The Japanese capture of Shanghai in November of 1937 left the Chinese army retreating to the west. Chiang Kai-shek’s forces had done what they could to protect the important Chinese port, but they were simply overmatched, if not in numbers, then in technology, organization, and firepower.
From the Japanese point of view, there were a couple of reasons to be angry, even in victory. First, the enemy had successfully shot their timeline to pieces. Three months had been spent in the effort to take Shanghai, which was the amount of time Japan’s military leaders believed it would take to capture all of China. Second, as far as the Japanese soldier was concerned, the Chinese retreat was offensive to the Japanese code of bushido. A fight to the death, even one’s own death, was the only honorable outcome in battle. The Chinese departure from Shanghai robbed the Japanese victory (and by extension, the soldier) of honor.
After Shanghai, the Japanese forces split into three westward-moving branches, like tynes on a fork. One went to the north, following the Yangtze River. Another went south of Tai Hu Lake, heading toward Huchow. And the third went straight down the middle, toward Suchow. The ultimate goal was for all three tynes to meet in the vicinity of Nanking. In her book The Rape of Nanking, Iris Chang writes, “Little was spared on the path to Nanking. Japanese veterans remember raiding tiny farm communities, where they clubbed or bayoneted everyone in site. But small villages were not the only casualties; entire cities were razed to the ground.”
On November 19, 1937, that center tyne of the fork arrived at the city of Suchow (modern-day Suzhou). Made up of the 9th Division and led by General Nakajima Kesago (described even by his biographer as a beast of a man), they entered the city in a driving rain.
Before the 19th, Suchow was a grand city of some 350,000 residents. As one of China’s oldest cities, it was famous for its textiles and ornate temples. Its many bridges had earned it the nickname “The Venice of China”. After the 19th, it became a place of death and destruction. For days, Japanese soldiers ran wild, killing citizens by the thousands, burning indiscriminantly, and laying waste to the city.
When the Japanese left Suchow and continued west toward Nanking, they departed a ghost town. One Chinese newspaper reported that the city’s population had been reduced to 500 people. How many were killed versus how many fled the city is not clear, but it’s safe to say that both numbers are significant.
Recommended Reading: The Rape of Nanking