Northern Expedition

Northern Expedition
Part of Warlord Era

Clockwise from top-left: Chiang inspecting soldiers of the National Revolutionary Army; NRA troops marching northwards; an NRA artillery unit engaged in a battle with warlords; people showing support for the NRA; peasants volunteer to join the expedition; NRA soldiers preparing to launch an attack.
Date9 July 1926 – 29 December 1928 (2 years and 173 days)
LocationSouthern to Northern China

Victory for the National Revolutionary Army


Nationalist government (First United Front until April 1927)

Beiyang government

Commanders and leaders
Chiang Kai-shek
Feng Yuxiang
Li Zongren
Bai Chongxi
He Yingqin
Yan Xishan
Cen Chunxuan
Zhou Enlai
Ye Ting
Zhang Zuolin 
Zhang Xueliang
Zhang Zongchang
Wu Peifu
Sun Chuanfang
c. 100,000 (July 1926)[2]
c. 264,000 (Dec. 1926)[3]
c. 1,000,000 (1928)[4]
c. 700,000 (1926)[4]
c. 190,000–250,000 (Dec. 1928)[1]
Northern Expedition
Traditional Chinese 國民革命軍北伐
Simplified Chinese 国民革命军北伐
Literal meaning National Revolutionary Army northern expedition

The Northern Expedition was a military campaign launched by the National Revolutionary Army of the Kuomintang (KMT), also known as the Nationalists, against the Beiyang government and other regional warlords in 1926. The purpose of the campaign was to reunify China, and the expedition was divided into two phases. The first phase was interrupted by the political split in the Kuomintang following the formation of the Nanjing faction in April 1927 against the existing faction in Wuhan.[5] The split was partially motivated by the purge of the Communists within the party, which marked the end of the First United Front, and Chiang Kai-shek briefly stepped down as the commander of the National Revolutionary Army.[6]

The campaign was resumed in January 1928 with the return of Chiang to the commanding post, and the Nationalist forces advanced to the Yellow River by April 1928. Strings of victories by the Nationalists toward Peking, with the assistance of allied warlords including Yan Xishan and Feng Yuxiang, forced Zhang Zuolin of the Fengtian clique out of Peking.[7] Zhang was assassinated shortly after by the Kwantung Army on his way back to Manchuria, and his son Zhang Xueliang took over as the leader of the Fengtian clique. In June 1928, Zhang Xueliang announced Manchuria would accept the authority of the Nationalist government in Nanjing, effectively ending the Northern Expedition by the end of the year.[7]


Since the Constitutional Protection Movement ended in 1922, the Kuomintang (KMT) had been expanding in Guangdong to prepare for an expedition against the Northern warlords in Peking and reunifying China.[8] The preparation required improving both the political and military strength of the KMT. Before his death in March 1925, Sun Yat-sen was supportive of Sino-Soviet cooperation, which involved forming the First United Front with the Communist Party of China (CPC).[9] The Whampoa Military Academy was opened in 1924, with Chiang Kai-shek appointed as the commandant, having emerged as the protégé of Sun since 1922.[10]

On 30 May 1925, Chinese students in Shanghai, supported by the KMT, gathered together and held anti-foreign demonstrations in the International Settlement.[11] The movement sparked popular unrest throughout the country. Chiang emerged from the party ranks in the KMT as the paramount leader, and consolidated his power further through the Canton Coup, in which several top Communist leaders in the KMT were arrested between 18 and 19 March 1926.[12]

Immediately prior to the expedition, there were three major coalition of warlords across China that were hostile toward the Kuomintang. The forces of Wu Peifu occupied Hubei, Henan and northern Hunan province. The coalition of Sun Chuanfang was in control of Fujian, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Anhui and Jiangxi province. The most powerful coalition was led by Zhang Zuolin, head of the Beiyang government and the Fengtian clique, in control of Manchuria, Shandong and Hebei province.[13] Facing the Northern Expedition, Zhang Zuolin eventually assembled the "National Pacification Army" (Anguojun), an alliance of the warlords of northern China, to defend against the National Revolutionary Army.[14]

