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Forgotten voices from the Great War: the Chinese Labour Corps

By Alex Calvo:

CLC graves at Efford Cemetery (Plymouth)

View of some Chinese Labour Corps graves at Efford cemetery (Plymouth)

China and the Great War are two terms not often found in the same sentence, but the 100th Anniversary of the First World War is a great opportunity to rediscover the story of the thousands of Chinese labourers who helped grease the Allied machinery of war, making a vital contribution to ultimate victory. Some never made it back home.

 Introduction: Asia and the Great War

The 100th anniversary of the Great War is prompting renewed interest in the conflict and a major drive by myriad institutions and individuals to inform the public and make sure that the sacrifices made one century ago are never forgotten. While the main theatres of the war may have been in Europe, there is a reason why it is also called the First World War, since its nature and scope were truly global. This includes Asia, which may have seen limited combat operations (other than in South-Western Asia and parts of the Middle East) but where a number of countries made key contributions to the Allied cause. While such contributions were stressed by contemporary media and are well documented, the passage of time means that much of the public is no longer aware of them. The first centenary of the war is, however, prompting many public and private organizations in countries like Japan, India, and China, as well as communities from those nations, to make a renewed effort to make sure that their contribution is duly recognized, both at home and abroad, and in particular among their war-time allies.

China at the outset of the War: State-Building, Limited Sovereignty, and Collective Security

The outbreak of the Great War caught China in the middle of a giant, yet incomplete transformation from empire to republic, an exercise in nation building that would take decades to complete and see myriad wars and turmoil, amid fragmentation and widespread human suffering. The Guomindang revolutionaries had been forced to cede the presidency to Yuan Shikai, and warlords ruled much of the country, with significant foreign influence. In 1916 Duan Qirui, a graduate of the Beiyang Military Academy who had furthered his studies in Germany, became prime minister following Yuan’s death. One of the most pressing questions as he assumed his position was whether to join the Great War. Among the factors at play was the possibility of recovering the German-held concessions in Shandong Province. Pressure also came from the United States, which at that time was moving towards joining the war as well, plus the Japanese, who had decided on a policy of loans and other financial incentives in exchange for recognition of their position in Northern China. In March 1917, Duan convinced Parliament to break diplomatic relations with Germany and, following a struggle over who had the constitutional power to issue it, a declaration of war by the cabinet was made in August.

Thus, although her own nation building process was far from complete, China’s leaders decided to join a conflict which, while global in nature, had its origin and main focus thousands of miles away. Ideally, being on the winning side should have helped China consolidate and increase her national stature, but as we shall see later things turned out quite differently. What was clear in 1916 was that whereas China had little, if any, expeditionary military capabilities to offer the Allies, she had something they desperately needed: manpower. The concept was simple: import Chinese labour, thus freeing more British and French young men for combat duties.

 The Chinese Labour Corps: China’s foremost contribution to the war effort

Logistics are often forgotten, or at least not granted a degree of attention commensurate with their true importance, in many works of military history. In the case of the Western Front in the Great War, the distances involved were not huge, in particular if compared with some later theatres in the Second World War, but the industrial nature of the fighting, the dual demands of artillery and fortification, and the sheer number of troops involved, meant a strong and growing need for labour behind the trenches. Although some machinery and vehicles were available, building and repairing railways and roads, moving supplies, mail, troops, and the injured, laying down and maintaining telephone networks, plus constructing all sorts of military facilities, were mainly tasks undertaken with a mixture of human and animal labour. At first, arrangements were often ad-hoc, but the scale of the fighting, the inadequacy of some of the earlier methods, and the realization that this would be no short conflict, soon gave way to a more systematic approach. Many labour units were created, with, for example, the Royal Engineers setting up 11 labour battalions, and in January 1917 the British Labour Corps was born. By the time of the armistice, the Corps had grown to almost 400,000. Staffed by officers not medically fit for front-line duties (who often returned wounded), it regularly operated within range of enemy fire, and some of its units were employed as emergency infantry during the Spring 1918 German offensives.

