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  • Writer's pictureMaria Ogborn

The Chinese Labour Corps on the Western Front

On the first day of the Battle of the Somme on 1st July 1916,19,000 British troops were killed and 57,470 were wounded. This tragic loss highlighted and enhanced the ever-growing struggle for manpower. More men were going to fight on the front lines but as the need for ammunition, food and resources grew, so did the need for manpower in factories, in transportation, at depots, warehouses, ports and in construction. The French had begun recruiting from China in May 1916, for these same reasons, and formed the Chinese Labour Force (CLF). In total the French would recruit around 40,000 Chinese to assist in Europe. . These men were enlisted by private contractors and were shipped out of ‘treaty ports’.

Inspired by the French, the British also looked to China to find the manpower they needed to attempt to solve the problem. Sir John Jordon, the British Minster in Peking, agreed that Chinese Labour on the Western Front, was an ideal solution and began recruiting in the autumn of 1916. This had not been the first time that the British or the French had used Chinese labour with the British having previously looked to China for workers in the gold mines in South Africa in the aftermath of the Boar War. Nor were the Chinese the only nation looked to for labour during the First World War with labour corps coming from South Africa, the British West Indies and Egypt, as well as elsewhere across the globe. China saw the recruitment of these men as beneficial to ensuring that China would be considered a power after the war.

Men of the Chinese Labour Corps at work in the timber yard at Caestre, 14 July 1917. (Image:IWM. CN:Q5895

The majority of the Chinese labour was intended to come from male citizens located in Hong Kong, a British colony, but it was decided that more urban dwellers were most likely not used to the climate, weather conditions and labour that they would face in France and Belgium. Britain decided, however, that these men would be recruited by the British Government, not private contractors. These recruits mostly came from Shandong and Hunan Province and were often farmers or farm labourers.

As China had declared itself a neutral power, Chinese citizens were not allowed to fight but they were however permitted to partake in the war as labours. These men would become known as the Chinese Labour Corps (C.L.C). Upon volunteering, the men were given medical examinations and many were rejected, between 30% to 60%, due to eye diseases or eyesight problem. Those that passed the examination were given a number, which would effectively become their name, an identity disc and their uniforms. The men were paid 1.00 Franc or 10 Chinese dollars on arrival in Weihaiwei, from where they were shipped, with an additional 15 Chinese Dollars being paid to their families or a named person to whom they wanted their pay to be sent. This was supposedly done because the French had reported that many of their labourers used the money for gambling or playing cards. Contracts of recruitment and identity cards were then 'signed' with a thumb-print.

In January 1917, the first contingent of around 1100 Chinese Labours, were bound for Havre in the northwest of France. This included a Captain, a doctor and six officers. While on this voyage, several of the men were reported to have tried to stage mutinies. Soon after they had left China, in February 1917, the Germans continued with their use of submarine warfare, which caused the loss of 500 Chinese labours that had been recruited by the French, when the ship Athos was sunk by German U-Boats. The British decided that due to increased German submarine activity, it was best if these new labourers spend as little time at sea a possible and planned a different route for their arrival in France and Belgium.

The men were sailed either via South Africa or Suez to England via the Panama Canal or sailed across Pacific Ocean from Weihaiwei to Vancouver Island, just off the west coast of Canada. From there the labours were packed into sealed trains and transported across the breadth of Canada, on a six-day journey to Nova Scotia, on the east coast. Not only did this mean they spend less time at sea but it also meant that the British government avoided paying landing taxes. They were soon shipped across the Atlantic to Plymouth or Liverpool. Many of the Chinese men that had left they homeland, never made it to Britain. Entered into the logbook of the Empress of Asia, on 21 April 1917, is a report of one of the Chinese volunteers named Ching Chin Kuai, who had died at age 30, of an ‘obstruction of the bowels.’[i] He was buried at sea on the journey between China and Canada. It is estimated that around 279 Chinese died at sea over the course of their transportation to Britain and France. For many of these men this was their first time at sea, having come from rural areas of China and seasickness was prevalent. Many more would die on the journey between Canada and Britain. Liverpool’s Anfield Cemetery became the final resting place of five of the men of the Labour Corps, while eight are buried at Efford Cemetery in Plymouth and six more are buried at Shorncliffe Military Cemetery in Folkstone.

Those men who did make it to Britain then had to travel onwards from Folkstone to France and Belgium. Once these men had arrived in Noyellessuer-Mar in France ‘in drafts of 2000, they were met at the station and detrained in companies of 500 by officers’[ii] and then, after medical examinations, they were sent to labour camps. These companies, and those that would follow, were placed either under the Department of Docks, Transportation and Stores, Chief Engineer Port Construction (CEPC) or to Armies and Lines of Communication, depending on their skill level. No.103 company consisted of ‘skilled tradesman’ who had for the most-part been ‘village tradesmen or handymen’[iii] and were ‘wonderfully adaptable and quick to grasp new ideas and methods’.[iv] It was many of these labours that worked under the CEPC. While other were considered unskilled workers, their pay scale depended on which category they were considered to fit into. In footage from 1917, available from the Imperial War Museum, these men can be seen working on the docks, not just in construction but loading and unloading ships, carrying heavy sacks of sand, working in timber yards and loading and unloading trains of sand and granite. They were also digging trenches and roads, repairing vehicles, working at quarries, building aerodromes, laying railway lines. Despite being seen as 'unskilled', many of the men of the labour corps also played a vital role as mechanics and engineers helping to maintain and repair D-15 Tanks.

