In the summer of 1937, the “Pearl of the Orient” became a slaughterhouse. A million Chinese and Japanese soldiers engaged in savage urban combat in China’s coastal city of Shanghai.
Before the battle, Shanghai had been a thriving metropolis bustling with Western traders and missionaries, Chinese gangsters, workers and peasants and Japanese soldiers and businessmen.
As many as 300,000 people died in the epic three-month struggle that pitted China’s best divisions against Japanese marines, tank, naval gunfire and aircraft.
Yet even in China, few people remember the Battle of Shanghai, says Peter Harmsen, author of Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze. The clash receded beneath another horrific memory: the Rape of Nanking.
Shanghai “was one of 22 major battles of the Sino-Japanese War that are listed in official Chinese historiography,” Harmsen told War is Boring in an email. “Many Chinese have heard about the individual battles, but it’s mainly just specialists and military history buffs who actually remember when exactly they took place—and how and why.”
It was an unfortunate confluence of forces that brought war to Shanghai in August 1937. China and Japan had been in limited conflict since 1931, when Japan invaded Manchuria in search of empire and raw materials. In 1937, Japan seized Beijing after the Marco Polo Bridge incident.
Enough was enough. Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-Shek had spent the 1930s trying to destroy the Communists. Now was the time to stand up to Japan.
Just why he chose Shanghai is unclear, Harmsen explained. “For example, it has been argued that Chiang wanted to demonstrate China’s willingness to resist Japanese aggression in front of a big international audience and therefore picked Shanghai because of its large expat population.”
“Others have pointed out that the river-rich countryside in the Shanghai area offered fewer tactical advantages to Japanese tanks than the flat north Chinese plains,” Harmsen added.
Ironically, it was bellicose Japan that wasn’t looking for a fight in Shanghai. The Japanese army was focused on securing north China, where it could grab territory and resources as well as keep an eye on its arch-rival the Soviet Union.
It was the Japanese navy, often perceived as being a little less militaristic than the army, that was determined to hold Shanghai.
As often happens with wars, it was a tiny spark that detonated the powder keg. The mysterious murder of a Japanese officer on August 9, 1937—an event that might have been a police matter in more peaceful times—escalated into open warfare.
Deploying his German-trained divisions—the pride of the Nationalist Chinese army—Chiang tried to push the small Japanese garrison into the Huangpu River.
But the Chinese lacked heavy weapons and the experience to use them against fortified urban positions. The vastly outnumbered Japanese marines stubbornly hung on, supported by naval gunfire and air support.
“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,” Harmsen writes in his book.
“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,” he adds.
The Japanese responded with an amphibious landing north of the city in September. They advanced south toward Shanghai, fighting across the numerous towns and waterways barring their path to the city.
Though supported by tanks, artillery, naval gunfire and aircraft against a numerous but ill-armed foe, they still suffered heavy losses. “The number of bodies grew so fast that not all could be cremated, the way the Japanese preferred to dispose of their dead, and all privates and junior officers had to be hastily buried instead,” Harmsen writes.
“For an army claiming to honor its dead soldiers more than those who remained alive, it was a blow to morale.”
By November, a second Japanese amphibious landing south of the city compelled the Chiang to withdraw. There are no conclusive casualty figures, but Chinese estimates range from 187,000 to 300,000, according to Harmsen. The Japanese official history admits 9,100 dead, but the actual number might be twice as great.
Although the title of Harmsen’s book refers to Shanghai as China’s “Stalingrad,” a reference to the massive 1942 battle between Russia and Germany, he acknowledges that this is merely a metaphor.
The two battles resembled each other militarily inasmuch as both were city fights, but Shanghai never matched the intensity and savagery of Stalingrad and its two million casualties.
But just as Hitler and Stalin believed that prestige alone demanded they fight for Stalingrad to the last, so Shanghai became a symbol of Japanese power and prowess as well as Chinese determination.
Unlike the Stalingrad battle, the Battle of Shanghai took place under the eyes of numerous Westerners who could bear witness to the slaughter. “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,” American journalist Edgar Snow wrote.
In the end, China abandoned Shanghai—and lost its best divisions in the process. Their absence would be keenly felt as the Sino-Japanese War continued into World War II. But China had shown that it would and could fight against Japanese aggression.
This piece first appeared in WarIsBoring here.