Nationalist Chinese Army

Sun Yat-sen’s decision to develop the Guomindang KMT’s own military force led directly to the founding of the Chinese Nationalist Party Army Officer Academy in 1924. The choice of site was determined by Sun’s own limited power base, which at that time barely extended beyond Canton (Guangzhou). The academy was located on Huangbu Island near Canton (with the name Whampoa derived from the Cantonese pronunciation). Chiang Kai-shek acted as commandant, and the school’s military curriculum was set up under the guidance of the Soviet advisory group, utilizing the latest military theories and techniques, albeit with a distinct Soviet flavor. Unfortunately, the exigencies of the revolution severely limited the time available for training, so the emphasis naturally had to be on the practical knowledge and skills required on the battlefield. Like all other Chinese military schools, Whampoa was influenced by Japanese models. There was, however, one way in which Whampoa differed from the other schools: From the very beginning political instruction played a major part in the training. All told, there were more than twenty topics covered in the political curriculum, including Sun Yat-sen’s own ideology of the “Three Principles of the People” (San Min Zhuyi), the anatomy of imperialism, Soviet studies, comparative political systems, revolutionary history, and the study of student, peasant, and labor movements. Further reflecting the Soviet experience, the Whampoa school also established a political bureau and arranged for a system of party representatives (in this case from the KMT) who were modeled after the commissars of the Red Army. They supervised day-to-day administration, participated in management decisions, directed party activities, and personally took charge of political training in their units. In general, they were responsible for ensuring that all military training and combat missions were completed, and to that end, all orders issued by military commanders had to obtain the endorsement of the party representative before implementation.

As commander of the Whampoa forces, Chiang Kai-shek often boasted that his troops were the first in China to have a party commissar system. Despite his later break with the Communists, Chiang was always a supporter of an effective commissar system and political training for his troops. In his drive to turn the KMT force into a Chinese version of the Soviet Red Army, Chiang stressed the use of Sun’s Three Principles of the People as the basis for political indoctrination. This commissar system was preserved even after the success of the Northern Expedition, the split with the CCP, and the reunification of the country, with special party bureaus being retained in all formations above the divisional level. Unfortunately, over time the system lost its effectiveness as more and more party representatives were appointed from above as opposed to being elected from members within a given military unit. That, coupled with the fact that the appointees were often full-time party workers with other more pressing responsibilities, ensured that the system gradually lost its coherence and eventually came to exist in name only.

In the first eventful years of its existence, the Whampoa-based military arm of the Guomindang underwent numerous changes. In late 1924, only a few months after the school had opened, the first training regiment was activated. School instructors led this regiment, and the very first graduates acted as platoon commanders. The bulk of the ordinary soldiers were selected from the hodgepodge of other units loyal to Sun Yat-sen in the greater Canton area. As more cadets graduated, Sun added a second training regiment and officially christened the academy force the Guomindang Party Army. Sun himself acted as generalissimo, and appointed Whampoa commandant Chiang Kai-shek as his military secretary. In April 1925 Chiang was appointed commander of the constantly expanding Party Army, and in August of that same year, the Military Affairs Committee of the KMT announced the organization of a National Revolutionary Army, with the two Whampoa training regiments joining to form its first division. From this point on, all units under the jurisdiction of the Nationalist regime were collectively known as the National Revolutionary Army.

The first Whampoa graduates gave an excellent account of themselves during the Eastern (1925) and Northern (1926–1928) Expeditions. Although Sun’s warlord allies did much of the fighting, the students and staff played an important role in both campaigns, and to a certain extent their determination and daring compensated for the tactical inexperience of some of their commanders. Although they were often at odds with Chiang Kai-shek and his staff over both strategic and tactical issues and considered the much-celebrated attack on Huizhou (during the Eastern Expedition) to be an unnecessary waste of lives, even the hardened Soviet advisors were impressed by the performance of the Whampoa units. They displayed a level of esprit de corps and combat tenacity that had largely been absent from the internecine squabbles of the warlords, and their enemies generally gave way before the firebrands from Whampoa. Indeed, many of the students and staff went on to play important roles in modern Chinese history. By the end of the 1940s, many of those who had once held positions on the school staff were serving as commanders-in-chief, provincial governors, or heads of central government ministries. Many Whampoa graduates, particularly those from the first four classes, went on to hold command positions at the division and corps level. These former students and staff were often seen as an elite group within the military, and were generally referred to as the Whampoa clique.

