Chinese Labour Corps of WWI finally remembered in the UK after 100 years

By Sun Wei in London Source:Global Times Published: 2017/11/15 21:23:39

Chinese Labour Corps of WWI finally remembered after 100 years

Chinese people in France lay wreaths to pay tribute to the Chinese Labor Corps (CLC), who contributed on the Western Front during WWI, in Paris in June 2014. CLC members have long been forgotten in Europe, despite their vital contribution to the Allied troops' WWI victory. For the first time, the UK remembered the Chinese laborers on Remembrance Sunday this year. Photo: VCG

On November 12, also Remembrance Sunday, British TV broadcaster Channel 4 aired a documentary about the untold story of the 140,000 Chinese workers who contributed on the Western Front during WWI.

The hour-long documentary titled Secret History: Britain's Forgotten Army reveals unpublished letters, diaries and documents that shed light on how and why these Chinese laborers were recruited and how they helped win the war. It also examines how and why these heroes were erased from history.   

It is the first media text of its kind to raise awareness of the war efforts of these brave Chinese workers. The documentary also depicted poppy wreaths dedicated to the Chinese laborers being laid at the Cenotaph in London on Remembrance Sunday this year for the first time. After 100 years, their contributions are finally and rightfully being acknowledged.

Called the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC), those workers came to Europe in 1917 and risked their lives for the Allied war effort, but their vital contribution has been routinely ignored.

More than 60,000 monuments have been set up to commemorate WWI heroes across the UK, including even those commemorating war dogs and war horses, but none of the Chinese workers had ever been commemorated.

"That hurt me a lot," Thomas Chan, Deputy Lieutenant for the London Borough of Redbridge, told the Global Times, adding that these men deserve better considering their huge contributions and sacrifices.

"Without them, Britain and France, and even the world, would not have peace," Chan said, who is also one of the campaigners for the Permanent Memorial in the UK to the Chinese Labour Corps of the First World War.

Nameless unsung Chinese heroes

The CLC was formed to help ease manpower shortages after more than two years of attrition on the Western Front. Around 140,000 young men, most of whom were from East China's Shandong Province, were recruited by the French and the British. Among them, around 96,000 men were recruited by the British.

They were signed up in 1916 to be laborers in Europe, unaware they were about to supply crucial resources to the frontline.

From 1917 until the end of WWI, the CLC dug trenches, built roads and railways, unloaded munitions and carried out many other tasks essential for keeping the British Army supplied with troops and equipment.

"They worked 10 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week [and] only got three days of holiday a year," Chan said, adding that their invaluable contribution was pivotal in enabling Allied forces to continue fighting.

These unsung heroes risked their lives building vital trench systems, maintaining tanks and dismantling unexploded bombs. They endured being knee-deep in unexploded munitions and body parts while clearing the battlefields, recovering the dead and building cemeteries, with many dying in the process. And their contributions continued long after Armistice Day.

Even the long voyage to the battlefields of Europe was hazardous. By trains and ships, the Chinese made their way to Europe, Chan said, noting that many died even before they reached their destination. More than 500 died alone when the French passenger ship Athos was torpedoed by a German submarine in the Mediterranean in February 1917.

Cheng Han, a descendant of the CLC, told the Global Times that although the Chinese laborers were not obliged to fight as soldiers, they were nevertheless often dispatched to the most dangerous frontiers on the battlefields by the Allied troops.

Cheng's great-grandfather, Tian Hongchen, was fortunate enough to return to China after the war ended. "However, tens of thousands of Chinese laborers were forever left in a foreign land and their families did not even know where their loved ones were buried," Cheng said, adding that he was disappointed to find that there were no memorials to the CLC in Britain when he visited several museums and memorials while studying in the UK.

At least 2,000 members of the CLC died during WWI, some even during the flu pandemic that broke out at the end of the conflict. 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 in France.

'Ensuring We Remember'

Thomas Chan, in his role as Deputy Lieutenant, has attended several WWI memorial ceremonies in the UK, but feels sorry those Chinese laborers have been diminished to a historical footnote.

The "Panthéon de la Guerre" was the biggest painting ever commissioned depicting all the Allies who helped win the war. But the CLC, originally painted in, were later covered by huge stars and stripes after the US joined the war. That illustrates that "a weak country has no diplomacy," commented Chan, adding that the Chinese workers were ill-treated in many other ways.

In 2014, together with other members of the Chinese in Britain Forum, Chan launched a national campaign in the UK named "Ensuring We Remember" to erect a permanent monument to commemorate and raise awareness of the role of the Chinese who aided Britain during the war.

The monument is expected to be erected in August 2018, the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI. By design, the monument is 9.6 meters tall, with each meter representing the 10,000 Chinese workers who courageously came to the UK during the war. 

Chan believes that this shared history between China and the UK cannot be forgotten and that this piece of history will be an intangible legacy. Chan also said that apart from appealing for more funding for the permanent monument, more efforts need to be taken to promote the history between the Chinese and British.

In fact, there are other groups helping to raise awareness of the Chinese workers' contribution. The Meridian Society, a charity dedicated to promoting Chinese culture, launched an 18-month CLC project in April. The project involves educational workshops in schools and community centers, film screenings of the workers' oral histories and a mini exhibition of CLC photos and documents. 

Also, in April this year, the UK's first exhibition dedicated to the CLC opened at Durham University's Oriental Museum. Craig Barclay, the exhibition's curator, said that although there has been a considerable rise in interest in the story of the CLC in China, there remains little awareness in the West of China's vital contribution during WWI.

Newspaper headline: Erased from Britain’s memory


blog comments powered by Disqus