China During World War 1

The Chinese Labour Corps (CLC; French: Corps de Travailleurs Chinois; simplified Chinese: 中国劳工旅; traditional Chinese: 中國勞工旅; pinyin: Zhōngguó láogōng lǚ) was a force of workers recruited by the British government in World War I to free troops for front line duty by performing support work and manual labour.

The French government also recruited a significant number of Chinese labourers, and although those labourers working for the French were recruited separately and not part of the CLC, they are often considered to be so.

In all, some 140,000 men served for both British and French forces before the war ended and most of the men were repatriated to China between 1918 and 1920.

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, labour corps were serving in France from Egypt, Fiji, India, Malta, Mauritius, Seychelles, and the British West Indies, as well as a native labour corps from South Africa.

At the end of the war, an estimated over 300,000 workers from the colonies, 100,000 Egyptians, 21,000 Indians and 20,000 native South Africans were 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 organizing 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.

Two of the unit’s commanders, Colonel Bryan Charles Fairfax and Colonel R.L. Purdon, had served with the 1st Chinese Regiment in the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.

Service Members of the Chinese Labour Corps and British soldiers working at a timber yard, Caëstre, July 1917 CLC men load 9.2-inch shells onto a railway wagon at Boulogne for transport to the front line, August 1917 Labour Corps men and a British soldier cannibalise a wrecked Mark IV tank for spare parts at the central stores of the Tank Corps, Teneur, spring 1918.

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 at Victoria, British Columbia.

They were drilled in the old quarantine station at Metchosin, British Columbia on Vancouver Island. Roughly 81,000 Chinese men were then taken on Canadian Pacific Railway trains to Halifax to board steamships to England.

On arrival, they crossed the English Channel to France.

After the war, over 40,000 returned by ship to Halifax and then by train to Vancouver; they were returned by ship to China.

Unknown numbers never made it to the war front, died and buried in unmarked graves in British Columbia (including 21 at William Head Prison) and Ontario (1 known grave of Chou Ming Shan in Petawawa, Ontario). 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, 54,000 Chinese labourers were with the British Imperial 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 CLC numbered nearly 96,000, while a further 30,000 were working for the French.

In May 1919, 80,000 Chinese Labour Corps were still at work.

The British soldier Arthur Bullock, in his wartime memoir, gives a vivid account of the interactions between the British soldiers and Chinese workers.

He also drew a sketch of one Chinese man, Tchung Camena Tungwa, who invited him to have tea in Beijing when he was next there (he never was).

The workers, mainly aged between 20 and 35, served as labour in the rear echelons or helped build munitions depots. They were asked to carry 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 the 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 poor diets 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.

The harshness of the conditions in which some of these men worked is recorded by Arthur Bullock in his wartime memoir, along with the contemporary justification for it.

Bullock also recalls the differences between the ‘coolies’ and the German prisoners of war, in terms of their attitudes to work and to each other.

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.

The contribution of these Chinese men went forgotten for decades until military ceremonies resumed in 2002 at the Chinese cemetery of Noyelles-sur-Mer.

Throughout the war, trade union pressure prevented the introduction of Chinese labourers to the British Isles.

Sidney and Beatrice Webb suggested that the CLC was restricted to carrying out menial unskilled labour due to pressure from British trade unions.

However, some members of the corps carried out skilled and semiskilled 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 the Meritorious Service Medal, as it was decided CLC 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.