World War II Breaks Out: Manchuria and Mongolia in the 1930s CE

When dealing with history, as when dealing with many human experiences, simple questions frequently prompt false or misleading answers. Simple answers to such questions all too often betray ignorance, misunderstanding, prejudices, or a hidden agenda.

Even a question as seemingly straightforward as “When did the fighting in World War II start?” is rife with assumptions and potential ambiguities. Some Americans of my parents’ generation would answer that question confidently with “December 7, 1941 [CE], the attack on Pearl Harbor,” ignoring the conflicts in Europe and Asia that had been ongoing for some considerable time before that date.

Others would, like Auden in his masterful poem September 1, 1939, date the outbreak of the Second World War to Germany’s invasion of Poland.

A few less Eurocentric souls might argue for the Marco Polo Bridge [Lugou Qiao] incident near Beijing on July 7, 1937 as the beginning of the fighting.

But the Japanese official histories of the Second World War begin with the invasion of Manchuria in September of 1931, and however doubtful Japanese histories might be about the war’s causes and Japan’s crimes against humanity, I suspect they can be trusted when documenting with pride Japanese aggression.

The history of WWII in the East is often poorly understood in Europe and North America. Even the magnitude of China’s losses, numbering in the tens of millions, is debated.

Russia is generally considered to have made little or no contribution to the Allied effort in the Pacific Theater, but the first decisive victory of the war took place on the Mongolian – Manchurian border, when the Soviet Union’s troops under Zhukov shattered the Japanese Sixth army at Khalkhin Gol in a campaign from May to September, 1939 [the battles are often referred to as part of the Nomonhan Incident in Japanese sources].

The Russian victory was so overwhelming that the Japanese shifted the focus of their activities from expansion in Siberia to conquest of Eastern and Southeastern Asia, dooming Hong Kong, Singapore, and Indonesia, and eventually leading to the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Zhukov at Khalkhin Gol earned a fair claim to being first to fully implement and win a campaign using the coordinated air and tank envelopment attacks popularly known as Blitzkrieg. He is better known for going on to defeat the Germans in the following years.

The patent for the idea of Blitzkrieg, however, should probably be granted to Tukhachevsky, who called it “deep operations.” Tukhachevsky’s strategy was fundamental to many Soviet victories including those of Khalkhin Gol, Stalingrad, and key battles leading to the virtual destruction of Germany’s Army Group Center during the Soviet march to Berlin. Tukhachevsky never saw his theories put into action. He was executed in one of Stalin’s purges in June of 1937.

Just as Russia’s triumphs in World War II began in the East, they ended in the East with the Soviet victory parade liberating Manchuria in August of 1945. The Americans, worried about the possibility of needing to invade the Japanese home islands, had unnecessarily encouraged this effort. The Russians, using skills developed evacuating their factories in the face of advancing Germans, looted Manchuria’s industrial base to the best of their considerable abilities.

Further Reading:

• Alvin Coox’s magisterial study of the Khalkhin Gol conflict, Nomonhan, is usefully supplemented by Stuart Goldman’s discussion of the campaign’s broader implications in Nomonhan, 1939.

• The genesis and early stages of WWII in the East are usefully summarized in Willmott’s The Second World War in the East.

Russian and Japanese Overconfidence: 1905 CE – 1945 CE

One of my sisters held her wedding ceremony and reception at an early 20th century mountaintop mansion known as Castle in the Clouds, located in Moultonborough, New Hampshire. It was built in 1913 CE – 1914 CE by a wealthy shoe manufacturer who later went bankrupt following a series of bad investments, including a significant position in Imperial Russian bonds recommended to him by Theodore Roosevelt.

Teddy should have known better. He was instrumental in arranging the discussions that ended the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 – 1905. In 1906 Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his contributions to the Treaty of Portsmouth [New Hampshire], which was actually negotiated in facilities of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine.

The conflict basically arose over competition for Manchuria. It is typical of the times that the nominal ruler of the area, Qing Dynasty China, was not a significant player in events there. Korea was a secondary cause.

Japan initiated the war in February 1904 with a surprise attack on Russian boats in the harbor of Port Arthur, which is now known as Lüshunkuo, a district of Dalian in China’s Liaoning Province. Russia’s best ships in the East were disabled or trapped in the harbor.

