History Book Reviews

Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze – Peter Harmsen

For the Far East, the fighting which became part of the Second World War began in 1937 and continued until the collapse of Japan in 1945. Since 1931 the Japanese had been encroaching upon China’s territory. They had been able to achieve this because of the collapse of central authority in China since the Xinhai Revolution of 1912 which had swept away the old Qing Dynasty. Torn with internal strife, China was unable to fend off the Japanese incursions.

Being seen as territory that would provide Japan with raw materials, food, and, by subjecting its population, provide a compliant labour force, the vast province of Manchuria was the main subject of Japanese aggrandizement. Though Nanking was the Chinese capital at that time, Shanghai was the country’s largest and most cosmopolitan city. Of the forty-eight different national groups living there, the largest was that of the Japanese. In 1937 it was a city preparing for war.

In June that year Japanese forces in Shanghai began conducting night exercises in the vicinity of the Marco Polo Bridge. This was allowed by the Chinese authorities providing prior notice was given. On the night of 7 July 1937, however, the Japanese began an exercise without giving notice. Thinking that the Japanese were mounting an attack, Chinese forces were mobilized. Though the skirmish that resulted quickly ended with a ceasefire, this did not hold and the situation rapidly spiralled out of control and developed into a full-scale battle.

Throughout the past century China had lost every war in which it had become embroiled and foreign powers had stationed troops on its territory. Not the least of these was, of course, Britain, which occupied Hong Kong. The Chinese were seen as being militarily pathetic. All that changed at Shanghai. The Chinese refused to be pushed aside. The Japanese had a proper fight on their hands.

“With the use of a good spade, a few machine-guns and a lot of courage and determination, he [the Chinese soldier] has made his adversary pay dearly for the few miles he has advanced in the last three months,” wrote the American journalist Edgar Snow in September 1937. “He sticks to his position through innumerable air bombings and artillery bombardments, and when the Japanese infantry attempt to rush his position he is on the business end of a machine-gun to stem the attack.”

The Battle of Shanghai was one of extreme brutality, neither side being inclined to take prisoners. “None of the Chinese were under any illusion,” Harmsen writes, “about what would happen to them if they fell into Japanese hands.” Despite their stubborn resistance, the Chinese were defeated, suffering more than 300,000 casualties in little over three months.

The Battle of Shanghai was unlike earlier conflicts. It was not fought in the open fields but in the streets of a major city. “The entire town and the villages all round it had been horribly destroyed, burned and razed to the ground by the bombing,” observed a French journalist. “Astonished, I realized the savagery of modern war. In the surrounding countryside, even the smallest farm building had been shelled and consumed by fire … For mile after mile the scene along the riverbank was one of ruins and scorched earth, dotted with the charred skeletons of trees and signposts.”

Two years later similar scenes would be witnessed across Europe. Maybe more attention should have been paid by the West to what had happened in Shanghai in 1937.

Review courtesy of Britain At War Magazine.

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