Britains Forgotten Heroes – The Chinese Labour Corps: They served under British colours, they served under British command and many never returned home. Britain owes them a debt a huge debt.
The centenary of World War I has been and gone, but the scars of this conflict live on in the psyche of countless nations.
One country that is rarely mentioned when discussing casualties of The Great War is China. This is a gross injustice. Almost 100,000 brave young men from China left their home country to work on behalf of Britain and France during the war, and many never returned home.
History may have forgotten the loss of these souls, but their sacrifice must be celebrated in the future. Perhaps more importantly, the appropriate gratitude must be shared. To quote Laurence Binyon’s celebrated poem For the Fallen, “we will remember them.”
China Prior to WWI
When war broke out throughout Europe in 1914, China could be forgiven for concentrating on domestic affairs. The nation was in a state of flux, adapting to an amended status in the new world order.
For centuries, long before we used such terms to describe countries and regimes, China was a global superpower. China was the most dominant country in Asia throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. By the time the 1900s rolled around, however, China’s fortunes had taken a turn for the worse.
The turning point was the First Sino-Japanese War, which raged between 1894 and 1895. The conflict saw China and Japan clash over control of Korea, which was yet to be divided into North and South sovereign states.
China was under the control of Guangxu, the ninth Emperor of the Qing dynasty. Having lost two Opium Wars to Britain earlier in the 19th century, China’s reputation for unshakable power was beginning to slip. The country had lost control of Hong Kong and other territories, and neighbouring Japan could smell weakness in the air.
Japan was enjoying a military renaissance. Following the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry into the country, previously frosty relationships with the United States of America began to thaw. The traditional shogun warriors that ruled feudal Japan relinquished their power and a more modern approach to military combat was undertaken.
Japan intended to lay claim to Korea, which was under Chinese rule. This was a decision made on the grounds of safety. The Japanese were concerned that Korea provided China with an easy launching pad for an attack on their land. These concerns were well-founded. Both nations had previously used Korea to gain access to each other’s territory.
With Japan boasting impressive and contemporary military technology, the country’s ruler saw his chance. Emperor Meiji declared war on China in the name of claiming Korea and placing the country under Japanese rule.
Japan’s enhanced military was far too powerful for China’s outdated weaponry, especially when battles were waged at sea. Japan won the First Sino-Japanese War, and the two nations ended hostilities by signing the Treaty of Shimonoseki.
This treaty handed control of Korea, the Penghu Islands, Taiwan and the Liaodong Peninsula to Japan. What’s more, Japan also took control of several Chinese ports. For the first time, China was expected to bend the knee to a neighbouring nation. It appeared that the country’s reign as the predominant global power of the Pacific region was at an end.
The Onset of War
Licking their wounds following the humiliation of military defeat, things went from bad to worse for China. France, Germany and Russia were concerned by the growing influence of Japan. The European giants applied pressure to Japan, demanding the nation return control of the Liaodong Peninsula to China.
Sadly, this was not a benevolent gesture intended to help China. It was born of a desire to conquer a nation seen as a weaker opponent. Germany invaded Qingdao, a major Chinese city and holy territory, in 1897. A German colony was quickly established in the region.
The Chinese understood that something had to change in the governance of their country. China officially became a republic in 1912, as a result of the Xinhai Revolution the previous year.
A military general by the name of Yuan Shikai took control of the country, appointing himself as President. Shikai had grown weary of imperial rule, and the excesses and luxuries seemingly prioritised by previous regimes. President Shikai vowed to modernise China in the face of new international threats, leading to an uncertain but exciting time for the country.
World War I officially broke out in July 1914, one month on from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. President Shikai may not have been a career politician, but he was no fool. He realised that China was not in a position to involve themselves in the conflict, despite their chequered history with Germany.
Officially, President Shikai announced that China would remain neutral in the conflict. As it so often the case with international politics however, cogs were whirring away from the public eye.
