Bill Hillman's Monthly Military Tribute
AS YOU WERE . . .
WAR YEARS ECLECTICA :: AUGUST 2021
GREAT WAR FACTOIDS IV
THE FORGOTTEN ARMY STAINS BRITAIN'S HISTORY
Nearly 100,000 Chinese labourers served in the Great War but not a single memorial was built to honour their sacrifice.
Ref: The Times
In the war cemeteries of France and Belgium you often find a handful of headstones tucked away to one side, engraved with Chinese lettering and an English translation: "A noble duty bravely done: or "Faithful unto death.". Some are identified only by a number.
These were members of the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC), almost 100,000 men recruited by Britain to work behind the lines between 1917 and 1919, the forgotten army of the First World War.
Nearly 2,000 young Chinese men lie in graves administered by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, but some scholars believe many more Chinese civilians died on the Western Front, perhaps as many as 20,000, most of whom have no headstone, no name, no number , and no memorial.
The government has finally offered a long overdue apology for the historic failure to commemorate properly the Black and Asian soldiers who died in the fighting. The uncelebrated role of the Chinese labourers is an almost equal scandal of historical neglect. Though they were not combatants, the Chinese did the grim grunt work in the closing years of the war and after it was over; they buried the dead and carried the wounded, dug trenches, repaired tanks and planes, hauled supplies, worked in munitions factories and cleared shells and mines, ten hours a day, seven days a week.
with three days off a year for Chinese holidays. They died in large numbers, from exploding shells, enemy fire, air raids, and Spanish flu.
Among Britain's 40,000 war memorials, there is not one to the CLC. These workers have no descendants in Britain because they were denied the right to settle here.
Most of their records of service were destroyed in the Blitz. They continued their dangerous work long after the Armistice, yet they have been painted -- in one instance quite literally -- out of history.
At least Black and Asian soldiers were free men prepared to lay down their lives in battle. The Chinese were paid a small wage but treated like forced labour under military control, held in barbed-wire compounds, inadequately clothed and fed, frequently beaten and addressed not by name but by "coolie number". Yet they made a huge contribution at a time in the war when Britain was desperately short of manpower.
It is disgraceful that Black an d Asian troops who fought for the Empire have not been commemorated in the same way as their white comrades. The Chinese contribution, however, is remembered by almost no one. The labourers were mostly peasants from northern China, employed to work in the battle zone following an agreement between British, French and Chinese governments in 1916. This was also a political move by the fledgling Chinese republican government, which declared war on Germany he following year, to earn the respect of the western powers.
The workers were shipped across the Pacific to Vancouver, crossed Canada by train, then sailed to Liverpool before being transported to the battlefields. Dozens died during the grueling three-month journey and were buried in unmarked graves.
In theory they were supposed to work several miles behind the front line. In reality, they were often exposed to enemy fire, as they toiled to keep the machinery of war running, carrying ammunition and burying the dead, including the "Rd Baron", the German air ace Manfred von Richtohofen. They perished in other foreign fields; hundreds of Chinese workers died carrying water for British troops in Iraq.
With peace, the work became even nastier, clearing the rotting debris from the carnage, extracting unexploded ordinance and filling in the trenches they had dug earlier. They were treated with deep suspicion by the French returning to their ravaged homes, and suffered occasionally brutal racist attacks at the hands of the remaining soldiers.
When the three-year contract was up the survivors were shipped home, with a commemorative bronze war medal engraved with a number, cheaper to produce than the silver medals presented to other war veterans.
The great Pantheon de la Guerre, the largest painting in the world, was commissioned by France while war still raged anticipating victory, it would depict a triumphant France surrounded by her allies, the people who had helped win the war, some 6,000 figures in all. Originally the monumental panorama included Chinese worker but after the US entered the war these were painted over to make space for Americans. The final version, 400 feet long and 45 feet high, included an incongruous American cowboy and not a single Chinese labourer.
China's contributing to victory went unrecognized and unrewarded. At Versailles the former German-run colony in the Shandong region of China was given to Japan, a snub that helped to inspire the rise of
Chinese nationalism as well as the communist movement that triumphed in 1949. Zhou Enlai, Mao's right-hand man, and Deng Xiaoping, who went on to become supreme leader after Mao's death, both travelled to France and organised Chinese communist cells among the former labourers who had stayed behind after the war.
For decades the CLC was not commemorated at all. It took a century before the first poppy wreath commemorating Chinese workers was laid at the Cenotaph. In 2014 members of the Chinese community in Britain launched a campaign to put up a permanent memorial to the Chinese labourers of the First World WAr, which has yet to be erected.
Perhaps as few as one in ten of the Chinese who perished in service during the Great War have graves and the epitaphs of those who do, acknowledging their bravery and nobility in boilerplate terms, ring hollow. For the wartime role of the Chinese workers has not just been unremembered, it has almost been erased; the forgotten of the forgotten.
The peace talks that ended the war had an enormous impact on Chinaís future. When the war ended in November 1918, China planned its delegation for the Paris Peace Conference, hoping to finally achieve full control of its mainland territory. Japan had taken over Shandong province. But China was given only two seats at the Paris Peace Conference to Japanís five, since the latter had contributed combat troops. The continued occupation of Shandong by Japan was confirmed.
China was deeply angry at the Versailles Treaty and was the only country at the postwar peace conference to refuse to put a signature on it. A student-led protest called for political and social changes and the return of Shandong province. This resulted in Chinaís turn towards socialism in 1921 with the foundation of the Chinese Communist Party.
If the controversy over the peace talks and the Versaille Treaty had not happened, China might never have become Communist.
Photo: Kautz Family YMCA Archives, University of Minnesota
Chinese at work cutting barbed wire.
Photo: David Livingstone
British Captain Louis Sebert and a Chinese interpreter sharing a meal, 1917.
Photo: Tank Museum
Chinese Labour Corps workers washing a Mark V tank
at the Tank Corps Central Workshops, Erin, France, February 1918.
1. Poster of a now lost film on the British Chinese Labour Corps.
2. Main areas of recruitment of Chinese Workers
Workers washed during recruitment at Weihai, Shandong
Members of the CLC load ammunition shells onto a train
Chinese labourers in France
British officer inspecting Chinese worker at Erin, France 1918
Chinese workers entertain British troops in France
1. Nine members of the CLC in a ruined house.
Among them are two gangers and an interpreter.
2. Kitchen staff and staff of a Chinese hospital.
Taken on a Chinese festivla day ~ the 15th of the 8th moon
CLC workers at the Tank Corps Central Workshops, Erin, France
Chinese workers leaving a Christian lecture in a YMCA hut in Northern France
The entrance to the Chinese Labourers' Camp
near the ammunition factory of Vonges, France
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