Racism in Russia, Europe, and North America fed public consensus that Asians were not able to withstand modern military forces. Many westerners were surprized by Japan’s initial success, though the more perceptive had noted the effectiveness of the Japanese contingent sent to join the Allied campaign to suppress the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. Conventional wisdom outside of Japan expected that Russia would eventually emerge victorious, despite the inglorious record of the Russian navy.

After the death of the capable Vice Admiral Stepan Makarov, who was lost with his flagship to Japanese mines, Russian troops were thoroughly depressed by the demonstrated incompetence of their leaders. Russia’s bungled response to the Japanese fomented the discontent that ultimately led to the 1905 Revolution. This had a peculiar effect on the literary tastes of the nation: Milton’s Paradise Lost became a best-seller in Russian translation.

The Japanese destroyed Russia’s Asian fleet through torpedo attacks, mines, and land-based artillery targeting the Russian ships bottled up in Port Arthur’s harbor.

They subjected the city of Port Arthur to a siege that quickly evolved into a battle of attrition, with the Russians using barbed wire and machine guns to devastate Japanese frontal attacks. British observers of Japanese infantry forces at Port Arthur, including Sir Ian Hamilton, seem to have learned nothing from the battle, as their bungling at Gallipoli, remarkable even by English standards in World War I, would demonstrate.

In October of 1904 the Tsar sent Russia’s Baltic fleet to Asia in an attempt to reinforce Port Arthur.

Port Arthur, after a brave defense against land attacks, surrendered on January 2, 1905. Japanese casualties were heavy: about 58,000 killed and wounded, and approximately 40,000 more men lost to disease. The Russians casualties were higher than 31,000. Russia’s generals in Manchuria managed to lose Mukden [Shenyang] and most of their heavy equipment after the capitulation of Port Arthur. Their troops did, however, inflict casualties on Japan at a rate that the island nation could not long sustain.

Despite the fall of Port Arthur, the Baltic fleet was not recalled.

The Baltic fleet’s trip halfway around the world to Asia was from the start an epic journey that ranged from black comedy to bitter farce. Two ships ran aground in port. Mishaps at sea started in earnest when, fearing attack by Japanese torpedo boats, the Russians fired on some English fishing vessels while passing by Dogger Bank. The Russians were simply paranoid: there were no Japanese naval forces anywhere near the North Sea or English Channel. That only three English fishermen were killed, along with a Russian priest and sailor hit by friendly fire, is a testament to abysmal Russian gunnery: one battleship fired 500 shells without hitting anything.

War with Great Britain was narrowly averted, but the English closed the Suez Canal to the Russian fleet. This forced the Baltic armada to steam around Africa.

Coaling proved to be a major issue. When the Russians could obtain fuel, they piled their decks deep with it, a practice that created problems even before the time came for battle. Sailors died from the coal’s noxious fumes, as well as sunstroke, dysentery, suicide, and the suppression of mutiny. Admiral Rozhestvensky was told in Singapore that he would be relieved of command when he reached Vladivostok, a peculiar recognition of his accomplishment in bringing a motley fleet with green crews halfway around the world.

Lack of coal forced Rozhestvensky to route his fleet to Vladivostok between Japan and Korea, rather than safely east of Japan. Admiral Togo patiently and meticulously prepared an attack in the Tsushima Straights. His ships overtook the Russian fleet, dangerously turned in sequence before the Russians, then crossed the T on the Russians, positioning the Japanese ships to fire broadsides that the Russians could not answer.

The Russian armada had steamed over 6 months and 18,000 miles [29,000 km] to be utterly defeated by the Japanese fleet in the first half an hour of battle. By the end of the afternoon, Russia had lost four of its battleships, arguably the most modern in the world at the time.

By the end of the battle, Russia lost all eight battleships under Rozhestvensky’s command. Twenty-one Russian ships had been sunk; seven captured; six disarmed or interned. About 5,000 Russian sailors had been killed, with roughly 9,000 more captured or interned. Three Japanese torpedo boats were lost. Japanese dead totaled 117; wounded 583. Togo visited the severely wounded Rozhestvensky in a Japanese hospital, accompanied by a junior officer, Yamamoto, who was to lead Japan to victory at Pearl Harbor in 1941, and to crushing defeat in the Battle of Midway in 1942.

