Many social reformers of the turn of the twentieth century, Dr Barnardo among them, abhorred the demoralising and alienating effects of industrialisation and found a solution in the ideal of the healing hierarchies of a rural paradise lost, the essence of England. If housekeeping inculcated the discipline of thrift and the battle against waste, mass production was the very agent of superfluity and excess. The pre-industrial utopia was enshrined in another kind of social ecology, and at its centre was the mutual dependency that had existed between the classes in the imagined manorial village of the past. ‘The village is the expression of a small corporate life,’ wrote Sir Raymond Unwin, the architect of the garden cities of Letchworth and Hampstead Garden Suburb, ‘in which all the different units are personally in touch with each other, conscious of and frankly accepting their relations, and on the whole content with them.’Some dynamics haven't changed much over the last hundred years.
In the new garden cities, lych gates, mullions and gables jostled together in harmonious asymmetry, in contrast to the hastily erected tenement sprawls of industrial cities. Alfred Lyttelton MP hailed the garden city as the model of a community in which ‘the squire and the parson and those who clustered round the parsonage or the mansion lived together harmoniously with no sign of tyranny or patronage on one side, or of servility or loss of independence on the other’. The garden city was a vision of a very English Eden, both radical and reactionary, espousing the ‘practical socialism’, the ‘muscular Christianity’, of its founders, yet at its heart deeply paternalist: it was a heaven of many levels, where public service flourished at the top only if nourished by the wholesome craftsmanship and service of those at the bottom.
In fact, although the English landed estate still exercised considerable rural influence, the English village was already more often than not a hybrid community of cottagers, landlords and incomers. Three miles south of Farnham, Surrey, is the scrubby heathland landscape of a small community known as the Bourne, the subject of George Sturt’s 1912 book Change in the Village. Sturt was a wheelwright by trade and his book describes vividly a world in which the traditional communal economy had been replaced by a commercial one. This had brought, wrote Sturt, a creeping loss of self-respect in the villagers: ‘inferiority had come into their lives’. The Bourne was not an ideal village as the garden-city reformers might have imagined one: there was no benevolent manor, no village green for dancing round a maypole; there was little indication in the Bourne of the happy hierarchies so beloved of the celebrators of ‘Merrie England’. The old crafts and skills of the past had been gradually replaced by piecework for minimum wages which left the villagers too exhausted for the traditional rural festivities that well-meaning outsiders wished them to enjoy. They were resolutely unsympathetic to the ‘self-conscious revivals of peasant arts which are now being recommended to the poor by a certain type of philanthropist’, wrote Sturt.
The greatest visible change in the Bourne during the early years of the twentieth century was the proliferation of suburban villas that had sprung up on the edge of the village. In the new economy of rural life, it was very often the new villa on which village livelihoods now depended. These middle-class households had gardens that needed tending and ‘even the cheaper villas . . . need their cheap drudges’. Other traditional sources of income were increasingly insecure: machinery was gradually replacing labourers; large laundries were replacing washerwomen working at home. In villages like the Bourne, where there was no big-house tradition, poorly paid and unprotected drudge work was the only domestic service available. Sturt tells of a struggling farm labourer whose daughter paid half the family’s rent from her earnings as a servant girl in a villa. To the argument that working in a middle-class home raised the servant’s aspirations, Sturt had a brisk retort: ‘The truth is that middle-class domesticity, instead of setting cottage women on the road to middle-class culture of mind and body, has sidetracked them – has made of them charwomen and laundresses, so that other women may shirk these duties and be cultured.’