First phase (July 1926 – March 1927)

On 9 July 1926, the Kuomintang ceremonially appointed Chiang Kai-shek as the commander of the National Revolutionary Army (NRA), which officially launched the expedition.[15] In a military conference at Changsha on 11 August, the Nationalists decided to bypass Nanchang and attack Wuchang straight away. The warlord defense led by Wu Peifu collapsed on 31 August in which Wu only narrowly fled, and the revolutionary forces reached the heavily fortified Wuchang on 31 August. The city garrison surrendered on 10 October after more than a month of military blockade, and the NRA had secured the Hubei province as Wu and his remaining troops fled to Henan.[16] The NRA then diverted their forces toward the territories of Sun Chuanfang, which included both Nanchang and Jiujiang in Jiangxi, capturing both provinces in the process. On 18 December, He Yingqin led two divisions of the NRA and captured Fuzhou, the provincial capital of Fujian.[17] In the short span of six months, the Nationalists had expanded to seven provinces, controlling a population of "approximately 170 million".[17]

Sun Chuanfang retreated to Nanjing in the aftermath of major setbacks.[18] The Fengtian clique responded to Sun's request for help by reinforcing Jiangsu and Anhui, while increasing the number of troops in Henan in support of Wu Peifu.[19] Two major Fengtian formations, the Shandong Army of Zhang Zongchang and the Zhili Army of Chu Yupu crossed the Yangtze in February 1927 to help Sun in defending Nanjing and Shanghai from the Nationalists. This operation proved to be a "costly operational disaster" for the warlords. Beset by the advancing NRA[20] as well as a Communist-led uprising in Shanghai,[21] Zhang and Chu's armies suffered heavy casualties and had to flee across the river.[20] On 23 March 1927, the Nationalist forces marched into Nanjing.[19] Nevertheless, the aid of the Fengtian armies had prevented Sun's army from collapsing completely, and the allied warlords managed to regroup and restrengthen their forces after this major defeat.[20]

Anti-Communist purge and second phase (March 1927 – June 1928)

Internal conflict among the Nationalists

As part of the First United Front, many members of the Communist Party joined the Kuomintang and exerted significant influence over the left wing faction of the KMT. Between 12 to 14 April, hundreds of Communists in Shanghai were arrested and killed by the order of Chiang, effectively ending the alliance between the Nationalists and the Communists.[22] The purge was condemned by the left wing faction of the KMT led by Wang Jingwei in Wuhan, and this led to the internal split between the KMT based in Wuhan and the KMT based in Nanjing.[23]

The Northern Expedition was temporarily put on hold after the capture of Nanjing. Chiang Kai-shek proposed to several top KMT officials in Wuhan to "discuss party unity".[24] To "heal the rift" between the Nanjing and Wuhan factions, Chiang offered to voluntarily step down from his leadership role, allegedly influenced by Bai Chongxi.[25] Wang Jingwei, having recently returned to China, took the leadership role in the Wuhan faction and began purging Communist members of the KMT in Wuhan. The CPC responded by staging several successful attacks that politically and militarily weakened the KMT in Wuhan significantly, notably in Nanchang in August 1927.[26]

The chaos in the immediate aftermath of the Communist purge in April allowed Sun to regroup and he launched new offensives with Zhang Zongchang.[27] With the Nationalists fighting the war on two fronts, Sun was able to attack and recapture Xuzhou on 24 July.[26] However, Sun's forces were decisively defeated by the NRA on 30 August in battles around Longtan, and Sun ended up having "escaped" north of the Yangtze River.[28] The Nationalist forces continued to advance northwards and recaptured Xuzhou on 16 August.[29] In the meanwhile, Shanxi warlord Yan Xishan decided to form an alliance with the Nationalists,[30] whereupon Zhang Zuolin's warlord alliance launched a massive but unsuccessful offensive against him in late 1927. Another offensive by the Fengtian forces, namely against Nationalist-held Henan in October, was initially more successful. Led by Chu Yupu's Zhili Army, the attack on Henan proved successful until the NRA was reinforced by Nationalist-allied warlord Feng Yuxiang who forced the Zhili Army to retreat at Kaifeng. Another counter-attack against Henan, this time led by Zhang Zongchang's Shandong Army, was completely defeated in November, and the armies of the Anguojun warlord alliance were forced to retreat north.[31] With the military success of Chiang's Whampoa troops, the factions within the KMT agreed to recognize the legitimacy of Chiang's leadership and the Nanjing government as long as their regional sphere of influence continued to be permitted. Consequently, Chiang soon returned to the commanding post in January 1928.[29]

