept asking, as they passed each warship. "That gearwheel. Hah! It ain't a fart in a typhoon!" He spoke for them all.

    The line of warships made a brave show all day. Signal flags fluttered from yardarms, power boats shuttled back and forth, bosuns' pipes and bugles shrilled and blared. Commands rang out for battle drills. For colors every morning all hands on a mile of warships stood at hand salute while the bands on the two cruisers played their way through five national anthems.

    The chief pastime aboard was watching the siege of Wuchang. One day two Wu gunboats came upriver to shell Pagoda Hill. They were small, white and rusty and they steamed up and down behind the screen of treaty power warships with their deck guns barking. The ships went to battle stations. People ashore crowded rooftops along the bund to see the show. They all cheered when Wu's popguns raised dust on Pagoda Hill.

    The gearwheel guns began firing back and making splashes in the water. They were trying to pot the Wu ships as they crossed the gaps between the treaty power ships. On the San Pablo everyone was certain that as soon as a gearwheel shell hit one of the treaty ships it would be legal to shoot back. Then the cruisers would take the whole top off Pagoda Hill. After a while the British admiral told the Wu ships they would have to get out in the open river. They went back downriver instead. As soon as they were clear of the concession, small-arms fire whipped the water white around them. Crosley watched through the long glass.

    "Jee-zuzz! We just think we been shot at!" he said that night at the mess table.

    "Once up in Qifu I kicked a rickshaw coolie and he knocked me on my ass," Harris said. "He did! Course I was drunk."

    "That's them noodle eaters for you," Restorff said proudly.

    Often over by Wuchang there was the rattle of small arms and the sight of little men running. One by one the buildings outside the gray walls were being burnt in attacks. They said many thousands of civilians were trapped inside the walls and starving because the defending soldiers had all the food. Missionaries were trying to arrange a truce and get them out.

    The Wu flag looked lonely and gallant above the city, ringed round by the many gearwheel flags outside. All night every night the guns on Pagoda Hill flashed like the lightning of a distant, rumbling storm. All night the low red glare of fire rose somewhere above the walls. And every morning the five-barred flag still floated above the highest point inside the city. It was the first thing the Sand Pebbles looked for when they came on deck in the mornings.

    [Rev.] Gillespie looked pale, almost ill. He had gone with a truce team to try to get starving civilians out of Wuchang across the river. "Did you have any luck?" [Shirley] asked.

    "A few thousand. We filled six lighters," he said. "Then they clubbed them back and closed the gate. It was very bad, Shirley."

    They were skeletons, without strength, he said. They jammed in the narrow gate, desperate to escape. Mothers held their babies above the press until their strength failed. Then both went under. He had counted more than two hundred of the weakest, trampled to death in the moment of liberation.

    "Unspeakable things are going in in Wuchang," he said.

    A hundred thousand civilians were starving. The defending general in Wuchang would not let them go. He wanted to put the onus on the Kuomintang if it would not lift the siege. He was swearing to defend Wuchang to the last man. He was said to have refused an enormous personal bribe.

    KMT flagKMT flagKMT flagKMT flag

    Destroyers came and went, convoying commercial steamers filled with refugees. They were constantly fired upon. Propaganda sampans plied along the line of warships with signs and shouted slogans. Suspicion rose up nastily... Over in Wuchang they were still holding out. All the buildings outside the walls were burnt and most of them inside, most likely, from the angry red glare of fire that rose every night under the intermittend shelling. Several gearwheel airplanes showed up and dropped bombs on the city... But every morning on Dragon Hill the five-barred flag was still there.

    Liberty was stopped for all hands. Wuchang had fallen. The gearwheel flag flew on Dragon Hill. It was the old Chinese story of sellout. Some of the defending troops had mutinied and opened the gates. The Sand Pebbles were very gloomy that day.