04 October 2016
From Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times, by Lucy Lethbridge (Norton, 2013), Kindle Loc. 1392-1423:
From Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times, by Lucy Lethbridge (Norton, 2013), Kindle Loc. 1362-91:
Elizabeth Banks was inspired to undertake her 1892 investigation into service to find an answer to the question that vexed the English middle classes: why was it that many girls would do almost anything, even if it meant living off ‘porridge in the morning and watercress in the evening with no midday meal’, rather than undertake the work of cleaning someone else’s home? She visited a young seamstress living in terrible conditions – ‘the unwomanly rags, the crust of bread, the straw and the broken chair’ – in a lodging-house in Camberwell on eighteen pence a week. When the dismayed Elizabeth offered to find her a job as a housemaid, ‘with a nice clean bedroom, plenty to eat, print dresses in the morning, black stuff in the afternoon, with white caps and aprons and collars and cuffs’, she was astounded by the girl’s outrage at the suggestion: ‘“Did you come only to insult me?” she demanded, stamping her feet. “I go out to service! I wear caps and aprons, those badges of slavery! No, thank you, I prefer to keep my liberty and be independent.”’
The servant-employing classes struggled to grasp why so many girls did not appear to be grateful for the opportunity to get their feet under a more comfortable table than the one they had come from. Was not the home a haven both moral and practical, a place of safety? The nineteenth century had been haunted by the spectre of the lost child of the Industrial Revolution: the chimney sweep, the crossing-sweeper, the pickpocket, the match-seller, the five-year-old child who had gone blind sorting buttons in a sweatshop. In the popular imagination they were perceived as orphaned (even if this were not in fact the case), adrift, alone and prematurely aged by malnutrition, poverty and abandonment. The social reformer Edwin Chadwick’s 1842 descriptions of the ‘rookeries’ or London tenements in The Bitter Cry of Outcast London almost single-handedly sparked an age of public health reform. Chadwick’s picture of a world of struggle, suffering and hopelessness was entirely cut off from the comfortable family world of the prosperous; nineteenth-century London, he wrote, was a labyrinth of filthy box-like slums, leading one from the other and ‘reeking with poisonous and malodorous gases rising from accumulations of sewage and refuse scattered in all directions’.
According to Henry Mayhew, in 1868–9 there were 17,000 known tramps in England and Wales and 17 per cent of them were under sixteen. In 1889, of the 192,000 registered inmates of workhouses, 54,000 were under sixteen. Dr Thomas Barnardo, the most celebrated of all Victorian philanthropists and a fiery street preacher, was moved to set up his first home for children when he discovered eleven young boys, barely clothed, sleeping along an iron gutter open to the elements. The annual accounts of Dr Barnardo’s children’s homes contain fearful catalogues of the ailments suffered by those picked up on the streets and given refuge: rickets, knock-knees, goitre, spinal paralysis, deaf and dumbness; and lung diseases like consumption, bronchitis, pneumonia and asthma, which were the legacy of the dust inhaled while working long hours in factories. In 1906, Edith, a five-year-old girl, ‘nobody’s child’, was found by Thomas Barnardo wandering the streets apparently completely unwanted – absolutely nothing at all could be discovered of her origins or parentage. Another, a crippled boy of ten, was referred to Barnardo’s after the boy’s mother, a rubbish-picker, was burned to death by an upturned paraffin lamp.
Efforts were made to contain these wandering, vagrant children by the institution of industrial schools, but the focus of the schools was largely penal and the pastoral work of caring for ‘waifs and strays’ was left to private charities and individual philanthropic endeavours. By 1878, in London alone, there were fifty philanthropic societies dedicated to the welfare of children.
03 October 2016
From Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times, by Lucy Lethbridge (Norton, 2013), Kindle Loc. 162-196:
The most basic technological amenities were not seriously to take root in the majority of English country houses until well after the First World War, and sometimes beyond the Second. In fact the more labour-intensive the house was seen to be, the more it was seen as upholding the values of the old world order. Although there were some significant changes made to English houses in the late nineteenth century, human effort was on the whole considered vastly preferable to modern amenities. Houseguests shivered in the cold of country houses where, recalled Lady Cynthia Asquith, ‘you perambulated long, icy passages in search of the nearest bathroom – if there was one’. Labour was cheap: the servant problem was a problem for the cash-strapped, not the rich. At Beech Hill Park, a vast Victorian house in Epping Forest, there was a hall entirely covered in mosaic that had to be washed with milk by hand every week by five maids; yet there was no telephone in Beech Hill and it was lit entirely by candles until the late 1940s.
