One hundred and seventy years ago this week, the North China Herald reported on a series of consular and public meetings which had led to the creation of what was originally called the British local Volunteer Corps, and in time became officially know as the Shanghai Volunteer Corps. Formed after the seizure of the walled city of Shanghai by a rebel ‘Small Sword Society’, it saw action the following year in the 2 April ‘Battle of Muddy Flat’. This was a successful, if incompetent affair which drove away Qing government forces who were besieging the rebels, but who were camped too close to the foreign settlements, thereby drawing fire onto foreign property. Most of the handful of SVC dead were probably killed by ‘friendly fire’.
Quiescent thereafter until 1870, a revived SVC came under the control of the Shanghai Municipal Council, and in time became a vital component in foreign military defence schemes, and in internal security. A servig British officer was seconded to lead the Corps. Different foreign communities served in national or other companies (American, German, Jewish, the Customs, Philippine etc); the Shanghai Light House deemed itself the socially most prestigious; the Shanghai Scottish probably had most fun in the Mess; and the Chinese Company was formally the most efficient: they shot well and true.
In 1927 a paid Russian detachment was created from refugee White Russian soldiers, becoming in 1932 the Russian Regiment. In 1941 this was transferred to the Shanghai Municipal Police as the Russian Auxiliary Detachment. The Corps was abolished in early 1942 after the takeover of the international settlement by Japanese troops. In 1954 a gala dinner at the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club commemorated the centenary of the ‘Battle of Muddy Flat’ with fillet steak, wine and song.
At times a very significant proporton of young foreign businessmen served in the volunteers. It can not have helped the way many of them understood the nature of the foreign presence in China, let alone the way they were perceived by the Shanghainese who regularly saw parades of armed foreign traders marching down the Nanjing road.