China at the outbreak of war

At the outbreak of War China was in chaos. Over 2,000 years of Dynastic rule had been overthrown by a revolution just three years previously, and a replacement system remained elusive. Over 80% of the country remained under the effective control of foreign powers, most notably the British and French, but also the Italians, Americans, Japanese and Germans – there was even a concession to the Congo Free State! In many ways China was unable to help herself, let alone get involved in a war many thousands of miles away. Unsurprisingly, at the outbreak of war, China declared its absolute neutrality in the hope the war would not come to China.

The immediate effect of the war on China

But the war did come to China as Japan, Britain’s ally, invaded and took control of Germany’s concession in China, Qingdao, and thus effective control over the strategic Shandong peninsula. To understand the significance of Shandong, whilst appreciating it is slightly larger than England and Wales combined, one has to understand that it is a deeply spiritual place to the Chinese.  Not only the home of Confucius, but also the home of the most sacred sites of both Daoism and Chinese Buddhism. It has sometimes been referred to as China’s Holy Land.

The annexation of the German possession in China was just to be the start of Japan’s opportunistic assertion of power over China. In January 1915, with the attention of Britain and France focused on the war in Europe, Japan made an audacious move to render China a puppet state by way of the infamous Twenty-One Demands.

China risks its neutrality to aid the Allies

Very shortly after a failed attempt to make himself Emperor in 1915, the President of China, Yuan Shikai, died. The new government in China decided it was in China’s interest to assist the Allies. The primary motivation is the expectation that China will be rewarded for her contribution by the return of a defeated Germany’s possessions in China to the Chinese state.

But this should not be seen simply as a safe, purely self-interested move. There was great debate in China as to who would win the war. In her own moves to modernise, the Chinese army had been trained by the Germans – chosen by the Chinese government because they were the most efficient and disciplined in the world. Many warned against siding with the Allies for fear of what a victorious Germany would do in retribution.

In a bid to maintain her neutrality, China offered the Allies non-combatant labour. It was an offer initially rejected by both France and Britain, who saw the involvement of China as complicating things!

There was at the time discussion of entering the war as a belligerent, however, Japan strongly opposed such mover, not wanting China to be elevated to an equal status. The Chinese, obviously, were not unaware of the moves Japan was making, nor did they lack an understanding of what it meant. Seen in this context, China’s eager ambition to be represented at any peace conference can be better understood.

The Allies accept

It was the French who first relented and took up the offer of labour, shortly followed by the British. What had changed? Perhaps two things lay at the back of the decision. First, it was becoming apparent that the war was going to be a protracted one, and being able to maintain numbers would play a critical part in the war of attrition. Second, and certainly a deciding  factor for the British, were the huge losses at the Battle of the Somme.

The Chinese Labour Corps is formed.

The French signed an agreement with the Chinese government for 50,000 labourers, a number they were not to fully exploit, with the final figure at round about 40,000. The British had an open-ended agreement, but final records show that about 96,000 Chinese volunteer labourers were recruited and transported to France.

China Declares War on Germany

It is the transportation of Chinese labourers to the Western Front which directly leads to China declaring war: on February 24, 1917, the French ship Athos, carrying 900 Chinese labourers recruited by the French, was torpedoed by a German submarine with a loss of 543 Chinese lives. The Chinese government declares war with Germany on  August 14, 1917.

The work of the Chinese Labour Corps

The Chinese workers were contracted for 3 years, and had to work 10 hours a day, 7 days a week. They would have 3 days holiday a year – one for Chinese New Year, one for the Dragon Boat Festival and one for the Mid-Autumn Festival. When not working the labourers were confined to camp: even if the camp was being shelled by the Germans, the Chinese were forbidden to leave.

The work undertaken by the Chinese Labour Corps was extremely diverse. From digging trenches to repairing tanks. They unloaded ships and trains, built roads, laid railway tracks. They were kept on after the war to do some of the  most gruesome work, namely recovering bodies and burying them in the numerous war cemeteries. British Prime Minister Lloyd George commented in his memories of the particular harsh conditions under which the Chinese Labour Corps worked, and of the imperturbability of the Chinese workers under such conditions.

The Ultimate Sacrifice

The number of Chinese who were killed during the first world war is a subject of debate. Buried or commemorated in Commonwealth War Graves are around 2,000.  Some Chinese sources put the figure at 20,000. Almost certainly, both are likely to be wrong by some margin.

After the War.

At the peace conference China’s hopes of having Shandong returned were not to be, despite an earlier promise from Britain and the support of the US.  In the end keeping the Japanese on board proved to be the bigger priority and Germany’s former possessions in China were given to Japan without China even being at the table when the decision was made. This was a pivotal moment in modern Chinese history. Disillusioned with the betrayal, the Chinese refused to sign the Treaty of Versailles. Public protests in China, known as the May Fourth Movement, lead to the foundation of the Chinese Communist Party, and there was a significant shift by intellectuals away from seeing the West as having the answers for China’s problems.

A Footnote

Even once all the Chinese Labour Corps are back in China, fate plays one final cruel trick. As an ally China had sent large quantities of food to Europe, enjoying surplus harvests at that time. As was the tradition, normally such surplusses would have been put into government stores as insurance against famine. Three years of poor harvest from 1918 led to 30 million people facing starvation in the North China Famine of 1921-22. By Chinese standards the death toll of 500,000 was low.


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