#Reviewing Shanghai 1937 and Nanjing 1937

Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze. Peter Harmsen. Philadelphia: Casemate Publishers, 2013.

Nanjing 1937: Battle For a Doomed City. Peter Harmsen. Philadelphia: Casemate Publishers, 2015.

Historian Kenneth Swope declared in recent years that we have entered “a golden age of Chinese military history.”[1] I do not share his optimism. A thorough survey of the field reveals that studies of China’s millennial long strategic tradition are in woefully short supply.[2] China is no stranger to the misery of war; its annals are filled with the exploits of generals, rebels, statesmen, and soldiers. Most of these events are unknown in the Western world. Wars that left tens of millions dead and battles that are instantly recognized even by children in China are still untouched by Western writers.

One of the more egregious omissions in Western scholarship has been the treatment of China’s great War of Resistance, waged against Japan from 1937 to 1945. Given the countless volumes written about other campaigns of World War II this omission is inexcusable; this was, after all, not only a war American soldiers and spies participated in, but the ultimate reason Americans were involved in the Second World War in the first place. Fortunately, our picture of China’s part in World War II has brightened considerably over the last decade. Several scholars, including Hans J. van de Ven (War and Nationalism in China, 1925-1945), Sarah Paine (The Wars For Asia: 1911-1949), Rana Mitter (Forgotten Ally: China’s WWII), and the dozen or scholars who collaborated to write The Battle for China: Essays on the Military History of the Sino-Japanese War, 1937-1945, have set out to analyze the leaders and grand strategies employed by the main players involved in this conflict, and have in large part succeeded.

These books focus on the big picture; neither detailed accounts of individual campaigns nor narratives that describe the war as seen from the trenches are found within them. Books focused on individual campaigns are just now being written and published. Peter Harmsen (previously a reporter with AFP, Bloomberg, and Financial Times) is at the forefront of the effort to tell the story of China’s experience in World War II from the perspective of the soldiers who fought it. His two books on the subject, Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze and Nanjing 1937: Battle For a Doomed City, are not only meticulously researched, but are gripping reads as well. And if we are fortunate, Harmsen will continue writing these histories. A golden age of Chinese military history is still far away, but if books like Harmsen’s continue to be published, a golden age of China’s World War II history may be just around the corner.

The battles for Shanghai and Nanjing are a proper place to start this effort. The campaign along the upper Yangtze was one of the most destructive of the Second World War. The battle began with the systematic demolition of Shanghai, then (as now) the central hub of East Asian commerce and Chinese finance. The Chinese committed about 750,000 soldiers to the campaign; the Japanese deployed around 250,000. By the fifth month of operations Japanese casualties had risen to over 40,000 wounded and dead; the Chinese lost over 200,000.[3] The Japanese would end their campaign with the conquest of Nanjing, China’s capital, and inflict upon its citizens one of the most horrific massacres of the 20th century. Having lost their best troops along with the capital, the Nationalists would begin their long retreat to Chongqing, steeling themselves for years of grinding warfare. For the Japanese the conquest was a bitter victory. They had won, but at the cost of being irreversibly enmeshed in a war they never wanted, one step closer to their empire’s total destruction. 

While they were being waged, the battles for Shanghai and Nanjing were watched with rapt attention by the entire world. Each city possessed a large foreign population: Nanjing was the home of China’s foreign delegations, while Shanghai was home to its most important foreign concessions. Foreigners were treated as neutrals, and thus given privileged access to both sides of the conflict. The bizarreness of this situation did not escape them; as journalist Edgar Snow commented on the battle of Shanghai, which he observed from the neutral French Concession:

It was as though Verdun had happened on the Seine, in full view of a Right Bank Paris that was neutral; as though a Gettysburg were fought in Harlem, while the rest of Manhattan remained a non-belligerent observer.[4]