The German infiltrators of Qingdao had trained the Chinese army in the art of modern warfare. However, President Shikai considered it more politically prudent to ally himself with Britain and its allies. China wanted their territory back from Germany and saw an opportunity to achieve this goal.
Many saw this as a risky move. The German army had a reputation for ferocity and efficiency. Fears abounded about how Germany would retaliate if they were to win the war.
All the same, President Shikai contacted the British authorities and offered them 50,000 Chinese troops. There were two caveats to this favour, though. These fighting men would not be trained soldiers, but labourers and peasants.
This enabled China to retain their status as neutral, as the nation’s army was not involved in the conflict. Additionally, these troops were to be used to recapture Qingdao and liberate it from German rule, fighting alongside the British army.
The offer was declined. Britain joined forces with Japan instead, but these armies did manage to reclaim Qingdao. Japan refused to allow China to aid in this effort. They wished to remain the undisputed power centre of the Pacific region and feared that allying with China would weaken their position.
They did, however, strike a deal with President Shikai. If China agreed not to ally themselves with the German war effort, all Japanese-occupied territory in China would be relinquished after the war.
Until early 1917, China remained officially neutral in the conflict. The keyword here is ‘officially’. In late 1916, Chinese nationals began to assist the Entente Powers of Britain, France and Russia, in the form of the Chinese Labour Corps. The fact that their participation is so rarely acknowledged is an international tragedy.
The Birth of the Chinese Labour Corps
(CLC; French: Corps de Travailleurs Chinois; simplified Chinese: 中国劳工旅; traditional Chinese: 中國勞工旅; pinyin: Zhōngguó láogōng lǚ)
The British authorities famously underestimated the impact of World War I in 1914. War fever gripped the nation, and young men throughout the country enlisted in the name of fighting for their country. Many believed that the war would be over by Christmas and that all these soldiers would return home to a heroic welcome.
As we now know, this was not the case. The conflict raged for longer than anybody expected, earning it the nickname The Great War. Countless lives were lost, with more soldiers dying every day. Eventually, thoughts in Britain’s corridors of power returned to President Shikai’s previous offer. An approach was made to the Chinese government, asking if a military force could be spared.
It was France that first turned to China for aid, but the British rapidly followed suit. A deciding factor in this was the heavy number of casualties at the Battle of Somme. The British army lost almost 20,000 soldiers on the first day alone, gaining just three miles of ground on their opponents. The Entente Powers realised that, if they were to maintain a successful war effort, they needed greater numbers.
As a result, the Chinese Labour Corps was born. It was agreed that France would be supplied with 40,000 working men from China. Again, let’s stress – these men were not soldiers, hence the name. They were farmers, labourers and the unemployed, many of who were illiterate. Official figures have never been revealed about many Chinese men joined the British cause, but it’s estimated to be a similar number.
As they were not trained soldiers, the Chinese Labour Corps were not sent into battle. Instead, they were treated as employees. Each individual was handed a contract for three years of labour, which involved working for a minimum of 10 hours each day of the week. As part of this contract, the labourers were permitted three days of holiday per year.
The working conditions were far from ideal. The labourers were not free men, permitted to explore France once their working day was concluded. They were essentially prisoners of war, despite sharing a common enemy with the Entente Powers. The labourers were forced to remain on their designated campgrounds, even when not actively working. Shockingly, there were not even permitted to flee in the event of an enemy attack,
As you can imagine, the Labour Corps were not handed glamorous jobs. These men were forced to dig trenches for the soldiers. They repaired and maintained weapons and tanks. They built railroads to create safer passage between territories. They were sent into the battlefield post-conflict to collect the remains of fallen soldiers and bury them in appropriate cemeteries.
The treatment of the Chinese Labour Corps is not a proud moment in the history of the British or French militaries. Shockingly, the worst was yet to come.
Loss of Life of the Chinese Labour Corps
In theory, it sounds like the Chinese labour corps had a safer life than allied soldiers. Not pleasant, by any means, but at least they were not fighting on the front line. Sadly, this was not the case. As accurate records were never kept, it’s impossible to be certain how many members of the Labour Corps perished in the line of duty. Rest assured, however, the numbers are believed to be staggeringly high.
