Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze
Contributor: Andrew Nguyen
Review Date: 27 May 2015
Five years before Stalingrad became the prime example of urban warfare, the world had seen a grim demonstration of that type of warfare in Asia between the Empire of Japan and the Republic of China. For in the three months between August and November of 1937, the military forces of the two nations battled each other in the streets of Shanghai, one of China's great cities. When the smoke settled, the carnage reminded witnesses of the hell of World War I. Furthermore, it would serve as a prelude to the hell that would encompass the world two years later on. As for Japan and China, the impact of the battle would leave a bitter legacy that haunts both nations to this very day.
Although most of the fighting up to this point had taken place in northern China, Shanghai had not escaped the escalating conflict between China and Japan. In 1932, the two countries engaged in a vicious firefight that lasted for a few weeks until negotiators restored peace to the city. However, the 1932 incident was just another step in the inevitable march in the road to eventual war between the two Asian nations. That war eventually began with the Marco Polo Bridge incident on July 7, 1937.
As the Imperial Japanese Army continued to gobble up territory in the north of the country, Chiang Kai Shek attempted to figure out a way to make a stand against them. Militarily, the situation clearly was in favor of Japan as Chiang's forces were still attempting to build up their strength. However to shore up his popularity and to show that he was willing to resist the hated Japanese, Chiang made the decision to prepare for a potential clash by opening up a new front against them. With the Japanese army virtually dominating against his forces in the north, Chiang decided that the opening of a new front would be at the city of Shanghai as it was in the center of the country, of which he had more control over. Furthermore, in opening the fighting in Shanghai with his strongest forces, Chiang would attempt to secure international intervention.
Once the battle begins, it turns into a meat grinder that lasted for three months in which both sides fed men and machines in ravenous numbers. While the Japanese forces did encounter difficulty during the initial stages of the battle, they eventually held their ground and blasted their way through the city as their air and naval power blunted the advantage in numbers the Chinese had in the beginning of the battle. Despite the help of American and German advisers, Chiang's forces did not perform well and eventually suffered heavy losses (with many of them amongst his best units) and fell back under the weight of the Japanese advance. Alongside the experience of the combatants, the book also details the experience of civilians and foreigners who witnessed the battle with some of them getting caught and dying in the crossfire while others observed the action as if it was a game despite the horrific dangers. Some did complain to the respective governments but neither side would listen for they were now fully committed to destroying the other. Sadly, for Chiang and the Chinese, the battle did not bring the desired international assistance and they would have to wait four bloody tragic years until December 7, 1941.
The aftermath of the battle of Shanghai was only the beginning as the shocking resistance that the Chinese put up in Shanghai and the brutal casualties the Japanese army suffered seemed to drive them mad with the desire to spill enormous gallons of blood of their foes. Amongst the cities and locations that would feel the wrath of the Imperial Japanese Army would be a city named Nanking.
Alongside other recently released books, Shanghai 1937 is an attempt to illuminate the Chinese experience of the Second World War to which it does well through the photos and graphic description of the carnage that took place between August and October of 1937. Alongside being a taste of the hell to come in Asia, the sight of urban warfare with modern weapons would soon repeat itself all around the world with the legendary example being Stalingrad. It is a highly recommended book that the west has little knowledge of despite the fact that it proved to be a portent of things to come for the rest of the world.
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Thomas Dodd, late 1945