The attention the West gave these battles at the time contrasts with their obscurity in the Western historical memory now. Before Harmsen came along there was no history of the Shanghai campaign in English. More books on Nanjing exist, but their focus is on the massacre that followed the city’s conquest, not the military operations that preceded it. Here again Harmsen’s book is a first. This may reflect the linguistic challenges facing anyone who wishes to properly research the campaign. Found in Harmsen’s bibliographies are not only English and Chinese sources, but also books and reports written in Japanese, German, Russian, Danish, and Swedish. The meat of his bibliographies, however, are the dozens of memoirs, diaries, and interviews written or given by Chinese and Japanese participants of the campaign. Most of this material has never appeared in any English language book before. Harmsen has a special talent for transforming these sources into vivid vignettes that stick long in the mind. I will have a hard time forgetting the image of desperate Japanese bomber crews struggling to escape from their burning aircraft during the war’s first few days:

Sergeant Hosokawa observed how a plane in [his Japanese 20 Mitsubishi 3GM] formation took a hit to one of its wing tanks and soon was engulfed in flames. The seven-member crew squeezed into the front cabin, and the pilot thrust open the top hatch to provide relief from the heat of the blaze that was consuming the aircraft. As the flames approached, the airmen were stretching their torsos out of the narrow opening, but could not jump as they had no parachutes—a matter of honor. All they could do was to wait for the inevitable. Suddenly, the plane turned into a fireball and plunged to the ground. Shortly afterwards, another plane in the formation was hit, and again the crew rushed to the front cabin, opening the top hatch with no hope of actually escaping. Hosokawa watched the pilot in the second plane hug his crew members before it dropped out of the formation and shot to the ground like a fiery comet. By the time the battered formation landed on the Japanese-controlled Korean island of Cheju, it had lost four aircraft.[5]

Harmsen builds his narrative through one visceral depiction of the harsh realities of the upper Yangtze campaigns after another. From the Chinese perspective these stories get consistently bleaker. The Chinese attempt to drive the Japanese into the sea was undermined by two fatal flaws that would mar their operations for the battle’s duration. Despite the incredible bravery of their soldiers, the Chinese forces were not unified and struggled to act in concert. The units fighting in Shanghai had been summoned from all over China, and often spoke entirely different languages.  Chiang Kai-shek’s elite 87th and 84th Divisions had been trained by German advisors, but soldiers from other areas, often mustered by warlords, had little experience in German style tactics or command. Intelligence was rarely shared between units, and communication lines between artillery, infantry at the front, and commanders in the rear were irregular. Never trained on how to use reserves with skill (or more likely, fearing that failures of communication would make their skillful use impossible), commanders threw reserves onto the front line as soon as they arrived, making precisely timed counter-attacks an impossibility. To make matters worse, staff officers were rotated in a system of shifts rather than a rolling program of duty and rest, so that after the end of one shift, the new duty officers had to acquaint themselves with the situation at the front on the fly.[6] 

The Japanese cruiser Izumo in Shanghai in 1937. (Public Domain)

All of these problems were exacerbated by Japan’s clear technological superiority. The big guns of the Japanese naval flotilla stationed in the Yangtze can be credited with saving the Japanese presence in the city; further away from the river’s shores, Japanese airpower and heavy artillery would play just as decisive a role. Chinese infantry feared the Japanese air force above all. Within two weeks Japan had attained dominance in the skies, leaving exposed Chinese soldiers completely at their mercy. The Japanese showed little of it. The Chinese responded to Japanese airpower the only way they could: by transforming their armies into hosts of the night. The Chinese traveled, built up their defenses, supplied their troops, sent messages between units, and launched assaults only after sunset, when enemy planes could not see them. The campaign soon became a grueling see-saw of death and terror: by daylight the Japanese would rush forward, using their superiority in artillery and airpower to overwhelm Chinese entrenchments, but always the Chinese would return the next night to retake the positions with fresh reinforcements who had just arrived at the front.

Harmsen calls this stage of the conflict “a contest of flesh against steel.” In twenty days of heavy fighting the Japanese lost about 25,000 men. Chinese casualty rates were far higher, with three out of five men dying during Chinese trench assaults.[7] Chiang Kai-shek would later gain a reputation for giving the most dangerous assignments to troops under the command of his warlord allies, while keeping his best trained and equipped forces in the rear. This was not true in the battles for the upper Yangtze. The cream of Chiang Kai-shek’s elite divisions, which had taken years to equip and train, died along its banks in horrific numbers. Their sacrifice was a deliberate decision, made both by commanders in field and in Nanjing. The essence of the Nationalist strategy was captured in a question irate infantry officers asked again and again during the battles for Shanghai and Nanjing: why wasn’t their artillery supporting their assaults on Japanese positions? The answer was always the same: artillery was in short supply, and commanders could not risk betraying the position of the few pieces they had to the Japanese. Artillery was simply more valuable than the lives of the soldiers being funneled to the front. 

