We added this rather fascinating postcard, a view of 'Pekin Camp' near Kemmel Hill in Belgium, to our site the other day. The extraordinary Chinese style 'paifang' or 'pailou' arch or gateway gives a strong hint about its occupants, for the site was one of those accommodating members of the Chinese Labour Corps (C.L.C.) during the war.
Pekin Camp - Postcard from the Grenville Collins Collection
From 1916, as casualties mounted on the Western Front, there was an urgent need to raise a labour force to take over the heavy and miscellaneous work behind the lines thus freeing up men for combatant duties. The British, following the French lead, signed an agreement with China - at the time a non-belligerent nation - whereby Chinese recruits would travel the great distance to Europe in order to meet this need. The majority of men were recruited from the rural Shandong (Shantung) province of China; beginning their journey from their homes in remote villages at recruitment centres and then training camps located at Tsangkou, about 10 miles from the former German port of Tsing-tau, or at Wei-hai-wei (then a British colony).
Here, 32 sections, each comprising 15 men, headed by a lance-corporal, would form a company of 490 men and pass through a series of stages in readiness for their role on the Western Front. Their hair, including their pigtail (queue) was shorn off, they would vaccinated, washed and given clean clothes, noticeably thinner than their traditional padded jackets. Identification was by number, rather than name, recorded on a brass bracelet worn by each man. Fingerprints were taken too, with a thumb print marked on a wooden tag worn around the neck. This dehumanising process was described by a Times correspondent in 1919 who observed that, 'The contrast between the coolies before and after passing through the "sausage machine" was extremely ludicrous. In spite of his dirt, the coolie in his padded robes and with his long pig-tail possessed a dignity of his own, of which, alas! scarcely a vestige remained when he was shot out at the other end, his hair cropped close to the skull, and his person clad in garments which, though clean, afforded scant protection against the icy blasts chronic at Tsangkou at that season of the year. Formerly the coolie was paid a small sum for the sacrifice of his queue, but the practice was subsequently discontinued, though the authorities must have netted a substantial profit from the sale of all this human hair.'
Tank Corps Central Workshops, Teneur, N. France
After the so-called 'sausage machine' would be a long and arduous three-month journey across the Pacific, in a sealed train through Canada, across the Atlantic to Liverpool from where they would then travel south to Folkestone to depart for France. Tragically, some C.L.C. members died before they had even set foot on French soil. A number are buried in Liverpool, thousands of miles from their home.
The French Army's contingent of Chinese labourers had begun to arrive in France in July 1916 and in January 1917, the first transport ship carrying 1088 labourers in support of the British Army embarked for Europe. On arrival, they would pass through the vast C.L.C. depot at Noyelles-sur-Mer and allocated to work on what might be a multitude of tasks: digging miles of trenches close to the front line (and often within range of shell fire), building roads, working at ammunition dumps, felling timber, salvage work and unloading at ports and stations. Some carried out skilled mechanical duties for the Tank Corps, including repair of engines. Others diversified into entertainment, introducing an element of Oriental exoticism into concert parties at the Front. The end of the war saw no reduction in the work required of the C.L.C. They were given the dirtiest and often most dangerous of jobs - exhuming bodies from battlefield graves and reburying in designated war cemeteries, or clearing areas of ordnance-filled land. It is interesting to note that the thousands of temporary wooden crosses marking the graves of the fallen, would, in many cases, have been made by members of the C.L.C. For working a ten hour day, seven days a week, and receiving just three days of leave a year, a labourer would receive payment of one French franc per day, plus his family at home would receive a monthly bonus of ten Mexican dollars.
Above: Chinese water-carrier at Sergeant Ernest Blaikley, 28Th Battalion London Regiment (Artists' Rifles)
Estimates vary, but approximately 150,000 Chinese served as labourers on the Western Front, almost 100,000 of whom were with the British Army. At least 10,000 Chinese lost their lives in the process, many to the Spanish flu pandemic, but others to enemy action. Chinese scholars estimate the casualties to be far higher, perhaps as many as 20,000. Segregated from the rest of the Army in barbed wire camps, the C.L.C. were treated as the lowest of ranks. The five Chinese men who were recognised for bravery at the front were not awared the Military Medal, but instead a lesser-value award known as the Meritorious Service Medal. Each man who had served with the C.L.C. received the British Army medal at the end of the war, cast, consipicuously, in bronze rather than the usual silver.
A campaign to recognise the forgotten and relatively unsung contribution of the C.L.C. to the Allied war effort, Ensuring We Remember, is vigorously underway with plans to erect a statue in London in memory of these men. A recent Guardian article throws the spotlight on this campaign and emphasises how the services of the C.L.C. were soon forgotten, with no permanent memorial to the Chinese, save for the cemetery at Noyelles.
Interest piqued by the postcard of Pekin Camp, I was curious to see what else there might be in the archive on the C.L.C. and searched the ILN for possible references. There are only a few, but nevertheless some significant additions - a photograph showing men at prayer on Chinese New Year's Day (February 11th) at one of the camps, and a page of sketches (above) by the ILN's special artist, Bryan de Grineau showing the C.L.C.'s departure from Le Havre in February 1920 . Intriguingly, the pictures depict a figure who, according to the ILN, was a prominent figure in the C.L.C. - the Rev. J. Webster, a well-known Missionary whose, 'devoted work of the Chinese Section of the British Y.M.C.A.' made him, 'beloved of the Chinese.' It is interesting to note too that the ILN pointed out, 'the Chinese Labour Corps has its own Roll of Honour, containing a total of 2000 dead. A special Chinese cemetery has been constructed at Noyelles. Every man of the survivors will receive the two British war medals.' Above: Chinese men at prayer at CLC camp, New Year's Day, 1918
These references, while making no suggestion that the members of the C.L.C. were treated particularly well, nevertheless asserts that their role was not at all underestimated, at least in the immediate aftermath of the war. The Times article is similarly praiseworthy of the C.L.C. though the tone reminds of their designated servile status:
'I shall always retain a soft place in my heart for the Shantung coolie. If his faults are conspicuous, his virtues are not less so. He soon learns to appreciate fair and considerate dealing and shows marked attachment to a popular officer, beyond whom he refuses to look.'
Earlier in the article:
'They dug hundreds of miles of support trenches in forward areas well within shell range. Although I have seen no figures on the subject, I know that a fair number of Chinese have been killed and wounded by enemy action since they went to France.'
These were men who left their homes and travelled halfway across the world to fulfil an essential role in the most hostile of conditions. Let us hope that a memorial to the Chinese Labour Corps will become a reality; a permanent, and dignified reminder of an extraordinary contribution.
See a full selection of images here: https://www.maryevans.com/lb.php?ref=28822
Ensuring We Remember website - https://ensuringweremember.org.uk/