Author Archives: Joel

Foreign Safety Zone, Nanjing, 1937

From Nanjing 1937: Battle for a Doomed City, by Peter Harmsen (Casemate, 2015), Kindle Loc. 2591-2628:

The safety zone, the brainchild of Rabe and a few other foreigners who had stayed behind in Nanjing, started to take form in the first week of December, when it was officially publicized and four committees were set up to take care of food, housing, finance and sanitation. Once the plans for the zone were detailed in the local press, scared Chinese civilians started moving in by the hundreds, convinced that it was only a matter of time until the Japanese took over. A small newspaper’s repeated claim that it was the “duty” of all patriotic Chinese to stay outside the zone and face the Japanese bombs was largely ignored.

The zone was beset with problems from the start, both practical and bureaucratic. Thousands of bags of rice and flour meant for the zone’s future residents were left unguarded and quickly disappeared. Many assumed that they had been stolen by the military. Potentially much more serious problems arose when Chinese military units started digging trenches and setting up field telephones inside the safety zone, which automatically put it at risk of Japanese attack. Chinese officers promised that they would leave, but the situation dragged out, causing impatience among the organizers of the zone. Until the last Chinese soldier had left, they could not put up flags around it, designating it as a truly demilitarized area.

The Japanese refused to officially acknowledge the safety zone, but vowed to respect it. A lukewarm attitude on their part could hardly be considered surprising, but intriguingly some Chinese officers also exhibited direct hostility against the zone. “Every inch of soil that the Japanese conquer should be fertilized with our blood,” an angry officer told Rabe. “Nanjing must be defended to the last man. If you had not established your Safety Zone, people now fleeing into the Zone could have helped our soldiers.” They wanted to leave nothing of use to the Japanese. This included complete destruction of the area inside the safety zone as well. Some nationalistic Chinese officers were also opposed, on principle, as they saw an essentially foreign-administered region in the middle of their capital as an intolerable violation of Chinese sovereignty.

The zone was not the only effort to help alleviate the pain and suffering caused by war. After the outbreak of the battle over Shanghai, the Chinese Red Cross had stepped in where military medicine had failed and set up a number of first-aid teams and emergency hospitals, while also ensuring that wounded soldiers were put up in existing medical facilities. In October, it established a 3,000-bed hospital on the campus of the National Central University, with a staff of 300 doctors and nurses and 400 orderlies. By the end of October, the hospital had 1,200 patients, and carried out more than 50 operations a day, mostly amputations.

However, as the Japanese approached Nanjing, doctors and nurses were transported west up the Yangtze. The entire Red Cross hospital was evacuated, and at the American Mission Hospital, an initial staff of nearly 200 doctors, nurses and trained workers had been reduced to just 11 by the onset of winter. Some were ordered out of Nanjing, while others left on their own initiative, without warning. Wilson, the Harvard-trained surgeon, described in a letter how he had carried out a complicated operation on a bombing victim with the help of an experienced Chinese nurse who doubled as an x-ray technician. “Incidentally that nurse left this afternoon,” he added, “and now we have no one in the operating room.”

With medical facilities close to collapse, a group of foreigners took the initiative to try to improve conditions, and there were small victories. A committee headed by Rev. John Magee, an American-born Episcopal missionary, secured a sizable amount from Chiang Kai-shek and set up a temporary dressing station in the school buildings of the American Church Mission. Overall, it was slow, unrewarding work in a field that many Chinese officials considered redundant. In an attempt to help the injured soldiers who were still piling up on the platforms, a group of foreign volunteers asked the Chinese authorities for ambulances. They were told that ambulances were indeed available, but there was no gasoline and no money to buy it.

Also very active in Shanghai, Nanjing, and elsewhere in East Asia at the time was the Red Swastika Society (世界红卍字会, shìjiè hóngwànzìhuì), a Buddhist/Daoist equivalent of the Red Cross or Red Crescent.

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Sino-Soviet Pact, 1937

From Nanjing 1937: Battle for a Doomed City, by Peter Harmsen (Casemate, 2015), Kindle Loc. 546-565:

The Soviets had good reason to be circumspect. The alliance with Chiang was not based on ideology but was born out of a convergence of strategic interests. China was looking for a new source of overseas assistance, as Germany, its main foreign backer up until then, had shown itself to be an unreliable partner, gradually moving closer to Japan. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, saw a cynical benefit in supporting China’s war, as it would keep Japan too preoccupied to threaten its eastern borders.

This marriage of convenience had manifested itself in a Sino-Soviet non-aggression pact, signed in August 1937. The Chinese had wasted no time, and had sent a wish list of 350 planes—and pilots—to Moscow even before the agreement was inked. At the end of the day, the Soviet leaders opted for less ambitious aid, agreeing to 200 planes, in return for Chinese delivery of minerals essential for war production, such as wolfram and tungsten.

