Book Review: The Chinese Labour Corps

The hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War has spawned many books by western historians. So it is refreshing that here is one which focuses on the Chinese role in the conflict, and the international political context of the time, when Japan was a close ally of Britain.

“The Chinese Labour Corps” is a slim, easy to read 120 page paperback from Penguin Books by Mark O’Neill a Chinese speaking journalist whose grandfather, then a Christian missionary in Liaoning, served with the Chinese Labor Corps in France in 1917-19.

Altogether some 135,000 Chinese laborers worked in France during and immediately after the war, 94,400 for the China Labour Corps organized by the British army and about 40,000 recruited by France, some 10,000 of whom were deployed with the American forces.

Chinese were not the only laborers recruited for non-combat work. The British brought many also from India and Egypt, France from its African colonies and Indochina. But Chinese were the largest single group – and the ones who were there for a political purpose. For their own part, the laborers, hardy farm workers mostly from Shandong, were there to earn a living and remit their wages, meager by British standards but attractive to Chinese back home.

But they were there because the government in Beijing wanted them there. After some debate it took the view that the anti-German alliance would win the war and thus non-combat, unofficial help to the British and French would enable it to gain concessions such as the expulsion of Germany from Shandong and alleviation of the indemnity it was paying following the Boxer rebellion. It also needed support to combat rising Japanese demands.

Initially it was only the French who took up China’s offer securing a deal which offered five-year contracts and the right of laborers to remain in France afterwards if they so chose. The British at first rejected the proposal, fearing opposition from trade unions at home. But by late 1916 manpower losses had become so severe that they then launched into a major recruitment drive based out Weihai, the Shandong treaty port they controlled.

Getting to Europe was challenge enough for the recruits. Early on, 543 Chinese died when their French ship was sunk by German torpedoes in the Mediterranean. Thereafter longer routes were used, the main one being by ship across the Pacific to Canada, by train across Canada and then by ship again across the Atlantic. It was a slow and very uncomfortable journey.

The work was tough, the hours long and though food and health care were provided many faced periodic dangers from German bombing of their camps and stray shellfire if front lines moved too close to where they were engaged digging trenches, enlarging ports, unloading supply ships.

Those working for the French were mostly freer to mix with the local population, and some worked in factories rather than in labor gangs.


The book makes much of the hardships and dangers but in fact the death rate appears surprisingly small given the diversity of hazards they faced. About 3,000 died, or about 2.5 percent of those who served. Many of those were not victims of the war itself but of the influenza pandemic which ravaged Europe in 1918-20, and from explosions of old shells during postwar efforts to recover bodies and remove the rubble of tens of thousands of destroyed buildings.

About 3,000 Chinese working for the French remained in France after the war, forming the nucleus of the now thriving Chinese community there. Many married locally, a process made easier by the shortage of men following a war in which one third of men between 13 and 30 had died.

The British offered no such access to settlement in Britain and all were repatriated by late 1920 but they did and hand out medals – and looked after the dead Chinese. All are buried in cemeteries still beautifully maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Although the book does not mention this, the one at Noyelles-sur-Mer with 841 graves is dedicated entirely to Chinese was designed by Edwin Lutyens, architect of colonial New Delhi and boasts a story entrance arch in Chinese style. Each headstone has the deceased name and home province in Chinese and the English translation of a Chinese phrase of respect such as “Faithful unto death.”

Noyelles, at the mouth of the Somme, was the main British depot for Chinese workers and had its own hospital, where the author’s grandfather was based. Other Chinese are buried together with Indian laborers at Ayette, close to some of the war’s deadliest battles on the Somme, while other individuals still are found scattered in British military cemeteries in France and Belgium.

For China this effort to help the allies, and its subsequent declaration of war on Germany in August 1917, did not produce the intended results. Its interests were largely ignored at the Peace Conference which led to the Treaty of Versailles. Japan claimed greater credit having provided naval support to the British by providing escorts in the Mediterranean and elsewhere while China’s intention to join the military effort with the creation of an Expeditionary Force came too late. O’Neill notes that Japan’s assumption of Germany’s position in Shandong was a huge blow to Chinese hopes and did not sign the Versailles treaty. However, he omits to mention that Japan did withdraw from Shandong in 1922 under the terms of the Washington Naval Treaty.

O’Neill concludes that the labourers’ efforts “brought no benefit to China,” which is true in a political sense. Indeed, there are a few occasions when the book may seem to rely a little on China Central Television’s six-part, 2009 documentary on the subject.

But O’Neill himself acknowledges the impact on Chinese national consciousness and the links between laborers and elite Chinese which developed from the experience, the role of Christian groups teaching literacy to workers, and of news sheets in Chinese giving them some idea of events in the world in which they were playing a part. Chinese in France were vociferous in opposing Japan’s acquisition of Germany’s position in Shandong, and the political consciousness of both Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping was awakened by their time in France.

But this is an easy and very worthwhile read and a reminder that such a terrible war of attrition might well have ended differently had the allies, but not the Germans, not had access to such a pool of tough, cheap, mobile foreign labour.