The Allies quickly realized that their manpower pool was simply not large enough to feed this ever-growing need for construction and logistics labour. France was the first to tap into China’s first and foremost resource: her huge labour force. Great Britain followed suit, with both countries already in negotiations with China in the summer of 1916. Gradually, efforts were introduced to employ labour, always in great demand, in more productive manners. In January-February 1918 Sir Edward E. Pearson travelled to France and wrote a ‘Report on Labour Organisation in France’ to the (British National Archives CAB/24/58), where he noted, in the section devoted to Chinese workers, ‘Generally I heard very good accounts of the work these companies were doing. It would appear, however, that there is a tendency to underrate the capabilities of these men; it must not be forgotten that they are “A” men, specially selected, of excellent physique, and who at home are accustomed to do a hard day’s work. If properly supervised and handled, their output should be materially increased’. Sir Pearson concluded that the Chinese Labour Corps ‘is probably the best Labour in France’ It is clear that Chinese workers played a crucial role in sustaining the Allied armies in the field. Although precise numbers may not be available, one source mentions that in August 1918 96,000 were enrolled in the British Labour Corps, with a further 30,000 working for France.

 The Individual Experience of Chinese Workers: Tasks, Dangers, and Opportunities

Even before China formally declared war, a processing facility was set up in Shandong Province, with the purpose of screening and hiring labourers. Located near the Royal Navy’s base at Weihaiwei, it was followed by a second facility in the port of Qindao. Recruitment was not difficult, given the region’s poverty, instability and the high wages offered. These consisted of 20 Chinese dollars as a starting bonus, food and clothing, and 10 dollars per month partly payable to their families. The medical examination focused on tuberculosis, trachoma (a viral disease of the eye, then prevalent in Shandong), and venereal diseases. Some 100,000 were selected and issued a serial number in a dog tag around their wrists, and sprayed prior to embarkation. Many still had a pigtail and were urged to cut it.

Travel to Europe was not without its dangers. Already in 1916 a ship carrying Chinese workers to France had been sunk by a German submarine in the Mediterranean, with the loss of 543, prompting the use of an alternative trans-Pacific route across Canada by train. On arrival, although their contracts said they would not be deployed in or near the front, they often found themselves under enemy fire or dealing with other dangers, such as unexploded ammunitions. Illness was an additional hazard, together with the harsh climate and unfamiliar food. In addition to those lost at sea, more than 2,000 died. Their tombstones can be found in France, Flanders, and England, some in special cemeteries.

A usual schedule was 10 working hours per day, seven days per week. Although under military discipline and severe restrictions on their movement, to some extent resulting in segregation, authorities made an effort to accommodate some of their customs, for instance the free days they would normally receive during traditional Chinese festivals. An effort was made to facilitate postal communication with their families, despite censorship and the fact many were illiterate. The resulting letters (up to 50,000 per month) are a very useful source to learn about their roles, thoughts, and living conditions. The YMCA played a key role in their welfare, organizing recreational activities and literacy classes. Hong Kong and US-educated James Yen created a 1,000-character vocabulary and the Chinese Workers’ Weekly, also writing many letters for illiterate labourers.

Their work was varied and ranged from unloading military supplies and handling ammunitions to building barracks, digging trenches and constructing fortifications. While labouring long hours in uncomfortable and often hazardous jobs, their stay in Europe was for many the first opportunity they had of experiencing life not only outside China, but also beyond their village or province. As often happens, contact with a different reality may have prompted more than a few to question their country’s place in the world and to wonder how it could be changed. China would emerge out of the war with a deep sense of frustration, not having secured any goal at Versailles, and a very interesting question is to what extent, if any, members of the Chinese Labour Corps may have developed a stronger sense of national identity out of their war experience. As noted by Guoqi Xu in his China and the Great War: China’s Pursuit of a New National Identity and Internationalization, ‘these issues have yet to be explored’, including ‘how did the war experience help shape China’s national identity and push to internationalization?’ (page 4).



Alex Calvo is a guest Professor at Nagoya University, interested in military history, international law, geopolitics, and defence and security policy. You can follow him on Twitter @Alex__Calvo


One thought on “Forgotten voices from the Great War: the Chinese Labour Corps

  1. Pingback: Sanctions and Grey on White: Raising the Stakes in the South China Sea

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