Eight Hundred Heroes
China’s Lost Battalion and the Fall of Shanghai
Gosford, NSW: Exisle Publishing, 2022
Hardcover 304pp RRP $49.99
Reviewer: Rob Ellis, August 2022
This is an unusual book in that it refers to an event that took place in Shanghai, during the Sino-Japanese War that had commenced in 1931 - Initially as a peacekeeping operation and which developed into a full-scale and bloody war in 1937.
The event was a defence of the Warehouse located in the Zhabel District of Shanghai, by Nationalist or Kuomintang troops of the Chinese 88th Division against Japanese marines and troops of the Japanese 11th ‘Lucky’ and 3rd Divisions which became involved in the Battle of Shanghai, a densely settled city of some 3 million people. The warehouse, which had been strongly built, backed onto the Suzhou Creek which was crossed by a narrow bridge which led into the British Concession, which had a protective garrison of three British infantry battalions and was part of the international settlement of Shanghai.
The mind battle had gone against the Chinese who retired westward leaving 240 men of the 88th division as a rearguard with orders to hold the warehouse to the last man. this order was later revised by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, and the unit commander LTCOL Xie Jinyuan led the survivors of his rear guard into the British Concession where they were interned and later handed over to the Japanese as prisoners of war.
At this point the story of the real rearguard action becomes fictionalised, as propaganda to encourage support for the Nationalist cause. The 240 men involved was suddenly claimed to be 800, They did not fight to the last man as originally ordered but were withdrawn on a direct order from Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, and the escape was achieved with the cooperation of the British troops garrisoning the Concessional Settlement on the south bank of the Suzhou Creek.
The siege which lasted all of three days became the subject of four films all known as The Eight Hundred Heroes, and a popular song Eight Hundred Heroes who Shook the World was later used by both Nationalist and Communist parties to mythologize the 240 [not 800] heroes of the defence of the Sihang Warehouse.
Briefly the films claimed wide audiences in several countries, and briefly increased international support for the Nationalist Chinese cause. At least one version produced by the People's Republic of China was used in an attempt to go in wider acceptance of the Communist Party’s government, Although there had not been any communist troops among the Sihang Warehouse defenders.
The Japanese had disadvantages during the siege. They were only able to use small calibre artillery pieces Risk that heavier artillery may carry into the British Concession and create an international incident which the Japanese wanted to avoid at that time. also the entire action was clearly visible from the hotels and rooftops of the British Settlement, which meant European an American journalists were able to provide eyewitness accounts of the engagement to their newspapers and magazines. The publicity generated support for Chiang's government, but showings of the later Communist Party film did not gather as much support - perhaps because of the addition of fictional characters and events. To show the defenders as Communist Party troops was seen as a misuse of the incident as purely propaganda for the Party and not as a recognition of the bravery of Kuomintang officers and men.
Overall this book, which is well researched and attractively presented, gives a good insight into the tangled threads of the military and ideological conflicts in China between the fall of Imperial rule in China just before World War I and the rise to power of the Communists after the defeat of Japan by the Western allies in 1945. It will be of interest to any student of Chinese political and diplomatic developments in the years between the Great Depression of 1929-1935 and the ascension to power of Mao Zedong, with Russian support, in the aftermath of World War I.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.