The Forgotten Labour Force of World War One

Last week an excellent article was written detailing the American entry into World War One (WWI), so this week I thought I would address a different topic but within a similar period. This is about the Chinese Labour Corp (CLC) – a hidden force within WWI. As many know, WWI pitted many allied powers (including UK, France, and Russia) against the central powers (Germany, and the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. The allies needed help and it came from China.

Their contribution was made by the CLC, who were barely acknowledged by the end of the war and whose deeds have been almost obliterated since. There is no tribute to them amongst Britain’s almost 40,000 war memorials. In fact China’s involvement in the entire war itself is not well known. Hence this post will endeavour to give just a little information regarding their sacrifice.

China declared war on Germany in August 1917 when a German torpedo sank a French ship, which caused the loss of 543 Chinese lives. However, recruitment had begun in 1916 as the number of casualties of the war grew ever higher and labourers became disastrously scarce. Many of the participating men had come from such remote farms that when they reached the busy sky rises of Shanghai they thought they had arrived in Europe. They were volunteers – poor farmers from coastal provinces like Shandong and Hebei, attracted by high pay and false promises that they would be kept away from fighting. By trains and ships, they made their way to Europe. Hundreds if not thousands would die along the way.

China sent some 140,000 labourers to France and Belgium, and to the horror of the Western Front. Nearly 100,000 Chinese Labourers served the front lines in Flanders – along with a few hundred Chinese students recruited as interpreters. The other 40,000 were scattered across France working in factories and the like. The CLC dug trenches, carried ammunition, toiled in docks and railway yards or worked in arm factories. Chinese workers repaired tanks in Normandy. They transported munitions in Dannes. They unloaded supplies and war material in the port of Dunkirk. Despite the fact they were instrumental in some of the turning points of the war, they would be largely forgotten about. Their motivation was that they would be paid four times more than a labourer back home and that they would be neutrals until war was declared in 1917. They then became paid volunteers in a nominally civilian Chinese Labour Corps. Despite the CLC’s insistence on the labourers being civilians, they endured military discipline and served under British officers: a motley assortment of invalids and ex-China hands, some of them were eve missionaries on the look out for converts.

The members of the CLC lived in camps behind the front lines but devastation would find them anyway. Some sources believe that up to 20,000 men died. This is not surprising given the gruelling conditions – they worked 10-hour days, seven days a week. At the time they were seen as cheap labour, not even allowed of the camps to fraternise locally. In fact, when the war ended some were used for mine clearance, or to recover the bodies of soldiers and fill in miles of trenches.

Ten days before Germany’s surrender on November 11, 1918, Britain sent back the first batch of Chinese workers, beginning repatriations that would end in September 1920. However some members of the CLC would stay in various established communities in France – about 3,000 labourers remained and settled down, forming Chinatowns.

These survivors did not have a happy ending though. When the locals returned to Flanders after the war they were shocked to find the CLC there. They would be blamed for many crimes in the lawless months after the Armistice. Also, hundreds would die from the influenza that swept post-war Europe. The last labourers would be shipped home in 1920 due to loud demands from the Belgian government.

Many of the labourers would return home with savings but without the recognition that came to the troops they served. For example, after the war, the UK government sent a medal to every member of the CLC. It was to be like the British War Medal issued to every member of the British armed forces, except that it was of bronze, not sliver.

The effects on China post-WW1 would be similarly unfair. The young republic, gained little from its status as an ally and as a source of labour. After the war, the allied powers imposed fierce reparations on Germany at the Treaty of Versailles yet China saw little of the spoils. The Treaty gave Japan control of Germany’s colonial possessions in China – notably in the costal province of Shandong as it was the birthplace of Confucius. This would see dramatic effects as it triggered the May Fourth student protests, which would grow into a movement for national renewal. The protests would actually cause minister Lu to leave the Treaty of Versailles conference – making China the only country that participated in the conference that did not sign the peace treaty.

Today though, their story is slowly being rediscovered – museums and academics, particularly within China and Hong Kong – are starting to tell of the largest and longest serving non-European labour contingent in the war. This post really is only the starting point of a group that should not have been painted out of history and I hope it has given you an appreciation for the plight of the CLC.


If you would like more information, Xu Guoqi, has written what might be the definitive history on the subject in their book Strangers on the Western Front.

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