Thursday, January 23, 2014

Chinese Labour Corps - the forgotten contributors to WWI

"It is 1917, Chinese New Year eve, in a remote part of France. Kong squats nervously in front of his tent, cupping his tea, desperately missing his village in China. By now his children and wife would be gathered around at the table for the all-important New Year Eve dinner, which he will miss for the first time in 25 years. Unbeknown to him, Kong will never return to his village again. He is part of the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC), a 145,000-strong group of Chinese labourers sent to Europe to provide non-military support to the French and British in the Western front."

History has somehow forgotten the significant role played by these Chinese civilians sent to Europe during WWI to provide labour support to the Allies freeing their military personnel for front line duties.

Despite China being half a world away from the European conflict, she agreed to send 145,000 civilians to help the French and British in the Western front. They formed the Chinese Labour Corps sent to do menial tasks. They worked at ammunition depots, unloaded ships, dug trenches, repaired roads/railroads and cleared land mines.

The journey to France from China would take 2-3 months with workers crammed in the cargo holds of freighters bound for Europe. They were rarely, if at all, allowed to leave the bowels of these transport ships until they land in France. Many of them have never left their villages let alone the country, Then thrown into a foreign land ravished by a full-scale global war and controlled by military personnel who did not speak their language, life must have been hell on earth for many.

The dynamics of War had meant that role definition for the workers were hard to define. Despite the promise of not to be placed in front lines, many Chinese laborers ended up shoulder-to-shoulder with front line troops digging trenches, clearing bodies and carting essential supplies for military personnel. Differences in language and culture created a linguistic and social nightmare driving a further wedge into an already unequal status between military personnel and these 'coolies'.

Workers were referred to by numbers - not names. Kong was number 1653. Any misdemeanors were subject to harsh military laws even though the workers were civilians and to make matters worst they were seen and often treated as cheap 'coolies' hauled from the European colonies of Asia sent to serve their colonial masters.

Those who did not perish in the line of fire were devastated by the Spanish flu epidemic, which swept Europe. By the time WW1 ended, 10,000 Chinese workers never saw their villages again, buried in remote cemeteries scattered around France.
Compliments of WWIcemeteries

One such cemetery today is in Ruminghem, a remote village situated 32kms southeast of Calais in France. On the west side of the village is a Chinese cemetery probably with more tombstones than the population of the village.

Another is in Noyellessur-Mer, an archway guarding the entrance of this cemetery with 800 graves - all Chinese.

Kong like many others was buried in Noyellessur-Mer after sustaining horrific bomb injuries. Number 1653 never made it back to see his family from Shandong.

Kong together with the rest of the fallen workers are testimony to the sacrifices of the forgotten contributors to WWI - the Chinese Labour Corps.

May they rest in peace.

No comments: