Discovering the Great War of China

A third of a million Chinese labourers helped the Allies defeat the Kaiser, but their huge unsung contribution ended in betrayal

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A British Chinese Labour Corps camp, 1917, in an early colour photograph. Some 140,000 labourers were recruited by Britain and France and another 200,000 by Russia (©Paul Castelnau / Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images)

While studying in the School of Oriental and African Studies library a few years ago, I stumbled across Xu Guoqi’s China and the Great War and was taken aback by the book’s title. I had a degree in modern history from Oxford and had taught history in secondary schools for several years, and yet I knew nothing about China’s involvement in the First World War. I abandoned the essay I was supposed to be writing, borrowed the book, and set off on a journey of historical discovery. Hunting down every  bit of information I could find on the topic, I interrupted family holidays to visit Chinese cemeteries in northern France and eventually wrote a novel about what I had discovered. The potential impact of idly browsing in a library should never be underestimated.

I quickly discovered that the story of China and the Great War is not an incidental tale, a mere coda to a greater European symphony. The Chinese experience of that terrible conflict provides a salutary reminder that the Great War was indeed a world war. The narrative with which we are most familiar tends to focus on European battles and European ambitions. But if we ignore the war’s Asian dimension, we inevitably develop an inadequate understanding of 20th-century history. What happened during the war and afterwards at Versailles defined the nature of Sino-Japanese relations for the next hundred years, provoked a political and cultural revolution in China, and led indirectly to the rise of the Chinese Communist Party.

Getting to grips with China’s involvement in the Great War also forces us to consider some unsavoury aspects of British history, because we can only understand the events of 1914 by coming to terms with imperial history and the semi-colonisation of China in the 19th century. By the time the Opium Wars and the Boxer Rebellion were over, more than a dozen European countries had acquired territorial interests in China, annexing territories such as Hong Kong and Taiwan and establishing enclaves, known as concessions, in west-coast ports including  Shanghai and Tianjin. My students now learn about the Opium Wars, but the first I heard about them was when I saw an exhibition in a Hong Kong museum as an adult: somehow Britain’s role in those inglorious conflicts had dropped off the syllabus when I was studying history at school and university.

‘The story of China and the Great War is not an incidental tale, a mere coda to a greater European
symphony. The Chinese experience provides a salutary reminder that the Great War was indeed a world war’

In a similar way, I only learned about Germany’s imperial ambitions in China when I visited Qingdao, or Tsingtao as it was then romanised, in the north-west of China. Noting the success of British, French and Japanese land grabs in the region, Germany had seized Qingdao in 1898 in order to gain a strategically important port. Having gained a foothold in the province of Shandong, it quickly developed the city into what it hoped would be a model colony, the remains of which can be seen to this day in the architecture of several churches, the impressive façade of the former governor’s residence and, above all, in the world-renowned Tsingtao Brewery.   

When the Great War broke out in July 1914, the Chinese government sensed an opportunity to win its territory back. However, it also faced the possibility of being over-run by warring imperial powers. With Chinese territory controlled by Germany and Austria-Hungary on the one hand, and Britain, France and Russia on the other, there was a distinct possibility that the European imperial conflict would quickly spill over onto Chinese soil. Hoping to keep the conflict at arm’s length, the Chinese government immediately announced its neutrality.

Neutrality proved to be a vain hope. Japan, seeing an opportunity to strengthen its extra-territorial interests, laid siege to Qingdao with British help and by November 1914 had driven the Germans out and taken their place, quickly extending their reach into the whole province. The British were delighted by this early Allied victory: the Chinese less so. They may have been quite happy to see the Germans despatched from Qingdao, but their replacement by Japanese troops who were clearly keen to further extend Japan’s sphere of influence was hardly the outcome they had been seeking.

It would be no exaggeration to say that the fall of Qingdao drove Chinese military policy for the next four years. Determined to regain full territorial integrity while being acutely aware of domestic instability, the Chinese government did all it could to persuade the Allies to return Qingdao and the rest of Shandong to Chinese control, which meant that it had no alternative but to support the Allied war effort.

The opening gambit in the Chinese strategy to get its voice heard in London and Paris was to offer Chinese troops to fight on the western front. When this offer was rejected by Britain, one of the leading Chinese politicians of the time, Liang Shiyi, came up with a new idea: the Labourers as Soldiers strategy. By offering labourers to the Allies, the Chinese hoped to win a seat at the post-war peace conference and so ensure that the territory that had been wrested from them would be swiftly returned.

