HANGHAI 1937 – Stalingrad on the Yangtze
By Peter Harmsen
Published by Casemate
ISBN: 978 1 61200 167 8
Review by Mark Barnes for War History Online
We see Shanghai on the telly these days and it is a vast city of skyscrapers, the very essence of the modern China. Step back into the first half of the last century and it represented a foothold of fading western dominance in the vastness of a sleeping giant on the threshold of momentous events. The Japanese were intent on their violent ambitions to dominate the country with all the horrors that would bring and civil war between nationalists and communists was imminent. My view of Shanghai has been told through the eyes of British men based in the city – policemen drawn to that incredible place in the period after the Great War looking for adventure, work and an escape from the realities of life in the gloom of the land of their birth. I refer back to the sometimes difficult Empire Made Me by Robert Bickers, the life of Maurice Tinkler, a man you will not like. A war veteran he found his way to Shanghai to work as a policemen in the British concession where he suffered the slings and arrows of an exported and well refined class system. An aggrieved and unpleasant man, he was killed by the Japanese. On another level altogether is the wonderful The World’s First SWAT Team by Leroy Thompson, one of the most improbable and enjoyable books I have reviewed for this website. It tells the tale of the legendary Fairburn and Sykes, two cops who should need no introduction and who also designed the eponymous fighting knife based on their experiences in Shanghai taking on gangs of cut-throats. Read this book.
But the shenanigans in the international concessions with the underworld, vice, business and all that jazz; could not hide the bitter reality. The Empire of Japan wanted Shanghai. Japan was the only power in the region who could take it. The sun may never have set on the British Empire in those days, but the truth was it’s reach was based on naval might and the Royal Navy was some way off and we know it was lacking the means and the political will and funds at home, which was true of all the old imperial powers and the United States – the new player in the region was never going to intervene. Japan’s only concern was the Soviet Union and Moscow was happy to let the Chinese government of Chiang Kai-shek believe he would have Soviet troops to help him on other fronts when Stalin had no intention of doing so.
The Japanese had strong naval power, complete with aviation and a large force of marines. They had the shipping to land an army. They had the brute force and the will to use it, carrying out some of the worst kinds of pointless inexcusable excesses which remain an open sore between the two countries to this day. When you read some of the examples it is clear they were done in a matter of fact way at the very least or almost revelled in at worst… like sport – a blood rite. Where did this mentality come from? There were excesses on both sides, but even after all these years it just makes no sense to me and it is worrying how these things are now denied in modern Japan.
The Chinese army was generally under strength but braced with nominally elite divisions equipped with German weapons and materiel. They had German advisors who were adhered to with differing degrees of success at varying stages of the battle dependent on a variety of factors based on political loyalties, racial prejudice, ignorance and pride. The Germans were clearly tactically and strategically astute and should have been used much more than they were. But the Chinese never grasped the mettle and although the situation was never so black and white to make it simple to call; you do wish they’d used what they had. What they did have was courage, they had it in spades and they died in thousands and it was all in vain because Shanghai was lost. But the curious thing is the western communities in the International Concession carried on their day to day business while all this madness went on and would continue to do so until 1941 when Japan attacked them in those scenes we know from JG Ballard’s Empire of the Sun. It all seems crazy from this distance.
So, what about this book? Peter Harmsen has written an arrow straight account of the pyrrhic battle for much of the city. He writes in an easy enough style and it isn’t challenging. What I do find difficult is the whole structure of the idea that this was a massive event on the world stage at the time. It was obviously huge for China and the event cannot be ignored. I’ve done some research and although the paper I work for had one of it’s people in Shanghai whose reports were valued, European eyes were as insular, perhaps a bit indifferent and they didn’t really think as much about it or offer the concern they might have. In hindsight we know they should have worried about Japanese ambitions, but they had other fish to fry. To my mind he doesn’t offer a broad enough range of quotes from the international media to impress upon the reader the power this story had outside of the region. There is an example where he describes a Chinese battalion as being world famous, something hard to accept. It did not make huge headlines in British newspapers – just as any distant foreign story would in those sober times, and it’s fair to say they are a proper litmus test of the day given the position my country held in the world back then.
This remains a largely unknown conflict for a western audience which is not to detract from its significance but establishes how the world has changed and the way we view things. It is difficult at times to relate to the people involved but I won’t sit on the fence, you know the Japanese are going to win and you know they are going to be brutal, so you know whose side you are on. The author tells the story from the perspective of both sides and the detail is pretty good, though I always wanted more. Famous names appear fleetingly and it’s as if they will make more of a contribution, but they don’t. Does this leave me feeling let down? No. This is an unusual book way outside my comfort zone of western based history and is exactly as the author intended. He challenges the notion that the Second World War began in 1939 and he has a point. I am pleased to have read it.
The photographs included are fantastic, other editors would do well to look at how the selection has been made here. What disappoints is there are no images of any of the protagonists mentioned in the text, but I assume given the tumult of Chinese politics in the period up to the creation of the Peoples Republic that these are not the easiest things to acquire. The author is based in Taiwan. If you are looking to expand your world knowledge to the Middle Kingdom, have a look at this book. If the advance of the Japanese interests you it might make a nice change not to read about endless embarrassing retreats of colonial armies for a while. Whoever the protagonists are, fighting the Japanese is never pretty and it is always tragic. They came seeking endless glory and left nothing but death and tears.