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By Kevin Knodell,War Is Boring

Today Shanghai is a hub of international trade and culture and one of the world’s great cities. But in 1937, it was a battlefield. Imperial Japanese troops fought the Chinese Nationalist army in the seaside metropolis in one of history’s most terrible battles.

Westerners watched from their neighborhoods as two ancient rivals fought a new kind of war. Soldiers turned homes and businesses into fighting positions. Aerial bombing and artillery smashed ancient neighborhoods. In the course of a few months the combatants leveled entire sections of the city.

In his book Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze, journalist Peter Harmsen chronicles what is, to outsiders, a largely forgotten battle. Harmsen spent two years as a foreign correspondent in East Asia, including as bureau chief for Agence France-Presse.

In Western minds, World War II began with the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. But for the people of East Asia, the war began two years earlier with the Japanese invasion of China — and would continue after Germany’s surrender in May 1945.

Only the Russian front could rival the Chinese front in terms of raw bloodshed. And only the Russian front’s apocalyptic Battle of Stalingrad could match the intensity and brutality of the Shanghai fighting.

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At top — Chinese troops guard an intersection from behind fortified positions. Above — Japanese marines move through the rubble of Shanghai. Photos via Wikipedia

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Tokyo expected to quickly seize Shanghai. But the Chinese proved much more resilient than the Japanese expected. The battle lasted for months, killing thousands of soldiers and untold numbers of civilians.

Though the Chinese army lost the battle, it showed Japan’s leaders that they would pay a high price for every inch of China territory seized.

Harmsen recounts the battle from several perspectives. He cites the accounts of Chinese and Japanese soldiers and civilians and Western observers. The breadth of primary sources indicates a staggering amount of detective work on the author’s part.

But Shanghai 1937 isn’t just exhaustive. It’s actually … fun. Harmsen invests the story with propulsive urgency.

The story begins like a murder mystery, explaining how the deaths of three Japanese marines and a man wearing a Chinese uniform sparked the battle. The murders help to illustrate the complex politics of pre-war Shanghai and the role crooked politicians and gangsters played in events. But intrigue soon escalates into open warfare.

The scenes of battle are vivid and visceral. But they also clearly explicate the strategic and tactical factors that determined the battle’s outcome.

The Japanese had a distinct technological advantage. But they ultimately underestimated the creativity and resolve of the Chinese infantry as the Chinese transformed the rubble into a labyrinth of traps and ambushes.

The book also delves into some of the stranger aspects of the war’s early days, such as the involvement of German advisers on the Chinese side. Other odd characters include duplicitous warlords and gruff war correspondents.

Shanghai 1937 is a superb examination of an important battle that many have all but forgotten.

This piece was originally published by War Is Boring in 2016

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