Historians have sometimes characterized the Chinese strategy during World War II as “trading space for time.”[8] In 1937 this was not true. There the Chinese did not trade space, but lives.

Why Chiang Kai-shek was driven to adopt such a strategy is difficult to say. While not unique in the War of Resistance, the battle for the upper Yangtze was unusual. It was one of the few battles fought on the ground and at the time of the Nationalists’ choosing. As Zhang Fakui, commander of the right wing at Shanghai said, “Japan had no wish to fight at Shanghai...It should be simple to see that we took the initiative.”[9] He was right. The war began in northern China, and the Japanese were content to keep it there. In many ways Chiang’s decision to open up a new front in the upper Yangtze was a more consequential decision than his decision to push for war in the first place. Once the war moved to central China there could be no turning back. The decision to fight in Shanghai was the decision to wage total war.

It could be argued that this was the campaign’s entire point. Chiang Kai-shek could not win a war against Japan unless he could rally the entire nation to his side, especially the many fractious warlords who had fought his own forces in battle many times within just the last decade. Everyone knew that the territory Japan was asking for far in the north did not need to be held for any sort of military necessity. It was land that could be bargained over. The warlords occupying that territory were flaky creatures, all too happy to do the bargaining. China’s economic heartland was different. By choosing to fight over the center of the country, and to do so with his strongest military units, Chiang Kai-shek was signaling to both China’s warlords and potential sources of foreign aid that he had skin in the game. The signal worked: only after the battle of Shanghai had begun did the powerful Guangxi Clique, the Communist Party of China, and the Soviet Union offer military support. There were also several operational reasons to prefer a fight in the Yangtze river basin to a campaign in north China. The Yangtze delta’s rivers, lakes, and rice paddies were better suited for defensive warfare against Japan’s mechanized columns than the flat plains of North China. By forcing the Japanese to divert troops to central China, the Nationalists would have the time they needed to rally and reinforce their failing defenses in the north.[10]

Harmsen briefly introduces these points, but he does not argue for any of them in particular. Shanghai 1937 and Nanjing 1937 are aimed at general audiences, and neither book engages in academic sniping. This decision to avoid controversies still unsettled in academic circles is understandable, but many readers will wish that Harmsen had explored the larger, grand-strategic consequences of the campaigns with more vigor. No one can read of the tremendous sacrifices made by the Chinese soldiers who fought in these two battles without wondering if this sacrifice was worth its cost. Harmsen’s books cannot help readers answer this question. Those who pick up Shanghai 1937 do not learn if the gambit in Shanghai succeeded in slowing down the Japanese advance in northern China, for example, because once the narrative of the battle in Shanghai begins events in north China are no longer mentioned—not even in passing. The scope of Shanghai 1937’s vision never rises above the battlefield, even when the consequences of the battle reached far beyond its bounds.

Chiang Kai-shek meeting with his staff during the Sino-Japanese War. (Encyclopædia Britannica Online)

Shanghai 1937 does allow some insight into the mind of Chiang Kai-shek, however, for he was close by and many of the day-to-day decisions that changed the course of the battle were made by him.  Harmsen writes much less about the Japanese high command, rarely providing a perspective that reaches beyond than that of Matsui Iwane and Yanagawa Heisuke, commanders of the Shanghai Expeditionary Force and Japanese 10th Army (the two forces would be merged into the Central China Area Army shortly after the battle for Shanghai concluded). In many battles fought by Japanese commanders, this perspective is all that would matter. Countless military operations, including the march on Nanjing, were decided by commanders on the ground; by the time Tokyo got wind of what local commanders were up to they had few choices but to confirm whatever gains their soldiers had made after the fact. The decision to fight for Shanghai was not like this. It was made in Tokyo. The Shanghai campaign required pulling 100,000 troops from Taiwan, northern China, and the home islands to central China. No commander on the ground, no matter how daring (or how contemptuous of his superiors) had the power to summon troops from other theaters on his own. The decision to send these troops to Shanghai only happened after long debates in the capital—debates which Shanghai 1937 does not relate. This was a missed opportunity. John Toland demonstrated in his magisterial Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of Japan’s Empire that the debates over imperial strategy that preceded Japanese campaigns can be fascinating additions to a narrative history of imperial Japan’s wars abroad. Harmsen is good enough of a writer to incorporate them into his books; his decision to not do so is his readers’ loss.

