Before I left for my trip along the cemeteries and memorials of the Western Front I had been fascinated by a talk given by the Chinese-born author, Xiaolu Guo for Radio 3’s The Essay in which she discussed the part played by the Chinese Labour Corps on the battlefields of Flanders and the Somme. They are almost entirely forgotten now, but between 1916 and 1920 the British Army recruited around 100,000 labourers in China who were shipped to Europe to work in harsh and dangerous conditions at the Front. And, following on from yesterday’s post, ten of these ‘coolies’ were shot at dawn for murder, or offences relating to murder. Mainly illiterate and socially isolated, many Chinese workers eventually succumbed to traumatic stress disorders brought on by the war and turned to violence, rape and murder in their despair and loneliness.
In her talk Xiaolu Guo told of travelling to Noyelle-sur-Mer with Li Ling. a 52 year old woman from Qingdao whose daughter Xiaolu had taught 15 years before in China. Li is the granddaughter of one of the Chinese labourers or ‘coolies’ who died along the Somme during WW1. Xiaolu explained that in China, ‘coolie’ means ‘bitter labour’ or ‘bitter strength’. Bitterness, she added, is an important concept in Chinese, ‘something that has to be accepted … part of life’. In China hard physical labour is viewed as something which can keep a person alive, so ‘coolie’ does not bear the negative connotations the term has in the west, where it is associated with imperialism and exploitation, having been used from the 18th century to describe the slaves despatched from China to serve the west in various parts of the world.
Li’s grandfather was illiterate, so he sent no letters home. His war service left no documentation, only his labour number – 4621 – given by the British government on the Chinese shore before he embarked for Europe. He was 19 years old, just married to a servant girl, and had a 10 month old baby:
He had been seduced by the promise of earning one French franc per day and was told he would be at least ten miles from the firing line, nowhere near the Front. A few weeks later, with a rising number of casualties on the Western Front, 40,000 coolies were also recruited by the French Army to dig trenches in northern France. After being sprayed head to foot with disinfectant, and having had their ponytails chopped off, these men were packed like cargo and shipped towards the West.
In the winter of 1916, after the massacre on the Somme, the British government was desperate for manpower. China agreed to supply Britain with ‘bitter labour’ and from 1917 onwards, large numbers of Chinese (altogether 100,000) were recruited by the British in Shantung Province, as volunteers – but under military discipline. The initial British Chinese Labour Force encampment on the Western Front was at Noyelles-sur-Mer, on the Somme estuary.
The entrance to the Chinese Cemetery at Noyelles-sur-Mer
Noyelles-sur-Mer was where Xiaolu Guo and her companion Li Ling were headed, Li Ling hoping to find the grave of her grandfather. Xiaolu described the moment when Li found the grave:
Noyelles-sur-Mer is one of the graveyards where the largest number of coolies are buried. There are 842 gravestones carved with Chinese names, along with the numbers the coolies were given by the Labour Corp. Li Ling, holding her flowers, searches each stone for her grandfather. I help her, scanning those strange yet familiar Chinese names. After looking at about 300 gravestones, we find the right one. The stone is covered in moss, yet the man’s name and number are clearly visible:
Li Changchun, British Chinese Labour Corps 4621. Died 12th January 1919.
I am surprised. So he died here not during the war but after the war! “How?” I ask Li Ling. She doesn’t know. Did he die from a random explosion during mine clearances? Or from starvation? Or was he killed for desertion? There is no clue. Only some blackbirds flapping their wings in the distance. Then, beside Li Changchun’s Corps number, I see this phrase:Faithful unto death.
I look away. I can’t bear the hypocrisy let alone the indifference with which this phrase has been foisted on this man. My eyes wander along the rows of Chinese names. The inescapable wind buffets the graves, otherwise there is silence. I look back. Li Ling is carefully placing her bunch of yellow chrysanthemums on her grandfather’s tomb.
The conditions under which the Chinese labourers were employed on the Western Front were harsh, even by the standards of the time. Their contracts stipulated a seven-day working week of 10-hour days. Daily rates of pay ranged from 1 to 3 French Francs. Apart from a few demonstrations demanding better working conditions and food – a notable example being one at Etaples in 1917 – which were ruthlessly suppressed by British troops, there was generally little in the way violent protest or strikes.
From the start there was a mutual understanding that the celebration of certain essential Chinese customs, such as Chinese festivals and the ceremonial disposal of the dead, would be allowed. On the other hand, there was a strict policy of maintaining the segregation of the Labour Force from the military canteens and the civil population, particularly white women. Accordingly, other than when working, the labourers were rigorously contained within their camps.
An entertainment at the open-air theatre of the Chinese Labour Corps at Etaples, 23 June 1918. Note the fence segregating members of the audience (Imperial War Museum)
These men did not take part to actual combat. They supported the frontline troops, unloading ships, building dugouts, repairing roads and railways, digging trenches and filling sandbags. Some worked in armaments factories, others in shipyards. However, when the war ended some were used for mine clearance, or to recover the bodies of soldiers and fill in miles of trenches. According to the records around 2,000 of them died during the war, most from the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu pandemic. Those who died, classified as war casualties, were buried in several French and Belgian graveyards in the North of France. The largest number of graves is located at the Chinese Cemetery of Noyelles sur Mer close to the Somme estuary, where 849 men are buried.
An article on the Western Front Association website, Forgotten Hands With Picks And Shovels, provides details of the 10 Chinese labourers who were executed by the British Army. The ten (all listed as ‘coolies’ in the official records) were all executed by a British firing squad – shot at dawn – for murder, or offences relating to murder.
All the death sentences of the Chinese Coolies were passed between 1918 and 1920, and all the offences took place on the western Front in either France or Belgium in 1918-19. There is no explanation in official documents for these capital crimes: perhaps the stoic but socially isolated Chinese workers succumbed to stress brought on by the war, turning to violence, rape and murder in despair and loneliness.