The peace negotiations Theodore Roosevelt arranged were less favorable to Japan than expected. Japan received Port Arthur, a free hand in Korea, and Southern Sakhalin Island, but no war indemnity from Russia. The Japanese negotiating team was not pleased by the results, but Japan’s economy and military were temporarily exhausted from the war.

There were riots in Tokyo when the terms of the treaty were publicized. The annexation of Korea in 1910 and increasing Japanese predominance in Manchuria eventually reconciled most of the country to the peace treaty. Japan’s invasion of Chinese Manchuria in September 1931 marks the start of World War II in Imperial Japanese records.

Japan developed illusions of invincibility which helped set the stage for their disasters at Nomonhan [Khalkhin Gol] [1939] and Midway [1942], to say nothing of Japan’s fatal arrogance in trying to occupy China proper [1937 – 1945].

Leaders around the world prepared for the most recent war rather than the next conflict by building battleships as the core of their naval forces, often at the cost of developing aircraft carriers, which Midway proved to be the crucial type of ship for World War II’s naval battles.

The Russians seem to have learned more from their experience in 1904 – 1905 than the Japanese: Stalin and Zhukov did not underestimate their Asian enemy.

Further Reading:

• Constantine Pleshakov’s The Tsar’s Last Armada chronicles the ongoing disaster that was the voyage of the Baltic fleet to Tsushima with a wealth of detail. His treatment of the battle itself is brief. It is one of those rare volumes that readers wish were longer.

• Alistair Horne’s Hubris: The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century is a welcome addition by a master of narrative history, constituted of concise treatments of Tsushima [1905], Nomonhan [1939], Moscow [1941], Midway [1942], Korea [1950 – 1953], and Dien Bien Phu [1954].

Modern France: The Franco-Prussian War, Sedan and the Commune [1870 CE -1871 CE]

A prominent American I knew received an invitation to attend a French Government commemoration of the French Revolution. I congratulated him, but responded to his enthusiastic comments regarding how the Revolution had shaped current French society and politics by suggesting that the events responsible for that had probably taken place in 1871 CE, not 1789 CE.

“What happened in 1871?” he asked.

“The Franco-Prussian War ended” chimed in his carefully educated wife.

“Yes,” I said, “and the Paris Commune was suppressed. One of the essential ironies of the Franco-Prussian War was that the only city the French Army took and held was Paris. It set the tone for French life and politics thereafter.”

The French thought they would win the conflict with Germany that was clearly coming to a head as 1870 progressed. They declared war on Bismarck’s Prussia, planning to advance to Berlin.

Bismarck had adroitly used the crises leading up to the Franco-Prussian War to push for German unification under Prussian leadership. He put together a significant coalition of German states to fight France. The Germans crossed the Rhine into France before French mobilization was substantively underway.

The French attributed Prussia’s recent 19th century string of victorious conflicts in Europe to its use of breech loading rifles, and the French military had equipped its troops with breech loading rifles they considered to be of better design. In addition, the French high command had a secret weapon: an early machine gun called the mitrailleuse.

As World War I was to show, the machine gun could revolutionize the battlefield, but in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 – 1871 the French command seemed to view it as a kind of light artillery. Anyway, they generally kept the mitrailleuse secret from most of their own men as well as the enemy.

The French were also confident because they were being led by a Napoleon. It did not matter that he was dubiously the son of Bonaparte’s younger brother Louis. Napoleon III had proven himself on the field during the Battle of Magenta in Italy in 1859. His genuine horror at the slaughter was conveniently ignored, as was the fact that his subsequent campaigns in the dining room and in the boudoir had left him in no shape for campaigns in the field: he could not sit astride a horse, and often found it agonizing to ride in a carriage.

The Germans quickly bottled up one French army in Metz. Marshall MacMahon, accompanied by Napoleon III, led the roughly 120,000 strong Army of Châlons towards Metz in an attempt to break the siege.