Though the Japanese government did what it could to frustrate China’s plans, the strategy slowly came to fruition as the death toll rose on the western front, though the British in particular were loath to accept help from what they saw as the sick man of Asia. Desperate for additional manpower in France, the British turned first to their own colonies and dominions for  troops and labourers, though this approach proved to be problematic. Not only was it a struggle to recruit enough men but the policy also created imperial unease on a grand scale. The Boer newspaper, Ons Land, summarised the concern most explicitly when it reported that the

. . . deployment of Arabian, Indian, and African troops on the European battlefields brings East and West, whites and blacks in close contact with one another. We cannot but wonder what the consequences of this will be. Senior citizens, women and children of the enemy will fall into the hands of these black and yellow auxiliary troops . . . This can only be detrimental to the image of Western culture and of the whites.

The British Minister to China, John Jordan, expressed a similar opinion in more measured tones in a report to the Foreign Office, arguing that the “new school of statesmen [in China] would not, in my opinion, view with favour the prospect of seeing their countrymen assisting European powers in a struggle on any terms which did not ensure them complete equality of standing and a voice in the subsequent settlement”. With British trade unions also voicing their concerns, the British government held back from sanctioning the use of Chinese labour until France forced its hand. When the French government decided in late 1915 to start recruiting Chinese labourers, pressure built on the British to do likewise. After a slow start, the recruitment process quickly gathered momentum. Eventually some 140,000 labourers were recruited by Britain and France, while Russia hired another 200,000 men. By the time China declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary in August 1917, many thousands of labourers had already travelled to Europe and many had died.

Transporting that number of men halfway across the world in wartime was a huge logistical operation. Most of the labourers who were hired by the British were recruited from Shandong province and were transported from the port of Weihaiwei, close to the city of Qingdao. From there they were transported via Canada to Britain and then across the Channel to France, arriving at the headquarters of the Chinese Labour Corps (or CLC) at Noyelles-sur-Mer at the mouth of the Somme.

While researching Between Darkness and Light, my novel about the Chinese Labour Corps, I visited the tiny archive at East Surrey Museum, where some of the effects of Captain Royal Douglas Wood are preserved. Wood, who travelled with the Chinese Labour Corps from Weihaiwai on the SS Coconada in September 1917, kept a diary during the journey which reveals a great deal about the daily experience of the labourers and a great deal more about the attitudes of the men who were responsible for keeping them in their place. The very first entry in the diary, for example, tells us that “Coolies made a little trouble over distribution of midday meal. Steps taken to prevent recurrence.” What sort of steps are revealed in a  later entry, which reveals that “2 men [were] handcuffed to stanchions [for] 6 hours for urinating in prohibited places.”

Another diary that was later published, with the revealing title of With the Chinks, more explicitly reveals the casual racism the Chinese labourers were subjected to. The diary’s author, Second Lieutenant Daryl Klein, admitted that “as children we were taught to believe that both Cain and coolies were murderers from the beginning; no coolie was to be trusted; he was a yellow dog; he would stick a knife into you in a dark alley on a dark night. He was treacherous.”

However, even though he now distanced himself from that view, Klein clung onto a hardly less flattering caricature of the men he was responsible for, writing that

. . . the coolie whom we trained and brought to France is a simple, jolly fellow. He is content with the very simplicities of life; he steals, but not overmuch; he is to be trusted. He is extraordinarily happy; he grins and grins; he is good to his fellow-creature. In the following pages I have often compared him to a child because of his simplicity, his playfulness, his frank delight with life, his quaintness and his affectionate character.

Making the sea journey to France was a perilous business. According to Xu Guoqi, approximately 700 Chinese labourers lost their lives as a result of German submarine attacks before they reached their destination. However, what they found when they eventually arrived at Noyelles was a remarkable base camp. The headquarters of the CLC developed very quickly from a holding camp to a major centre that provided a temporary home from home for the Chinese labourers in northern France. One of the most impressive aspects of the base was its hospital, which rivalled any hospital in China at the time. This is how one of the British officers proudly describes it to a Chinese translator, with only a little exaggeration, in my novel:   

We do incredible things in this hospital, and when I say ‘we’, I don’t just mean the British. It’s not just the shrine and the pagoda your chaps have created here. We have Chinese doctors and Chinese dressers too. Last year we even performed an entire Chinese opera. We run classes in English and French, in basic medicine, and elementary geography. We teach the illiterate how to read using Dr Wong’s excellent phonetic shorthand. We have a hospital that is unsurpassed anywhere in the Chinese-speaking world. Men come to us broken and we fix them. They come to us as labourers and, when they can labour no longer, we get them going again. I had no desire to leave the mission field, but we have created something remarkable here at the mouth of the Somme.

