Chinese Men in World War I
The overwhelming loss of life during the Battle of Ypres and the Somme resulted in the mission for more men to assist the war effort. The Chinese Labour Corps was established in February 1916, to carry out labouring work for the army so that more British soldiers could participate on the front line. Duties included digging trenches, filling sandbags, building huts, repairing roads, laying railway, loading tanks and vehicles and unloading ammunition and food rations, laundry and cooking. The Chinese also handled the train-ferry, which was brought from Newhaven to Dieppe.
A parade of Chinese Labourers at Boulogne, 12th August 1917. Photographer: Lt. Ernest Brooks. courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.
The first ship of Chinese men left Weihaiwei (a British leased territory) in January and reached Plymouth in April 1917.
The Chinese were subject to military law and were contracted to work for the duration of three years. China was at this point a neutral country.
A strong man amongst the Chinese Labourers at Boulogne, 12th August 1917, said to be able to lift a sack of oats and throw it over his shoulder with one hand. Courtesy Imperial War Museum.
In contrast to the British West Indies Regiment and Africans, the Chinese entered the the war with the understanding that their services were not in military operations on the Front Line.
Each man wore a wristlet bearing an identification number. The identification number was often used to address a Chinese labourer.
Chinese soldiers loading ammunition aboard a train heading for the Western Front during the World War I. Courtesy Imperial War Museum.
By the end of 1917 there were 54,000 Chinese cemetery at Noyelles-sur-Mer with the Commonwealth 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 Chinese Labour Corps numbered nearly 96,000, while 30,000 were working for the French. In May 1919, 80,000 Chinese Labour Corps were still at work.
Photograph courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.
According to the records kept by the British and French recruiters, around 2,000 Chinese Labour Corps died during World War I
Most died from the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu, some as a direct result of enemy action or of wounds received in the course of their duties. This figure is contested by some Chinese scholars who say the number was as high as 20,000.
They were classified as war casualties and were buried in 17 cemeteries in the North of France with a total of about 2000 tombs (and also a few tombs in one cemetery in Belgium).