A general distrust for new technologies percolated through the classes. Leslie Stephen, father of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, wondered why he should install a hot water system in his London house when he could always employ two or three girls to carry the bath water up and down stairs as required. Too much newness became regarded as vulgar: Mrs Loftie, author of books of advice on interior design, warned against gas, a form of lighting which had once been embraced by the fashionable but by the early twentieth century had become too popular and was now associated with trade showrooms and other iniquities. ‘Nothing can compete with the gasolier [gaslight chandelier] in tawdry deformity,’ she cautioned.
In 1912, the Illuminating Engineer expressed the view that gas was a ‘middle-class luxury. It never invaded the marble halls of the West End; and of course, the poor could not get it. It was admitted to the rich man’s kitchens and domestic offices, and its attractions beckoned the workman to his only club, the corner pub. As a domestic light in the fullest sense of the word, it was almost as sure a sign of respectability as the keeping of a gig.’ In grand houses, gas lamps were generally confined to the servants’ hall, where they enabled the staff to work till late at night; gas was considered too smelly and too damaging to antique furniture to be used in other parts of the house. The inimitable patina of age became central to the national idea of Englishness, and to this idea, new technology was often considered positively threatening. The American economist Thorstein Veblen noted in 1892 how the attraction of old-fashioned beeswax candles to illuminate evening dinner parties was suddenly revealed when gas and electric lighting became widely available to the middle classes. The reason was said to be the flattering rosy glow that candles cast, but behind it lay a snobbery about industrial mass production. The lady of a house in Wigmore Street was typical: her new maid, Elizabeth Banks, reported in 1891 that there were gas fittings but her mistress declined to use them, preferring to use candles that her maid had to clean up afterwards. ‘In the halls, on the stairs and in every room of the house, from the kitchen to the fifth floor, candle grease was liberally sprinkled, and my brown paper and flat iron were in constant demand.’
The stateliest homes still relied on lamp men, whose job for generations had been to patrol the corridors of English country houses, lighting and tending the oil lamps or candles that were the only source of light. Lamp men were retainers of the old sort, associated with homes that had no need of flashy modern accoutrements that needed only the turn of a switch. Trimming, cleaning and maintaining the lamps was an arduous daily job: at Erddig in Wales, the Yorkes had forty oil lamps requiring constant attendance, for a dirty lamp created clouds of soot. ‘An Old Servant’, the author of an anonymous little memoir written in the First World War, described ‘strings of soot hanging from the ceiling all over the room; everything was thick with greasy soot’ when a lamp was inadequately cleaned.15 At Badminton House, seat of the Duke of Beaufort, the lamp man was totally blind and felt his way expertly about the corridors – and was still doing so in the 1920s. At Belvoir Castle there were at least three lamp and candle men who laboured continuously at snuffing wicks, filling lamps and cleaning and de-waxing glass – a full-time job. ‘Gas was despised, I forget why – vulgar I think,’ was how Lady Diana Cooper remembered it.
From Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times, by Lucy Lethbridge (Norton, 2013), Kindle Loc. 687-705:
Mrs Panton, who took the brisk view that a new baby is ‘a profound nuisance to its relations at the very first’, recommended outsourcing childcare to professionals at the earliest opportunity. Working-class women, almost certainly mothers themselves (by the end of the nineteenth century it was estimated that the average working-class married woman aged forty had borne between seven and fifteen children) had for generations been the wet-nurses and nursemaids to yet more generations of children. But as the urban middle-class home began to seal itself off from the world of the poor during the nineteenth century, these women became viewed as less than suitable as primary child-rearers. The enormous expansion in the number of toiling little nursemaids, children themselves, who worked in the middle-class home, were testament to the growing distance between the daily life of middle-class parents and their children: there were 5,937 nursemaids employed in 1851; by 1871 the number had risen to 75,491. But nursemaids were the servants of the nannies; and nannies of a more professional type became increasingly desirable, qualifications beyond childminding being sought after.
