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Peter Harmsen's excellent new book about the battle for Shangai - the first book solely on this subject outside of China, apparently - really puts flesh and blood (and a lot of the latter) on the bones of certain events I've only very recently read about, in Rana Mitter's equally excellent but very different book, China's War with Japan. Mitter gave us a splendid overview of the whole Sino-Japanese conflict but, despite his work being just a little shy of a hefty 500 pages, in covering the entire colossal struggle he didn't give that much space over to specific detail. Harmsen's book supplies exactly that, zooming in on one relatively short campaign in what was the longest contested theatre of war during WWII, and relating it very vividly.

Rather than only sending troops to Manchuria, where the Japanese were busily expanding their Manchukuo puppet state, and thereby allowing Japan to continue casting events there as an isolated incident, China's nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek decided to open a 'second front', in Shanghai. After years of prevaricating and concessions (Japan had annexed Manchuria in 1931), basically because China wasn't really ready for war, the Marco Polo bridge incident finally precipitated a decision to respond unequivocally to Japan's aggressive encroachments. But by drawing Japan into conflict in a new and more southerly theatre, rather than simply responding locally, China was able to surprise and unbalance their enemy at the same time as revealing Japanese belligerence and imperial ambitions for what they were. But the stakes were high, as this meant risking the loss of a major city in the heartland of the country, not far from the capital, Nanjing.

This much I'd learned already in Mitter's account. However, Harmsen starts his book, after a very brief prologue, with another lesser known incident, local to Shanghai, involving nefarious night time skulduggery, the end result of which is three corpses, two of which are Japanese military personnel, and the third a Chinese of uncertain identity. The riddle of the events that lead to these deaths is never satisfactorily resolved, but they may have constituted the final straw that broke the camel's back. Harmsen narrates these events, making great use of contemporary accounts, in a way that means his story begins rather like a thriller.

I won't relate the blow by blow progress of the actions covered here, as Harmsen does that so well you should really buy the book and enjoy the unfolding of the story for yourself. I found it utterly gripping, by turns thrilling and chilling. Reading about these and similar events in Mitter's book was fascinating, but despite the many instances where large casualty figures are given, and mention of the hand-wringing of figures like Chiang Kai-shek over the huge human sacrifices being made*, one simply doesn't get a visceral sense of the human dimension without going into nitty-gritty detail. Harmsen's detailed evocation of the events of the first few days of the conflict in Shanghai remedies that immediately.

Depth of detail is maintained throughout, with numerous personalised interludes recounting the firsthand experiences of a large and varied number of key protagonists. These are drawn from a remarkably diverse range of sources, including the memoirs and media of both sides, from privates to generals, and also the international observers, such as the Germans attached to the Chinese forces, or the members of the International Settlement, or representatives of the native and Western press. Harmsen's research has obviously been a long time in the preparing, and he marshals these resources superbly. In fact his adroit use of these resources reminds me of Paul Britten Austin's masterful 1812 trilogy, which that author described as a "word film". The effect is very evocative, and really draws one into the events described.

The cost in Shanghai was terrible, and this book certainly doesn't shy away from the gory details. There's something almost surreal about the status of the many members of the International Settlement's very mixed community, as they sit and watch, on the edge of one of the world's first modern urban battles. They are occasionally drawn in, as at the beginning, on 'Black Saturday', and on occasion throughout the battle, and some of this detail is as shocking as the horrors of the official war zones. Towards the end of the book one of these foreign observers, Liliane Williams, then just a six year old girl, is quoted. Having seen the ruins of Shanghai after the battle: "I suddenly understood that wars meant the killing of real people, not death toll statistics printed in newspapers and mentioned on the radio."

There are plenty of useful maps, quite a lot of splendidly evocative black and white photos (some Chinese troops wore WWII German style helmets, some English!), and even OOB's, 'order of battle', for both sides. Harmsen's book really succeeds, for me, in bringing home the visceral impact of both this campaign and the larger war. This makes it both an ideal companion to Mitter's book, the former giving one the larger picture, the latter bringing one event in that huge mosaic very vividly to life, or an excellent standalone point of entry into this fascinating conflict about which we in the west know so little at present. These books have really educated me. I now no longer see Poland 1939 as the definitive start of WWII, rather I think it was in China, in Manchuria and Shanghai, that this global conflagration really began. I look forward to reading more on the subject!