After being defeated in the Battle of Beaumont, the French relief forces got as far as the town of Sedan before the Germans caught up with them. The French high command issued instructions: “Repos pour toute l’armée demain 1er septembre“ [‘Rest for the whole army tomorrow September 1’]. The junior officers were marking German campfires on their maps: they made a circle around the French position.

On the 1st of September, surrounded by German troops and artillery, the French were utterly defeated. Napoleon III, the high command, and approximately 103,000 French troops were captured. Napoleon III had bravely if vainly sought death on the battlefield.

Metz surrendered a while after the debacle at Sedan. The Germans eventually pushed the potentially successful French Army of the East into Switzerland, where it was rounded up and interned by the relentlessly neutral Swiss.

Bismarck was ready for peace. The citizens of Paris were not ready to surrender, however, and in March of 1871 set up the revolutionary government of the Commune.

Bismarck was largely indifferent as to what form of French government surrendered to him, but he had no interest in losing any more German lives as a result of Gallic internal squabbling.

After a round of tit-for-tat executions between the Communards and the French government in German captivity, the Commune executed two French generals who had tried unsuccessfully to remove cannons defending the city, and several dozen people of similarly high rank, including the Archbishop of Paris. The Communards killed some 66 or 68 of their prisoners.

On 21 May the Germans loosed re-armed French prisoners of war on Paris. They took the city, probably killing between 17,000 and 35,000 fellow Frenchmen [nobody kept accurate count], and quickly established a new government that surrendered to the Germans with celerity. They also deported 4,500 suspected revolutionaries to remote French territories in the Pacific, with many exiled to New Caledonia.

Napoleon III found the death that eluded him at Sedan in January of 1873 after a number of operations for gallstones in England. His son the Prince Imperial died in South Africa at the age of 23 in 1879, speared by Zulus.

The German Empire was proclaimed in January 1871 in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Bismarck went on to engineer more than a generation of peace in Europe, based on the simple expedient of keeping the French from making friends and allies. Europe’s population grew faster than it ever had before, or since.

The French erected the imposing if architecturally vapid basilica of Sacré-Cœur to take the sting out of defeat by the Germans and add piquancy to victory over the socialists, siting it on top of the neighborhood most radical in its support for the Commune.

Further Reading:

• Michael Howard’s The Franco-Prussian War provides a solid English language introduction to this often analyzed conflict.

• John Merriman’s Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune provides a comprehensive and balanced summary of its subject. Robert Tombs’ The War Against Paris 1871 details the French army’s conquest of the capital. Marx and Lenin wrote on the Paris Commune [The Civil War in France]; Alistair Horne’s The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune 1870-1871 provides additional perspective.

• Zola’s La débâcle is vivid and informed, if highly dramatized, and far superior to Guy de Maupassant’s unhealthy effusions on the war and its aftermath.

Decebalus: History and Heroic Symbol [87 CE – 106 CE; 2004 CE]

Touring the Balkans in the spring of 2013, I cruised by a monumental head of the Dacian leader Decebalus. He reigned 87 CE – 106 CE over a region that roughly corresponds to modern Romania. This sculpture is in many ways the quintessence of Balkan history: it commemorates acts of great savagery, touches on topics too often forgotten in Western Europe, and embodies powerfully emotional interpretations of the past that are unimpeded by historical accuracy or logic.

This image of Decebalus is the tallest rock sculpture in Europe: 40 meters high and 25 meters wide; [130 ft. by 80 ft.]. It was carved on a hill on the north [Romanian] side of the Danube between 1994 and 2004. The effort was funded by a Romanian businessman named Iosif Constantin Drăgan.

On the south [Serbian] side of the river is a plaque identifying the location of a bridge built by the troops of the Roman Emperor Trajan, who invaded Dacia and defeated Decebalus.

At the time of its conquest by Trajan, Dacia was inhabited by a people who spoke a satem language, part of the “eastern” or Balto-Slavic branch of Indo-European, as opposed to the centum branch of Indo-European, which includes Italic and Germanic languages. Romanian derives from Vulgate Latin, and maintains a significant number of words based on the military speech of Roman times. The use of variants of the name Romanian to describe the language dates back only to the 16th century, however. The first book on Romanian grammar was published in Vienna in 1780.

