The Chinese Labour Corps
In 1916, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig requested that 21,000 labourers be recruited to fill the manpower shortage caused by casualties during World War I. Recruiting labourers from other countries was not something unusual at that time. Other than the Chinese, there were Labour Corps serving in France from Egypt, Fiji, India, Malta, Mauritius, Seychelles, the British West Indies as well as a Native Labour Corps from South Africa. It was estimated that at the end of the war over 300,000 workers from the Colonies, 100,000 Egyptians, 21,000 Indians and 20,000 native South Africans working throughout France and the Middle East by 1918.
As China was initially not a belligerent nation, her nationals were not allowed by their government to participate in the fighting. As a result, the early stage of the recruiting business in China was somewhat sketchy, with semi-official support from local authorities. However, after China declared war against Germany and Austria–Hungary, on 14 August 1917, the Labour Department of the Chinese government began organising the recruitment officially.
The scheme to recruit Chinese to serve as non-military personnel was pioneered by the French government. A contract to supply 50,000 labourers was agreed upon on 14 May 1916 and the first contingent left Tianjin for Dagu and Marseille in July 1916. The British government also signed an agreement with the Chinese authorities to supply labourers. The recruiting was launched by the War Committee in London in 1916 to form a Labour Corps of labourers from China to serve in France and to be known as the Chinese Labour Corps. A former railway engineer, Thomas J. Bourne, who had worked in China for 28 years, arrived at Weihaiwei (then a British colony) on 31 October 1916 with instructions to establish and run a recruiting base.
The Chinese Labour Corps comprised Chinese men who came mostly from Shandong Province, and to a lesser extent from Liaoning, Jilin, Jiangsu, Hubei, Hunan, Anhui and Gansu Provinces. The first transport ship carrying 1,088 labourers sailed from the main depot at Weihaiwei on 18 January 1917. The journey to France took three months. Most travelled to Europe (and later returned to China) via the Pacific and by Canada. The tens of thousands of volunteers were driven by the poverty of the region and China’s political uncertainties, and also lured by the generosity of the wages offered by the British. Each volunteer received an embarkment fee of 20 yuan, followed by 10 yuan a month to be paid over to his family in China.
A deal between the Chinese government and the allies resulted in the enlistment of thousands of Chinese who formed the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC) mainly poor Chinese men from the North who were told they would be in non-combatant roles. The Canadian government had restricted the arrival of all Asians and the CLC were secretly landed in Victoria, British Columbia. They were drilled in the old quarantine station at William Head and secretly shipped across Canada in cattle-trucks.
A total of about 140,000 Chinese workers served on the Western Front during and after the War. Among them, 100,000 served in the British Chinese Labour Corps. About 40,000 served with the French forces, and hundreds of Chinese students served as translators.
By the end of 1917 there were 54,000 Chinese labourers with the Commonwealth forces in France and Belgium. In March the Admiralty declared itself no longer able to supply the ships for transport and the British government were obliged to bring recruitment to an end. The men already serving in France completed their contracts. By the time of the Armistice, the Chinese Labour Corps numbered nearly 96,000, while 30,000 were working for the French. In May 1919, 80,000 Chinese Labour Corps were still at work.
The workers mainly aged between 20 and 35 served as labour in the rear echelons or helped build munitions depots. They were tasked with carrying out essential work to support the frontline troops, such as unloading ships, building dugouts, repairing roads and railways, digging trenches and filling sandbags. Some worked in armaments factories, others in naval shipyards, for a pittance of one to three francs a day. At the time they were seen just as cheap labour, not even allowed out of camp to fraternise locally, dismissed as mere coolies. When the war ended some were used for mine clearance, or to recover the bodies of soldiers and fill in miles of trenches. Men fell ill from the strange diet and the intense damp and cold, and on occasion they mutinied against their French and British employers or ransacked local restaurants in search of food. Their contribution went forgotten for decades until military ceremonies resumed in 2002 at the Chinese cemetery of Noyelles-sur-Mer.
After the Armistice, the Chinese, each identified only by an impersonal reference number, were shipped home. Only about 5,000 to 7,000 stayed in France, forming the nucleus of the later Chinese community in Paris. Most who survived returned to China in 1918.
Throughout the war, trade union pressure prevented the introduction of Chinese labourers to the British Isles. Sidney and Beatrice Webb suggested that the Chinese Labour Corps were restricted to carrying out menial unskilled labour due to pressure from British trade unions. However, some members of the Corps carried out skilled and semi–skilled work for the Tank Corps, including riveting and engine repair.
One member of the Corps, First Class Ganger Liu Dien Chen, was recommended for the Military Medal for rallying his men while under shellfire in March 1918. However he was eventually awarded Meritorious Service Medal as it was decided Labour Corps members were not eligible for the Military Medal. By the end of the war, the Meritorious Service Medal had been awarded to five Chinese workers.
After the war, the British government sent a War Medal to every member of the CLC. The medal was like the British War Medal issued to every member of the British armed forces, except that it was of bronze, not silver.
After the end of the war Chinese labourers were given transport back to China between December 1918 and September 1920.
The workers saw first-hand that life in Europe was far from ideal, and reported this on their return to China after the war. Chinese intellectuals of the New Culture Movement looked on their contribution to the war as a point of pride – Chen Duxiu, for instance, bragged that “while the sun does not set on the British Empire, neither does it set on Chinese workers abroad.” But the ill treatment of these workers was added to the list of grievances against Britain. A more positive impact was on the educated youth who came to France to work with them, such as James Yen, whose literacy programmes under the auspices of the YMCA showed him the worth and dignity of the Chinese common man. He worked out a 1,000 Character Primer which introduced basic literacy and became the basis of his work in China.
Chinese intellectuals who worked with the CLC in France included Jiang Tingfu and Lin Yutang.
The last surviving member of the Chinese Labour Corps, Zhu Guisheng, died in La Rochelle on 5 March 2002 at 106 years old. He had also served in the French Army during World War II.