With the success of the Northern Expedition and the reunification of most of the nation, the military academy followed the KMT government to the new capital at Nanjing, and in March 1928 the new school was officially renamed the Central Military Academy. In the aftermath of unification, faced as they were with a bewildering array of disparate local and regional forces, the new government had to deal with the difficult task of standardizing both military education and military organization throughout the country. The Central Military Academy played a crucial role in this process, becoming in effect the breeding ground for the officers-cum-agents of centralization that were posted to every unit across the country Chiang Kai-shek’s task was made somewhat easier through the assistance of a quasi-official German military advisory group that came to China in the early 1930s, and the quality of the officers who graduated during this period was considered quite high.

Unfortunately, the small numbers of advisors and the demands of the ongoing anti-Communist campaigns made it difficult to expand the school quickly enough to meet the demand for junior officers. Between 1928 and 1937, the Central Military Academy only graduated 10,731 officers, a number that fell far short of even the peacetime requirements of an army as large as China’s. With the outbreak of the Anti-Japanese War in 1937, the high number of casualties and the rapid expansion of the army essentially prevented Academy graduates from exerting any decisive influence on the quality of Chiang’s troops. In the furious fighting that followed the outbreak of the war with Japan, the attrition rate for lower-level officers was extremely high. For example, during the fighting in and around Shanghai in late 1937, which saw Chiang Kai-shek commit his crack German-trained divisions to a battle of attrition with the Japanese, almost 10,000 lower-level officers were lost in a single three-month period. With no way to replace losses on that scale, a vacuum quickly developed. The demand for new officers grew quickly, and lowering the threshold entry requirements turned out to be the easiest way to bring in more candidates.

Prewar regulations had stipulated that only high school graduates could sit for the Academy’s entrance exams. Starting in 1937, however, those standards were lowered to include junior high graduates, and it was not unheard of for some who had not even attained that level of schooling to gain admission. Prior to the war against Japan, the pay and benefits of officers had improved to the point where they were considered quite good, and as a result there were large numbers of applicants for the limited positions in the Central Military Academy and the school could afford to be selective. For example, when the school started looking for students for the twelfth class in 1935, the acceptance rate was only 7 percent. Due to the large increase in the number of students needed after the outbreak of the war with Japan, the acceptance rate rose dramatically. According to the records for the Number Six Branch School of the Military Academy, the acceptance rate in 1940 was as high as 87 percent. Not only were more candidates being accepted, both the curriculum and the training period were reduced. During the war, the time cadets spent at the Central Military Academy and its various branch schools, including the period spent on basic training, was at most two years and seven months, with some courses lasting less than nine months. The constant pressure to produce more officers in less time was exacerbated by wartime shortages of funds and equipment, and the lack of a rigid quality-control system inevitably led to a decline in the quality of the graduates, thus undoing much of what had been accomplished in the prewar period.

Most of the original commanders of the National Revolutionary Army were graduates of the Baoding Military Academy founded by Duan Qirui in 1912. By the time of the outbreak of the war with Japan, the place of these Baoding graduates had been taken over by the new Whampoa officers. This trend was clearest among those officers who actually exercised direct control over troops, such as corps and divisional commanders. Most of those wartime general-level officers had graduated from the earliest Whampoa classes, receiving only an abbreviated course of training (six months to one year), and therefore their basic military education was limited. The Army War College was the main organization responsible for providing further in-depth tactical, strategic, and administrative training for commanders, but the number of graduates was far too small to have any significant impact. By the end of the war with Japan, there were only 2,100 War College graduates throughout the army, and most commanders had not been to the school. In the armies of most advanced nations, officer academy graduates were able to further their military education through a carefully planned rotation system among different positions, units, and specialized schools. This ensured that those officers who rose to high rank were well versed in their own trade and familiar with the workings of other branches. Officers in the National Army rarely had that opportunity, and this was reflected in their generally low level of professional knowledge.

