I have been interested for a long time in the voyage of the Suwa Maru, a Japanese liner, which on its maiden voyage from Yokohama to London in 1914, took on board at Shanghai a contingent of 110 British men, who were returning to volunteer for the British army. They trained as they sailed, marched as a column to the Central Recruiting Office in London when they arrived, and most of them joined one of two regiments: the 10th Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment, or King Edwards Horse. Their journeys to and through the war form the subject of this book, and it explores, too, the history in wartime of the city they left behind.
While this ‘Shanghai British Contingent’ did not lack for volunteers — twice as many men applied to join it as could be accommodated — British officials in the city found it difficult to get their charges to adapt to wartime, for its internationalised and collaborative society made breaking apart into the warring camps difficult. How this was achieved, and to what extent, is one of the themes of the book, which focuses in particular on the first two years of the conflict. I have pieced together the story of what became of the men who sailed, and their experiences as the war unfolded, from their military records, the Shanghai press, and other sources. Almost 2,000 British, French and Italian men left China during the war to join up. Germans and Austrians left too, but are harder to track, for it was much more difficult for them to get to Europe.
The book is published on 7 May as an ebook, and in July as a paperback, and it is one of a clutch of beautifully-designed Penguin China Specials, exploring different aspects of China’s experience of the First World War.
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