The Chinese Labour Corps

A Heritage Project by The Meridian Society

In this four year period marking World War I, as we commemorate those who gave their lives to defending peace, The Meridian Society seeks  to remember one group of people that has never been officially recognised for its part in the Allied war effort.

This is the Chinese Labour Corps, almost 100,000 men recruited by Britain to provide essential logistical support in Europe. Our project sets out to correct this oversight by telling their story through various events and activities and creating a virtual memorial to honour them and their contribution in perpetuity.

Background

Soon after war broke out in France and Belgium, the Allies found themselves having to replenish their troops with men from the munitions factories and strategic ports. To replace them, the British came up with the idea of enlisting coolies from China, known to be resilient, hardworking and in need of money. Going to Europe, despite its dangers, could earn them enough to keep their families alive.

In total, 140,000 were recruited: close to 96,000 by the British and the rest by the French and Americans. After intense military training in China, the British contingent – which came to be known as the Chinese Labour Corps – was transported to France, mainly via Canada and England. It was a gruelling three-month journey. Some never made it to mainland Europe and over a dozen lie buried in Liverpool, Plymouth and Folkestone.

The first batch of the CLC arrived in April 1917. They worked 10-hour days without respite, building roads and docks, assembling equipment and digging trenches. Though mocked for their strange language and customs, it was their dragon dances and folk arts at Chinese New Year that provided much-needed entertainment for the weary troops.

Conditions were harsh for Europeans and Chinese alike and all longed for an end to the war. Yet when Armistice was declared in 1918, while British soldiers returned to England, the CLC were made to stay on and were given the dangerous and gruesome task of clearing mines and burying the dead.

It was not until 1920 that most of them finally set off for home. Some of those recruited by the French were allowed to stay and formed the origins of Paris’ Chinatown. But at least two thousand died from shellfire or disease. A Chinese cemetery was built in their memory in Noyelles-sur-Mer in northern France. There are plans to erect a monument near the battlefields of Belgium. Here in Britain, there is nothing – no mention of the Chinese Labour Corps; no recognition of the part they played in the Great War; no memorial to those who gave their lives to a cause about which they knew little.

The aim of our project is to raise awareness of the vital role played by the CLC in World War I and to build up a legacy of collective tokens and memories to honour their contribution and serve as a remembrance, for future generations of British-Chinese and non-Chinese alike, of these simple, hardworking men who left their homes in the Far East, some forever, to travel to the alien West and who toiled through those years of our turbulent past to help create for us a peaceful today.

If you would like to host or volunteer your help for any of the above, or simply wish to find out more information about our project, please email us at: chineselabourcorps@gmail.com

Our Collaborators

BFI Southbank
Commonwealth War Graves Commission Folkestone Town Council and the resources of Folkestone Museum
Imperial War Museum
Museum of Liverpool
Plymouth City Council
SOAS China Institute
UCL-Institute of Education, Confucius Institute Weihai City Museum