Following the founding of the National Revolutionary Army, the steady succession of campaigns and the high number of casualties among the Whampoa officers—who tended to lead from the front in the early days—resulted in excessively rapid promotions and a corresponding decrease in opportunities to gain necessary experience at every level. These factors conspired to prevent Chiang Kai-shek from improving the quality of his commanders, and it is not surprising that at a conference in 1938 Chiang himself pointed out that in terms of military knowledge and skills his commanders were inferior to officers in Western armies, and were not even comparable to their counterparts in the Japanese Imperial Army. He even went so far as to say, “We who are commanders-in-chief are only comparable to their regimental commanders, and our corps and division commanders are only fit to act as their battalion or company commanders.”

The poor quality of Chiang’s commanders was compounded by the lack of a sound general staff system. Although the quality of staff officers had improved by the end of the war, and most of the general staff officers in the various war zones and group armies above the rank of colonel were graduates of formal military schools or the War College, many local units lacked a sound staff system. All too often these units adhered to the old notion, “If someone is literate, then he can be a staff officer; if someone is illiterate, then he can be an aide-de-camp.” Literacy, while essential to staff work, is hardly in itself an adequate substitute for a solid foundation in administration, logistics, operational planning, or even the elementary military skill of map reading. By way of comparison, during the war 35 percent of the Japanese general staff were graduates of Japan’s Army War College. The Japanese staff system had been created along German lines, and had been in place for far longer than its Chinese equivalent, so it is not surprising that the Japanese staff corps was superior to that of the Nationalist army throughout the war.

As one might expect, the dramatic increase in the demand for lower level officers during the war led to a corresponding increase in the number of men commissioned from the ranks. While this had been a common practice in the prewar army, with the statistics from 1930 showing that 29.1 percent of the total number of officers in the Central Army had been commissioned from the ranks, this number was bound to increase in response to the huge losses suffered in the opening stages of the Anti-Japanese War. Officers from the ranks were not necessarily inferior to their academy-trained counterparts; while acting as the vice chairman of the Central Military Affairs Commission, the wily former foot soldier and warlord Feng Yuxiang went so far as to claim that 85 percent of the bravest and most talented fighting officers came from the ranks. As the number of officers commissioned from the ranks increased, the percentage of military school graduates correspondingly decreased. In 1930, 70.9 percent of the officers in the Central Army were graduates of military schools. By 1944, the percentage of lower-level officers who had passed through some sort of formal military school had dropped to 27 percent.

The factor that most affected the quality of middle- and lower-echelon officers was the kind of education they received. Following the founding of the army, the official tactical doctrines and training standards were changed frequently, which naturally resulted in some confusion in the schools. For example, while still in Guangdong prior to the start of the Northern Expedition, the army used verbal commands derived from Japanese along with Soviet-style training and organization. During the Nanjing period, the Central Military Academy adopted German tactical doctrine, while the Infantry School continued to follow the Japanese model as laid out in the manuals published by the Inspectorate General for Training. The War College simultaneously used both German and Japanese doctrine. Following the start of the war, Japanese doctrine remained influential, but it was increasingly mixed in with Soviet, German, and American doctrine. Wartime military journals reveal that army officers studied doctrine from many countries, with no one system predominating, but these imported ideas had only a superficial impact on the Nationalist army. Although in the later stages of the war troops trained in India, Yunnan, and Guilin all embraced American doctrine, other units continued to do as they pleased. This lack of standardization, which extended even to the terms the army used in its day-to-day operations, naturally had a deleterious effect on troop training.

