Review: Chinese Labour Corps Photographs from the WJ Hawkings Collection.

The following is an independent review of the publication Chinese Labour Corps Photographs from the W J Hawkings Collection. The review is by Dr John R A Cleaver, Life Fellow and College Archivist, Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. Our thanks to Dr Cleaver for making this contribution.


This new book is an annotated collection of photographs from William James Hawkings, who was an officer in the Chinese Labour Corps. His background seems to have been typical for CLC officers, as he had worked in China from 1908 with the British American Tobacco Company and was fluent in Mandarin.

Initially he accompanied two contingents of workers from China, formally becoming Second Lieutenant when he reached France in August 1917 (but with seniority back-dated to March 1917 in recognition of his prior service) and later attaining the role of Acting Captain. After demobilization he returned to Shanghai, and he was in Shanghai at the time of the Japanese invasion. He died in India in 1965.

After the war he turned his photographs of his time with the Chinese Labour Corps into lantern slides, and these provided the images for this new photo-book. His slides included copies of images that are official or have been published previously, but the ones reproduced in this book are those that he himself took; they are more personal and it is believed that they have not been published before.

Hawkings was able to take photographs which portrayed the intimate aspects of the life and work of the Chinese people. I am always reluctant to use the shorthand of describing them as labourers, despite their membership of the Chinese Labour Corps; terminology is a little misleading. The majority of the workers were unskilled and of peasant background but there were many who had or who acquired skills (in particular, in the workshops of the Tank Corps, where they were highly productive) and many of their counterparts working for the French were engaged in factory work. For a time, Hawkings was responsible for a Skilled Trades Company. In addition, educated Chinese men supported the actual workers.

The images provide fascinating contrasts between the medical provisions for the men and the procedures that were employed in their work. Hygiene and medical treatment appears repeatedly – particularly memorable are the images of inspection and treatment of the eye diseases that were endemic amongst Chinese peasantry in that era. Trachoma and conjunctivitis were particular problems, and we see the men subject to regular medical inspection, to the daily receipt of eye drops, and to hygienic precautions to minimise transmission of infection between the men. The majority of the photographs are around Noyelles-sur-Mer, on the Baie de Somme, where the main CLC base and a substantial CLC hospital were situated, so it may well be that practice there was more regular and scrupulous than when the men were dispersed in the field.

But the actual working practices shown are distinctly disconcerting. After the end of hostilities, Labour Corps members engaged in recovering munitions and corpses from battlefields (though these activities are not shown) and in breaking down surplus, captured, and unexploded munitions – many CLC personnel had worked in munition depots during the time of combat. The work shown in the photographs of the unskilled men breaking down munitions is quite daunting to modern eyes; only general-purpose tools are visible, rather than tools configured for specific operations on particular types of munition, and there is an absence of any obvious safety precautions other than an optimistically generous provision of fire extinguishers. There is minimal spatial separation between workers to limit the consequences of any one explosive or incendiary incident. Munitions and their components are held in unprotected hands or clamped in simple, traditional mechanics’ workbench vices without any special jigs or fixtures.

It is no wonder that more than half of the CLC deaths recorded by the Imperial War Graves Commission occurred after the Armistice, although many of those resulted from tuberculosis and influenza rather than from accidents.

In the ninety pages of photographs, as well as work and formalities and the experiences of travel from China, the more personal and domestic life of the men is shown. These include the daily tasks of food preparation, cleaning, and the tending of the kitchen garden of the hospital at Noyelles, as well as traditional activities of festivals, kite flying, and gymnastics.

Thus Hawkings’ images provide a very interesting addition to the growing body of material on the Chinese Labour Corps in the Great War – a topic that had been neglected and almost forgotten for most of the intervening century.

The image reproduction in the book is excellent: clear and essentially free of defects. Some images would have benefited from reproduction with higher contrast – but, without seeing the tone range of the original slides, it is not possible to judge whether the original images could consistently have been restored and contrast-enhanced without unduly emphasising defects.

A good touch is that the captions and other text in the book are tri-lingual, in French as well as in English and Chinese, even though the images are entirely from the British sector of the Western Front – this serves as a reminder that the French imported around 40,000 Chinese workers.

So – a useful addition to the material on the CLC. Further, profits from the publication will be donated to the Chinese in Britain Forum, a registered charity, and used for raising awareness of the contribution of the Chinese Labour Corps.

Dr John R.A. Cleaver
Cambridge, 30 August 2017

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