Written by Peter Harmsen.

For three months during the fall of 1937, hundreds of thousands of Chinese and Japanese soldiers clashed in a titanic battle in and around Shanghai. China’s largest city was the scene of fierce street fighting, while the paddy fields outside the urban areas became reminiscent of the trenches of France and Flanders twenty years earlier. It was a drama that millions of newspaper readers at home and abroad followed with intense interest.

Nearly everywhere there was fighting, there were also journalists and photographers – not only Chinese and Japanese but also westerners. International public opinion was extremely important, and knowledge that the whole world was watching shaped the conduct of war on both sides. The battle for Shanghai was fought in the media as well as at the front. In that respect it was much more similar to later wars like Vietnam or Gulf War I and II than is generally recognized.

In strategic terms, the battle for Shanghai marked Nationalist China’s bid to move the centre of gravity in the war with Japan from the north Chinese plain to the densely populated and economically vital provinces at the mouth of the Yangtze further south. Why exactly China’s leader Chiang Kai-shek decided to do so is still a matter of debate. But there is little doubt that the presence of large foreign interests in Shanghai was significant. It may be that he, rather optimistically, hoped to achieve foreign involvement. It’s also possible that, more realistically, he was trying to build up sympathy abroad for the long run.[1]

Thinking in those terms made sense, since a foreign audience – a large one – had existed in Shanghai for nearly a century. Sizeable foreign communities had gradually evolved along the Huangpu River, tempted by the endless promise of commerce, and special arrangements had allowed them to set up two districts in the center of the city, the International Settlement and the French Concession. They were the archetypal western enclaves in Asia, small pieces of Europe transplanted to the banks of the Yangtze that lived according to their own laws in isolation from the rest of China.

The unique status of the foreign parts of Shanghai gave the entire battle its special flavor. Neither warring party wished to risk the international opprobrium that would have been the consequence if they had taken the war directly into territory inhabited by foreigners. In the early stages of the battle, when the Japanese defenders consisted of a few thousand marines squeezed into a narrow perimeter along the Huangpu River, the Chinese could possibly have dealt a decisive blow by attacking through the foreign areas, hitting the enemy’s flanks and rear – but they didn’t. Likewise for the Japanese, when they had the upper hand later on.

As a result only a small number of expatriates were killed during the three-month battle. Instead the foreign communities became charmed spectators in a theater of violence and destruction that was taking place all around them. An almost surreal state of affairs developed. “It was as though Verdun had happened on the Seine, in full view of a Right Bank Paris that was neutral,” wrote American correspondent Edgar Snow, “as though a Gettysburg were fought in Harlem, while the rest of Manhattan remained a non-belligerent observer.” [2]

It was within this context that foreign correspondents enjoyed nearly perfect conditions for covering one of the fiercest conflicts of the interwar years. They could visit one side of the front-line in the morning, the other side in the early afternoon, and go back to their comfortable hotels in the International Settlement well before deadline to finish their report without fear of being censored by anyone. The Japanese and the Chinese combatants also made sure that their respective daily briefings for the international press were helpfully spaced out, so that one-man bureaus could manage to attend both and not miss anything. At the same time, there was no denying that compared with average wars, this was a fairly comfortable one for the western correspondents. They could return from a busy day at the barricades or in the trenches to be pampered at five-star hotels, or watch nighttime shelling from the cool comfort of the rooftop bar.

Despite the relative luxury, it was a hectic time. Like today, Shanghai was a well-known city in 1937, with an air of exotic adventure, and the world wanted to be informed about what happened to it. Major newspapers like The New York Times, The Manchester Guardian and Le Figaro carried frequent front-page stories from the Far Eastern battlefield. Newspaper readers followed the battle with a 24-hour delay at most, and not least the plight of the civilian population struck a chord. It was only a few months after terror from the air had rained on the town of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War, and the world community was gradually waking up to the terrible possibilities of modern warfare.

The reporters didn’t mince their words when bringing their stories to the breakfast tables of the west. In an age that strictly controlled what could be shown on film, there were paradoxically few inhibitions about what could be written in the papers. “Here was a headless man, there a baby’s foot, wearing its little red-silk shoe embroidered with fierce dragons,” foreign correspondent Percy Finch wrote after Chinese bombs had accidentally fallen in crowded streets. “One body, that of a young boy, was flattened high against a wall, to which it hung with ghastly adhesion.” [3]

Both the Japanese and the Chinese knew full well that the fight was waged not just on the battlefield, but also in the world’s newspapers. To take one example: Whoever was caught using gas – a weapon that had been seen as the ultimate horror of the Great War and still lingered in the public mind as the epitome of human depravity – would immediately be vilified around the world, and as a result accusations and counter-accusations of gas use were regular events.