The establishment in 1892 of the Norland Institute raised the status of their nursery nurse and nanny to the level of educational mentor and moral guide. The Institute’s first principal, Isabel Sharman, observing that ‘nowhere but in England does the child live such a separate and distinct nursery life’, looked to the teachings of the German educationalist Friedrich Froebel to inject some helpful educational play into the rigid routines of the English child. Recruited among girls not quite academic enough to become teachers, Norland students were always to be considered, at the insistence of the Institute’s founder Mrs Emily Ward, ‘gentlewomen’. They would not eat with the servants and were instructed that on arrival in a new home they should place their silver hairbrushes ostentatiously on their chest of drawers to make evident their superiority to the servants’ hall. Norland nurses did not clean, wipe, launder or sweep: their concern was solely the tending of their charges’ moral and psychological development.* Nonetheless, the work clearly crossed into domestic labour, without this being specific, and Nurse Christine Tisdall in 1895 received a glowing reference from an employer in Edinburgh who praised her abilities ‘to perform the duties of a servant in the spirit of a lady and without causing friction in the household’.
* Norland nurses were also responsible, in 1907, for the first crèche for working class children, enabling working women, mainly from the laundry industry, to leave their children all day in professional care. The first crèche was in Hammersmith, London, at the reasonable cost to their mothers of four pence a child or seven pence for two. When they opened a second in nearby Acton, they had 2,436 attendances in six months.
From Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times, by Lucy Lethbridge (Norton, 2013), Kindle Loc. 822-857:
By 1900, the job of the male servant, though respected within the world of service itself, to the world beyond was no longer considered entirely manly. Once, domestic service had been a man’s work, the household servant the descendant of the members of the sporting and military retinues of the medieval nobleman. The best cooks were men, the front-of-house servants were men, and women were employed only for the most menial tasks or as lady’s-maids. But the nineteenth century had seen the increasing feminisation of domestic service. By the 1870s, according to the journalist C. S. Peel, writing in 1929, parlourmaids were already beginning to take the place of footmen and pageboys in even the largest houses, ‘and in the nineties it began to be the fashion to keep two, or even three, parlourmaids instead of butler and footmen’. Male indoor service never entirely recovered its appeal.
It was Charles Mayhew’s view that the liveried servant, who had once cut such a fashionable dash about town, had been ‘made ridiculous’ by cartoons in popular periodicals such as Punch’s ‘Jeames of Berkeley Square’. ‘How infinitely superior was the manly and self-respecting lacquey or major-domo of one hundred years ago to the servile and obsequious servant of modern days,’ wrote the butler ‘John Robinson’, in an article in The Nineteenth Century in 1892. The article, ‘A Butler Speaks’, is a poignant call for employers to treat their male servants with proper respect, as trained professionals, as people with feelings. Robinson wrote it in response to the publication of a mocking piece by Lady Violet Greville in the National Review, which poked fun at male servants and their ‘foibles’. Lady Violet had written in a tone that suggested, wrote Robinson, that employers thought there was something ‘low, mean and degraded’ about the very idea of the manservant. The role of the upper-manservant, he wrote, was to be always at the beck and call of his master, to be subject to the same indignities of loss of freedom as other servants. ‘His opportunities for self-improvement are usually very small. The hours he may call his own are fitful and rare. His duties may be light, but if he wishes to prove himself a good servant he must always be on the alert.’
The male servant, though he still maintained a high profile in the grander houses, was increasingly in retreat. In 1861 the census tells us that there were 62,000 male indoor servants and 962,000 female servants. But by 1901, the numbers had changed to 47,000 male indoor servants and just under 1.3 million female ones. A tax in 1777 on male servants (brought in to raise funds to fight the Americans in their war of independence) probably sparked the decline.* By the middle of the century, following the agricultural depression of the 1870s, a flood of rural girls came to work in the houses of the city and shopkeepers, clerks and other members of the expanding middle class who had not before employed servants could for the first time employ the single, overworked girl who was to characterise domestic service for the next century.
