By Danny Buckland in The Independent, 28 June, 1997
Britain has made much of human rights in the run-up to the hand- over of Hong Kong to the Chinese, but who are we to point fingers? As Danny Buckland reports, thousands of Chinese labourers died at our hands from mistreatment, malnutrition and bullets during the turmoil of the Western Front.
In the glorious days of Empire, Britain could call on allies, drum up mercenaries and dragoon in unwilling troops to help keep the map of the world an illustrious pink. As we prepare to shed Hong Kong, another vestige of Empire, the remarkable role of China’s “coolies” in the First World War, has come to light.
A forgotten army of 100,000 was “recruited” to back up Britain’s campaign on the Western Front, where almost 500,000 Allies lost their lives in the Somme offensive alone.
Almost 2,000 non-combatant Chinese are buried in isolated Commonwealth War Grave Commission cemeteries in France, killed by German bombing raids, mines, disease and malnutrition. Their sacrifices have yet to be acknowledged. Furthermore, 10 of the Chinese were also put before firing squads for minor military infractions.
And in shameful scenes following a mutinous protest about atrocious conditions, scores of unarmed and undernourished Chinese were gunned down by British soldiers.
The Chinese were used by the Allies on a simple basis of supply and demand: they were plentiful and they were cheap. They also had little idea of what they were letting themselves in for. Their duties included the donkey work of trench-digging, munitions supply, shipyard work and battlefield mine and body clearance. And they were the last to be repatriated from France two years after Armistice Day. Little has been recorded about China’s involvement in the war effort, either at home or in the Orient, but it was a role of extreme political significance.
In 1905, the Conservative government of Bonar Law had sanctioned the use of 20,000 Chinese “coolies” in the South African Rand gold mines, where they endured subhuman conditions. Herbert Asquith and his Liberal party were merciless in their attacks on the practice in the ensuing Chinese slavery debates and the scandal inspired the then-Tory Winston Churchill’s dramatic defection across the floor of the House of Commons. The Government suffered heavily from the opposition onslaught and Churchill’s truancy, and was defeated in a landslide the following year.
But 10 years later, it was Asquith’s seal of approval and the orchestration of war secretary David Lloyd George that sent 100,000 Chinese to the Western Front. The conditions of their indenture to the British Army were as shameful as slavery, but this was regarded by the government as different. This was war, old chap.
At the time, Britain had two leased footholds in China – Hong Kong in the south, and Weihaiwei in the north-eastern province of Shantung. Both were considered as recruiting grounds, but the men of Shantung were generally thought to be tougher and harder working. They were hired on three-year contracts at one franc per day with a signing-on payment equivalent to about pounds l.50 and a small monthly payment that could not be touched until after the war. They were guaranteed repatriation and promised that they would be no closer than 10 miles from the firing line (the “10-mile rule”) but little else. The terms proved appealing to the province’s uneducated peasants eking out a bare subsistence living. Recruits ranged from 14 to 60 years old.
Willing but bewildered, they were corralled at the port of Weihaiwei and given a rough induction into the British Army. They were sprayed head to foot with disinfectant, their ponytails were lopped off and a numbered identification wristlet was fixed on by a blacksmith. They were issued with a waterproof canvas wallet containing their photograph and thumb- print on a card. A British officer kept a diary, later published under the illuminating title With the Chinks, recording events at what he called “The Sausage Machine” recruiting centre, where the Chinese were taught the rudiments of drill. He wrote: “There is a rivalry among the officers in regard to the number of canes broken on the backs, legs and shins, not to speak of the heads, of the defaulters.”
The same cavalier attitude was applied to their cramped transport across the oceans to France. They were packed tight and fed meagre rations during the four-month voyage via Canada. Many died and many arrived too weak to work. But they were pitched immediately into support tasks to allow more British soldiers to take their place on the front lines. The Chinese soon became regarded as the most hard working and efficient of the near- 200,000 colonial recruits – which included Zulus and Fijians – who served under the British Army on the Western Front.
They didn’t kowtow meekly to British dominance. They were fiercely protective of their cultural traditions and many camps were adorned with Chinese lanterns and decorated with ornate artwork. They flew colourful kites, held stilt-walking contests and, even though they were dressed in regulation puttees and military jackets, clung to their independence. Their secret societies – the Tongs – also established a foothold.
