Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Chinese Labour Corps 1

I've long been fascinated by the Chinese Labour Corps (the picture from a contemporary newspaper during the War shows some CLC men eating dinner near the Front) having read a few references to them and then, years ago, driving through France and coming across their war graves. As this is of course the 90th anniversary of the Armistice I think I'll try and do a few posts on the CLC before the end of the year.

Sadly the CLC, known back then as a 'Coolie Corps', are largely forgotten. Both the French and the British had Chinese manned Labour Corps, the French first followed by the Brits who followed the French lead and signed an agreement with the Chinese for a supply of men. By the end of 1917 there were 50,000 Chinese workers in France, rising to 96,000 by August 1918 employed by the Brits with another 30,000 working for the French.

They were all mostly northern Chinese recruited mainly out Weihaiwei. They worked on the battlefields keeping the logistics going and cleaning and clearing up the battlefields. But they were also based in England - a number died loading cannon shells onto a boat in a factory in Portsmouth. Plenty of them died in France too - disease, unexploded ordinance, shells etc.

They ended up staying longer than the soldiers too - they were still clearing the former battlefields and trenches in 1919.

Anyway, not much is out there about them except a very hard to get book - China on the Western Front by Michael Summerskill from about 1982 I think. If you ever see a copy get it, there aren't many around and it's long overdue a reprint.

I'll try and put up some more photos and stories of the CLC before year's end. They deserve remembering.


CW Hayford said...

I've also been fascinated by the CLC and wrote about it briefly in my book, TO THE PEOPLE: JAMES YEN AND VILLAGE CHINA (Columbia UP 1990). I think you can view it on Google Books.

But the big news is that Xu Guoqi, teaching at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, has done a major study in Chinese (and French) and is writing up a book in English. Xu did CHINA AND THE GREAT WAR (Cambridge UP 2005), which also has a section on the CLC.

Paul French said...

Excellent - they deserve a decent book - I look forward to itimmensely.

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