Fortunately, Harmsen’s straightforward narrative accounts do provide occasional insights into the larger strategic priorities of the two sides. The clearest example of this is the chapter Harmsen devotes to the "Lost Battalion of Zhabei". The retreat from Shanghai came at an inopportune time for the Chinese; their lines began to break just as the Western powers were preparing to meet in a “Nine Power Conference” to decide how to respond to Japanese aggression on the mainland. The Chinese needed to keep the world’s attention on Shanghai and demonstrate to the West that they were still in the fight. Chinese commanders gave this task to the 1st Battalion of the 524th Regiment, ordering it to defend the most prominent building in Shanghai’s Zhabei district to their last man. To Westerners these brave soldiers were known as the Lost Battalion of Zhabei. To Chinese they became the legendary “Eight Hundred Heroes.” The heroes managed to hold onto the warehouse they were stationed in for five days, repelling several Japanese assaults each day, with foreign journalists covering the drama from beginning to end. On the fifth night they escaped to the International Quarter under the cover of darkness, heroes in the West and legends to their fellow Chinese.

The defense of Zhabei was a heroic, if mostly symbolic, gesture. One might say that it was the entire upper Yangtze campaign in microcosm—something that would become more apparent as the center of the action shifted from Shanghai to Nanjing. Nanjing was Zhabei writ large, a heroic last stand designed to cover the Nationalist retreat and convince the world and the enemy that the Chinese still had fight in them. There was only one major difference: there would be no daring escapes from Nanjing.

The stalemate outside of Shanghai was already beginning to break when the Imperial Navy landed a second contingent of Japanese troops to the south of Shanghai, flanking the Chinese positions. With his possibilities exhausted Chiang Kai-shek ordered a full retreat, ordering his troops to regroup at the Wufu and Xicheng Lines west of Nanjing, which were patterned after the Maginot Line defenses in France. The regroup never happened. All of the communication problems that plagued the attack on Shanghai returned here, making coordinated retreat an impossibility. Those who did manage to learn about and get to their new positions were often frustrated by lack of preparations for their arrival—Harmsen narrates one experience after another of soldiers showing up to earthworks and pillboxes that were locked, with keys nowhere to be found. Those soldiers were the lucky ones: others turned up at their assigned position to find that the defenses marked on their maps had never been constructed in the first place. With communications broken, roads crowded, and defenses useless, the brave defenders of Shanghai broke. The retreat from Shanghai had turned into a rout.

Imperial Japanese Army officers and sailors celebrate the capture of Shanghai during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Shanghai, November 1937.

It was not strategists in Tokyo, but the junior officers leading the Central China Area Army who decided to follow the Chinese in flight all the way to Nanjing. As with the naval planners who would play a decisive role in the coming Pacific War, these men were ardent believers in the cult of decisive battle (sokusen sokketsu, literally, “rapid combat, quick decision”). They would seek decision through arms regardless of Tokyo’s orders to the contrary. It was not unlike a perverse game of telephone. When the command to halt the advance outside of Shanghai came, officers at each level of command watered down the orders they received before they passed them down the ranks. The soldiers at the bottom of the chain—who at campaign’s start were not eager to press forward, remembering the horrors of the trenches outside Shanghai—had no idea that the orders they were following had been changed bit by bit until they commanded the opposite of their original intent. The Japanese advance was soon a race to the finish line, each division and battalion competing to be present at the capture of China’s capital and the glorious final victory of the war. This drive to end the war by inflicting one great, decisive disaster on the Chinese people explains much about the Japanese infantry’s subsequent behavior in Nanjing.

