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Sunday, 5 June 2016

Flooding China to Stem the Japanese Tide


When did WWII begin? Most would say it was when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, but a good case can be made for July 7th, 1937, when the Japanese kicked off their invasion of China, a campaign that lasted eight years and became a major part of WWII. One of the biggest and most dramatic events in that war was the deliberate flooding of a large area of China in 1938 by the Nationalist Chinese government in an attempt to halt the rapid Japanese advance. This occurred 78 years ago today.

The main problem the Japanese faced fighting China was the vast size of the country. Accordingly, they preferred to bite off pieces of China and limit the war. With the Nationalist government weak in the North, they were able to seize control of the North without expending too much strength. It was important to preserve their strength because of the threat from the Soviet Union. 

Chiang Kai-shek, the Chinese leader's strategy, by contrast, was to broaden the war in the hope of overstretching the Japanese and gaining international support. Accordingly, in August he attacked the Japanese based in Shanghai, in central China. At that time the city was an "international city" with international concessions, including a Japanese residential zone guarded by 30,000 Japanese troops. This attack soon escalated into a major battle, with additional Japanese forces landing near the city and gradually surrounding it. The Japanese finally defeated the Chinese forces and captured the city. They then pushed on towards China's capital, Nanking, which was also captured, resulting in the events that later came to be called the "Nanking Massacre."

The Japanese hoped that the capture of Nanking would end the war, but the Chinese Nationalists simply continued the struggle from Wuhan, another city further up the Yangtze River. This again widened the war, with the Japanese now bringing their troops based in Northern China and Manchuria into the campaign in Central China. The Northern Japanese army advanced towards Zhengzhou, an important railroad junction on the Yellow River. Capturing this would threaten Wuhan from the North, along the Ping-Han Railway, so it was vital for the Chinese to block this move in some way. 

Click to enlarge
Accordingly, on June 5th, 1938, Chiang Kai-shek gave the order to destroy the Huayuankou Dyke on the south bank of the river. This unleashed flood waters across a wide area of Henan, Anhui, and Jiangsu provinces, and also dramatically changed the course of the river. In order to prevent Japanese counter-measures, the civilian population had not been warned, so the flooding resulted in a massive death toll from drowning, estimated at 800,000, with many millions more displaced and made homeless. 

Even if we accept the highest casualty figure for the Nanking Massacre, which is 300,000, it is clear that the death and devastation wrought by the Yellow River Flood of 1938 was much worse. This act by the Chinese was a testament to their determination to resist the Japanese invaders despite their military inferiority. 

Although this desperate action slowed down the Japanese advance by several months, it did not prevent the capture of Wuhan, which fell into Japanese hands in October of the same year, forcing the Chinese to once again move their capital, this time to Chunking, which the Japanese were subsequently unable to capture,

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