The Sino-Soviet friendship received support from a very unlikely source—British politician Winston S. Churchill. The Soviet envoy to the United Kingdom described how in a meeting Churchill “greatly praised our tactics in the Far East: maintenance of neutrality and simultaneous aid to China in weaponry.” This was for the best, he thought, since a more open backing of China would raise the specter of an expansionist Soviet Union, a lingering fear among many powers, thus making the situation easier for Japan and complicating the establishment of “a grand alliance” directed against Germany, Japan and other regimes. Intriguingly, even at this early stage, Churchill saw such an alliance as “the only means of saving mankind.”

Indirect aid didn’t mean an absence of risk. Russians would still be put in harm’s way and Rytov knew that. Later on the same day that he was told he would be going to China, he met up with another member of the coming mission, Pavel Vasilievich Rychagov, who had recently returned from a successful tour as a fighter pilot in the Spanish Civil War and had been awarded the Lenin Order twice for his service there. Together, they were briefed by Yakov Vladimirovich Smushkevich, the deputy commander of the Soviet Air Force. “The Japanese armed forces are technically superior to the Chinese,” said Smushkevich, who was also a veteran of the Spanish conflict. “The Chinese Air Force is a particular concern. Soviet pilots who have rushed to China’s aid are currently in Nanjing. They are fighting valiantly.”

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Nanjing Capital Boomtown, 1930s

From Nanjing 1937: Battle for a Doomed City, by Peter Harmsen (Casemate, 2015), Kindle Loc. 304-328:

It had been the decision of the Chinese Nationalists, ten years earlier, to move the capital from Beijing to Nanjing. Governing the vast country would be easier that way, or so the policy makers hoped. Nanjing was centrally located, with roughly equal distances to the north and south borders, and it was well served by three railroads and a network of highways. It was in close proximity to the economically vibrant eastern seaboard—China’s link to the outside world—with only 200 miles between it and the nation’s primary commercial center, Shanghai. The trip could be done within a day by car, train or, more often, by boat down the mighty Yangtze.

To be sure, picking Nanjing as the new capital was more than a matter of practical convenience. The founder of the republic, the late Sun Yatsen, had argued that it was essential to move the seat of government away from Beijing, because “the light of the 20th century” would never be able to penetrate the Forbidden City where generations of Qing Dynasty rulers had contented themselves with being caretakers of a stagnant society, seemingly unable to cope with the requirements of the modern world.

It had been a society still stuck in medieval ways, turning unfortunate boys destined for court duty into eunuchs and binding the feet of its upper-class girls, while allowing the vast majority of its people to live in abject poverty and executing its criminals in spectacularly cruel fashions, using methods such as the ancient technique of death by a thousand cuts. The Nationalist revolutionaries who had overthrown the last emperor a quarter century earlier had wanted to cut the links to this ugly past and begin all over again in Nanjing.

Nanjing, the largest city in Jiangsu province, had spent the past decade in a frenzy of construction in a bid to catapult itself into the modern age, and by 1937 it was beginning to look like a genuine capital. Landmarks that would have attracted attention in any city in the world emerged in rapid succession. The Foreign Ministry, completed in 1934 with the help of New York architect Henry K. Murphy, was more modernistic than Washington’s State Department, wrote American journalist Julius Eigner, who visited the city on behalf of National Geographic.

The Ministry of Communications, erected a year later from drawings prepared by a Russian architect, was Nanjing’s most impressive construction, combining a roof suggestive of imperial palaces with an unmistakably western design. The Ministry of Railways, “perhaps the best laid out and the most attractive of all of the government quarters erected so far,” according to Eigner, was frequently used for high-level government meetings. Commercial interests had followed in the government agencies’ footsteps. By 1937, most Chinese banks had set up local branches in the city, and over the course of a decade real estate prices in the business district had grown by 700 percent.

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Slaughter in Nanjing, 1864

From Nanjing 1937: Battle for a Doomed City, by Peter Harmsen (Casemate, 2015), Kindle Loc. 357-375:

For all its modern buildings, signaling the creation of a new nation, Nanjing remained full of history. Even the city’s name, meaning “Southern Capital,” was testimony to its former function as the home of several dynasties. Ancient generals had built a fortress here as early as the fifth century B.C., and in the third century A.D., the rulers of the kingdom of Eastern Wu had set up their capital in the city. More than a millennium later, the first Ming emperors had built their palaces in Nanjing before moving to Beijing to be closer to the northern border and better able to manage the age-old threat of invaders entering the empire from beyond the Great Wall.