* One of Harmsen's chapter titles, 'Flesh Against Steel', alludes to the fact that the Chinese were extremely profligate with men, a resource they had in abundance, whilst rather miserly with expensive and hard to replace materiel. In the former they way outnumbered the Japanese, whilst regarding the latter, they were totally outgunned, Japan's naval artillery, tanks, and near total air-supremacy playing key parts in their technological dominance of this stage of the war.
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on 6 August 2014
Shanghai 1937 is an interesting account of an important yet forgotten battle. The book is an easy read and is well written. Military and political narrative are well interwoven. You got a fair idea of where, why, and how the battle developed. It is very important book in this aspect.

There are some annoying parts too... often Mister Hamsen forgot to put ranks before the name of military people. This detracts from the narrative. Much more annoying is his tendency to slip in the anecdotal in several instance and mixing history with stories that does not add to the narrative and at times looks spurious (Chiang ordering female nurses out from the hospitals? Well the NRA has women nurses anyway and there were female police officers in China at the time anyway... yes Mister Hamsen points out that the nurses were girls from the city entertainment industry, but if they were dressed as nurses and working as nurses probably they had been hired as that... I doubt Chiang would been able to order them out...). too often he excuses NRA bad behavior on ground of expediency while highlighting similar cases on the other side, certainly the account seems a bit biased.

Yet the two real problems are a certain fascination with the German advisors and their supposed superior knowledge of tactics (but sadly Mister Hamsen is not up to date to late WW1 infantry tactics). Stoss tactics were neither that revolutionary nor that effective without proper firepower (and they also emphasized mobile firepower). And his constant Monday quarterbacking on command decision. Yes the NRA could have cut through the international settlement, but that would have olnyl added the international troops to the battle on the Japanese side. He seems to ignore the shanghai garrison and assume that they would have let Chinese troops in the international settlement freely. A discussion of tactics and divisional organization would have certainly helped.

Said that I am still thinking that this book is a necessary addition to the bookshelf of any military historian interested in the second Sino-Japanese war.
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Finally there is a good book on World War 2 in China.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union there has been much literature to expand on the eastern front in Europe as our attention here in the West has understandably been on the exploits of the Western powers against Germany and to a lesser extent Japan and Italy. But until now the conflict of Japan and China has been a dark black hole outside China and even there it has just recently emerged as a serious study since the efforts of Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalists was downplayed after the communist victory at the end of 1949.

This book goes a long way. It tells of the start of the official war between the Nationalist and Japan. Ironically assisted by German advisors Chiang Kai-Shek decided to bring Japan to war on his terms, not in north China, still controled by warlords and hardly under unified China but to the international city of Shanghai. It gives good insight into the difficulties of the Chinese Army and the brutal conflict that followed. As for the battle there is a detailed narrative and good account, much more than in almost any other book you will find. At the same time you are given an account of the bigger picture and the aftermath.

The book includes good maps and interesting photos.

This is an excellent start into the most neglected part of World War 2 and hopefully a begining of a new area.
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on 5 September 2015
A dress-rehearsal for WW2

Given the contemporary rise of China, the focus has rightly fallen on China's past, and how the country came to be where it is today.

Key to that history is the history of nationalist China under Chiang Kai Shek, and Communist China under Mao Zedong, two men, who between them, would shape China's future, for better or for worse.

Shanghai 1937, is but a chapter in that long struggle between Mao and Chiang, and an epic tale it is too boot.

Incensed at Imperial Japan's Kwantung army running amok in Northern China (annexing Chinese territory at will) and having finally been persuaded to bury the hatchet with Mao, and unite China against Japan's aggression, Chiang decided to make a stand against the Japanese at Shanghai.

In many ways, Chiang's hand was forced. A savage battle would lose him many of his best trained divisions, but reluctance to stand up to Japanese aggression would potentially lose him his political base.

What followed was a bloody precursor to the epic street battles of Stalingrad 5 years later.

Harmsen does a great job of chronicling the background, the bloody battles, the courage of the Chinese, and highlights China's unlikely ally, Germany, providing assistance in the form of military advisors.

At times it reads like a thriller, and was hard to put down.

