That so respected an academic can detail the establishment of First World War cemeteries in such detail and not mention the harrowing contribution of the Chinese Labour Corps is testament to just how effectively their story has been expunged from all but the most tightly focused of academic examinations. Here we would like to tell you about the Chinese Labour Corps and why they matter.
There are various references to the role played by members of the Chinese Labour Corps in the disinterment and reburial of the fallen. Their unthinkable task must surely have contributed to what was described as an “inexplicably high” rate of insanity among the Chinese labourers.
Curiously the CWGC archives are completely silent on their contribution. In a speech on 20th October 1916, Lord Bourne, Minister for Communities, said of the Chinese labourers, ““They exhumed the dead and reburied them in the new war cemeteries. It is a great irony that those who were responsible for such iconic places of remembrance were then themselves forgotten.”
The CWGC archives are not entirely silent on the Chinese labourers. They inform us that the Graves Registration Unit, when it came to fallen members of the Chinese Labour Corps, only required two pieces of information: their roll number and date of death. Officials at the CWGC have confirmed that the Chinese were, to their knowledge, the only group for whom the names of the dead were not required.
Another interesting fact revealed in the archives is the proposal by the British government that the 2,000 or so members of the Chinese Labour Corps who died in service should be buried without headstones. A policy that was not followed through only because of the opposition of the CWGC (or IWGC as it was then).
As shocking as these two facts are, they surely are not as bewildering as the fact that of the 60,000 memorials in the UK to the Great War, not a single one is to the men of the Chinese Labour Corps.
96,000 Chinese men volunteered to work for the British in France in support of the allied war effort. Why they were subject to such sustained attempts to deny the full extent of that contribution will, perhaps, never be fully understood. But it’s time to correct the injustice of reducing them to roll numbers, and we need to make good on our nation’s promise, “We Will Remember them”. It’s time to give those men the dignity they deserve and have been denied for nigh on a century and to acknowledge what they did. If we fail to do so, we fail not just them, but ultimately we fail ourselves.