The lack of standardized doctrine was but one of the many organizational problems that plagued the Nationalist army. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, organization and equipment varied widely, and the steady stream of provisional reorganization plans flowing out of Nanjing did not help this situation. Far more important, while the skills emphasized in the schools were usually taught using the most current equipment, it was nearly always the case that when the students graduated and were posted to their units, they would discover that their troops possessed neither modern nor standard equipment. As one horrified observer noted, many supplies and materials were stored like junk in an old warehouse, with no two pieces of equipment identical. As a result, the new officers often felt that the skills they had learned at the various schools were irrelevant to the actual problems they faced once posted to their units. The lack of equipment and logistical support, the high level of illiteracy among the troops, poor morale, and a high desertion rate all combined to thwart even the most motivated of junior officers. In addition, like the higher echelon officers, mid- and low-level officers of the Nationalist army had to spend much of their time on duties beyond the scope of their normal military responsibilities.

As the army found itself moving into areas either previously beyond the reach of Nanjing or simply overlooked by the resource-starved government, officers found themselves forced to take on the civil duties of an army of occupation in their own country. Only rarely could officers devote themselves exclusively to their military duties, and the need to assume civil administrative functions impaired their ability to fight. Most units considered themselves lucky if they could devote three days a week to training. Even if they were free to focus on their military duties, officers were burdened with an administrative system that was a nightmarish web of overlapping jurisdictions, infested with petty tyrants who wielded power out of all proportion to their actual rank. When it came to dealing with the various organizations that controlled money and supplies, all but the most powerful officers were forced to grovel. In order to get the resources needed to survive on a day-to-day basis, let alone fight, officers had to be willing to appear subservient before even the lowliest of clerks. As the power and position of those they were dealing with increased, so too did the time and effort officers had to expend to obtain what would have been considered normal administrative and logistical support in any other army. Even the relationships with their own immediate superiors could be burdensome in terms of time and money. Reflecting the influence of traditional Chinese bureaucratic practices, officers were expected to socialize with, or perhaps more accurately, court, their superiors or anyone else who could expedite their career progression.

If the officers in the Nationalist army had to concern themselves with so many things tangential to their main duties, how could they be expected to realize their full potential as military commanders? Even if an officer was talented, the conditions that prevailed in the Nationalist army made it unlikely that he would get a chance to prove himself. An American military officer who was in China for many years during the war pointed out that if an officer in the Nationalist army could perform well in China, he would surely also perform well abroad. The historian Ray Huang, himself a graduate of the Central Military Academy, claimed that if Chinese officers were given a chance to go abroad and command English or French troops, they would surely prove to be first-class officers. This was in fact the case when Chinese troops were dispatched to Burma to participate in the Allied campaigns there. Once freed from the political, economic, and administrative constraints that existed in China, the Nationalist officers proved to be every bit as competent as their Allied counterparts.

Aside from suffering from a scarcity of resources and an undertrained, undersized officer corps that was handicapped by a Byzantine bureaucratic culture, the Nationalist army also suffered from a chronic shortage of suitable recruits. Prior to the war, the Nanjing regime relied on a volunteer recruitment system that was essentially identical to that of the earlier Beiyang Army. Individual units were required to send out teams to their favorite hunting grounds to seek recruits, which accounts for the distinctly regional flavor of many regiments. In 1933, as part of a German-inspired plan to modernize China’s defense preparedness, the government promulgated a conscription law; however, the law was only put into effect following the outbreak of the war with Japan. According to available statistics, China conscripted a total of 14,049,024 men between 1937 and 1945. This seems like a rather impressive number, but given China’s large population it does not represent a high degree of mobilization. F. F. Liu compared the mobilization figures for all of the major powers during World War II, and he calculated that China’s mobilization index (average number of men mobilized per year as a percentage of the total population) was only 0.4 percent. That figure falls far short of Japan’s 1.3 percent, England’s 1.4 percent, the United States’s 2.4 percent, Russia’s 3.0 percent, and Germany’s 3.8 percent.