The men of the CLC laboured for seven days a week, all overseen by British officers, with three days off a year for Chinese Holidays such as New Year, worked long hours and were subjected to poor accommodation and conditions. In the report on the history of the Labour Corps, it is noted that once company ‘were paraded for work at 6-0 a.m. daily, were marched 7 kilometres to the ammunition dump and quarries at Saigneville, where they were employed until about 5-0 p.m.’[v] after which they would have to make the walk back to their camp. . The 1920 report however states that the Corps were ‘treated with the upmost fairness’[vi] but it is important to note that in this period, many European nations believed themselves superior to those from the Asia, the Middle East and Africa, stemming from empire and colonialism. The language used within the 1920 report goes some way to show this feeling and this sense of superiority. It states for example that the Chinese ‘if mishandled, they are apt to become fractious, as would a small child who cannot readily understand what is wanted of it.’[vii] It is quite likely that any misunderstanding between the CLC and the British was due to the language barrier more than due to any characteristics.

Chinese labourers handling sacks of oats at Boulogne, 12 August 1917. (Image: IWM, CN:Q2699)

Despite not being soldiers, the CLC were subject to martial law. They were subject to the same disciplines and would receive punishment accordingly for any wrongdoings. It seems that discipline within the CLC was good for the most-part, and there were interpreters that were able to stress the importance of discipline. There were however reports of isolated incidents. On 25th December 1917, labourers of 151 Company CLC mutinied and planned to kill their Sergeant Major due to being worked to hard. Wile some were caught, some attempted to flee. Eight were of the men were shot and 93 were captured. There were also several men sentenced to hard labour for attempting mutinies or to flee, thought the war.

The CLC were often isolated within their own camps, kept away from British soldiers, and overseen by British Officers. This added to the sense of superiority of the British and French and did nothing to aide racial discrimination. It must be noted that Chinese labourers under the French, received much better treatment that those under British command. The French paid the CLF higher rates of pay and were not such strong disciplinarians as the British.

As to the nature of their role and the dangers they were in, the 1920 report, indicates that one of the main dangers or problems that these Chinese men faced was lack of nutrition and poor diet, which was later changed. The CLC were originally given rations ‘purely of a Chinese nature’[viii] but soon medical examinations found that many of these men severely lacked vitamin B-1, leading to a condition known as Beri -Beri, which lead to weak muscles and nerves and heart failure. They were soon provided with the following daily rations;

Bread - 8ozs Vegetables -8ozs

Flour- 8ozs Bacon -2ozs

Rice -10ozs Nut Oil -1 ½ ozs

Meat - 4ozs Salt - ¼ oz

Cheese - 1oz Tea - ¼ oz

A parade of Chinese labourers at Boulogne, 12th August 1917. (Image: IWM. CN:Q2695

Other than a lack of vitamins in the diets of the men of the CLC, there is little in the report that indicates that these men were in any other form of danger. This is extremely inaccurate and fails to show how close to the front lines the CLC were placed. The CLC were order to replace British Labour forces during the Flanders Offensive between July and November 1917. In early August, 15 Chinese labours were killed during an air raid on Dunkirk and a further 21 were wounded. These men were often well within range of enemy fire, gas attacks and air raids. In a war diary of a Labour Commandant after the incident it was noted that ‘it appears that the limit of their endurance had been reached’.[i]

On 14th August 1917, China declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungry, partly to show themselves as a world power but to also aide domestic policy and due to the incident with the Athos. America had declared war on Germany in March 1917 and had borrowed almost 10,000 men of the French CLF, instead of recruiting their own labour. Much like the British, the American attitude towards the Chinese was highly discriminatory and the Chinese themselves were not happy at being placed under American command. Americans had discriminated against the Chinese for many years in the United States and this would continue well into the Twentieth Century.

The men of the CLC were contracted for three years, while the CLF were contracted to work for five year by the French. As a result, many of these men were seen digging graves and clearing the battlefields, rolling up barbed wire and searching for unexploded bombs, up until 1920. During this period, after the war, many Chinese were killed by unexploded bombs, mines and disease including the influenza (Spanish Flu) epidemic. The British Government began repatriation of the Chinese in December 1918 but there were still many left in labour camps as late at winter 1919. Labourers were transported back to China in December 1918 and by 1920 many Chinese had returned home. There were however some 3000 that remained in France and formed the first China-Towns and the Chinese community in Paris.

Image: IWM. CN:Q81131
Ocean liner RMS Empress of Russia on her last wartime voyage from Liverpool to Shanghai -January 1919.

The Chinese were further done a disservice after the war, which resulted in their refusal to sign the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. When they had declared war and agree to support the allies in 1917, it was on the condition that territory in the Shandong Province, which had belonged to the German Empire, would be given back to China. Instead Britain, France and the USA did not agree to return Shandong, instead allowing Japan, who had taken over German interests in the province in 1914, to keep the territory. This lead to protests and a demonstration in Tiananmen Square on 4th May 1919.

By the end of the war in 1918, the British has drafted over 90,000 volunteers from Northern China and the number that lost their lives is often debated. It is estimated that between 1834 and 3000 men died in France or Belgium, 279 died at sea and a small number of men could not be found or traced.

There are men of the CLC buried in France, Belgium, England and Canada. This includes 838 men of the CLC buried at the Noyelles-sur-Mar Chinese cemetery, memorial to 92 men in the Somme region of France, 28 men buried at Ayette Indian and Chinese Cemetery and 75 buried in the Ruminghem Chinese Cemetery in the Pas de Calais region. All of these are looked after by the War Graves Commission.

References: [i] Ships’ Official Logs ‘Empress of Asia’, National Archives (catalogue reference: BT 165/1725) [ii], p.2 [iii] Ibid., p6 [iv] Ibid., p.6 [v] Ibid., p.7 [vi] Ibid, p. 7. [vii] Ibid., p.11 [viii] Ibid., p. 13 [ix] Branches and Services. Labour Commandant, National Archives (catalogue reference: WO 95/83/2)

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