Yet despite the decline in numbers, male servants still earned considerably more than their female counterparts. A butler in 1912 could take home an average of £50–£80 per annum with three weeks’ holiday a year, while a housekeeper could expect to earn in the region of £30–£50. And a ‘man cook’, by far the most fashionable option in the kitchen (especially if he were French) could earn a really handsome £100–£150, while a female cook, however celebrated and skilled, would be extremely lucky to earn more than £100. (In 1825, Samuel and Sarah Adams, the authors of The Complete Servant, had paid tribute to the superior mystique of Continental male cooks: ‘In the house of fashion, he is generally a foreigner, or if an Englishman possesses a peculiar tact in manufacturing many fashionable foreign delicacies or of introducing certain seasoning and flavours in his dishes.’) Furthermore, while men tended to the decorative end of the profession, with hours spent listlessly waiting in the hallway for visitors or contriving complicated dinner dishes, women were the grafters, undertaking the bulk of the heavy manual work. ‘How they worked those girls! Up at five to clean and light the fires, to polish the steel grates in the Adam fireplaces, to whiten the hearths and later to take up the brass cans of hot water to the bedrooms. We men only started at seven and could sit down in the afternoons, but the girls had to then darn and repair the linen – and all for eight pounds a year,’ remembered Ernest King.
* This was not the case in Ireland, where the tax was never imposed. Dorothea Conyers from Ireland noted as late as 1920 the willingness of Irish servants to do any work allotted to them. 'Every Irish servant will do everyone else's work cheerfully, the men come in to help the maids polish the floors and shoes, and the maids are quite willing to feed the horses if the men are all out.' (Dorothea Conyers, Sporting Reminiscences, p. 131.)
30 September 2016
From Nanjing 1937: Battle for a Doomed City, by Peter Harmsen (Casemate, 2015), Kindle Loc. 849-863:
Towns and cities west of Shanghai fell in rapid succession, and everywhere the same pattern repeated itself: quick conquest was followed by comprehensive destruction. In some areas, it was a repetition of the most sinister parts of history. Jiading, a county seat with about 30,000 residents, was known to students of history for its refusal in 1645 to bow to China’s new rulers, Manchu armies from beyond the empire’s northeastern borders. The invaders had imposed a lengthy siege, and once the city fell, they massacred all the defenders. A centuries-old pagoda had been looking down on the carnage then, and in 1937 it was still standing as new blood was being spilled.
This time the conquerors were from the 101st Japanese Infantry Division. They were reservists, several years older than the average soldier in divisions such as the 3rd or the nth [sic; 9th?]. Just months earlier they had been farmers and accountants, and many were fathers of small children. When they took Jiading on November 13, after shelling had leveled one third of the city, they set about killing almost everyone in sight, be they man, woman or child. During the battle and in the weeks afterwards, they were responsible for the deaths of more than 8,000 residents in the city and in the surrounding countryside.
“A city of death,” was how a Japanese visitor described Jiading shortly after the battle, as he encountered “a mysteriously silent world in which the only sound was the tap of our own footsteps.” War had wiped the city clean of most traces of humanity, reducing the few remaining residents to shadowy ghost-like creatures. “All we saw,” the Japanese visitor said, “was the occasional doddering elder crawling out from one of the collapsed hovels and going back in again.”
18 September 2016
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.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.
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.
16 September 2016
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.”
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.
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.
12 September 2016
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.”
05 September 2016
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.”
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.
From Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze, by Peter Harmsen (Casemate, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1225-1291:
Operation Iron Fist was the main German contribution in the initial stages of the Shanghai campaign, but it was far from the only one. German advisors were present both on the staffs and at the frontline. Their pivotal role was no secret, and even the newspapers regularly reported about them. Wearing the uniforms of Chiang Kai-shek’s army, the German advisors not only provided tactical input, but gave the Chinese troops an invaluable morale boost, showing them that they were not on their own in the struggle against the mighty and ruthless Japanese Empire. The “German War” was the name that some Japanese gave to the battle of Shanghai, and for good reason.I was quite surprised to see photographs in this book of Chinese soldiers wearing German steel helmets and belts with stick grenades. Other Chinese units wore the British-style helmet called Salatschüssel ('salad bowl') by the Germans.
