18 JANUARY, 1915: Statements of Intent

A century ago, out on the eastern edge of England and under cover of darkness, low-flying German Zeppelins dropped bombs on Great Yarmouth and Kings Lynn, killing one or two residents in each and raising the curtain on a means of waging war that would blight much of the twentieth century.

You probably won’t hear much about the curse of ‘strategic’ or ‘area’ bombing from the heritage industry, or about the mounting enthusiasm for air attacks on civilian targets among military strategists all over Europe, and especially in Britain. Media consumers will, however, be seeing and hearing plenty about the raids themselves, the towns affected and the feelings of those involved, as reported by subsequent generations, so I’ll leave the eastern edge of England for now and turn instead to the eastern edge of the world.

I mentioned back in August that Japan, governed by a militarist, expansionist regime, treated the First World War as an opportunity to learn modern methods of warfare and to get in a little empire building while Europe’s big guns were busy elsewhere. Though in theory on the side of its European ally, Great Britain, and therefore able to seize the German enclave of Tsingtao on the Chinese coast, Japan’s interest in the wider war was purely notional. Like most relatively marginal belligerents, it had joined the conflict for gain – and the thing Japan most wanted to gain was control over China.

China was a mess. A nationalist regime had deposed the child emperor in 1912, but with warlords or rival parties in control of most provinces the new government’s writ never ran far beyond the area around Peking (as Beijing was then known to Europeans). Meanwhile the Empire’s vast territories were being chipped away by the incursions of major European powers, all of which had established well-defended coastal enclaves for trading purposes during the nineteenth century, and by Japan.

A victorious war in the mid-1890s had enabled Japan to detach Korea and the island of Formosa (Taiwan) from Chinese control, and to establish a dominant economic presence in the sprawling northeastern province of Manchuria. Once any danger of Russian rivalry had been eliminated by naval victory in 1904, Japan made no secret of its ambition to gobble up more of China, and was ready to act by the end of 1914.  On 18 January 1915, the Japanese government presented its Chinese counterpart with a list of grievances, known to history as the Twenty-One Demands, to be settled immediately on pain of war.

The Demands required China to stop leasing coastal enclaves to European powers, to give up effective control of both Manchuria and Shantung (Shandong) provinces, to permit Japanese part-ownership of Chinese heavy industries, and to accept Japanese ‘advisors’ at almost every level of government.  Barely surviving amid what amounted to internal chaos, the nationalist Chinese government could only accept the terms, although negotiations dragged on until May and British intervention prevented the appointment of Japanese advisors.

The Twenty-One Demands created a worldwide sensation at the time, and were generally viewed as a naked power grab. As anticipated in Tokyo, the major European states were too busy to do more than express disapproval, but the Demands did significantly heighten suspicion of Japan among politicians, soldiers and businessmen in the neutral United States. As such, they contributed to the momentous build up of naval and economic competition in the Pacific that would explode into warfare in 1941, but from a Chinese perspective they were merely a stage in a fifty-year war with Japan that would continue with barely a pause until 1945.

This was important stuff, helping shape the geopolitical landscape of the Second World War, and warping the economic and political development of China in ways that are still being played out. There is an argument that the entire first half of the twentieth century was one long world war, in which case China’s prolonged struggle for efficient self-determination could be seen as its defining tumult. Maybe not, but for all the long-term significance of bombs over Yarmouth, the world’s big story this time last century was the Twenty-One Demands.

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