Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze - Peter Harmsen

This review has been submitted to Sabretache Magazine. 

Title: Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze
Author: Peter Harmsen
ISBN: 978-1-61200-167-8
Publisher: Casemate
Year: 2015
Pages: 310
Photos/Maps: 76/9

The war between Japan and the Chinese has to a great extent been eclipsed by the world conflict in Europe and the Pacific. Nevertheless, the fighting between the two Asian powers was catastrophic to the people of China and a clear precursor to the style of warfare that Japan would undertake in the near future throughout the Pacific. Harmsen’s work on the fighting in Shanghai, a city steeped in intrigue and an international hub, sheds a disturbing and fascinating light onto the nature and dynamic of Far Eastern conflict.

His writing style is easy to follow and encapsulates the strategic and operational focus of operations as well as the experiences of the individual soldiers and officers on each side. He astutely analyzes the doctrinal challenges and strengths of the opposing armies and the role that the international community played as the battle unfolded. Specifically, the role of the German army advisors to the Chinese military is discussed in some detail, shedding light on the challenges and frustrations associated with those working in an advisory capacity.

Additionally, Harmsen discusses the weaknesses of the Japanese and Chinese armies and their slavish adherence to orders and doctrine. Initiative was not a strength that was promoted and this resulted in significant loss of personal and missed opportunity; this was further exacerbated by the nature of the command structure of these armies. The adherence to national doctrine also resulted in each army being able to anticipate exactly how their adversary was going to respond or react to a given situation further aggravating losses.

This weakness was offset by a deep belief in their causes amongst the soldiers. This strength of character of the individual soldiers manifested itself in their incredible ability to overcome adversity and horrific conditions. Despite poor logistics and medical support (and its resultant deprivations), the fighting men on each side continued to undertake operations in horrendous environments, in the full knowledge that surrender or capture by either side was not an option.

Another noteworthy aspect of this work is the study of the lack of empathy and humanity shown by each side in the conduct of operations. Specifically on the Japanese side, this willingness to treat both uniformed adversaries and civilians to the most terrible of atrocities (regardless of their involvement or age) reveals not only a precursor to future behaviours but a weakness in both command and an understanding of the nature of winning the hearts and minds of subdued populations.

Casemate’s publication is of excellent quality with a slightly larger font for easy reading. A comprehensive bibliography and notes section add depth and dimension to the narrative. Harmsen’s book is balanced and very readable; he has ensured a human face to the tragedy that was this battle. There is much to be learned by this insightful work; not the least of which is an appreciation of the psyche of the Chinese and Japanese soldier.

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