One thing is certain. It was the demise of hundreds of members of the Chinese Labour Corps that led to China entering The Great War. The French ship Athos was carrying 900 labourers across the sea in 1917 when a German submarine torpedoed it. The subsequent loss of life was the final straw. China officially offered their services to the Entente Powers and declared war on Germany.
Countless members of the Chinese Labour Corps souls perished reaching France. Even those that were not aboard the Athos frequently didn’t survive the journey. It was an arduous trek that took several weeks, encompassing two ships and countless trains. This was all arranged as cheaply as possible. The men were forced to hide throughout their journey, crammed into cupboards and other confined spaces, to avoid any governmental tax charges. These labourers were treated more like cattle than valued members of the war effort.
Those that did make it to Europe were frequently worked to death or fell victim to attacks from the opposition forces. It appears that the Chinese Labour Corps were considered expendable, especially in comparison to the Allied soldiers they were assisting.
This is potentially why the Chinese Labour Corps have been largely forgotten. Some might even go as far as to say they have been whitewashed from history. Not one of these labourers are buried in an official war grave. Their contribution to the war effort was never recognised before 2017, and very few direct descendants of these brave men are based in Britain or France. The labourers that survived the war were refused repatriation in Europe. They were sent back to China in 1920, with barely a word of thanks.
The Chinese communities of Britain and France have recently stepped up efforts to change this. Campaigns have been launched to ensure that the Chinese Labour Corps are remembered for their brave sacrifice, and receive the appropriate posthumous recognition. The battle is still ongoing – London’s famous Imperial War Museum recently re-opened after refurbishment, and there is still no mention of the Chinese.
Thankfully, things are on the up elsewhere. A memorial statue has been erected in the Belgian town of Poperinge, which commemorates the ultimate sacrifice made by the Chinese Labour Corps. This is the first official remembrance of the unit since the war concluded. A separate remembrance for the Chinese Labour Corps ceremony has also been added to Britain’s Armistice Day celebrations. Finally, it seems, the Chinese Labour Corps are receiving the respect they so richly deserve.
There is still a long way to go, however. All of us that live in a world of freedom still owe these brave souls a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid. A posthumous apology for neglecting to mark their memory for so long also appears to be in order. Alas, China’s involvement in World War I has often been mistreated and misremembered in the west.
The Aftermath of War
World War I was famously concluded with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. The name of China is conspicuously absent from this document though, despite the country fighting alongside the Entente Powers. This was because the Chinese suffered another cruel betrayal from their supposed allies once the conflict concluded.
If you recall, Japan promised to return several critical territories to Chinese control after the war. This agreement was backtracked upon – a decision made by Japan, Britain, Russia and France. The Chinese authorities were not consulted at any stage. The European nations were more concerned with maintaining positive relationships with Japan. They were prepared to burn their bridges with China to do so.
This national sense of injustice was confounded by the treatment of Chinese soldiers. Just 2,000 of the Chinese men killed in action during WWI are buried in Commonwealth war cemeteries. Chinese authorities estimate the death toll to be closer to 20,000. That’s just the soldiers, too. There would not be enough ground in any cemetery to accommodate the sheer number of labourers that lost their lives supporting the war effort.
Even the medals that surviving Chinese soldiers received were inferior to those of other nations. Cast from bronze rather than silver, these medals did not read the names of the men that earned them. It was another slap in the face to a noble country – the latest of many.
Protests on the streets of China, known as the May Fourth Movement, followed the end of World War I. These would be first green shoots toward eventual communist rule in China. Revolution was in the air, and China was sick of being mistreated by other countries. A new determination was born.
The Chinese Labour Corps may have been forgotten in the west, but they never were in their homeland. In many respects, their efforts can be held up as the catalyst for the birth of modern China. We must always remember the fallen members of the Chinese Labour Corps, and thank them for their sacrifice. Perhaps more importantly, so must the rest of the western world.