The other day I was wondering why Winston Churchill wanted the soon-to-be-blitzed British to bear themselves like the 'brave men of Barcelona', and not the equally brave men1 of Madrid or Chungking, which had also undergone heavy bombardments for long periods of time. I must admit I didn't actually think it was ever likely that a Chinese city would have come to mind, though, because of its remoteness and un-Europeanness. Well, I was wrong about that. The Japanese bombing of several Chinese cities in 1937 and 1938 caused great concern in Britain, on a level equalling or perhaps even exceeding that caused by the bombing of Guernica earlier in 1937. See, for example, this advertisement placed in the Spectator of 10 June 1938 (p. 1079) by the China Campaign Committee, outlining a concerted series of protests against the bombardment of Canton (Guangzhou), in which dozens of people were being killed each day:
The China Campaign Committee, by the way, had impeccable left-wing credentials, with people like Harold Laski, Victor Gollancz, Ben Tillett, Richard Acland and Philip Noel-Baker among its numbers or speaking on its behalf (along with the inevitable clergymen and humanitarians), so it seems that China's plight was taken to the left's heart, like Spain. I haven't found anything like this concerning protests at the bombing of Guernica or Barcelona (which doesn't mean there weren't any, maybe I need to look harder). It may be that with Spain being so much closer, those who wanted to help could do so more directly (join the International Brigades, provide shelter for Basque children), though having said that, Canton was very close to Hong Kong, about 130 km away, so it was relatively easy for British journalists to get to and may have seemed more familiar than most places in China.
But I think there's another reason too. The Times reported on the Trafalgar Square demonstration, and on the speech given to the 2000-strong crowd by J. B. S. Haldane, a well-known biologist and a Marxist, who had strongly criticised the government's ARP programme:
Dealing with the bombing, PROFESSOR HALDANE said to the crowd that half a dozen aeroplanes could pulp them in a few minutes.
"You can take it from me," he added, "the air raids in Canton and in Spain are only dress rehearsals for air raids we may expect on London. Germany is not using her main air force in Spain. Japan is not using hers against China. Japan is learning from every air raid on Canton the most efficient use that can be made of bombs, for dropping on British territory and British ships. Then she compares this information with the information her German friends have gathered in Spain."2
These are the sort of sentiments I expected to find with Guernica, but didn't. It appears that there was a cumulative effect from the repeated incidents where civilians were bombed which changed the nature of public concern in Britain: from the essentially humanitarian concern for the Basque victims of the Condor Legion in early 1937, to the more selfish fear, in mid-1938, that British civilians would be next. Guernica, April 1937; Shanghai and Nanking, September 1937; Barcelona, March 1938; Canton, May and June 1938; Barcelona again, June 1938. It would have seemed like bombing civilians was becoming a normal part of warfare. Such an impression would have reinforced by the Japanese ambassador's helpful explanation that Canton had been bombed, in part, 'to demoralize the Chinese people'3 — whereas by contrast the Germans had denied having anything to do with the horror at Guernica the previous year. So not only was the bombardment of cities becoming more common, it was apparently becoming more acceptable. What was going to happen in the next war?
Canton was bombed again in August 1938, along with Hankow (Hankou). The following month, the roads out of London were clogged as thousands of people fled the city in the expectation of a knock-out blow, while anti-aircraft guns swept the skies, preparing to engage hordes of German bombers. Neville Chamberlain said 'How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing'. He was referring to Czechoslovakia, of course, but perhaps China helps explain the Munich crisis too?
- And women — what, old Winnie was a sexist pig, you do go on!
- The Times, 20 June 1938, p. 16.
- The Times, 16 June 1938, p. 9.
This work, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License. Terms and conditions beyond the scope of this license may be available at airminded.org.