World War II began in earnest on July 7, 1937, when Japanese and Chinese soldiers skirmished near the so-called Marco Polo Bridge in the suburbs of Beijing. Although the Japanese invasion of China which began that summer was not planned aggression by the Japanese army, which saw the Soviet Union as its primary enemy, saw little value in conquering China. The second Sino-Japanese War was a conflict waiting to happen. Because of the 1901 Boxer Protocol, each of the nations that had diplomatic representation in Beijing, including Japan, were allowed to station troops there to guard their legations, and these Japanese troops carried out periodic maneuvers in the outskirts of the Chinese capital. It was Japanese troops of this mission who clashed with troops of the local warlord, Song Zheyuan. Song, who was a quasi-independent regional leader and paid only nominal obeisance to the Nationalist Government in Nanjing, and the local Japanese commander quickly negotiated a ceasefire to avoid all-out war, but each was overruled, one by Prime Minister Konoe Fumimaro in Tokyo, and the other by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek in Nanjing.
Invasion of China
In August, the Japanese committed to a full-scale invasion of China, largely because they overestimated their own fighting skill and esprit while they underrated the tenacity of their enemy. The army's leaders believed that Chinese soldiers would be no match for the troops of the Japanese Imperial Army, guided by their Yamato damashii, that is, the soldiers' spiritual connection with their semi-divine emperor. In September 1937, Japanese troops moved south and west from Beijing. One force attacked down the Tianjin-Nanjing road; another along the Beijing-Wuhan railroad; and a third contingent moved west toward the Great Wall. The first two faced traditional-style enemy resistance but moved quickly, covering three or four hundred miles within four months.
But the Western thrust met strong resistance from the Eighth Route Army commanded by Zhu De of the Chinese Communist Party, a kind of resistance that should have prepared the Japanese generals for the next eight years of warfare in China. Zhu avoided positional battles with the Japanese, who had tanks, artillery and airplanes. His troops marched at night using local people as guides, struck small, isolated groups of Japanese troops, and immediately withdrew. He made no attempt to hold his positions, thus avoiding counterattacks by Japanese airplanes. Even when the Japanese finally broke through the Eighth Route Army's resistance, they did not destroy the army. It escaped into the interstices to regroup and prepare to fight again.
Even confrontational resistance was not a complete failure for the Chinese, although the Japanese won most of the battles. The Chinese fought bravely, and at Tai'erhzhuang in April 1938, they actually surrounded two Japanese divisions, although ultimately they withdrew and let the Japanese escape. In mid-May 1938, after the Japanese reached Suzhou, Chiang took the dramatic step of destroying the Yellow River dikes where the river merged with the Huai River. While this step temporarily slowed the Japanese advance, it also destroyed four thousand villages and their crops. Because of this defensive step, two million people were made homeless, and hundreds of thousands suffered severely from famine and disease.
Atrocities in Nanjing
To aid the troops moving south toward Nanjing and Wuhan, in late August 1937, the Japanese made another landing near Shanghai. The Chinese troops defending Shanghai fought bravely, and in spite of the Japanese army's superiority in airplanes, tanks and artillery, the defenders held out for three months. But after the Japanese outflanked Shanghai by landing 30,000 men to its south, the port city fell, and the Japanese army raced to the Chinese capital of Nanjing, which collapsed after only a few days of fighting, on December 13, 1937.