A great book for any student of Chinese history.
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on 15 April 2015
I was looking forward to reading this book. In the UK we have an almost shameful Eurocentric view of the Second World War. How it started in 1939, and so on. It is fitting to argue that the war started some time before that, in the Pacific, and that, after Russia, China was the worst hit country of the entire conflict.
However, this book just did not hold my interest. I found almost too much detail, day to day events, but little interpretation. I also had problems with the style, just didn't work for me.
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on 9 June 2013
Its popularly believed that WWII began in September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland but the author believes the beginning was actually in August 1937 when the Chinese Army was forced to attack the Japanese who were escalating their buildup on the mainland to free itself from the ever increasing menace of foreign domination. After you read this intriguing book you may agree with the author.
Mr Harmsen, a foreign correspondent in China and the Far East for twenty years, has done a splendid job in recreating the events leading up to as well as the key events of this little known battle.

This overview presents not only the strategic but also the tactical and human interest aspects of this nearly three month campaign that pitted the larger Chinese force against a well defended and motivated enemy with superior air and artillery support along with technological advantages. The Japanese also had a more coherent battle plan that along with the other advantages just mentioned would inflict huge losses on Chiang Kai-shek's best divisions and force them to give up on trying to retake this key city though partisan actions would continue, giving the Japanese little rest while they controlled the city.
This battle story is infused and enhanced with many first hand accounts of leading officers, front line soldiers and civilians who were caught up between the warring sides. These individual accounts add to the appeal and truly enhance the overall readability of the story.

I would have preferred greater tactical details on the order of a David Glantz presentation, yet I was still impressed with this book. The author has done a nice job of presenting the prewar background, main events of the three month urban struggle, many first hand accounts, post battle life in the city and the long term impact this battle had on the participants for the rest of the war and beyond.
In addition to battle events, the author also presents a realistic description and appraisal of the flaws and virtues of command relationships and their decisions and the impact those decisions had on and off the battlefield. The combine package gives the reader a good overall understanding of the book.

This book also has a few good maps, an Order of Battle, a decent Notes Section and a helpful Bibliography if you want to extend your research.

If you have an interest in the Far East and how the antagonism between China and Japan grew into a major confrontation, this book will go a long way to inform and is recommended.
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on 22 January 2016
Peter is the first western writer to touch on this subject for a very very long time. Bravo! As a Chinese this is not a new battle, something we learn from school. Its a good book, but I find like many war books poor maps let a what is otherwise a good tale down
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on 27 May 2013
Enjoyed reading this book, gives good perspective into the "flesh on steel" China's army attempted to use on the Japanese in their Shanghai offensive. Anyone interested in the Sino-Japanese war should give this a read.
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on 26 December 2013
About the Second Chinese-Japanese war , a lot it is still unclear and debated between historians , as for example when it has begun: 1941 , because at that time it has begun WWII on the Pacific front; 1937, because at that time it has happened the first official fight between the Chinese Nationalist Army and the Japanese Army; 1931, because at that time it has happened the Japanese invasion of the Manchuria , that was not at all pacific but that had lasted for two years.
Anyway for sure one of the main battles of this long war it has been the battle for Shanghai on 1937, because of the importance of the town, that was (and it is even now) the main Chinese economical center ; because it had been an important attempt , of the Chinese, to stop the invasion of the North of the China (Peking, Tientsin..) attacking the Japanese troops present in the International Compound of Shanghai; finally because of the number and the high quality of the Chinese troops involved.
Indeed, in this attack the Chinese troops were the best ones, trained by GERMAN officers sent there from the Weimar Republic and kept there by the Nazist Governement.
The book is very detailed, full of first hand accounts, it gives you a vivid description about how was the life in the town and in the International Compound that remained almost intact after months of fights, because of his extraterritoriality.
A must for all the passionate of city-fightings and for all the people interested about the Chinese history and WWII
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on 26 January 2014
The Second Sino-Japanese War is almost unknown to the English speaking world but Peter Harmsen's excellent book covers the subject brilliantly. The battle for Shanghai, one of the first major urban conflicts in the 20th century and a precursor to what would come to be on the Eastern Front.

It walks you through the battles and events using accounts from all involved parties to paint a vivid picture of the war for civillians and soldiers alike, complimented with several pages of photographs thanks to the heavy presence of war correspondents from many countries, providing great, clear images of the unique German-trained infantry divisons of the Chinese army and the Japanese invaders.

I was enthralled from start to finish and hope the author considers wiritng more books on major battles in a conflict tha ultimately merged into the Second World War where millions fought and died yet there is so little spoken about it.
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