Though the contracts for Chinese labourers explicitly stated that labourers were “not to be employed in military operations” but were to “work on railways, roads, etc., and in factories, mines, dockyards, fields, forests, etc” the reality was that many Chinese workers ended up working at or very close to the front line. Casualty rates were therefore much higher than many of the labourers had been led to believe when they were recruited. The doctors at Noyelles were required to treat bullet and shell wounds as well as a wide range of industrial injuries, to say nothing of the diseases, chiefly trachoma, that many labourers brought with them from China.   

The simple idea behind the Labourers as Soldiers strategy was that giving labouring tasks to Chinese employees would free young European men to fight. That meant that Chinese labourers were soon given a wide range of back-breaking tasks to do, including digging trenches, repairing roads, building railway lines, and manufacturing tanks and ammunition. They also did what was euphemistically known as battlefield clearance. This was perhaps the deadliest task of all, as a moving visit to the Chinese cemetery at Noyelles brought home to me.

‘Many Chinese labourers were killed while clearing bodies, barbed wire and the detritus of war from the killing fields of northern France and Belgium’

Walking between the rows of simple, white gravestones, I found what I thought to be the most poignant of them all: Sung Hsi P’eng (as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission records his name), Labourer Number 106882, who died on November 11, 1918. How unlucky can you get? Quite a lot more unlucky, it transpired. The next gravestone marked the last resting place of Teng Hsi T’ien who died on November 12 and the one after that the grave of Pan Chung Shan who died on November 13. Walking down one row after another, I saw the graves of hundreds of men who died after Armistice Day. In fact, over half of the 841 men buried at Noyelles died after November 11, 1918, the last death being recorded on March 23, 1920.

Undoubtedly there were many reasons for these deaths. Some may have died of wounds sustained before hostilities ended. Others may have succumbed to so-called Spanish Flu (which wasn’t Spanish at all). However, many were killed while clearing bodies, barbed wire and the detritus of war from the killing fields of northern France and Belgium. “Battlefield clearance” is such an innocuous phrase and yet the reality was horrifying.

The labourers worked with shovels and wire-cutters to clear a section of ground, marking the position of any bodies they found with wooden stakes, before soaking them with cresol and wrapping them in canvas. Sometimes the ground had been marked by retreating Axis troops, a helmet hanging from a wooden stake, or a piece of wood with the letter E burnt into it, signalling the site of an English grave. However, as often as not, these markers were non-existent, having been blown to pieces by heavy shelling or never having existed in the first place. In those situations the labourers had to rely on other indications of decay: rat holes and tiny traces of discarded bones, small pieces of uniform protruding from the ground, grass marked with the blueish tinge of death.

Marking smaller burial sites with yellow flags and larger ones with blue flags, the labourers began to carve out the war cemeteries with which we are so familiar today. What we see is order and beauty, fitting tributes to the war dead in the north European countryside: what the labourers faced was a blasted landscape, a confusion of body parts, and unexploded ordnance. Here is how I describe their work in Between Darkness and Light:

At first they try to do their work as quickly as possible, but as one shovel after another plunges through the soft flesh of the dead, as one labourer after another vomits on the remains he has revealed, they begin to slow down. They work, if not with the skill of the archaeologist, then at least with his speed. Painstakingly they dig around the resting place of the dead soldiers, ensuring that nothing is missed, before laying out the canvas, soaking it with cresol, and carefully digging down and under the remains. As they lift the body parts onto the sheet, they detach any personal items—identification tags, letters, photographs—and pass them onto the exhumation officer who always accompanies them. The British watch like eagles in case they steal watches or money, but little is ever taken. There are few who want anything to do with the possessions of the dead.

