China Station – The British Military in the Middle Kingdom 1839-1997, Mark Felton

China Station – The British Military in the Middle Kingdom 1839-1997, Mark Felton

For over a century and a half Britain had a military presence in China, fighting three wars against the Chinese and one against Tibet, and establishing permanent garrisons at Shanghai, Tientsin and Peking, and occupying Hong Kong (and for a shorter period Wei-Hei-Wei). Between the wars a posting to China was highly sought after, but the British and other western interventions played a major part in destabilising the Qing Dynasty, leading to almost half a century of civil war.

Most of Britain’s military interventions in China were amongst the more unjustifiable adventures of the British Empire. We start with the two Opium Wars, fought to protect the profits of drug dealers. Felton makes the point that the first of these wars was actually unpopular back in Britain, but the same can’t be said of most of the later adventures. The invasion of Tibet may have been triggered by fears that the area was about to be given to Russia, but now looks like a rather dreadful example of Imperial bullying, with the fighting starting mainly because the British were getting frustrated that the Tibetans weren’t willing to enter into diplomatic discussions. Of the British victories only the rescue of the besieged Legations at Peking during the Boxer Revolt feels like a justifiable campaign, and even that was triggered by the humiliating terms the world powers had imposed on China over the previous decades. The last significant combat was the brief defence of Hong Kong in 1941, a costly and inevitable defeat in the circumstances, marked by a series of Japanese atrocities.

Two of the chapters look at the less warlike aspects of the British presence in China – the first looking at the very pleasant life of a British soldier in the cantonments spread across the country, most famously at Shanghai, where there was an entirely separate ‘European Shanghai’, run by a largely British and American dominated council, and the second at the post-war return to Hong Kong, which began a very popular posting for British soldiers. 

The author pulls no punches about the unjustifiable nature of the British interventions in China. We also get to see how the balance of power changed. During the First Opium War the British won a series of easy victories, but by the end of the century the Boxers and their allies in the Imperial Army posed a much more serious threat, and by 1941 the British had to admit that their position in China was undefendable. The enemies also change, from the Qing at the start, to a popular uprising by 1900, then the Japanese and finally the Communists, who achieved the long standing goal of their predecessors and expelled the foreigners from China.

1 – Foreign Mud
2 – Harrying the Coast
3 – The Arrow War
4 – ‘Destroy the Foreigners’
5 – Slaughter in Shangri-La
6 – Showing the Flag
7 – Christmas in Hell
8 – Cloak and Dagger
9 – ‘Am Under Heavy Fire’
10 – The Immortal Memory

Author: Mark Felton
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 224
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military
Year: 2013

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