05 September 2016

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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