Sunday, 7 May 2017

Nanjing1937: Battle for a Doomed City - Peter Harmsen

This review has been submitted to Sabretache Journal.

Title: Nanjing1937: Battle for a Doomed City
Author: Peter Harmsen
ISBN: 978-1-61200-28-2
Publisher: Casemate
Year: 2015
Pages: 336
Photographs/Maps: 52/12

            The Sino-Japanese War which precluded but was, for the most art, eclipsed by World War 2, was a particularly vicious conflict in which the Japanese were notorious for their particularly brutal approach to warfare. Harmsen’s book follows on his last work about the fall of Shanghai and the continuing fight between the two powers. Many of the Japanese and Chinese units initially introduced in the Shanghai work continue to be followed as they march and fight east to Nanjing. Nanjing was important to the Kai-shek government as its capital and the symbology of being the final resting place of Sun Yat-sen, the founder of modern China. For the Japanese, it was viewed as the last remaining major city that they needed to capture in order to force the surrender of the Chinese.

            Hansen has done a good job with his narrative covering the period running from the fall of Shanghai to the fall of Nanjing. He provides a clear picture of the difficulty of operations, both offensive and defensive, faced by the opposing forces as a result of challenging weather conditions, unreliable logistics, poor reconnaissance and a hostile population (for the Japanese). He also explains the important role of the international community in creating a safe haven environment for civilians as well as eyewitness accounts of the nature and ferocity of the fighting; including the conduct of the combatant armies towards property and civilians.

            The battle for Nanjing has become synonymous with rape, murder and pillage on the part of the Japanese. Harmsen not only discusses this as part of the overall discussion but he also brings attention to perhaps the two most significant questions relating to this particular portion of the war. Those being: how much of the direction, conduct and control of the war was actually exercised by Tokyo and why was it that the Japanese conducted themselves so appallingly in their treatment of the Chinese? The author does not undertake enough analysis of these questions for the satisfaction of the reader. He certainly does not ignore them and he does suggest reasons for the actions and the loss of control such as the frustration felt by the Japanese at the lack of appreciation on the part of the Chinese at their liberation. Unfortunately, given the depth and breadth of the brutality and the complete absence of humanity in the Japanese treatment towards the Chinese civilians, it would be assumed that a deeper more comprehensive discussion would have been undertaken by the author. Similarly, the obvious loss of strategic control by the Japanese high command and its government to the commanders of the Central China Area Army was another area where a more comprehensive analysis may have helped to understand better the Japanese command climate and societal influences on their approach to war.

            Certainly one area that is well covered and is worthy of standalone research is the role of the Soviet Union in the battle. Having essentially wiped out the Chinese Air Force, the Japanese had command of the air. The Soviets intervened and provided pilots, ground crew and aircraft in support of Kai-shek’s forces. While this did not alter the tide of battle, it did cause considerable difficulty for the Japanese forces in the area. The author does a commendable job at tracing the roots of this assistance and its impact.

            Overall however, Harmsen has done a very good job at relating the nature and the scope of the conflict surrounding the fall of Nanjing. His book is well researched and makes for fascinating reading, touching as it does the spectrum of perspectives from the strategic to the tactical and both local and international observations. His research is comprehensive and his writing style engaging. The books production value is very high. This book is recommended for those wishing to garner an appreciation of the nature of war in the far east before the western powers became engaged.

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