A Yankee Among The War Lords

PrintPrintEmailEmail He saw Wu’s men march off in a long gray file accompanied by two-wheeled carts carrying ammunition, bedding, and supplies. These were superior arrangements; the average war lord’s troops had only squeaking man-powered wheelbarrows for supply trains. Many in Wu’s army, as in others, were barely more than fourteen years old, but they were well equipped with knapsacks, trench picks, shovels, lanterns, teapots, oiled paper umbrellas, alarm clocks, and hot-water bottles. They were followed by coolies bearing coffins on poles as reassurance to the soldiers that if killed their bodies would not be left unburied on the plains. On the gray cotton uniforms, padded in winter, common to all Chinese troops, Wu’s men wore red arm bands to distinguish allegiance. As a rule these arm bands were not sewed on but fastened with a safety pin for easy removal when armies changed sides.

Military performance of the average army was not sharp. When soldiers reached the field of battle, they would stand for a few moments, look around, unsung their rifles, fire a haphazard shot or two without aiming through the sights, and then sit down. Cannon were fired recklessly, often missing their targets by a quarter mile or more. If it rained, the paper umbrellas blossomed down the line like a sudden sprout of mushrooms, and fighting ceased. Wu’s army was better than most and in 1922 in combination with Feng’s drove Chang Tso-lin back to Manchuria.

In his effort to form a national government Wu P’ei-fu had invited the adherence of Sun Yat-sen, but Sun, who held the title of President of China, conferred by the rump Kuomintang parliament, refused. He wanted to unite China under the Three Principles of the Kuomintang program: Nationalism, Democracy, and the People’s Livelihood. But all his schemes and alliances failed, and his various partners turned against him. He repeatedly proposed to the American minister his grand plan for the Western democracies to invest in a new government for China, hut it found no takers.


Failed by the West and by his own countrymen, he turned for help where it was offered, to revolutionary Russia, and made alliance with the Comintern in January, 1923. In 1919 Soviet Russia had announced the waiving of all czarist treaties and concessions, causing a tremendous impression in China as the first Western power to give up anything voluntarily. When it came to the practice, the Soviets had second thoughts and proved unwilling to give up the Chinese Eastern Railway in Manchuria or their rights in Mongolia. Nevertheless, to Chinese disillusioned with the progress of their own revolution the attraction of Moscow was strong, and conversions to communism began. On its side the Soviet Union was looking for friends and for another base for the ultimate advance of world revolution. While acknowledging that under present conditions China was not ripe for communism, the U.S.S.R. agreed to aid the Kuomintang to achieve national unity and independence. Under the terms of the alliance, the Chinese Communists, who had formed their own party in 1921, were admitted into the Kuomintang as collaborators in the goal of regenerating the country and for the time being agreed that the Kuomintang should assume the leadership of the national revolution. …

Stilwell had been in Peking only six months when he found an opportunity to break away from legation life and become acquainted with China on a working level. Following the severe famine of the previous year, 1920, the International Relief Committee of the Red Cross borrowed him from the Army to serve as chief engineer of a road-building program in Shansi. … He had no training or experience in engineering beyond what he had learned as an undergraduate at West Point, but he had self-confidence, and like Ulysses he was never content to stay long in one place. Hearing of the road-building project and eager for a chance to move out and use his newly acquired Chinese under real conditions, he asked for the job. Leading as it did to a mission of greater consequence the year afterward, the road-building in Shansi played a significant part in deepening the Chinese channel of Stilwell’s career.

The Shansi road was designed partly to give work to famine refugees but chiefly as a step in long-range famine control through improved transportation, so that in future surplus grain could be imported into the stricken areas from the northwest provinces, which never suffered famine. Away from the railroads and rivers, China was virtually without roads for wheeled transportation. The Chinese government did not make a habit of relief projects. Emergency distribution of food stores, if undertaken at all, was never done in time to prevent mass starvation. Accustomed to the Western impulse to “do something,” China let the foreign activists do what they could, but the Oriental attitude did not insist on man’s conquering his circumstances. Centuries of calamities inured the Chinese to their recurrence; masses would die, but more masses would be born. In the famine of 1920, said to be the worst in forty years, a foreigner reported that “incredibly filthy and ragged bands of staggering skeletons with staring eyes, no longer human beings” headed in long lines for the towns and crowded the small railroad stations.