China’s failure to achieve a degree of mobilization comparable to the other combatants was in large part due to the fact that Chinese society failed to meet many of the basic preconditions for the successful implementation of compulsory service. First, China lacked a sound household register system, and without detailed population records it was very difficult to track down all the draft-eligible men. The Nanjing regime had been trying, but following the Japanese attack and the government’s retreat into the interior, they found themselves cut off from precisely those areas in which they had made the most progress. Second, the successful implementation of the conscription law depended on the cooperation of cadres at the lowest levels, and many of them were simply not interested in actively enforcing an unpopular law. Sometimes cadres were understandably reluctant to draft their friends and relatives. On other occasions they were threatened by local bullies, and chose discretion over valor in the absence of any concrete help from the central government. Often the cadres simply accepted bribes from local notables, agreeing in exchange to pass over their relatives or accept illegal substitutions. Third, household incomes were generally low throughout the country. The wartime pay of conscripts was appallingly low, even by contemporary Chinese standards, and if the draftee happened to be a key breadwinner or vital source of farm labor, his household could quickly find itself in trouble. The serious economic consequences for families of draftees led many to view military service as the first step on the road to ruin. Finally, the low level of literacy in China and the parochialism it fostered meant that many Chinese simply did not understand the need for conscription during the war, especially if they lived outside the war zones. Military service still suffered from image problems associated with the wanton looting and destruction of the warlord period, and the notion that “good men do not become soldiers” was pervasive in Chinese society. This in turn encouraged the practice of draft avoidance. Because the literate (who presumably knew what was coming), the wealthy, and the powerful could avoid conscription by flight or corruption, most of those ensnared were illiterate peasants from poor households who were often in poor physical condition.

Most military authorities are of the opinion that peasants are possessed of many military virtues, such as simplicity, sincerity, bravery, obedience, tenacity, and the ability to stoically endure great hardship. According to one prewar American military observer, the Chinese peasant was excellent soldier material, having infinite patience, a natural deference to authority, and a robust physique. If provided with suitable training and equipment, enough to eat, and clothes to wear, the Chinese would make good soldiers even by American standards. It was also noted that although most Chinese soldiers were illiterate, their learning ability was quite impressive. An Allied observer noted that whereas it took American GIs four or five days to master the intricacies of the flamethrower, Chinese troops required only two or at most four days to master the same weapon. As was the case with their officers, it seemed that when Chinese troops were freed from the limits imposed on them by their own straitened circumstances, they were capable of performing as well as their Allied counterparts.

Sadly, for the majority of the Nationalist troops who were not part of American training programs after 1941, conditions continued to deteriorate. As China’s financial situation worsened, the resources available to the army began to shrink, and this had a negative impact on its fighting strength. The soldiers, who had never really enjoyed an abundance of food, began to manifest signs of malnutrition. In 1944 an American expert undertook a medical inspection of some 1,200 Chinese soldiers from throughout the army. His findings revealed that fully 57 percent of those he examined were undernourished. Prolonged malnutrition, coupled with poor sanitation and a shortage of medical services, resulted in a large number of cases of preventable diseases, such as night blindness, trachoma, scabies, anemia, and parasitic infections. The Nationalist army had only one doctor for every 1,700 to 3,400 men, as compared to one for every 210 men in Britain and one for every 150 men in the United States. This critical shortage of doctors and the primitive state of medical facilities made it impossible for the army to gain the upper hand in its fight against these preventable illnesses.

The real income of the soldiers also experienced a rapid decline, which exacerbated already poor morale. Up until the outbreak of the war, the army’s pay and benefits had continued to improve. Relatively high rates of pay and good benefits, coupled with the flowering of Chinese nationalism during the 1930s, meant that the army enjoyed an unprecedented popularity. Even many students indicated their desire to pursue a military career, and one survey showed that military officer ranked higher than both doctor and lawyer on a list of desirable professions. This popularity was fleeting, however, and by the time the war had entered its middle stage after a long succession of embarrassing defeats, an army career had lost its appeal for most Chinese youths. Military pay and benefits declined drastically, and by the midpoint of the war they could not even compare with the earnings of coolies and rickshaw drivers (in 1943 a second-class private earned a monthly salary equivalent to only 7.5 American cents). By the end of the war, the military’s position in society had declined so far that common soldiers were seen as little better than beggars.