    Over in the native city they were going crazy with joy. People thronged and danced along the bund. Flags and paper lanterns bobbed above them, and poles with strings of popping firecrackers. Boats of all sizes plied back and forth from Wuchang. As the day passed, the mood ashore turned ugly. Thousands of people had starved to death in Wuchang. Agitators were said to be parading bony corpses, with tooth marks on them, through the native city, to inflame the people.... To the Sand Pebbles, how they could blame the starvation in Wuchang on the palefaces was beyond all sane conjecture.

    Richard McKenna, The Sand Pebbles, First Edition (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 373-377, 390-391, 397, 405.

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  • Photographs of the Northern Expedition

    Photo of the Yangtze gunboat USS PALOS
    The Wuchang city wall on the Yangtze. According to McKenna, wall was partly pulled down by KMT-allied troops during the siege.

    Photo of the Yangtze gunboat USS PALOS
    Wreckage left by the fighting, Hankow, 1926.

    Photo of the Yangtze gunboat USS PALOS
    Looted street in Hankow after the battle.

    Photo of the Yangtze gunboat USS PALOS  Photo of the Yangtze gunboat USS PALOS

    Left, the actual pagoda on whose grounds the KMT battery was placed. A stone Yüan Dynasty tower completed in 1315, it still stands in the compound of the Baotong Temple on the side of Mt. Hong, overlooking the city from the east. Right, KMT troops celebrate their triumph in Beijing, 1927. After a victory lap around the mausoleum of Dr. Sun Yat-sen at Beijing, Chiang made his capital at Nanjing in the middle of the country, some 400 miles downriver from Hankow on the perimeter of the Yangtze delta. The loyalty of the northern warlords, particularly Zhang Zuolin (Chang Tso-lin) of Manchuria, was always suspect. Zhang was assassinated by the Japanese in 1928. His lands were invaded by Japan's Kwangtung Army in Sept. 1931, in the prelude to their attempted absorption of all China, 1937-1945. This was in direct violation of Japan's adherence to the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, outlawing war. When the League of Nations sanctioned Japan for her aggression in early 1933, the Japanese delegates walked out. This incident is widely regarded as constituting the death knell for the League and the disarmament efforts that had made such encouraging progress in the Twenties.

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  • Map of the Northern Expedition, 1926-28, copyright 2006 by

    1920s China was indeed a patchwork quilt of warlords, KMT factions, Confucians, and Communists. "Faction of ..." in legend is followed by name of local warlord. The Northern Expedition was coincident with factional infighting within the KMT coalition, including KMT slaughter of Communist allies in Shanghai, 1927, and coup against left-leaning Army factions in Wuhan. Although 1930s China was nominally under KMT control, individual warlords continued to break faith and remake ties with the central government throughout the time. After being routed from their southern strongholds, the Red Army was chased about the hinterlands of West China. Following the Great March, survivors settled in Shensi Province by the late 1930s and built their own collective state at Yenan on the rugged frontier. Map copyright © 2006 by; courtesy of Nationalists & Communists: The Fractured Alliance.

    Photo of the Yangtze gunboat USS PALOS

    Most of the troops in the Expedition belonged to KMT-allied warlords. Wearing coolie hats rather than helmets and sandals rather than boots, warlord troops were often ill-fed and ill-trained; always illiterate. As the U.S. found out durng WWII, warlords tended to hoard munitions and supplies, so as to have a more favorable bargaining position when it came time to sell out. By contrast, Communist troops used foreign aid to fight. To be sure, there were varied degrees of corruption among the warlords.

    Street barricades in Hankow, 1927

    Street barricades in the foreign concessions are mentioned in several places in the book. Here is one such in Hankow, 1927. Control of traffic and gunboat ordnance pointing directly down the streets made the compounds highly defensible.

    Photo of the Yangtze gunboat HMS COCKCHAFER with bow gun elevated
    Above and below, HMS Cockchafer, hero (to gunboatmen) of the clash at Wanhsien.

    Bow view of the Yangtze gunboat HMS COCKCHAFER, anchored with awnings spread

    Photo of the Yangtze gunboat USS PALOS
    Guardians of imperial interests against the ravening mob: British marines hustle onto transports on Shanghai's Bund, 1927.

    Pertinent Weblinks

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