The Somme, France: Britain’s Forgotten Army
Every year on Remembrance Sunday, crowds gather at London’s Whitehall for a commemorative service in honor of the servicemen and women who died in WWI. This year, a large group of people representing a host of organizations and institutions stand out from the crowd; they have come to lay wreaths for the Chinese Labor Corps. This is the first time the contribution of Chinese troops to the British war effort has been officially acknowledged, and it is part of a wider community effort to raise awareness on the issue.
But why has the story of the CLC been kept a secret for so long?
Britain’s Secret Army, all the way from Weihaiwei
Let us go back in time, back to 1916. The Allies are literally knee-deep in a war that is proving slow, and costly. China, meanwhile, has just emerged from almost two millenaries of imperial reign, and its republic is still vulnerable to warlords and rebellions in its outlying provinces. Until now, it has stayed neutral in the war. To respond to severe manpower shortages on the Western Front, Britain and France begin recruiting Chinese men in Weihaiwei, Shandong province to work in the agricultural and industrial sectors. 140,000 men are enlisted on civil contracts –unaware that they are about to be sent to the Western Front.
Arriving in France, the men were crammed into military camps separate to that of the British troops’, and separate even to the Commonwealth barracks. 300 or so men were managed by a Chinese “ganger”, who in turn answered to a British commanding officer, so as to facilitate communication. Chinese names being too complex for the British officers to remember, the British took thumbprints of the men – assisted by specialists from Scotland Yard – and assigned each man a bracelet with a unique identifier number. The men worked between 10 and 18 hours a day, digging trenches, building roads and railroads, unloading weapons, and generally answering to any logistical needs of the British Armed Forces.
Pictures of a Chinese camp managed by the British emerged recently when the grandson of a British Army officer stumbled across a collection of his grandfather’s photographs. These offer an incredible insight into the everyday life of the Chinese Labor Corps: here they are waiting in line for health check-ups, performing spontaneous music concerts, or cleaning out used shells from the battlefield. The photographer notes that they were “good with horses” and “excellent gardeners,” even winning a prize at an Agricultural Competition in Abbeville, in the Somme department in 1918. Constantly trading in accessories, the Chinamen sport a flamboyantly wide variety of hats and boots. With their civilian attire, they do not look like soldiers. This, coupled with the photographer’s talent for cracking jokes – he spoke Chinese – and capturing them mid-grin, adds a comical, almost light-hearted touch to the photographs.
And yet, the conditions of the CLC were far from light-hearted. Between 5,000 and 10,000 died on the Western Front, 841 of which are buried at the picturesque Chinese cemetery in Noyelles. The journey itself to France was perilous enough: in 1917, almost 500 Chinese died when their ship was torpedoed by German forces as it crossed the Suez Canal. After the Armistice was signed in 1918, laborers were not yet granted leave to return home. There was still much work to be done, such as clearing battlefields of decomposing bodies, dismantling unexploded bombs, building cemeteries, and collecting empty shell cases. The number of protests and strikes was so high that the British opened an entire prison camp solely for Chinese protesters. Despite the abhorrent treatment of its troops, the Chinese government could congratulate itself for contributing to the war effort, and emerging victorious alongside the Allied forces. It could not foresee what the allies had in store for them as recompense.
Painted out of History
Back to the present and on the other side of the globe, in Kansas City’s Memorial Hall, Missouri, a historian peers over a reconstructed copy of the “Pantheon de la Guerre”, a massive painting produced at the end of the First World War. It depicts several thousand prominent war figures from France and its allies, including Britain, the United States and 20 or so other countries.
The original was, at the time, the world’s largest circular painting – the size of a football field. Commissioned in 1914 in France to a group of French artists to instill patriotic fervor among its audience, it was later acquired by US businessmen, toured the country for several years, was cut up, re-worked to suit an American audience at the height of the Cold War, and put into storage. Only about 7% remains of the original.
Incredibly, of the 6,000 war figures depicted, not a single Chinese laborer is to be seen – all except for one obscure figure, crouched on the steps, and easily missed. A specialist might notice that the American figures were painted hastily above the original canvas, and much later than the rest of the painting, after the United States joined the conflict in 1917.
The cover-up does not stop there. In 1919 at the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, China’s contribution to the war was completely brushed aside. Expecting to recover the German-occupied territories in Shandong province, these were instead handed over to Japan, a growing industrial power that had already started its aggressive territorial expansion throughout Asia. The outcome of the treaty triggered an outcry in China, with mass political protests calling for a stronger Chinese government. The May Fourth Movement is now regarded as one of the turning points in modern Chinese history, ultimately leading to the birth of the Communist Party.
In 2018, campaigners plan to erect a monument in honor of the Chinese Labor Corps in London for the 100th anniversary of the end of the war.
Image courtesy of John de Lucy, W.J. Hawkings Collection.
For more info, watch Britain’s Forgotten Army – A documentary by Channel 4: http://www.channel4.com/programmes/britains-forgotten-army
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