This callousness was in part a response to the fanaticism of the Chinese defenders who opposed their march to the capital. From the moment the Xicheng line was crossed everyone in China’s leadership knew that Nanjing was a doomed city. Its conquest could only be delayed, not defeated. Those ordered to its defense were being ordered to their deaths, and they knew it. It is extraordinary to see just how many of them accepted these commands with gusto. 

Harmsen relates dozens of such stories of Chinese grit and heroism, each describing a battalion or brigade sent to slow down the Japanese advance with the full knowledge that no one who went to man the failing defenses outside the city could expect to return to it alive. The courage which these soldiers displayed awed both the Japanese and the Westerners who witnessed it. Modern readers will be reminded of the hopeless last stands of Japanese soldiers holed up in islands redoubts during the Pacific War. This comparison favors the Chinese, usually portrayed as faithless cowards. Western observers who saw the Chinese in action did not think of them this way: many claimed that the Chinese soldiers they met on the battlefields of Shanghai and Nanjing were the equal of the any Japanese soldier. The difference between them, they claimed, was not a matter of commitment or bravery, but weapons and supplies. Alas, this was not to last! The greatest tragedy of the upper Yangtze campaigns was that during its battles all of the men willing to die for China did. The 88th, 87th, and Training Divisions, schooled in the Nationalist Party’s revolutionary ideology in the years before they were tasked with defending Nanjing against the Japanese assault, walked away from the campaign with less than 2,500 men between them.[11] Chiang Kai-shek’s carefully trained junior officer corps would share a similar fate. 70% of the officers that served in Shanghai died there.[12] This greatly changed the composition of the Nationalist officer corp: 80% of the junior officers that went to war in 1937 were academy graduates. By 1945 that number had dropped to 20%. By then the Nationalists were resorting to the conscription and the forced march of men in chains to fill its ranks. The results were predictably pathetic. To give just one example, when one “elite” unit of 1943 was temporarily placed on reserve, more than 55% of its soldiers deserted.[13] Such high levels of desertion were unthinkable from the elite units who fought in Shanghai and Nanjing. The Nationalists had traded lives for time, and in so doing had severely constrained what they could do with the time they had bought.

"Many of the traits bitter American liaisons and attaches would attribute to Nationalist forces—their passivity, an unwillingness to commit to new offenses, Chiang Kai-shek’s penchant for having poorly trained warlord forces defend the most dangerous positions—were a direct consequence of the human capital lost in 1937 and 1938."

“Perhaps [China’s] biggest weakness,” Harmsen says in one of his rare assessments of the strategies each side employed, “was what Chinese commanders erroneously considered their biggest strength: a willingness to absorb losses that often defied imagination.”[14] While the loss of their best troops did not prevent the Chinese from seizing the occasional victory later in the war—most notably in Taierzhuang, fought only a few months after the Battle of Nanjing had ended—it did irreversibly change the types of operations the Nationalists could commit themselves to in the future. Many of the traits bitter American liaisons and attaches would attribute to Nationalist forces—their passivity, an unwillingness to commit to new offenses, Chiang Kai-shek’s penchant for having poorly trained warlord forces defend the most dangerous positions—were a direct consequence of the human capital lost in 1937 and 1938. Chiang Kai-shek simply did not have the reserve of well-trained, well-led, and fiercely committed troops in 1942 that he had in 1937. Those men were all dead, and he could not risk using squandering what little talent he had left on risky set-piece engagements.

Japanese soldiers stand atop the ruins of Zhongshan Gate on 13 Dec 1937, 'victorious' in the Battle of Nanjing. (Public Domain)