It is important to remember that the Dacians did not speak a language that derived from the Italic family of tongues. Dacian was not a Romance language.

The Dacians had traded and fought with the Greeks, who called them Getae, since the 7th century BCE. Their cultural development was influenced by both the Greeks and Celts. The Dacians were a warlike people, given to raids on the territories of Romans and Roman allies south of the Danube, and civil wars. They built defensive works that evidence advanced architectural and engineering skills. One mountain stronghold roughly contemporaneous with Decebalus consisted of a number of fortresses, walls, and towers. It covered an area of over 500 square kilometers [190 square miles].

The Roman Emperor Domitian [81 – 96] oversaw two major invasions of Dacia. The first ended in catastrophic defeat for the Romans. After a battlefield victory in the second invasion, Domitian, facing rebellions in other parts of the Empire, agreed to pay Decebalus a subsidy to keep the peace. This outraged many Romans. Domitian was assassinated in the year 96. Nerva, an elderly man, followed him. Nerva’s greatest contribution to the Roman Empire was his selection of Trajan as his successor.

Trajan came to power in 98. He invaded Dacia in the spring of 101, fighting a sanguinary though inconclusive battle against Decebalus. The Dacians and Romans both withdrew from the field. Decebalus quickly violated the terms of the treaty that had ended this round of fighting.

Trajan returned and ordered a bridge built over the Danube. It was a marvel of Roman military engineering, over 1,000 meters long [3,300 feet]. The bridge was designed and built under the supervision of Apollodorus of Damascus. Trajan also ordered roads be cut into the cliffs of the Iron Gates of the Danube, and a canal built to avoid the river’s rapids.

As Trajan gathered his forces for another invasion of Dacia, Decebalus sent spies who nearly succeeded in assassinating the Emperor. In 105 a deliberately paced Roman invasion began. By 106 the Romans had methodically proceeded through Dacia to its capital, which they razed to the ground.

Trajan’s account of the Dacian War is lost, as are the writings on the subject by major classical historians. The tombstone of a Roman cavalryman named Tiberius Claudius Maximus, however, tells us what happened at the end of the hunt for Decebalus. Tiberius did everything in his power to capture Decebalus alive. Decebalus, out of options, committed suicide. Tiberius presented Trajan with Decebalus’ head and right hand. These were brought to Rome in triumph.

The death of Decebalus effectively ended the war, aside from a few Dacian guerilla raids and a further scorched earth program by the Romans. As Tacitus noted in another context, solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant: [the Romans] make a wasteland and call it peace.

After the native population had been driven off or extirpated, settlers were brought into Dacia from many parts of the Empire. Romanians have often claimed that their ancestry can be traced to this Roman colonization of the 1st century CE. Many object strenuously when others point out that there is no substantive evidence for the survival of Latin colonies in what is modern Romania from the overthrow of the Roman province in 270 to the first recorded mention of Romanian speaking Vlachs in Romania in 1230. For almost a thousand years, the geography now known as Romania was dominated by a succession of nomadic tribes. It appears more probable to many that the current Romanians derive from Romanized populations south of the Danube who moved into present day Romania in the late Middle Ages when the nomads’ hold on the region began to weaken.

But none of those debatable points affect the basic irony of the current Latin-based population of Romania adopting as a culture hero a military leader who did his considerable best to keep their ancestors from coming to live in his lands. Decebalus has been lionized as a Romanian hero by Romantic poets, artists, and movie makers, among others. Politicians ranging from 19th century nationalists to Stalinists and the Maoist wannabe Ceauşescu promoted Decebalus as well. Bank notes were printed pairing the mortal enemies Trajan and Decebalus as complementary heroes of the nation.

This might be likened to the Americans somehow honoring Washington and King George III together on a dollar bill. A more general and closer analogy can be found in the United States’ cultural appropriation of Native American chiefs, warriors, and clothing. The Balkan nostalgia and ahistorical enthusiasm for a people on the losing end of genocide is far from unique.

Further Reading:

• Philip Matyszak’s The Enemies of Rome consists of 17 brief but detailed biographies of brave men and women who resisted the Thousand Year Reich of Rome.