Wanhsien Incident

HMS Cockchafer (1915)

In August and September 1926. Wanhsien, now known as Wanzhou District, is a port on the Yangtze River about 1,500 miles (2,400 km) upstream from Shanghai. The local warlord, Marshal Wu Pei Fu controlled the area and his local commander was General Yang Sen.

General Yang’s troops seized the British merchant ship, SS Wanhsien in August 1926, which belonged to the The China Navigation Company. The crew of Cockchafer heard the British crew calling for help and sent an officer and boarding party to Wanhsien to investigate. They found the ship occupied by 100 Chinese soldiers. The Navy party obtained the release of the ship after a heated argument.

On August 29, 1926, China Navigation Co. ship, the SS Wanliu suddenly made a U turn while a wooden boat full of Chinese soldiers, guns, bullets and allowances passed by. The wave caused by the movement of Wanliu capsized the wooden boat. 58 soldiers were drowned. Thousands of bullets, hundreds of guns and some allowances were lost. The Wanliu steamed upstream while the Chinese soldiers aboard attempted to capture the ship. They were unable to do so by the time the Wanliu reached Wanhsien where Cockchafer sent a boarding party to remove the soldiers.

The reports about the escape of the Wanliu reached General Yang whose troops captured SS Wanhsien again. The British officers were held aboard. Another British merchant ship SS Wantung was also captured. Chinese troops with artillery gathered on the shore. General Yang seized several of Cockchafer’s Chinese crewmembers who were ashore and one was killed in full view of the rest of the crew. Yang refused to negotiate with the commander of Cockchafer and the senior officer on the Upper Yangtze, commander of Widgeon headed for Wanhsien while Cockchafer remained at Wanhsien in a standoff with the overwhelming numbers of Chinese troops.

On 1 September 1926 Widgeon arrived at Wanhsien but negotiations did not go well and the rear admiral on the Yangtze decided that the matter would have to be settled by force. A British merchant ship, SS Kiawo, was camouflaged and armoured and manned by a naval crew gathered from Cockchafer, the light cruiser Despatch, Scarab and Mantis boarded Kiawo and she sailed on 4 September 1926.

In the evening of 5 September 1926 the Kiawo arrived in sight of Wanhsien. The plan was to board and re-take SS Wanhsien and SS Wantung. While Widgeon and Cockchafer would provide covering fire. Kiawo came under fire from the Chinese troops ashore. She came alongside Wanhsien and boarded under fire. The boarding party rescued the British seaman held onboard after fierce fighting.

In the meantime, Chinese troops onshore and aboard Wantung opened fire on Cockchafer and Widgeon which returned fire. The boarding party aboard SS Wanhsien suffered a number of casualties including the senior British officer from Despatch and Cockchafer’s sub-lieutenant who were killed. Having rescued the British merchant seamen onboard SS Wanhsien the attacking force retired to SS Kiawo. After an hour of fighting, the action was discontinued and the two merchant ships were abandoned. The British ships then retired having rescued the crews.

The British ships caused casualties of nearly a thousand Chinese civilians and soldiers in the Wanhsien Incident. Thousands of shops and homes were destroyed by shells. In the end, General Yang was pressured to release SS Wanhsien and SS Wantung.

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In China the allure that the former Middle Kingdom had historically exerted upon foreign states and driven their much sought after economic penetration of the country, had intensified after the ending of the Great War. China’s military weakness, which it had suffered throughout the nineteenth century, proved to be an irresistible magnet for those foreign powers seeking a sphere of influence in the most populous place on earth and aware of the massive market potential that could be exploited if only they could establish more than a mere foothold in the country. After wringing a series of concessions from the hapless Chinese at various times over the past eighty years – the much vilified `unequal treaties’ – the international community wished to protect these interests and if possible expand upon them. For this purpose an international flotilla was formed consisting of American, British, French and Japanese gunboats whose prime task was to ply Chinese coastal and inland waters and thereby ensure that their interests and possessions were not subject to encroachment by hostile forces whether foreign or local. Such foreign interventionism sat uneasily, however, with a raised national consciousness and increasing xenophobia – both by-products of the May Fourth Movement of 1919. As national authority broke down in the face of a merciless civil war, the fledgling republic was left at the mercy of extremists on all sides of the political divide. Despite being beset by many debilitating challenges in the turbulent post-revolutionary period, a new tougher China emerged, one in which military weakness was fast becoming consigned to the past. Warlordism with its emphasis on the coupling of military and regional political power ensured that indigenous Chinese militia forces were better armed and also quite prepared to use their weapons to confront any of their enemies either local or foreign. If this was not sufficient reason for caution on behalf of foreign powers, the political cauldron in China boiled over in 1926 with the first of Chiang Kai-shek’s Northern Expeditions to unify the country under his nationalist Kuomintang forces. In a very real sense, therefore, the stage was set for an explosive encounter and it was not long in coming.

Although the Wanhsien Incident of August-September 1926 was to prove to be the most dramatic, contentious and costly episode in which a foreign naval power was pitted against local Chinese forces, the sad fact is that it was far from being the first occasion when such a clash had occurred in a riverine environment. Both parties were to blame for this very unfortunate state of affairs: the international powers for mounting an indiscreet and disdainful naval presence in China which succeeded in inflaming local passions, and the local warlords and their henchmen for the practice of routinely commandeering foreign merchant vessels for transporting their troops and material from one place to another and for indulging in random and indiscriminate firing upon foreign steamers as they passed up or down river. Apart from the loss of life on both sides arising out of the rescue bid mounted by British gunboats on the Yangtze, the Wanhsien Incident is important because its unsatisfactory resolution managed to greatly intensify the state of anti-foreignism in China. More clashes arose and the foreign powers responded by redeploying a number of major warships from other stations to Chinese waters to deal with the menace posed by their local adversaries. By January 1927, for instance, the British alone had an aircraft carrier, eight cruisers, nine destroyers, twelve submarines, four sloops, two minesweepers and fifteen river gunboats amongst other vessels in Chinese waters. In addition, the Americans, French and Japanese likewise increased their naval contingents in Chinese waters, though none of them maintained a force that was as impressive quantitatively or qualitatively as that of the British.

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