Was the 8th Route Army Underfed: the Base Area Peasantry Overtaxed? Some Numbers…

For the duration of the Sino-Japanese War, as we have seen, the Chongqing MAC (Military Affairs Commission) failed terribly in trying to meet even minimum dietary needs of its +/- 5 million men under arms. And of course that took its toll in terms of fighting efficiency. No matter how hard it tried to underplay the import of this problem – “diet-fatigue” – and no matter how many times it was addressed (mainly at the provincial level: Hunan and Anhui are well documented) it cut badly into morale, training (where it existed), and chances of survival in battle.

This impairment – undernourishment – must surely have had awful consequences, though the MAC staffers rarely addressed them in a systematic way (there was no point, since little could be done). Contagious diseases were endemic in the sub-Yangtze and flood-prone, over-irrigated S. Sichuan basin through which the Yangtze flowed: malaria, cholera, and typhus the most common, but malaria the most deadly. Poor diet meant that this for-life condition had onset rates well above 20%, or even higher. Which could only have further prolonged or rendered more frequent spells of weakness, dizziness, etc.

Loss of balance and shortness of breath would have been catastrophic: by contrast, units which were better fed would have been relatively free of such symptoms, especially in the harshly dry, unirrigated, non-paddy terrain of the “Northwest”, above the Dabie divide and (ecologically) linked to the Gobi desert, where malaria and cholera mosquitoes could not breed.

This doesn’t mean that the 8RA soldiers killed more enemy; quite the contrary, they were more often than not held in reserve, and retreated westward when the Japanese or even the KMT advanced from Shanxi. But it does suggest why they were better TRAINED for combat and maneuver. The single most important physical demand on the infantry recruit was the ability to move, keep moving, move fast, move at full tilt as progress went from overland march (2-3 mph) to bayonet charge (7-9 mph). Without armor or adequate artillery, that was the soldier’s best defense – and therefore key to whatever offensive clout could be mobilized. Sitting behind sandbags and waiting to be bombed or shelled was no more a true tactical option than it was on the Western Front: if and when it happened (which was often, perhaps most of the time) it was morally exhausting, infuriating for command officers, and elicitive of mockery from the ever-moving (even bicycle-mounted!) Japanese light infantry, for whom Banzai! meant, in effect, RUN, RUN, RUN. and shout. The simplest solution of course was to drastically cut down, not the number of formations, but the number of soldiers grouped into them. (Stephen Mackinnon p 185 (under)estimatates total regulars, including Communist and Manchurians, at 1.7-2.2 million(185), but that was the “kickoff” number, and perhaps the viable number: as the war grew it increased 2 to 3 times).

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