At times, for instance at the beginning of the Ming Dynasty in the late 14th century, Nanjing had been so powerful that it outshone any other contemporary city on the planet, but at other times it had seen humiliation and deprivation on an unimaginable scale. Like China as a whole, it had been conquered repeatedly, and twice it had been nearly annihilated. In the late sixth century, a hostile army had entered, butchered the inhabitants, torn down every building, and plowed up the ground to remove any sign of the city’s former splendor. The second time it had been almost completely destroyed was in the 1860s when it had been at the center of the world’s bloodiest conflict of the 19th century.

The city had been the capital of the Taiping rebels, who had been driven by a quasi-Christian ideology to seek to overthrow the emperor in Beijing. When the emperor’s armies struck back, the result was a civil war that caused the deaths of at least 20 million people. The savage climax to this conflict was in Nanjing, which fell in 1864. Loyalist imperial troops besieged the city and when they eventually broke the back of resistance and entered, they engaged in an orgy of death and destruction.

The elderly and the children, who were of no use as labor, were especially targeted and slaughtered. “Children and toddlers, some not even two years old, had been hacked up or run through just for sport,” wrote a Chinese official who entered the city shortly after the end of the massacre. In its unsophisticated brutality the bloodletting seemed to belong to a more primitive age but, remarkably, in 1937 it was still within living memory. Residents who had been young in the 1860s were now toothless octogenarians whose sad eyes had seen too much.

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Shanghai, 1937: Taking No Prisoners

From Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze, by Peter Harmsen (Casemate, 2015), Kindle Loc. 2993-3008:

The maltreatment of prisoners was mutual. Accounts of Japanese prisoners being kept for long by the Chinese were virtually non-existent. Frequently, this was due to circumstances at the front, whether in the urban areas or the surrounding countryside. Under confusing and dangerous battlefield conditions, there was simply nowhere to place captives. Officers saved themselves endless trouble by simply ordering prisoners killed. However, even when facilities were available, nothing was done to accommodate enemy POWs. Dutchman de Fremery never saw or heard about a single instance of any Japanese troops being among the 20,000 injured soldiers being treated at Chinese hospitals in the Shanghai area.

Especially at the start of the Sino-Japanese war, the treatment of Japanese prisoners at the hands of the Chinese “beggared belief” and marked a throw-back to a less-civilized past, according to the German war correspondent Lily Abegg. Often civilians took part in the maltreatment of captured Japanese. Abegg mentioned an example of two Japanese pilots who were shot down during a raid of Nanjing. They were “torn to pieces” by a furious mob, and when military police arrived they could not find a single trace of them remaining on the scene.

The killing of Japanese prisoners, often in a horrific fashion, was a source of concern for the Chinese command. It wanted to be able to show off well-treated prisoners for propaganda purposes, and doubtless, it also wanted to exploit the captives for their intelligence value. In the end, it offered a money prize for any Chinese, soldier or civilian, who was able to hand over a living Japanese prisoner to the authorities. However, this had little effect. “The soldier’s hatred toward the Japanese,” a Chinese general said a little later in the war, “is enormous. It’s impossible to have a prisoner delivered to headquarters although we pay from 50 to 100 yuan upon delivery, and there are severe punishments for not doing so. The soldiers say that the prisoners die along the way.”

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Qualities of Japanese Soldiers in China, 1930s

From Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze, by Peter Harmsen (Casemate, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1427-1458:

Most Japanese soldiers lived up to the high expectations placed on their shoulders at home and abroad. Physically, they tended to be short by western standards, but they were strong and capable of enduring immense hardship. This was as a result of rigorous training combined with draconian discipline, underpinned by the threat and liberal use of corporal punishment. The training was so efficient that a Japanese soldier entering the reserve never ceased to be a soldier again. In the early months of the war, American correspondent John Goette met a Japanese private in his late 30s who had just been called up from his civilian occupation as a dentist. “Hundreds of thousands like him had made a swift change from civilian life to the handling of a rifle on foreign soil,” he wrote. “Twenty years after his conscript training, this dentist was again a soldier.”

An added element in the training of Japanese soldiers was indoctrination, which came in the form of repetition of the virtues—self-sacrifice, obedience and loyalty to the emperor—which the soldiers had learned since childhood. The result was mechanic obedience on the battlefield. “Even though his officers appear to have an ardor which might be called fanaticism,” a U.S. military handbook remarked later in the war, “the private soldier is characterized more by blind and unquestioning subservience to authority.” The downside was that soldiers and junior officers were not encouraged to think independently or take the initiative themselves. They expected to be issued detailed orders and would follow them slavishly. When the situation changed in ways that had not been foreseen by their commanders—which was the norm rather than the exception in battle—they were often left perplexed and unable to act.

