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Book Reviews

#WavellReviews Eight Hundred Heroes by Stephen Robinson

Eight Hundred Heroes: China’s Lost Battalion and the Fall of Shanghai is available from Exisle Publishing

Eight Hundred Heroes tells the story of a ‘lost battalion’ of Nationalist Chinese soldiers fighting against the Japanese in 1937.  It focuses on a week of fighting around the Sihang Warehouse in October in Shanghai.  It is a story embedded in Chinese culture and a fight witnessed in real-time by numerous Western journalists.

The bottom line of this review is that Eight Hundred Heroes is an excellent book.  It’s exceptionally well-researched, engagingly written, and, frankly, just really good.  Eight Hundred Heroes covers a part of history that the average Western reader will ignore.  Western military readers will often choose to focus on more familiar territory and battles (and not to mention languages), but Eight Hundred Heroes offers an opportunity to read outside our comfort zone.  By the end of it I was motivated to read more about the Chinese soldiering (a phrase covering both nationalist and communist soldiers) and their fight against the Japanese.

The story

Eight Hundred Heroes gives a blow-by-blow account of the infamous (from an Eastern perspective) battle around the warehouse.  Led by Lieutenant Colonel Xie Jinyuan, a Chinese battalion holds a strong point North of the international settlements of Shanghai.

As the Japanese advanced, the Chinese Army withdrew, leaving a battalion to fight.  This single sentence doesn’t set out the strategic and tactical context of how the battalion, and its commander, were selected to defend the warehouse.  The Chinese had already withdrawn from the district and there was no tactical value to the battle.  The battle was an information operation.  One which has had long-term impact beyond that of many of the more commonly researched military history from the Western world.  Inside that sentence themes of mindset and professionalism, not to mention military psychology and honour and duty, bounce around challenging our perceptions of why we fight.

The Chinese Army understood the location of the warehouse; it was hundreds of metres away from the international settlements and connected by a bridge guarded by the British Army.  The battle was therefore watched and photographed in near real-time by journalists and Chinese observers.  This offers a rich vein of photographs and primary accounts for Robinson to draw on.

The text draws on many of these primary sources and imagery to tell the story of the battle.  The gripping chapters use first-hand accounts to show how the ‘eight hundred’ defended the strongpoint and the odds they faced.  The text talks about the mentality of the soldiers and picks out significant events in the battle.

Arguably the most significant was the arrival of a (nationalist) Chinese flag.  Delivered by a girl guide, the flag was planted on top of the strongpoint and served as a symbol of defiance against the Japanese attackers.  But the broader significance and narrative of the flag and its delivery are topics throughout the book.  Is the truth the truth?  There are more accounts of battlefield heroism and tactical victories.  Lots of been losts in decades of historiography and politics.  But Stephen Robinson highlights the debates and what they mean with an easy style offering fascinating insights.

And after?

Near the end of the battle the Chinese withdrew over the New Lease Bridge through the British checkpoint.  What actually happened is a hot topic in history – did the British assist the Chinese withdrawal (probably), and were the Chinese betrayed by the British, sending them into confinement for the duration of the war?  There are more questions than answers.  Eight Hundred Heroes allows you to consider the evidence for yourself. 

Eight Hundred Heroes follows the survivors of the battalion into detention and often death.  Held by White Russian forces, they spent years in captivity as the Japanese Empire expanded across Asia.  The battalion commander is assassinated by four of his own soldiers and they are the topic of hot discussion across strategic discussions.

What else?

If you think this book is about a battle, you would only be partly right.  The majority of the text focuses on what the battle meant.  Stephen Robinson sets out that the defence of the warehouse was only a footnote in the wider defence against Japanese attacks.  

Unlike comparable military texts, Eight Hundred Heroes focuses more on the historiography and filmography of the battle and how it has been represented.  Arguably, these chapters are more interesting than the (fascinating) narrative of the fight itself.  

From the political ramifications in Taiwan in recent history to how Communist China engaged with the herrorism of the ‘eight hundred’ Stephen Robinson’s text makes the topic accessible. Robinson’s style brings highly complex and sensitive issues to life with a readable text.  It offers a comprehensive analysis of the impact of a small battalion making a strategic and political difference.

Should I read it?

Eight Hundred Heroes is absolutely fascinating.  It is well written, readable, well researched, and brings to life a topic that only a few military readers will have knowledge about.  These reasons alone make it worth your time.  But Robinson’s text also offers a broader perspective that military readers often miss.  The impact of tactical actions on culture and politics – the ‘eight hundred’ provides a case study that many of us would simply ignore with a focus on more familiar history. 

 

The Wavell Room Team

The Wavell Room Team are a bunch of enthusiastic individuals who believe strongly in constructive debate, discussion and openness in order to arrive at a sound, non-bias and informed position on many subjects.  The team are all volunteers and support this non-profit in their own time.

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