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The Last Battle on the Great Wall of China

A senior air warrior, graduate from the Staff College and a PG in military studies. He is qualified to write on war and allied matters.



The Great Wall of China is a series of fortifications somewhat akin to the Maginot line in France. There is a big difference however as the wall was a product of the 14th century while the Maginot line was a recent 20th century innovation.

The purpose of the wall was to protect the Chinese people and society which was relatively advanced from the Nomadic Muslim hordes of Central Asia. It was not a single wall but many walls were erected and as per reports the earliest constructions can be traced to the 7th century. Some historians have traced its origin even earlier but the main wall as we see it today came up during the Ming dynasty that ruled China from 1368-1644.

The wall served as a dam to keep the Muslim hordes at bay and had check posts and troop placements that regulated entry and exit as well as trade of goods. The wall's main characteristic was defense and stretched across China for almost 12000 miles or 20,000 km. This is a mind boggling figure and today it is recognized as a architectural wonder.

It is one of the ironies of history that this wall which was basically meant to save the Chinese society from the uncivilized hordes of Central Asia on the eastern front actually was the scene of a vicious battle between the Japanese invaders who came in from the West.


The battle at the wall

Generally western historians consider 01 September, 1939,when Germany attacked Poland as the start of the Second World War; however in the east in particular the Chinese consider that the war started much before 1939 and can be traced to early 1930's.

At the turn of the 20th century Japan had become the most formidable power in eastern Asia. This was by virtue of their having defeated the Russians in 1904-05. Japan had very little raw materials and a faction of the Imperial army supported by the emperor was of the view, that dearth of raw materials could be made good by the Japanese incorporating eastern Asia and in particular the mineral rich province of Manchuria as a part of the empire. By the beginning of the thirties Japan had almost the entire Manchuria in its grip and had installed Pu Yi as emperor under Japanese suzerainty. Pu Yi was given a Japanese army officer as his staff officer who impregnated the queen.

In Manchuria, the Japanese army called as the Kwantung army had become a law unto itself especially after it had dominated the Russia-Japanese war. The Kwantung favored expansion of the empire in the Asian mainland. On Sept. 18, 1931, the Kwantung army staged the Mukden Incident and launched a full scale invasion of Manchuria. The Chinese forces put up a poor show and Japan had a cake walk and easy victory in Manchuria. There was virtually no resistance against the Japanese invasion.

The easy victory emboldened the Kwantung army to breach the Great Wall and capture areas beyond the wall as an expansion of the empire. A powerful preliminary attack was launched on the fortified Chinese camp at Shanhaiguan. This is located on the easternmost end of the main stretch of the Great Wall. On the evening of Jan. 1, 1933, the Japanese launched a combined arms attack on the garrison. The Shanhaiguan garrison was captured and now their way was clear.

On 11 January 1933,The Kwantung army under command of Governor-General Nobuyoshi Muto, commander in chief of the Kwantung army, and his chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Kuniaki Koiso, put into operation 'Operation Nekka, with the primary purpose to decimate the Chinese army in Rehe.

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General Muto launched Operation Nekka on February 23. This attack prompted the League of Nations to censure Japan resulting in a Japanese walkout from, the League of Nations. General Muto's decisive action resulted in the great wall being breached The bold offensive resulted in the capture of Rehe Chengde as a force of 100,000 Imperial army troops breached the wall while the Chinese were bewildered.


Japanese victory

The Chinese were brave soldiers but bravery per se does not bring victory. The Nationalist force of Chiang Kai Shek faced the Imperial army but lack of a proper plan coupled with poor training and a low morale, the Nationalist army , commanded by warlord Zhang Xueliang, collapsed when the Japanese onslaught began.

The 8th Imperial Division commanded by Lt. Gen. Yoshikazu Nishi captured Chengde on March 4, The Great Wall along the border had been breached from the west. Now Beijing, Hebei and the entire North China Plain was open to the Imperial army. The Chinese had not given up and had strongly fortified the garrisons at Gubeikou on the western edge of Rehe, Xifengkou at the center, Lengkou and Jielingkou on the eastern end. These fortresses were heavily armed and the Imperial army had no choice but to mount a frontal assault on them.

The fight was bitter but the Imperial army made little headway. Chiang had also brought in General He Yingqin as commander and he stiffened resistance to the Imperial army. There was a see-saw battle and positions changed hands many times and also hand to hand fighting. As per reports available in hand to hand combat, the Chinese troops had the better of the Imperial army soldiers. This was the only occasion the Chinese fought to their potential.

The Japanese were bringing in reinforcements and finally the Japanese 14th Mixed Brigade and 8th Division arrived at Xifengkou on March 10. The Chinese 29th Corps faced them but the Imperial army could not hold on to its gains.

In late March and early April 1933, probing attacks were launched against Chinesse positions at Luowenyu, about 35 miles northeast of Xifengkou, but the 29th Corps held firm. At the same time fierce battles raged at the other passes along the Great Wall in Rehe-Hebei. The result of these battles were more favorable to the Imperial army.

By April 13, the Chinese army's 29th Corps, had suffered more than 5,000 casualties out of a listed strength of 15000. Imperial HQs in Tokyo informed General Muto to call of the offensive as there was international condemnation of the Japanese attacks.

The Chinese were fighting very well but suffering heavy causalities and now Japanese bombers were over Beijing. and Tianjin. By May 15. the 17th Nationalist Division was retreating towards Miyun and had suffered over 4,000 casualties.


At this time April 1933, the fighting stopped. The Kwantung army had accomplished its goal and the border of Manchukuo had been saved. There was mounting pressure from the international community and Muto was ordered to bring the grand invasion to a halt when his forces were close to the walls of Beijing.

The Japanese offered a cease fire and a treaty known as the Tanggu Truce. The conditions stipulated were not favorable to China but Chiang realizing his vulnerability signed on the line. Thus ended the first Sino- Japanese war, paving the way for the Marco Polo Bridge Incident and the second war 1937-45.

© 2021 MG Singh emge

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