Last resistance and fall of Beijing

In one last attempt to turn the war in their favor, the Anguojun leaders decided to launch another offensive in April 1928. The warlord armies failed to achieve a breakthrough, and when the NRA counterattacked, Zhang Zongchang's army disintegrated, causing a mass retreat of the Anguojun forces. Shandong fell to the Nationalists; from then on, the resistance of the warlord alliance was no longer effective, and the NRA advanced without further setbacks.[32] When the NRA occupied Shandong province in May, however, hostilities erupted between the Chinese forces and the Imperial Japanese Army garrison of Jinan. What started as minor armed altercation escalated into a massacre, as the Japanese killed NRA representative Cai Gongshi, several KMT diplomats, and "approximately five thousand" Chinese civilians. This event came to be known as the Jinan incident.[33][34]

Meanwhile, Nationalist-allied warlord Yan Xishan had started to march toward Beijing from Shanxi.[30] Combined with the recent announcement that Japan would recognize the legitimacy of the Nationalists as the representative of China, Zhang Zuolin decided to retreat, but he was assassinated on his way back to Manchuria by operatives from the Japanese Kwantung Army in the Huanggutun incident.[7] His son, the "Young Marshal" Zhang Xueliang, succeeded him as leader of the Fengtian clique, and decided to end the war and to cooperate with the Nationalists. Nevertheless, the Shandong–Zhili Army of Zhang Zongchang and Chu Yupu still refused to surrender, and despite its recent defeats still counted about 70,000 soldiers as well as at least three armoured trains manned by White Russian mercenaries under General Konstantin Petrovich Nechaev. As Zhang Xueliang had sided with the Nationalists, Zhang Zongchang declared war on the Fengtian clique and moved his army across Luan River to invade Manchuria. There, however, the defiant warlord army was trapped by the Nationalists and Zhang Xueliang's forces; many of Zhang Zongchang's troops (including the White Russian mercenaries) defected or deserted, and those of his forces that refused to surrender were destroyed.[35] Zhang Xueliang eventually declared his allegiance to the Nationalist government in Nanjing on 29 December 1928, marking the official end of the Northern Expedition.[36]


While the reunification of China was achieved on the surface, the country "remained divided along regional lines". After the capture of Peking, Chiang held a conference with Feng Yuxiang, Yan Xishan, Bai Chongxi and Li Zongren in July 1928.[37] As Chiang attempted to cut back the military and centralize the power of the Nationalist government in Nanjing, the regional warlords, with their military strengths largely preserved, quickly renounced their allegiance to Chiang and formed an alliance against the Kuomintang.[36] The struggle for supremacy soon broke out into the Central Plains War in 1930.[38] Although Chiang emerged once again as the paramount leader of China with his decisive victory in the war, the problem of both regionalism and warlordism continued to persist in the KMT, and these problems played a significant role in the Chinese Civil War.

In the Soviet Union

The Northern Expedition in China became a point of contention over foreign policy between Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky in the Soviet Union. Stalin encouraged the CCP to cooperate with the KMT on multiple occasions, as he believed the KMT was more capable of completing the Chinese revolution. Trotsky was opposed to the KMT as he believed the party was against the concept of proletarian revolution. The Comintern was in support of Stalin's decision to financially support the KMT.[39]




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