In August 1917, the 10-mile rule was relaxed and some companies of the Chinese Labour Corps found themselves within a mile of the fighting.
Many volunteered for extra trench-digging duties, and to cook meals for weary soldiers. They also gave cigarettes and rations to the emaciated troops who trudged back from the front for a respite.
But they were still generally treated as a lower life form by the imperious British Army.
They slept in grossly overcrowded billets with barely enough wood to construct beds, and in tents pitched in the worst of the Somme mud. Their backbreaking shifts, humping supplies and munitions, lasted at least 12 hours each day, and their rations were poor. Labourers from the 4th Regiment based at the strategic Calais Docks had to work barefoot and without winter coats for three months as the war lurched into 1918.
Transgressors were punished by cuts in pay, imprisonment for between three and 14 days, and, for gambling and fighting, corporal punishment. If a “coolie” fell ill, his wages were immediately stopped and 42 days later the monthly subsidy paid into his Chinese account was halted.
With the Tongs able to exploit rising dissatisfaction, strike action became more frequent and the British were unable to suppress the worst outbreak in Boulogne, which was fused into explosion by the British soldiers’ mutiny at Etaples, eight miles down the coast. The British commander-in- chief, General Sir Douglas Haig, received a phone call at the British Army’s HQ at Montreuil – 70 miles from the front lines – that the No 74 Chinese Labour Corps had stopped unloading supply vessels and had gone on the rampage. Haig knew only one way to act. The reprisals were harsh. A total of 27 unarmed strikers were shot dead, 39 were wounded and 25 taken prisoner.
The author William Allison described the incident in his book Toplis – The Monocled Mutineer. He wrote: “The colour of their skins seems to have determined the fate of the rebels, who were considered unworthy of the luxury of courts martial.”
Corporal Harry Rogers from Birmingham was sent out on to the streets of the coastal port with orders to “kill those foul foreigners” by shooting on sight. He recalled: “It was a wretched, pitiful business. The poor bastards had been little more than slaves.
“We were under instructions to look upon them as pure rabble. If they showed face in the streets in groups of over three in number they were to be shot like rabid dogs.”
The bloodiest phase of the street slaughter came when a group of Chinese approached Mony’s restaurant, favoured by elite officers and judged as the place to be after the Prince of Wales had dined there. They had already attacked the Louvre Hotel and a cafe in desperate search for food, but had been easily fought off by the kitchen staff because they were so weakened by malnutrition. Private George Souter, of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, was in a detachment that was sent to protect the exclusive restaurant.
“By the time we arrived, the mob was already overturning staff cars outside the restaurant. Inside, officers had overturned the marble-topped tables and were cowering and crouching behind them on their hands and knees on the sand- and sawdust-covered floor,” he remembered. “It was not an ennobling sight and neither was what followed. Ninety of us opened fire as ordered and the foreigners, who had not even got as far as the restaurant door, fell dead in the gutter.”
When the war finally ended, the Chinese had to wait until the ships had repatriated all the other colonial troops before they were given their ride home. It was 1920 before some left. The only decoration recorded to a Chinese labourer came in June 1919, when Wang Yushan was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal for bravery. He spotted a fire on an ammunition dump and seized a smouldering P-bomb and hurled it to safety before extinguishing the fire which was spreading to rifle grenades and German shells.
The remaining Chinese were forced into clearing mines and continued to sustain casualties until ships became free. They returned as they came – in confined squalor.
When the file was closed, 1,949 had died in Europe and 73 on return voyages.
Today their cemeteries are as unobtrusive as their presence was on the Western Front. Most of the graves are located far off the well-worn military history tourist trail. Close to the village of Notelles in the now peaceful Somme countryside, it is only identified by small “cimetiere chinois” signposts. Through the village and right up a bumpy farmland track, and the small walled cemetery unfolds behind a stone pagoda entrance.
It holds the graves of 842 men of the Chinese Labour Corps, and a memorial to 42 whose bodies could not be found. The graves, complete with Chinese calligraphy, bear a range of epitaphs including: “A good reputation endures for ever”, “Faithful unto death”, and “A noble duty bravely done”.