The Two Epic Retreats that Created Nations

The Long March in China is the most famous event in Communist Red Army annals. While decimating the strength of the Red Army, it indirectly gave birth to a nation.   It lives on today in movies, propaganda, etc.  One can still read in the papers the obituaries of certain people(“He was a long marcher”).  

Still, China was not the only nation to undergo a “long march”.  Another nation, itself equally not yet born, itself underwent a march of retreat, chased by a regular army, and labeled “rebels”.  It’s march was led by George Washington, and we all know the conclusion.   There are many similarities between the two. Rarely noticed, much less spoken of.  Here are a few:

A retreat, not a march

There are great similarities between the march of the CCP and that of the American “rebels”.  Firstly, they were without question both a long retreat, for their time, chased by superior numbers, and in every sense of the word, by “better” troops.  The retreats were both involuntary, and due to either losses on the battlefield, or sudden campaigns by the enemy that led to sudden retreat.  

Better troops

Without question, the adversary was superior.   Better trained, fed, supplied, and professional.   I would argue however, that the Americans probably faced a more professional adversary than that of the Communists.  The Nationalists were much closer to being on a par with their enemy, than that of the Americans and British.  Indeed, the ability of the Red Army to survive such a lengthy march speaks volumes of the incompetency of the KMT and its warlord allies.   

Along with the warlords, the KMT itself was infamously corrupt.  Their soldiers were not professional, and were often conscripts.  With the “MA Clique”( Chinese Muslim armies), as a possible exception, the only thing separating the Communist troops from the KMT itself in terms of quality, was equipment, and inexperience at the officer level.   Still, as poorly trained as the KMT was, it was superior to the CCP. 

The British soldiers on the other hand, along with the Hessian mercenaries, were a very professional army.  The best in the world.   As an Empire, Britain was everywhere(or about to be).   India, when it encompassed Pakistan, and Bangladesh was soon to fall over the reign of Britannia.  The British had multiple first rate commanders to call upon:  Howe, Clinton, Cornwallis, etc.  A captain in the British Army could’ve been a Major General in the rebel army.     

Everyone knows why the KMT lost: corruption and incompetence.   The British had neither.   They suffered from distance, expense, and a very dismissive attitude towards the rebels.  Yet the latter was well justified.   Still, it made the FALL all the harder to bear.

Hunger, Cold and Death

Both armies fought in territory with no clear boundaries.   For example, New York at the time was very Pro-British.   The cities in China belonged to the KMT.   In both places, people switched sides all the time.  No one wore a uniform.   From day to day, village to village, stranger to stranger, neither army had much of an idea as to who their allies or enemies even were.  

Each “march” is well documented for its hunger, disease, and lack of food.  The American’s lost more dead to disease while serving as British prisoners than on the battlefield.   Surely the same can be said of the Red Army.  There were no drugs available.  A mere hip wound in those days was fatal. 

Still, there is no overstating the heroism of each March.  While many scholars claim the Long March was overstated for political effect, my response is “so what”?  The Red Army had no vehicles, and their soldiers no pay.   They had no medicine.  Desertions were commonplace.  Mao himself even had to give up a baby to a peasant family during the march, never to be seen again.   

The Red Army had to constantly rely upon the goodness of others, for food.  Or quite frankly, they would take it.   The feat of walking thousands of miles, through both heat and cold, is not to be overstated.  Of the over 100,000 troops that took the March, only 8000 or so survived the ending.

Meanwhile, we all know Washington’s predicament, in the Winter of 1776.   His troops were paid $6 a month, and their enlistments were nearly up.  Many had no blankets, much less shoes.  
Dysentery decimated the ranks, and only half his soldiers at any one time were fit for duty.  From the beginning at New York, his troops had dwindled from 19000 until only 2500 after crossing the Delaware.

Rivals dashed, Leadership solidified...Mao and Zhang

The obvious main result of both retreats was the survival of a core that would later birth a nation.  The other result was the solidification of a leader within each separate movement, with long ranging consequences for each future nation. 

Unbeknownst to most people today, esp in China(where it counts), Mao WAS NOT the leader of the Communists at the beginning of the Long March.  Rather, one could say he was only in the top five.   Mao was even outranked by a foreigner!  Otto Braun.

Further, Zhou En Lai himself outranked Mao.   Mao, by dint of personality(as is often the case), coupled with the obvious failure of others, finally rose to the top.   Who was Mao’s chief military rival? 

Mao’s chief rival was Zhang Guotian, if only because his army was much larger than Mao’s.   With an army of 80,000 troops he was in a position to call the shots, and as a result, Mao’s position was weakened.   (This is what one would call “power coming out of the barrel of a gun”, right?)  

However, it was Mao’s great fortune that when Zhang Guotian’s army split with Mao’s, Zhang’s army came up against arguably the best of the KMT troops, ala the “MA clique”, and was promptly decimated. 

Borrowing from Churchill, It is here the “if’s” begin to accumulate:  What if Mao’s army had faced the “Ma Clique” instead? 