The Japanese also found themselves constrained by their victory in Nanjing. The war in China was not a conflict many in Japan wanted: the truly dangerous enemy, most Japanese agreed, was the Soviet Union, not the Nationalists.[15] With the capture of Nanjing they found themselves in control over a huge swathe of China’s economic heartland, and had to garrison it with thousands of troops, drawing ever larger number of soldiers thousands of miles away from the Soviet threat. This made the search for a decisive battle that might swiftly bring the war to a conclusion all the more pressing. The conquest of Nanjing was supposed to be that battle. It was not. In an ironic twist of fate, Japan’s search for decision through the battle actually made the termination of war more difficult. The Nationalists had been shaken by the fall of Shanghai; when the Japanese sent the Chinese leaders their conditions for peace shortly after the city fell, the Chinese jumped to accept them. “If these and only these are the terms,” declared Bai Chongxi, the Guangxi Clique’s representative in Nationalist councils, “then why shouldn’t there be peace?”[16] The other Nationalist generals agreed, and Chiang assented to peace talks with Japan. The Japanese returned with different terms. Tokyo had learned of the Central China Area Army’s successful drive towards Nanjing, and wanted a more favorable peace settlement to match the new situation. Chiang refused. This became a pattern that defined Japanese operations in China: The Japanese army would win another ‘decisive’ victory in an effort to end the war, but would then demand even harsher terms from the Chinese in return for peace, hoping to justify the cost of each new campaign to the Japanese people with a greater payout at the end. That payout never came. Instead the Japanese were trapped in a vicious cycle that only drove the Japanese deeper into the Chinese quagmire.[17] The Japanese had conquered Nanjing—and with it, had ensured the ruin of their empire.

T. Greer is a writer and analyst currently based out of Taipei. His research focuses on the evolution of East Asian strategic thought from the time of Sunzi to today. He blogs at The Scholar’s Stage, and can be followed on twitter at @Scholars_Stage.

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[1] Kenneth Swope, "Review: Military Culture in Imperial China," De Re Militari (April 2009).

[2] T. Greer, "The Chinese Strategic Tradition: A Research Program (I)," The Scholar's Stage (23 May 2015); Greer, "The Chinese Strategic Tradition: A Research Program (II)," The Scholar's Stage (26 May 2015).

[3] These numbers are calculated from the figures given in Yang Tianshi, “Chiang Kai-shek and the battles of Shanghai and Nanjing,” in Mark Peattie, Edward Drea, and Hans Van de Ven, eds., The Battle For China: Essays on the Military History of the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 143-158.

[4] Quoted in Peter Harmsen, Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze (Oxford: Casemate Publishers, 2013), Kindle Location 47-48.

[5] Ibid., Kindle Locations 975-984.

[6] Hans J. van de Ven, War and Nationalism in China, 1925-1945 (New York: Routledge, 2003), 228.

[7] Hattori Satoshi and Edward Drea, “Japanese Operations From July to December 1937,” in Mark Peattie, Edward Drea, and Hans Van de Ven, eds., The Battle For China: Essays on the Military History of the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 175; Harmsen, Shanghai 1937, Kindle Locations 3315-3316.

[8] See, for example, Lloyd Eastman, “Nationalist China During the Sino-Japanese War, 1937-1945,” The Nationalist Era in China, 1927-1949 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 121.

[9] Quoted in Harmsen, Shanghai 1937, Kindle Locations 532-534.

[10] Yang Tianshi, “Chiang Kai-shek,” 149-153; Van, War and Nationalism, 196-203; Rana Mitter, Forgotten Ally: China's World War II, 1937-1945 (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), Kindle Locations 1670-1735; S.C.M. Paine, The Wars For Asia: 1911-1905 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 131-133;

[11] On paper a Chinese division had 10,000 men each. Most of these had less in reality than they had on paper, but the 87th and 88th divisions, which had been engaged in the Battle of Shanghai, had been resupplied with fresh men several times over the preceding five months, meaning that their total losses would have been well over 10,000 men each. See Harmsen, Nanjing 1937: Battle for A Doomed City (Philadelphia: Casemate Publishers, 2015), 240. 

[12] Paine, Wars For Asia, 133.

[13] Eastman, “Nationalist China,” 140, 143.

[14] Harmsen, Nanjing 1937, 108.

[15] Paine, Wars For Asia, 13-39; Edward Drea, “The Japanese Army on the Eve of the War,” in Mark Peattie, Edward Drea, and Hans Van de Ven, eds., The Battle For China: Essays on the Military History of the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 106-111; Michael A. Barnhart, Japan Prepares For Total War: The Search For Economic Security, 1919-1941 (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1988).

[16] Ibid, 134.

[17] Paine, 162-163.