As serious as the Nationalist army’s financial and personnel problems were, its supply difficulties were even greater. Following the establishment of the Nationalist army, its organization and training models changed with bewildering rapidity, leaving weapons-procurement policies in a state of continuous flux. As had been the case with all previous Chinese regimes, the Nanjing government found itself unable to produce domestically the type and quantity of weapons required by its ambitious rearmament program. It was also unable to purchase all that it needed from overseas, and as a result the army was saddled with a collection of unstandardized weapons drawn from every conceivable source. They ranged from centuries-old spears and lances to the very latest automatic rifles and antiaircraft guns. It seemed that no weapon was too old or too exotic for the Chinese, and they had in service at any given time weapons from countries such as Japan, Germany, France, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Switzerland, along with the products of their own diverse arsenals. As the army planners were well aware, such a hodgepodge of weapons made for a logistical nightmare.

When war broke out, the army found itself dependent on large-scale imports of munitions from Germany, the Soviet Union, the United States, Britain, France, and Czechoslovakia. This diversity of weapons meant that ammunition and parts were not interchangeable, and that in turn greatly increased the burden on the already overstrained supply system. For example, those units that were lucky enough to receive American weapons during the latter stages of the war enjoyed a marked increase in their firepower and mobility. However, when the American government imposed a weapons embargo on Nanjing following the end of the Pacific War (the American intention being to force a reluctant Nationalist government to abandon a military solution to the CCP problem in favor of a negotiated solution), the combat effectiveness of those same units deteriorated rapidly. In 1947 a reporter visiting Nationalist units at Shenyang discovered that the cargo trucks, armored vehicles, and other transport belonging to some mechanized units had been abandoned at various barracks due to a lack of spare parts. Exposed to the elements, these hard-to-come-by assets were quickly being reduced to piles of rust. In another case, an artillery regiment that was equipped with powerful American 155mm howitzers had been crippled by ammunition shortages and could no longer scrounge sufficient gasoline for the trucks needed to move the guns. Despite their superior equipment, they were less effective than another regiment armed with older, mule-drawn Japanese 150mm guns, which could be supplied from the ample ammunition stockpiles left behind after the war.

Aside from their dependence on external sources of supply, the Nationalist army confronted yet another major logistical problem. China’s poor interior infrastructure and the widely scattered battle lines meant that the army had to rely on human labor for many transport and construction tasks. As with its attempts to conscript soldiers, the Nationalist army encountered many problems in trying to raise the necessary civilian levies. The pay offered to the civilian laborers was excessively low, insufficient even to support the workers, let alone compensate them for the cost of whatever tools they may have contributed. Civilians generally recoiled in apprehension at the prospect of serving, and few stepped forward of their own volition. Many simply fled, while others went so far as to destroy their own tools. This stands in stark contrast to the success the Communists enjoyed in mobilizing civilians. According to the memoirs of one Communist commander, one of the key factors in their success at the Civil War battle of Huai Hai (November 1948-January 1949) was the huge number of large and small carts provided by the peasants. During the course of this long battle, the Communists claim to have mobilized more than 5 million civilian workers in five different provinces. Utilizing 230,000 stretchers, 800,000 carts of various types, and their own backs, they moved 110,000 casualties, 342 million kilograms of food, and 3.3 million tons of ammunition. There is still an ongoing debate as to whether their success in mobilizing this type of civilian support was due to their organizational expertise or the allure of their land reform program, but it is an indisputable fact that their ability to evacuate their wounded and maintain a constant flow of supplies to the front contributed in no small measure to their victory.


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