As the weeks pass, the ground softens, but their job grows harder. Hasty battlefield burials become more difficult to identify, and so they change their way of working. Grass and nettles now cover much of what were the battlefields, and the labourers have to trust to luck and intuition. A line of darker grass or a flush of nettles might denote the site of a shallow grave, but, equally, it might not. They dig anyway and hope they won’t find anything that will blow them sky-high. But, however careful they are, they soon have dead men of their own.

The cemetery at Noyelles-sur-Mer is the largest Chinese graveyard in France, but it is certainly not the only one. The cemetery at St Etienne-au-Mont, just outside Boulogne, tells a similar story. Of the 160 Chinese labourers buried there, almost half died after Armistice Day. The dates of World War One may be engraved on the British collective memory but the Chinese experience of war reminds us that limiting the war to the years 1914-1918 is very misleading. For the Chinese, the war started in 1914, but only ended when the last of their labourers was killed in 1920 or even later, if we consider the catastrophic situation faced by those labourers who were dispatched to Russia only to be caught up in the revolution and subsequent civil war.

The entrance of the Chinese cemetery at Noyelles-sur-Mer (FELIX POTUIT)

Chinese labourers suffered terribly during and after the war and yet their contribution to the Allied war effort has been largely glossed over. They were quickly forgotten, their presence in Europe an embarrassment and their contribution to the war effort largely unacknowledged. When the war ended, the British and French kept as many labourers as they required for battlefield clearance and repatriated the others as quickly as was practically possible. A few labourers stayed on in France and elsewhere, marrying local women or continuing to work in the docks or in other places where they had made themselves particularly useful.

However, as the negotiations at the Versailles peace conference soon made clear, out of sight was very much out of mind. As Lord Bourne has pointed out: “It is ironic that those so instrumental in creating such iconic places of remembrance as the Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries were then themselves forgotten.” That is why an alliance of Chinese groups in the UK is currently working towards the creation of the first permanent memorial to the Chinese Labour Corps in Britain. They have chosen the name Ensuring We Remember for their campaign and  at times bringing such memories to the surface must have seemed like a forlorn hope. There are, though, signs that the First World War’s Asian dimension is finally being recognised in the West.

The final indignity for the Chinese came with the Versailles Peace Treaty. Having manoeuvred themselves into a position where they believed they would be able to influence the course of events and win back the territory that Japan had seized from them, the Chinese government was thwarted once more when negotiations got under way. In fact, the writing was on the wall even before the conference got going. Though Japan was given five seats at the conference, China was granted only two. Having contributed troops to the war effort, the Japanese always held the upper hand in the post-war negotiations, especially as they had frequent support from the American delegation, led by Woodrow Wilson himself, which was desperate to ensure that Japan signed up to the League of Nations. Handing Qingdao and the surrounding regions back to China would almost certainly have scuppered that ambition. The Chinese delegation, led by Lu Zhengxiang, was on the back foot from the very start of the conference.

However, what undermined the Chinese negotiating position most fatally was a series of secret agreements that had been signed by a weakened Chinese government with the Japanese during the war, allowing the Japanese to hold onto the Chinese territory it had seized. When it became apparent that the Allies planned to honour these agreements, even though they had been made under considerable duress, thousands of students poured onto the streets of Beijing in protest. May 4, the date of those initial demonstrations, became the most resonant date in modern Chinese history, the protests spawning a new political, social and cultural movement. If you visit Qingdao today, you will find the waterfront dominated by a huge red memorial to the May Fourth Movement. But the humiliation at Versailles did not simply leave a legacy of colourful public sculptures. The May Fourth Movement transformed Chinese social and political affairs and led indirectly to the creation of the Chinese Communist Party itself. China may have been an afterthought to the so-called Big Four at Versailles, but the events that were set in train at the conference came back to haunt the Allied nations later in the century.

When the moment came to sign the Treaty of Versailles, the Chinese delegation was put under huge pressure to join all the other delegates in adding their signatures to the final document. However, as Lu Zhengxiang explained in his memoirs, “Our country owed it to herself to consent no longer to letting herself be played with. I was not willing to sign my name yet again to unjust clauses, and I took it upon myself alone to refuse my signature.” June 28, 2019 is not just the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles: it is also the anniversary of the Chinese refusal to sign an unjust treaty that it saw as a fundamental betrayal of all it had fought for. The war was now officially over, but for the Chinese labourers and the government that had sent them to France the battle for recognition and equality of esteem had only just begun.