When war with Japan broke out in the summer of 1937, the German advisory corps consisted of nearly 70 officers, ranging from newly graduated second-lieutenants to five full generals. It was a major asset for the Chinese, and one that they were free to exploit. Even though most of the Germans were in China on short-term contracts and could have left once the shooting started, they felt an obligation to stay at a key moment when their host nation’s survival was at stake. “We all agreed that as private citizens in Chinese employment there could be no question of our leaving our Chinese friends to their fate,” Alexander von Falkenhausen, the top advisor, wrote later. “Therefore I assigned the German advisors wherever they were needed, and that was often in the frontlines.”
The situation was the culmination of a relationship that had evolved over a period of several years. Germany had started playing a role in China’s military modernization in the late 1920s, with initial contacts facilitated by Chiang Kai-shek’s admiration for German efficiency. The German government’s decision to abandon all extraterritorial privileges in 1921, followed seven years later by the diplomatic recognition of Chiang’s government, also created a benevolent atmosphere. In addition, as a result of its defeat in the Great War, Germany was a relatively safe bet for China. It was, in the 1920s and early 1930s at least, the only major power unable to resume its imperialist policies of the years prior to 1914. Germany and China were in fact in similar situations, Chiang once mused. “They were oppressed by foreign powers,” he said, “and had to free themselves from those chains.”
Yet another factor behind the expanding Sino-German military ties was the lack of suitable employment for officers in Weimar Germany, whose military, the Reichswehr, was severely curtailed by the demands of the post-war Versailles Treaty. The shadow existence they led at home contrasted starkly with the prestige they enjoyed in China. By the mid-1930s, the Germans had a status among the Chinese that no other westerners had ever experienced. When Chiang met with his generals, his chief German advisor at the time, Hans von Seeckt, would sit at his desk, giving the signal that the foreign officer’s place in the hierarchy, while informal, was near the top. When Seeckt had to go by train to a north Chinese sea resort for health reasons, he traveled in Chiang’s personal saloon carriage and was saluted at every station by an honorary formation.
Seeckt visited China the first time in 1933, and immediately set about salvaging bilateral ties strained by German condescension towards the Chinese. As the host nation and employer, China was to be shown respect, was his order to the German officers stationed in the country, and being a traditional German, he expected to be obeyed. When he arrived in China for his second tour the year after, he was accompanied by Falkenhausen. No novice to Asia, Falkenhausen hit it off with Chiang Kai-shek almost immediately. It helped that both knew Japanese, the language of their soon-to-be enemy, and could converse freely without having to go through aninterpreter. It was an additional advantage that Falkenhausen’s wife was on superb terms with Madame Chiang. Falkenhausen’s break came when Seekt, suffering from poor health, returned to Germany in early 1935. From then on, he was the top German officer inside China.
It is likely that Falkenhausen felt a deep sense of relief to be posted abroad. His mission removed any immediate obligation to return to Germany and work with the Nazis. “In the 30s we could have in good conscience stayed in China,” one of Falkenhausen’s subordinates later rationalized. “China was in much greater danger than Germany.” Falkenhausen had a very personal reason to adopt that rationale. His younger brother, Hans Joachim von Falkenhausen, a war veteran and a member of the Nazi Party’s paramilitary Sturm-Abteilung, was executed in a bloody showdown among rival factions inside the party’s ranks in the summer of 1934. He was 36 when he died.
