FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER wreaths were laid at the Cenotaph in Whitehall in memory of the Chinese labourers who came to support the Allied war effort in the First World War. The act comes amid growing momentum to activities, including the Ensuring We Remember Campaign, organised both inside and outside of the Chinese community to inform and educate the British public on this long neglected chapter of our history.
It is worth remembering that over 100,000 Chinese volunteers joined Britain and her allies in the First World War. They served on the Western Front (96,000), in Mesopotamia (5,000) and in East Africa (1,000). Thousands more served in the British merchant navy. Many made the ultimate sacrifice with the number of Chinese who died while assisting Britain’s war effort believed to be around 5,500. Totally unprepared for what they would encounter, the mental health of the Chinese labourers suffered hugely. Thousands succumbed to a variety of psychiatric disorders. While officials deemed cases of total insanity “inexplicably high”, and with around 350 such cases, were high indeed; perhaps not so inexplicable given that they were compelled after the Armistice to exhume and rebury the war dead in the new cemeteries.
As we have stated often, over 60,000 war memorials were built in the few decades after the war. Surprisingly, given the contribution the Chinese made and the price they paid, it is difficult to understand why neither China nor the Chinese labourers are mentioned on even just one of them, and yet there are at ;east six memorials to Japan; four to contributions made by animals; and even two memorials dedicated to Germans.
Commenting on the historical lack of recognition afforded the Chinese, Lord Bourne, Minister for Communities at the Department for Communities and Local Government said,
“It is ironic that those who were so instrumental in the creation of such iconic places of remembrance as the Commonwealth War Graves Cemeteries were then, themselves, forgotten.”
A contingent of over 30, the largest after the Western From Associations contingent, paraded in commemoration of the Chinese labourers, in the annual Western Front Association’s commemorative service at the Cenotaph.
Ms Wenlan Peng, who co-ordinated the community’s participation, said,
“These simple men left their homes in the Far East, some forever, to travel to the alien West and toiled through those years of the turbulent past to help secure for us a peaceful today. We are laying wreaths to them on Armistice Day to honour them and to bring them to the attention of the wider British public, for the story of the Chinese Labour Corps belongs not only to China, but also to Britain. It is a shared history and it is therefore only right that we come together to remember them through a shared gesture. “
Further events to raise awareness of the Chinese contribution in the Great War will continue from various organisations, including Meridian Society, Ming Ai Institute, China Exchange, and the Ensuring We Remember Campaign will, of course continue its mission to inform, educate and inspire, including through the fulfilment of the campaign’s primary objective, the unveiling of a national memorial to the Chinese labourers and the British Officers who commanded them – expect more exciting news on this in the next few weeks!