It could be argued that the Japanese military had few other options than to train its soldiers in this way, since to a large extent it drew its recruits from agricultural areas where there was limited access to education. It was said that for every 100 men in a Japanese unit, 80 were farm boys, ten were clerks, five factory workers, and five students. Nevertheless, reading was a favorite pastime among Japanese soldiers. Military trains were littered with books and magazines, mostly simple pulp fiction. When the trains stopped at stations, even the locomotive’s engineer could be observed reading behind the throttle. Some of them were prolific writers, too. A large number of Japanese in the Shanghai area had brought diaries and wrote down their impressions with great perception and eloquence. Some officers even composed poems in the notoriously difficult classical style.

Many Japanese soldiers grew large beards while in China, but in a twist that was not easy to understand for foreigners, they could sometimes mix a fierce martial exterior with an almost feminine inner appreciation of natural beauty. Trainloads of Japanese soldiers would flock to the windows to admire a particularly striking sunset. It was not unusual to see a Japanese soldier holding his rifle and bayonet in one hand, and a single white daisy in the other. “Missionaries have found,” wrote U.S. correspondent Haldore Hanson, “that when bloodstained Japanese soldiers break into their compounds during a ‘mopping up’ campaign, the easiest way to pacify them is to present each man with a flower.”

Many Japanese soldiers also carried cameras into battle, and as was the case with the Germans on the Eastern Front, their snapshots came to constitute a comprehensive photographic record of their own war crimes. Journalist John Powell remembered his revulsion when he saw a photo of two Japanese soldiers standing next to the body of a Chinese woman they had just raped. He had obtained the image from a Korean photo shop in Shanghai where it had been handed in to be developed. “The soldiers apparently wanted the prints to send to their friends at home in Japan,” he wrote. “Japanese soldiers seemingly had no feelings whatsoever that their inhuman actions transgressed the tenets of modern warfare or common everyday morals.”

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Reputation of the Chinese Army at Shanghai, 1937

From Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze, by Peter Harmsen (Casemate, 2015), Kindle Loc. 743-755, 2386-2403:

Chinese officers died in large numbers from day one. One regiment lost seven company commanders in the same short attack. There were several explanations for the high incidence of death among the senior ranks. One was an ethos among some officers to lead from the front in an attempt to instill courage into their men. However, even leading from the rear could be highly risky in urban combat, where the opposing sides were often just yards removed from each other and where the maze-like surroundings provided by multi-story buildings and narrow alleys could lead to a highly fluid situation, so that the enemy was just as likely to be behind as in front. In addition, soldiers on both sides deliberately targeted enemy officers, perhaps more so than in other conflicts, because stiff leadership hierarchies placed a premium on being able to decapitate the opposing unit.

First and foremost, however, the massive fatality rates among officers and, to an even larger extent, the rank and file were the result of Chinese forces employing frontal attacks against a well-armed entrenched enemy. The men who, as a result, were dying by the hundreds were China’s elite soldiers, the product of years of effort to build up a modern military. They formed the nation’s best hope of being able to resist Japan in a protracted war. Nevertheless, on the very first day of battle, they were being squandered at an alarming, unsustainable rate. After just a few hours of offensive operations with very little gain to show for them, Chiang Kai-shek decided to cut his losses. “Do not carry out attacks this evening,” he commanded Zhang Zhizhong in a telegram. “Await further orders.”

The Chinese Army’s performance during the initial stage of the fighting in Shanghai changed the world’s perception of the nation’s military capabilities. China, which had lost every war for the past century, invariably to nations much smaller than itself, had suddenly taken a stand. “There is most emphatically no resemblance whatever discernable between the Chinese army of yesterday and the confident, well-disciplined men whom I saw,” wrote Hubert Hessell Tiltman, after his visit to the Chinese frontline. “They are facing incredible hardships with a courage which deserves the most flattering tribute that a pen can write.”

At Shanghai, the Chinese Army had seen more bitter fighting than anyone could have anticipated, and it had lost manpower that had taken years to build up. However, it had won prestige and respect, even among its Japanese adversaries. “The era of timid and despicable Chinese is gone,” a Japanese soldier told his compatriots back home. “Some of them are quite courageous.” Even the withdrawal on September 12 was greeted with sympathy and admiration in capitals around the world. The feeling was that the Chinese Army had distinguished itself with its “magnificent . . . resistance against the overwhelming weight of Japanese metal,” Reuters reported from London.

The Chinese Army was a riddle to many of the foreigners who saw it in action. Its soldiers often did not live up at all to western ideas about what hardened veterans ought to be like. “They looked as though a high wind would blow them away,” wrote a foreign correspondent after seeing members of the elite 88th Division from up close. “A few carried oiled-paper umbrellas. One actually carried a canary in a cage. Many walked hand in hand. It seemed preposterous that these thin, tattered boys . . . were heroes of the Chinese Republic!” Nevertheless, these boys with their paper umbrellas were able to carry out amazing feats in battle.

Perhaps it was their stoicism and ability to endure hardship that made the difference.

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