Falkenhausen’s unhappy relationship with Berlin’s new rulers put him on one side of a political generation gap that divided most of the German advisors in China. Among conservative officers of his age and background, feelings about Hitler, a mere corporal in the Great War, ranged from skepticism to adoration; in between was quiet acceptance of an overlap of interests with Germany’s new Nazi rulers, who wanted rapid rearmament and the creation of a vast new army. The younger German officers serving in China were far less ambivalent. They were often ardent Nazis. The racist ideology the young Germans brought with them from home may have contributed to lingering tension with the Chinese. Since most of them expected to leave within no more than a few years, virtually none bothered to change their lifestyles in order to fit into their new surroundings. Rather, in the traditional way of Europeans in Asia, they lived in their own enclave in Nanjing, a small piece of Germany in the heart of China. If they paid any attention to local mores, it was with a shrug of the shoulder. Brought up on austere Prussian ideals, they considered, for example, the Chinese habit of elaborate banquets a costly waste of time and resources.
The Chinese, too, looked at the foreign advisors in mild bewilderment. The German habit of wearing monocles was a cause of wonder and led them to ask why so many were near-sighted on only one eye. A few Chinese did not just puzzle at the behaviour of the strange foreigners, but had attitudes bordering on hostile. Zhang Fakui, for one, appears to have had a particularly delicate relationship with the German advisors. He did not trust them, did not share any secrets with them, and did not take any advice from them. “I had always had a bad impression of the Germans,” he told an interviewer decades later.
Falkenhausen’s own outlook underwent profound change. At the time of his arrival, he had been somewhat indifferent to China, but he gradually grew fonder of the country, and in the end he was very close to accepting an offer of Chinese citizenship from Chiang. As time passed, he even showed signs of divided loyalties between his old and new masters, ignoring pleas from Germany to favor its weapon producers when carrying out arms procurements abroad. Instead, he bought the arms he thought would serve China best, regardless of where they had been manufactured. Finally, he developed a high degree of resentment of the Japanese foe. “It is sheer mockery to see this bestial machine pose as the vanguard of anti-Communism,” he wrote in a report to Oskar Trautmann, the German ambassador in Nanjing.
Once war broke out, Falkenhausen was in favor of an aggressive and all-encompassing strategy against the enemy. He advised that the Japanese garrison in Shanghai be attacked and wiped out, regardless of the fact that it was located inside the International Settlement. He even urged air attacks on western Korea and sabotage on the Japanese home islands. These steps went much further than almost any of his Chinese hosts was prepared to go. Perhaps they feared setting a task for themselves that they could not handle. Falkenhausen, on the other hand, never seemed to have harbored any serious doubts about China’s military prowess. Rather, its army’s willingness to make sacrifices appealed to his special German passion for absolutes. “The morale of the Chinese Army is high. It will fight back stubbornly,” he said. “It will be a struggle to the last extreme.”
From Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze, by Peter Harmsen (Casemate, 2015), Kindle Loc. 2002-2015:
At a deep cognitive level, there was a reason why Chiang Kai-shek and others around him wanted to believe that not just Soviet aid, but also direct Soviet participation in the hostilities was imminent. This was how they expected a war with Japan to pan out. The Chinese General Staff’s War Plan A, drafted in 1937, was based on the premise that a conflict with Japan would soon set off a larger conflict between Japan and either the Soviet Union or the United States. Therefore, the key aim for China was to hold out against the superior Japanese until it could be relieved by the arrival of a much more powerful ally, whether Russian or American. This plan was not as naive as it might seem, but was based on the calculation that neither Moscow nor Washington would want to see Japanese power grow too strong on the Asian mainland.
Some of Chiang’s commanders believed that it was partly in order to hasten outside intervention that the Chinese leader decided to make Shanghai a battlefield. It was true that Shanghai offered tactical advantages that the north Chinese plain did not, an argument that had been decisive in getting Chiang’s own generals to accept opening a new front there. However, these advantages would seem to be a small reward considering the risk involved in luring the enemy to occupy China’s most prosperous region. Much more crucially perhaps, Shanghai was an international city and a key asset for the world’s most powerful economies, who would not allow it to become Japanese territory, or so he believed. According to Li Zongren, one of China’s top generals, Chiang expanded the war to Shanghai because the importance of the city might lead to “mediation on the part of the European powers and the United States or even to their armed intervention.”