The Chinese Labour Corps – forgotten heroes of the First World War (Part 2)

Mark Griffiths China Plus Published: 2017-12-12 13:33:50
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Exactly a hundred years ago in 1917 the First World War was raging across Europe. A century later in 2017 town halls and war veterans groups across Northern France, where many of the fiercest battles took place, have been staging events and commemorations to remember the Allied war dead. Mark Griffiths visited the Pas de Calais area which saw intense fighting at Cambrai, the Somme, Vimy Ridge and French Flanders to investigate one of the least-known aspects of the war – the vital role played by 140,000 Chinese labourers who provided crucial support to the Allied forces in their march towards victory.

This is the second of his five reports from France. 


Mark Griffiths at the war memorial in Oye-Plage, France, December 2017 [Photo: China Plus/Mark Griffiths]

Mark Griffiths at the war memorial in Oye-Plage, France, December 2017 [Photo: China Plus/Mark Griffiths]

Part 2 – The Long Journey to Europe

Until August 1917 China remained officially neutral in the First World War. After all, what did a European conflict 8,000 kilometres away have to do with China? Why would its leaders want to get involved? In fact, there were several reasons why this might be advantageous. Since the 1870s, there had been growing German influence in China. Prompted by anti-German sentiment over its interests in Tianjin in 1877, Germany had grown emboldened enough to permanently station the warship SMS Luise in Chinese waters. In 1900, the Boxer Rebellion saw Chinese nationalists attempt to oust foreign interests from the country and Germany used its base in Tianjin to help crush the uprising as part of the Eight Power Allied Force. Within days of declaring war on Germany in August 1917 China moved quickly to reclaim the German enclave in Tianjin as well as another in Hankou and one in Tianjin conceded to Germany's ally Austria-Hungary. 

Chinese President Yuan Shikai (1913-1915) [Photo: Public domain]

Chinese President Yuan Shikai (1913-1915) [Photo: Public domain]

As early as 1915 Chinese President Yuan Shikai had secretly made an offer to Britain to send 50,000 Chinese troops to fight on the front line in France. The British government had declined the offer. It had economic interests in China, including Hong Kong under British Crown colonial rule and wanted to maintain stability. But while Britain rejected the offer of Chinese soldiers, after the loss of almost half a million men at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 the Allies needed all the help they could get. 

First day of the Battle of the Somme, 1916 [Photo: Public domain]

First day of the Battle of the Somme, 1916 [Photo: Public domain]

At about this time China's new president Li Yuanhong made another approach to Britain, this time offering to send tens of thousands of not-combatant labourers to help the Allies in the war. To maintain their official neutrality the Chinese established Chinese companies to recruit these labourers. Meanwhile, in Britain 24 years before he would become prime minister, charismatic politician Winston Churchill had just returned from the Western Front. He had resigned from the government to command the 6th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, so had seen the battlefields of France for himself. He made a speech in the Houses of Parliament strongly supporting the idea of recruiting Chinese labourers to help the war effort. British recruitment began in November 1916 in Shandong Province and later in Qingdao. On November 15th 1916 the London Gazette reported that a veteran of the Battle of the Somme, Lieutenant-Colonel BC Fairfax of the Liverpool Regiment would command the Chinese Labour Corps. 

Winston Churchill pictured centre in 1916 with the Royal Scots Fusiliers at Ploegsteert on the French-Belgian border (left) [Photo: Public domain] Lt Col Bryan Charles Fairfax, 1916 (right) [Photo: History of the 89th Brigade by FC Stanley/IWM, London]

Winston Churchill pictured centre in 1916 with the Royal Scots Fusiliers at Ploegsteert on the French-Belgian border (left) [Photo: Public domain] Lt Col Bryan Charles Fairfax, 1916 (right) [Photo: History of the 89th Brigade by FC Stanley/IWM, London]

Tens of thousands of Chinese labourers made their way to Europe by ship and train.  Many died on the way, including around 500 who drowned on February 17 1917 when a German submarine sank the French ship Athos in the Mediterranean Sea not far from Malta. 

The French ship Athos [Photo: civiliansandwarsatsea.blogspot.co.uk]

The French ship Athos [Photo: civiliansandwarsatsea.blogspot.co.uk]

In an attempt to prevent further deaths from German torpedoes Britain sent around 84,000 Chinese labourers on a safer route through Canada. This was a top secret operation and Canadian news outlets were banned from reporting on the train convoys that were crossing the country. In April 1917 the first batch of Chinese workers arrived in Vancouver aboard the RMS Empress of Russia. Here, they transferred to trains for the 6000 kilometer journey to Montreal, Halifax or St John where they boarded more ships. 

The 'Empress of Russia' carried thousands of Chinese labourers from China en route to France, via Vancouver [Photo: Jeremy Rowett Johns/University of Bristol]

The 'Empress of Russia' carried thousands of Chinese labourers from China en route to France, via Vancouver [Photo: Jeremy Rowett Johns/University of Bristol]

On arrival in France, this huge workforce of tens of thousands of Chinese labourers went to work in mines, ports, munitions factories and on farms. They transported supplies, mended roads and dug trenches near the front line.

Chinese workers loading 9.2 inch shells onto an ammunition train at Boulogne (left) Mechanics of the 51st Chinese Labour Company repairing engines at Tank Corps Central Workshops, Teneur, 1918 [Photos: IWO, London]

Chinese workers loading 9.2 inch shells onto an ammunition train at Boulogne (left) Mechanics of the 51st Chinese Labour Company repairing engines at Tank Corps Central Workshops, Teneur, 1918 [Photos: IWO, London]

When they reached the camp which would be their new home, each new recruit received a medical examination, a haircut which included cutting off his long braid (cue), a hot bath, new clothes, vaccinations and a brass bracelet bearing an ID number. They were well provided for in terms of billeting and rations. After all, heavy work for ten hours a day almost every day couldn't be done on an empty stomach. On March 1st 1918 the South China Morning Post reported that 'They lack neither bodily comfort nor food'. Within 48 hours they would join their respective labour units. 

A barber at work (left) and Chinese Labour Corps workers drawing rations (right), both photos taken in Crecy Forest, 27 Jan 1918 [Photos: IWM, London]

A barber at work (left) and Chinese Labour Corps workers drawing rations (right), both photos taken in Crecy Forest, 27 Jan 1918 [Photos: IWM, London]

Care was taken not to make the induction process seem too militaristic for fear that rumours would spread among the labourers that they were being prepared for combat on the front line. The officers in charge of the labourers had to tread a fine line between being easy-going and instilling a sense of discipline into the workers. The South China Morning Post commented on morale among the labourers noting that, 'Apart from their naturally blithe temperament, they are apt to laugh more than is good in the ranks, being impertinently inclined to make a roaring joke out of a brother's mistake.' What lay ahead for these brave men was years of toil for ten hours a day interspersed with regular trips out of the camp. They made a good impression on the local French villagers and made their own entertainment, doing their best to make the camp as much like home as possible to make their daily lives more tolerable. 

In the next part we find out how the Chinese labourers spent their work and leisure time.

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