With the Chinese Labour Force in France in 1918

With the Chinese Labour Force in France in 1918

(The late Norman Mellor worked with the Chinese Labour Corps for some time after the war. In October 1999, a copy of his report was sent to me by his widow. Unfortunately the copy of the report – date stamped 29 Mar 1983 – is rather faint which may account for some errors. The letter and notes got buried until now while the editor was doing a much needed and much delayed clear-out!!)

It was in March 1918, I was posted to the 4th Bedfordshire Regiment, the 190th Brigade, attached to the 63rd Royal Naval Division on my 19th birthday, and I was just in time to go into action on the Albert- Bapaume road after the final German breakthrough on the 21st March 1918. I remained with my battalion until Armistice Day the 11th November 1918, and being too young for early demobilisation, I volunteered to join the Chinese Labour Corps, instead of having to serve with the Army of Occupation on the Rhine.

The Headquarters of the Chinese Labour Corps were at Noyelles-sur-Mer, near Abbeville. The staff consisted of Captain, Lieutenant and several other ranks. I was put in charge of the Chinese payroll of about 500 labourers, including 1st, 2nd and 3rd class gangers, and one interpreter. This was about the usual strength of a Company. Their pay ranged according to rank, from one to five francs for the interpreter per day, paid monthly.

The 186th Company (prison) in the compound opposite to us was typical of the British bullring at Etaples in France. Full marching order for the Chinese early each morning, “About turn”, “About turn” until you were dizzy. After punishment they were sent back to their own company in the field.

The reason for the Chinese being in France, all volunteers recruited by the British Government and totalling 97,934 from the province of Shantung, was to release our own soldiers for combat duties in the desperate days of 1917-18.

I was with the Headquarters staff until early 1920, so had plenty of opportunity to get to know these cheerful, hardworking and disciplined men. Their parade ground drill was certainly a credit to their army training, and the salvage work, unloading of stores etc. was of great value to the British cause. In a book written by Sidney Allinson he quotes the work done by the 51st Company of the Chinese Labour Corps on the tanks before the Cambrai offensive in November 1917, and of 1000 men working twenty hours per day fitting 350 No.3 fascines in three weeks; which confirms my mention of the “hardworking Chinese”.

On the 20th February, Captain A. R. Jones, Lt Sheapshanks, Sergeant-Major F. Webb and the writer, volunteered for repatriation duties, and reporting to the Base Depot at Le Havre, took control of 1000 Chinese and boarded the S.S. Melita. The Atlantic crossing took five days to our landing at St John’s, New Brunswick.

Gathering our human cargo, we joined the Canadian Pacific Railway and “steamed off” on our seven days journey across Canada, passing through North Bay, Smith Falls, Winnipeg, Portage la Prairie, Regina, Moose Jaw, Medicine Hat, and on to Calgary for a couple of hours stop. Through the Rockies passing Banff, Kicking horse, and like us our Chinese friends were enjoying the wonderful scenery. We arrived in Vancouver without any mishap.

Next day we crossed by ferry to the Canadian quarantine station at William Head on Vancouver Island, and joined up with 5000 more Chinese workers awaiting repatriation. During our short stay here we began to notice several outbreaks of arguments and fighting in the Chinese compound, and on investigation it proved to be bygone grievances between gangers and men. After the usual period of quarantine, two officers ten other ranks and 4750 Chinese boarded the S.S. Dollar, named after the founder who came from Dollar in Scotland. The S.S. Dollar, owned by the Dollar Steamship Company of Robert Dollar, was built in 1917 and based in San Francisco. The line was swallowed up some time ago by American President Lines. The first meal aboard was rather chaotic, the Chinese cooks had not boiled sufficient rice to satisfy the whole company, but the rough Pacific Ocean saved us the following day, as most of our Chinese friends went down with “Mal de Mer”. Our destination was Tsingtao in Shantung, China. This port once belonged to Germany, and was stormed and captured by the Japanese who were our allies in the 1914-18 war.

After twenty-one days afloat seeing neither land or any other ship, great excitement erupted among the Chinese when they sighted their homeland that morning. To see the sparkle in their eyes was a joy to their escorts, these boys who had enlisted three years ago were totally ignorant of the outside world, and had never seen the sea or a ship before. They had now come home wiser, richer and most of them could speak a little Pidgin English and a smattering of French too, and very proud of having served in France with the British army. After we handed them over to the Japanese authorities (two short, died and buried at sea) the remainder would be demobilised and return to their farms or paddy fields in the vast inland of China.

We the escort stayed on board the S.S. Dollar while she was loading bulk cargo for two days, and experienced the first rickshaw ride around the city, to our great amusement. Dead on time we sailed into the Yellow Sea, destination Shanghai. This international city, was well looked over and we spent seven days enjoying the sights and different ways of life.

Our two officers stayed on and took up business appointments in Shanghai. The rest of us stayed on board the S.S. Dollar and steamed down the Yang-tae- kiang River to the open sea and south towards Hong Kong. What a natural harbour this is, and, disembarking, stayed at the Royal Artillery Barracks near Happy Valley. It was a complete holiday for us for practically

two months. I got friendly with the inspector of the Hong Kong Police and he took me round to most of the high and low dives there. He asked me to get “demobbed” there and join the Hong Kong Police, but with the events which followed in 1940 I doubt if I should have survived to tell this story. Instead we all returned to “Blighty” via the Suez Canal and were demobilized at Park Royal, London.

As a sequel of this, in September 1975, at the age of 76, I made a return journey by hovercraft, bus, train, taxis and ambulance, no other transport available, and shanks pony to Calais, Lille, Mons, Valenciennes, Cambrai, Bapaume, Albert, Amiens and Abbeville, paying tribute to my comrades at several of the Somme cemeteries, and finally on to the old site of the Chinese Headquarters at Noyelles-Sur-Somme. The only thing traceable there was the cemetery, beautifully kept, of 400 Chinese who were accidentally killed or died of disease during their service with the British Expeditionary Force; this was one of several Chinese cemeteries in France.

I signed the Book of Remembrance and noted it had been signed the previous day by some visitors from China, so they too had remembered after fifty-eight years.


Source: Western Front Association, Scottish Branches.


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