When Zhang Guotian, having forced Mao and Zhou to relinquish power at their own expense, reunited with Mao, he was promptly pushed out of any leadership position, and eventually went into exile in Canada.  Mao thus was able to use the Long March to his advantage.  Lasting over one year, and having traversed 6000 miles, by the conclusion he was unquestionably in control of the CCP.  

However, it must be stated that Zhou(for unknown reasons), willingly allowed that to happen, and this made Mao’s rise all the easier.

George Washington and Charles Lee

Washington’s “long march” by comparison was only 147 miles.  From Long Island to Trenton, Pennsylvania.  Further, it lasted only a bit more than 4 months, but was just as dramatic as that of Mao’s.  Several times, the British willingly “let Washington go", in the belief they could “bag” his army the following day.    (the capabilities of the rebels had not shown any sense of urgency on the part of the British Commander Howe)

Each time, Washington escaped in the dark.  

Washington endured defeat after defeat….Brooklyn, Manhattan, Fort Lee and Fort Washington.  

Only the customs of the day(the tradition of taking up Winter quarters), and the ability of Washington’s rearguard troops kept the British at bay.  (Washington found further fortune in the lack of aggression of Howe himself. ) Still, Washington was completely chased out of both New York and New Jersey, with rumors swirling that the British would take Philadelphia, only a days horse ride from Trenton, as soon as the Delaware froze over.  

His army, like that of Mao’s had been greatly reduced.  Unlike the CCP however, Washington’s decision making and large losses of troops cast a great pall over Washington’s ability to lead his army.  And like Mao, he had a rival lurking in the shadows, that many felt was of greater ability than himself.  His name was Charles Lee.

Lee was an Englishman with vastly more military experience than Washington, and he had originally hoped to have control of the Rebel Armies himself, before this was granted to Washington.   His reputation was further enhanced when he rebuffed the British at Charleston.   Further, Lee had his own independent army, which while supposedly under Washington’s command, was more a thorn in Washington’s side than anything else.  

Lee chaffed at what he considered the indecisiveness of Washington.   Washington, now at Trenton, separated by only ten miles from the nearest Hessian outpost, several times called on Lee to move his armies with all haste towards his, only to be met with deliberate silence.  It was pure insubordination.   Lee, without question was dawdling, hoping Washington would one final last time confront the British in battle and lose, thus by default surrendering leadership and command to all armies once and for all, to Lee. 

However, the sudden capture of Lee, still in his “dressing gown” at a local tavern, changed everything.   With one stroke Washington’s chief rival was eliminated by the British, giving Washington more time on his terms to confront the enemy, which of course he did, by crossing the Delaware.  The rest is history, and Washington eventually became President of the United States.

The Luding and the Delaware

Both Long Marches had a river to cross.  The Red Army crossed the Dadu River, via the Luding Bridge.  The Colonial Rebels crossed the Delaware via boat.  Both nations have since made their own unique crossing a cornerstone of their own particular National Mystique.

While there has been much, much to say about the purported exaggerations that took place as regards the Crossing of the Luding Bridge, that is beside the point.  The Crossing inspired a Nation, and that is all that matters.   In short, the River had to be Crossed as there simply were not enough boats to ferry an army across.  Crossing a chain bridge with one’s bare hands, at a length of approximately 100 meters is hard to do, (and impossible for me).   But that is how the bridge was initially crossed, and “attacked”.  Successfully crossing that bridge once again enabled the Red Army to escape from the clutches of the KMT.

As all Chinese children know the story of the Luding, so do American kids know the story of the Crossing of the Delaware.

Though the Delaware Crossing took place in 1776, we know far more about the actual crossing itself, than we do of the Luding Crossing of 1935.  That is because many of the soldiers kept diaries.  All American children know Washington crossed the Delaware(and then promptly forget it once the exam is over), but hardly any know that only half his army succeeded in actually crossing the river on Christmas Night.(even with only 50% of his Army successfully over, he still decided to attack)  The men had to stand up in their boats, often ankle deep in icy water, rowing 120 meters across a river full of blocks of ice, than had to march 10 miles against the snow and rain, just to attack a village held by 1500 Hessians.  (Two soldiers actually froze to death during the march). 

What makes Washington’s attack all the more impressive is, contrary to popular legend, it was not a surprise attack, per say.  While the Red Army was constantly running, river over river, mountain range over mountain range, trying to stay ahead of the KMT,  Washington used the bitter winter to his advantage to turn and attack his pursuers, at this time, encamped for the winter.   If he did not quickly do something, much of his army would have, by Dec 31st, have had their enlistments up, and thus would have legally been allowed to leave for home, back to their families.

Behind schedule, Washington was only able to attack after dawn, as opposed to before dawn, and the Hessians were expecting an attack. (Their troops even slept in their uniforms.) Rather it was their disdain for the rebels(again, fully justified), that took away their concern.   It has been documented that Washington himself led the attack, musket in hand, at a “rapid trot”.

After the successful attack, they marched back, through the snow to the Delaware and recrossed it.
You can’t make this stuff up.  Such are nations born.


  1. Great Blog...It helped in my homework regarding Chinese History:) keep up the good work. I myself want to visit my best friend which lives in the North....hopefully thanks to flysky I will be able to do it soon enough.


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