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Britain’s hidden debt to the Chinese in WWI

In his book Yang's War, author Clive Harvey takes a closer look at the resilience of the Chinese people – and why so many of them sacrificed their lives for the Allied forces in the early 20th century

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The story of the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC) during World War One is both touching and fascinating. As the political climate between China and the West becomes more combative, Clive Harvey –  author of the 2017 book Yang’s War – sheds light on a powerful historical partnership between the major powers that is rarely spoken of … but should be

Chinese tenacity runs deep. If you go back, 100 years or so, doubters might more readily settle for this verdict. It was one I resolutely reached as the aftermath of writing my first historic novel, Yang’s War.

It is perhaps hardly surprising that a now indisputably supreme world power would have little appetite for reflecting on less prestigious past times. Less still once humiliation corrupts the memory. I hesitate to quote Churchill, yet “the farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see” seems rather apposite in this context.

I am no historian on all matters Chinese, but delving ever deeper in writing Yang’s War I became addicted to the blatant determination of a people hell-bent on revival. In the face of adversity, at a level unthinkable to many others in their own histories, the story of the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC) in World War I is nothing less than awe-inspiring.

How why and when China, a vulnerable fledgling republic, came to take part in WWI is a cautionary conundrum if nothing else. As the largest labour force anywhere in WWI, it is nothing less than astonishing that WWI history has remained muted about them being there at all let alone the difference they ultimately made to the outcome of that war. How it transpired that upwards of 140,000 souls were involved merits closer scrutiny.

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Under siege from various, then, greater powers, China was not ready to roll over and accept its fate. Japan had jumped the gun and joined the Allies before China could even blink. With Japan’s blatant ambition for German-held territory in Shandong, China began privately knocking on Britain’s door offering support. Even though they could simply have sat back, keeping well away from a perilous conflict that had nothing to do with them, nothing was further from their minds. Gambling the Allies would prevail, China had to be there, at the table, alongside Japan, averting any further “carving up” of their homeland. Rejection after rejection came from Britain, yet China never gave up. Having offered troops, to no avail, labour was promised. This was a shrewd change of tack. Coolies had a proven record with foreign powers yet still, the rejections came, and still, their efforts never faltered. As the greatest colonial power, Britain had a reputation for unrivalled access to foreign support in wartime. It also had its powerful Trade Unions to counter should any suggestion of pay for foreign labour raise its head. Then everything changed.

As the Somme inflicted unprecedented attrition on British troops, British attitudes changed, and China’s persistence paid off at last. Britain needed manpower, and China remained ready to oblige. Yet how could such an immense operation remain covert to allow Britain to keep face and avoid the obstruction of doubting politicians and vociferous Unions?

Chinese recruits being fingerprinted

With both Britain and China carrying their own burdensome reasons for keeping their deal under wraps, secrecy was ingeniously secured. To preserve their declared “neutrality”, dodging the prying eyes of both Germany and Japan, China agreed to private recruitment agencies on Chinese soil, while Britain and France offered written contracts for non-combatant paid engagements. This was a commercial arrangement.

Getting the CLCs to France, however, proved to be much more challenging. The initial transportation across the seas quickly fell victim to ruthless German U-boat attacks. The sinking of The Athos, condemning the lives of hundreds of CLCs trapped in the hold, forced a change of plan. Now the entire width of Canada by rail provided the new route. With Canada’s reluctant consent, the inhumane transport of Chinese labour began in earnest. Insisting on locked carriages throughout the week-long trip became an extreme trial of human endurance. Secured within, closeted from view, thwarted any attempts to escape, the CLC were covertly on their way, by hook or by crook.

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The mayhem of war … and the confusion within

As the greatest human conflict in the history of war dragged on, the intended separation of labour from combatant troops became ever blurred. The onset of Spanish Flu took its own toll on all participants, as did German firepower. With the front line ever-depleting, skilled Allied troops were redeployed to close-quarter combat. With the new tank depots left wanting, it swiftly became apparent there were many skilled men amongst the CLC recruits, not least the protagonist of my book. Yang, as an interpreter who was near-fluent in English, poignantly represents the archetypal “saviour” for the suddenly under-manned British tank and munitions units. Urgently needing both mechanical skills and a fluent foreign tongue, such resourceful Chinese recruits as Yang soon came to run these depots.

Author Clive Harvey beside a grave in a cemetary for Chinese workers in Noyelles-sur-Mer in northern France

Having already out-performed all other trench-digging teams, the CLCs were now proving their worth in the combatant’s own backyard. By the Battle of Cambrai, this was invaluable, yet no accolade came. So it was that the presence of the Chinese diaspora on the killing fields of WWI became, and remained, the untold truth about The Great War. Untold because both sides had set out to keep it that way. Sustained because the brutal exclusion of China from the spoils of war at Versailles left a festering wound that wouldn’t heal.

If anyone, back then, had any doubts about the tenacity of the Chinese people, I doubt few have any now. It doesn’t just run deep; it has long been a simple case of DNA. No other conclusion registers for me now.

All WW1 photographs from the W J HAWKINGS collection courtesy of his grandson John de Lucy

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