In the town hall at Poperinge , near Ypres, a First World war execution post is on display – said to be the one to which was tied, on 8 May 1919, Wang Ch’un Ch’ih of the 107th Chinese Labour Corps, sentenced to death for murder. He is buried at Poperinge Old Military Cemetery.
The firing post at Poperinge Town Hall
Researching this piece, I was surprised to learn from a BBC report that three of the Chinese men recruited for the Labour Corps are buried in Anfield Cemetery in Liverpool – amongst the 445 Commonwealth war graves from World War One in that cemetery. They would be men who fell ill en route from China, and were hospitalised on arrival in England. Anthony Hogan, researching the local remembrance website, tried to find out details of the three men – but it appears that the writing and the names in translation on the headstones may be incorrect. He writes:
The men would have been brought back to the UK injured or sick and taken to hospitals.The Belmont Road hospital is where these men may possibly have been transferred as it dealt with a lot of non British war sick and wounded, plus its location was around 1 1/2 miles from Anfield cemetery.
- BBC Radio 3 Essay: listen to Xiaolu Guo’s essay (available for one year on iPlayer)
- Xiaolu Guo’s essay: read it on the 14-18 Now website
- Chinese labourers in Northern France during the Great War (Nord Pas de Calais 14-18 website)
- Chinese Labour Force: Wikipedia
- Forgotten Hands With Picks And Shovels: Western Front Association website
- Deserters, mutineers and the German soldier who warned of the first gas attack
- On the road to the last resting places of three WW1 poets
- Bugling for the Missing of WW1: cutting back to what’s left on the bone
7 thoughts on “The Chinese labourers who served on the Western Front”
I am currently researching some WW1 photographs which show Chinese Stone Masons working on the headstones at Noyelles-sur-Mer. A friend has helped translate and identify one of the Headstones – this led to the casualty being added to the IWM Lives of the First World War Digital Memorial. I found your reference to Li Ling finding her grandfather’s grave which is extremely moving. Thank you.
Here is a few more info. for u to get your teeth into.
But; this is more to do with recent memorial services in Belgium…
The thirteen ‘Coolies’ of Busseboom memorial who was killed by a single Grenade…
service was held in late 2017.
Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery is a Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC);
burial ground for the dead of the First World War.
And if U r feeling super lazy…
There is even a feature film out now called:
‘Tricks On The Dead’. 2017.
By; Rare Earth Metals production.
A bit well ‘hollywood’; but films just really donot depicts the true horrors of war.
Obviously; there is more graves dotted around Europe…
But; as u know the Chinese hadn’t exactly been treated like Royalty throughout Western History.
Thank you for your reply, Barbara. Your project is very important for ensuring that we never forget – not just the British or other Europeans who died in this war, but all the others who came from far-flung regions to fight in a war that was not theirs.
I agree entirely. Being of Chinese descent, I continually suffer racist remarks and was told on a few occasions to go back to China. This country is built from the blood, sweat and gold of my ancestors. The British empire of days gone by, extracted a lot of other countries’ (Commonwealth) resources in order to build the UK to what it is today. Therefore, I find it infinitely insulting that anyone dares tell me to go back to China! I belong here as much as the next person, whatever their background is.
Well said! ‘V’;
If u r interested in real heros;
Try; Frank Soo (First non-white footballer to paly for England!) and his even more heroic older brother Donald Soo. (An RAF rear gunner, died in action aged 22.)
They are both on-line in ‘Half-and-Half’ based in Liverpool.
Real unsung heroes such as:
Vinegar Joe Stilwell. (Full name: Joseph warren Stilwell!)
4 star General on China’s side….. (Tragically; died a broken man in 1946!)
Try finding a book about him in the local library…..
A more modern view try;
Tammy Duckworth. (A Gulf War Heroine, lost both legs and part of arm! Now a congresswoman in US!)
My research is still on-going but rest assured I will write more
I am afraid it gets worse than that;
The Chinese Labour Corp in it’s entirety; was generally treated no better than slaves, some was executed for minor enfringements under military law, many were starved, poorly housed and deliberately under-paided!
There were even rumours of ‘coolies’ being sent to explosive huts that were wired to detonate in-order to simply NOT pay them! If u r dead, u don’t chase up your pay-check!
In those days they simply thought the Chinese were an inferior race!
But; back to serious business;
With the Chinks by : Lt. Daryl Klein.
A re-print. out in 2009. cheap as chips from the IWM.
The Chinese Labour Corp By;
THE CHINESE LABOUR CORPS (1916-1920)
Bayview-Educational. Out. 2013.
There are other publications which are rarer, earlier and much more difficult to source;
Needless to say they were ‘Private’ publications!
So happy hunting and good luck ladies and gents….
Oh nearly forgot…
Try the film called:
“Tricks On The Dead!”
By: Rare Earth Media Group. Out: 2017.
Real Hollywood bandwagon style!
Shame they don’t have….M. Summer______l ‘s book.
That was out in the early 1980s.
I of course do!
Bye All for now!
If you are interested in the 21st Century ‘US-versions’ of Racism against the Chinese; then
U R in luck….(I am NOT talking about ‘Crazy Rich Asians’…)
There is a new (Reasonably Series US-E.Asian.) film out now called:
“The Jade Pendant.”
The Jade Pendant. Out 2017
Directed by Po-Chih Leong
Production Company: Love and loss in America…(I think!)
It wasn’t only the ‘Blacks’ that got Lynched in those day…the Ch*nks. got the same treatment as well…
Based On real stories apparently; Hollywood ‘Joy Luck Club’; stylie; if u know what I mean…!!