Why is the contribution of China during the Second World War not more prominent in popular & military history?


Between 1937-39, the Cambridge Daily News frequently ran headlines reporting the atrocities carried out by invading forces of Imperial Japan. Yet the high level of reporting in newspapers of the time don’t seem to have transferred into popular history. Why is this?

I was in the Cambridgeshire Collection again today, and the big thing I took away was the repeated headlines of news in the Far East of Japan’s war against China that exploded into conflict in 1937 after a very uneasy peace following Japan’s occupation of Manchuria and large areas of northern China in the early 1930s – which resulted in Imperial Japan leaving the League of Nations.

Just as the repeated headlines of the Spanish Civil War (and the paralysis of UK foreign policy in the face of that aggression was something I found exhausting reading earlier this week, the headlines today were just as shocking. What really struck me was that there were several incidents that, in any other time would have led to a military response from the British.


From the Cambridge Daily News, August 1937, in the Cambridgeshire Collection

The third screenshot shows the aftermath of an incident where the British Ambassador to China was injured in an air attack on his car by a Japanese plane. This incident involving soldiers from Northern Ireland was also reported. At the time, Shanghai was a highly-developed city, occupied by a coalition of forces from the colonial powers of the day. Hence why the British were there. And the cartoonist/satirist David Low, spent those same years tearing into the governments of Baldwin and Chamberlain over their foreign policies – the cartoons below coming from this book I found in a charity shop ages ago.


David Low – A Pageant of Politics, 1938

These were serious times – here’s the Mayor of Cambridge visiting a model office at Boots on Petty Cury (The store’s still there give or take some major rebuilding work) which is supposedly resistance to a poison gas attack.


From the Cambridge Daily News, October 1937, in the Cambridgeshire Collection

Above – Ronald Searle satirising events in Cambridge on the week Mayor Briggs visited Boots.

It was also a time when anti-war protests were becoming more prominent – as were the preparations for war following an increase in defence spending announced in the Budget earlier that year.

The thing is…Cambridge was still building stuff


As the photos above via the Cambridgeshire Collection show, work on The Guildhall and a new crematorium continued and a new Synagogue and a new secondary school (Coleridge – today part of the Parkside Federation) were opened.

So in one sense, life carried on as normal, yet in another sense, they were incredibly dark times. As I said to a couple of people this week, how many government ministers of Stanley Baldwin’s and Neville Chamberlain’s pro-appeasement pro-non-intervention governments can you recall? Compare that with Churchill’s wartime coalition.

“What’s this got to do with war in the Far East?”

The best book on this subject area is Forgotten Ally, by Rana Mitter. Note in the title the conflict is listed as being from 1937-45. In popular historical culture some people complain that the USA only refer to WWII being from 1941-45 – i.e. from Pearl Harbour. For other parts of the world, the conflict began far earlier than autumn 1939.

Further more, the war in the Far East was perhaps much more significant for Cambridge than it was for other parts of the UK. For a start, academics fleeing from the dictatorships would end up in Cambridge one way or another. And Cambridge would give them a platform on which they could talk about what was going on. Accordingly, the local newspapers would report what was going on.


The Liberal Party held their national summer school at the University Arms Hotel in Cambridge in 1937, and the last headline speaker was Dr Moritz Bonn of the then banned SPD (Social Democrats of Germany) – and was on the list of persons to be rounded up by the nazis had they succeeded in invading Britain. Searching the digitised list of names, 65 entries return from the search term “Cambridge”. Sobering indeed.


Above – from the Cambridgeshire Collection, the visit by Professor Peng Chun who managed to evade invading Japanese forces before heading to Europe to speak about the war in the Far East.

1937 Resolution following Prof Peng Chun talk in Cambridge.jpg

Above – the resolution passed by a number of societies in Cambridge in October 1937.


Solidarity between Indian and Chinese students in Cambridge in 1937 – even before the Second World War, and even before the First, Cambridge had a number of students from India and China studying at Cambridge University.

The Fall of Singapore in 1942

The final reason why events in the Far East are significant to Cambridge in particular is because the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Cambridgeshire Regiment were sent on a doomed mission to defend the so-called Fortress of Singapore in early 1942. Newspapers of the late 1930s reported on the large military spending on Singapore, but to little effect it seemed. Diverted halfway through their voyage originally to the Middle East, and having received limited training for mobile warfare, they were thrown into the jungles of Malaya and the siege of Singapore before being surrendered by General Percival in what was possibly the biggest defeat for British and Empire military forces in its history. One of the soldiers captured was Ronald Searle. And as this article recalls, many did not survive the horrors of the prison camps.

The war in Burma

The Chinese played an incredibly important role in the fight against Imperial Japan – the figure I’ve seen quoted at various points is that the Japanese army had over a million soldiers stationed in China at the time of the surrender in 1945. The front on the China- Burma-India borders was where British and Indian forces – and also the 15,000 soldiers of the 82nd West African Division which included Nigerian soldiers who had smashed the Italian fascists out of modern day Somalia in the East African Campaign. According to this from the BBC, over a million soldiers from across Britain’s colonies in Africa were mobilised to fight in the Second World War. Not an insignificant amount of personnel. The jungles of Burma were scenes of some of the toughest fighting of the war.

“That being the case, why were they forgotten?”

Before the days of the internet you had people on TV coming out with stuff like this. Fair play to Richard Wilson aka Victor Meldrew (who during his national service in the 1950s was stationed at Singapore) for calling Manning out. I still remember one or two ignorant fools from my college days praising the latter even though we slammed him for his bigoted views. (As well as being factually incorrect, but by then the damage was done – it’s much harder to correct a lie after it has been mentioned on prime time TV). This was just one example.

The other issue perhaps was Cold War politics. The Government of China recognised by the UK and the USA was the regime led by General Chang Kai Shek and his nationalist movement, the KMT. His wife, known in the media as Madame Chiang Kai Shek, was a very fluent English speaker, and one of the most famous political figures of her day. This is her speaking to the US Congress.


Following the invasion by Japan, the conflict between Chang Kai Shek’s forces and Chairman Mao’s communists was halted. However, in 1946 it broke out again and by 1949, the latter had taken control of mainland China while the latter withdrew to the island of Taiwan, where it remained under American protection. As far as the US Government was concerned, the government in Taiwan remained the official representatives of the Republic of China (as opposed to the People’s Republic of China we are familiar with today) until President Nixon’s policy change in the early 1970s.

Thus in the decades that followed, it could have been that praising the efforts and sacrifices by nations under communism was ‘not the done thing’ as far as the British Establishment was concerned. Ditto perhaps with countries that were seeking independence from the UK. Personally I’ve not even scratched the surface of what the reasons might be. But it’s certainly an area worth reaching for a new generation of historians.

“Isn’t all of this just re-writing history?”

Not at all – because the history that I am talking about has already been written at the time. When it was written, it wasn’t called ‘history’, it was called ‘news’ and was written by journalists. All I’m doing is re-telling the stories as opposed to coming up with something new.

And for me it’s a reasonable question to ask fellow historians why the news reports of the time – the repeated news reports over an extended period of time – have not made it into the popular history books given the number, frequency and extended time frame those reports were being published in the newspapers of the time.




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