Despite their efforts to ingratiate themselves with the western public, neither side could entirely cover up the brutal manner in which they were fighting. Foreign correspondents couldn’t help but notice a curious lack of prisoners in both camps. As a rule, captives were lucky to survive for a few hours, and only then because they were believed to be of intelligence value. But nearly all ended up dead eventually. Dead bodies floating down the city’s Suzhou Creek, often carrying clear signs of torture, became a familiar sight in the fall of 1937. The vast majority of the bodies were, of course, Chinese.

The mood among the foreign correspondents was overwhelmingly pro-Chinese. The daily Japanese briefings, usually carried out by mid-level officers from the army or the navy, often developed into tense and openly hostile exchanges with especially British and American reporters.[4] It’s easy to think of reason for the bias in favor of China. Japan was clearly the aggressor, and the behavior of its army won it few friends. It was a David and Goliath story in reverse, with the small and aggressive Japanese David battering away at the huge and weak Chinese Goliath.

For Chiang Kai-shek, world public opinion appears to have been a constant concern during the three months that the battle lasted. It may not only have determined why he started the battle, but also how he ended it. As the fighting slowly drew to a close, he was reluctant to give up Shanghai, even though his soldiers were dying by the thousands defending ground that was almost surely lost anyway. Rumors circulated among field commanders that he wanted the battle to last until November 13, so he could say the battle has lasted for three months.

However, a more decisive factor may have been the Brussels Conference, called in early November to allow a number of mostly industrialized nations to discuss the crisis in the Far East. By keeping the battle located in and around Shanghai, a city everyone in the west knew about, it would be much more obvious to the participants at the meeting what was at stake. If on the other hand the battle moved on into the Chinese countryside, affecting little villages and hamlets with unpronounceable named that no-one had ever encountered before, the sense of urgency would disappear.

Concern about world public opinion manifested itself in other ways as well. The battle for the Four Banks Warehouse on the north bank of Suzhou Creek, where 400 Chinese soldiers were holed up for several days against overwhelming Japanese forces was one bloody, drawn-out public relations exercise. The battle served no tactical purpose as that part of the city had already been evacuated. Perched near the edge of the International Settlement, a heroic stand at the warehouse simply helped show to the world that there was still fight in the Chinese. The 400 soldiers became known as “The Lost Battalion” and seized the imagination of the world for a short while before withdrawing to safety. The fight cost a large number of lives on both sides, but it may have done more than anything else happening on the Shanghai front to attract western attention to China’s plight.

Even so, as the battle for the city dragged on and ground its way towards its bloody end, the novelty wore off, and the resident correspondents slowly saw themselves partly reverting to their old peacetime beats. One of them, Carroll Alcott of the Associated Press, later reminisced about a typical day in Shanghai in late 1937: The morning spent witnessing a major battle between China and Japanese, followed by a walk through streets littered with gore after an air attack, culminating in a courtroom watching a case against a gang of jewelry thieves led by a dubious character known as Hatchet-Face Rosie.[5]

Despite heavy risk-taking among the western correspondents, only one of them was killed in the course of the entire three-month struggle for Shanghai. Pembroke Stephens of the Daily Telegraph was shot through the head by a sniper, in all likelihood Japanese, on November 11, Armistice Day. It was the very last day of the battle, which may have been the reason why he lost his life.[6] The Japanese may have started to care less about the impact they made on western public opinion. They may even have decided to deliberately target a foreign journalist to vent anger over the bad press they got in the west. Anyway, as the battle for Shanghai petered out, overseas public opinion was starting to matter less. Soon the war moved inland, and the world lost interest, directing its attention elsewhere.

Peter Harmsen is a correspondent for French news agency AFP and author of the recent book Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze.

[1] Taylor, Jay. Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China. Cambridge MA: Belknap, pp. 147-148; Paine, S.C.M. The Wars for Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 131.

[2] Snow, Edgar. The Battle for Asia. Cleveland OH: The World Publishing Company, 1941, p. 45.

[3] Finch, Percy. Shanghai and Beyond. New York NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953, pp. 255-256.

[4] Schenke, Wolf. Reise and der gelben Front. Berlin: Gerhard Stalling Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1941, pp. 19-20.

[5] Alcott, Carroll. My War with Japan. New York: Henry Holt, 1943, p. 149.

[6] A Japanese reporter, Iwakura Tomokata of Hochi daily, lost his life to a Chinese shell in the middle of October.