The Chinese Labour Corps - forgotten heroes of the First World War (Part 4)
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 fourth of his five reports from France.
Mark Griffiths at the war memorial in Oye-Plage, France, December 2017 [Photo: China Plus/Mark Griffiths]
Part 4 - Stay in Europe or Return to China?
As 1917 drew to a close, 54,000 Chinese labourers continued to toil for many hours a day in France and Belgium. By the time of the Armistice on November 11th 1918 this number had grown to around 96,000 Chinese labourers working with the British and 30,000 more with the French. By May 1919, six months after the end of the war around 80,000 men of the Chinese Labour Corps were still working for the Allied Forces.
A British army officer offering advice to Chinese labourers (left), and workers filling sandbags to block the road in case of a German advance (right) [Photos: IWM, London]
On October 24th 1919, a report appeared in the South China Morning Post stating that 'The Chinese Labour Corps in France is now being repatriated at a rate of five hundred daily. Repatriation should be completed by December 31st if sufficient shipping is available.' As well as the Chinese workers, other labourers had been brought to France from Fiji, India, Egypt, Malta, Mauritius, the Seychelles, South Africa and the West Indies. By the end of the war more than 300,000 overseas workers had come to join the Allies in their struggle.
Chinese labourers washing tanks (left) and salvaging parts at the Central Workshops, Tank Corps, Teneur, 1918 (right) [Photos: IWM, London]
Although these labourers did not take part in combat, British and French records show that around 2,000 men of the Chinese Labour Corps died during World War I. Most were killed by the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-1919, and some as the result of enemy action or wounds sustained during their work. In addition, fifteen of the Chinese labourers were sentenced to death for murder during the course of the war and four died and nine were wounded when British troops accidentally fired on them in December 1917.
The Chinese labourers who died were officially classified as war casualties. They were buried in northern France in more than 40 cemeteries, mostly in northern France and another in Belgium. By far the largest number were laid to rest beside the workers' camp run by the British army at Noyelles-sur-Mer in a cemetery designed by the British architect John Reginald Truelove. A cholera outbreak and some of the fiercest battles took place here. Each of the 842 gravestones is engraved with Chinese characters and guarded by two stone lions, sent as gifts from China. Some of the inscriptions on the tombstones etched into the Commonwealth War Grave Portland stone gravestones read, 'Faithful unto death', 'A good reputation endures forever', 'Though dead he still liveth' and 'A noble duty bravely done'.
Entrance (top) and gravestones (bottom) at the Chinese Cemetery, Noyelles-sur-Mer, Northern France, 2017 [Photos: Public domain]
A report in the South China Morning Post dated December 10th 1919 was headed, 'Chinese Labour Corps To Receive War Medal.' It continued, 'In the House of Commons, replying to Mr Aneurin Williams, Mr Churchill stated that Chinese labourers enrolled in the Labour Corps will receive the British War Medal in Bronze.'
British War Medal in Bronze with portrait of British King George the Fifth [Photo: Public domain]
At the end of the war most of the Chinese labourers returned by ship to China in a long process that continued until September 1920. The delay was caused by both the need for a labour force to exhume and re-bury the tens of thousands of commonwealth troops who had died in combat, and administrative problems that delayed the repatriation of the labourers. On March 3rd 1920 the Shanghai Times reported that 'At least a third [of the Chinese labourers] are waiting to be paid off by the French authorities who failed to notify the Banque Industrielle de Chine which is acting for the government. In the meantime they cannot get their money in spite of the fact that they have receipts in their possession and cards of identification.'
Chinese man waiting in a camp in France in 1919 [Photo: Public domain]
Many of the Chinese labourers who survived returned to their homeland with savings. By 1919, The Post newspaper estimated that the workers had taken home six million British pounds in savings, roughly 2.2 billion US dollars today. But why did some of these hard-working Chinese labourers who had helped to restore peace in Europe decide to stay in France? What happened to them and what is their legacy today, both in Europe and China? We'll find out in the next part.