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.

Members of the Chinese Labour Corps in France
Members of the Chinese Labour Corps in France

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.

Noyelles-sur-Mer Chinese Cemetery

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.

Chinese Labour Corps IWM

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.

Firing post, Poperinge

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.

See also

 

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2 thoughts on “The Chinese labourers who served on the Western Front

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

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