©Zak Keith 2013
During World War I, European missionaries enrolled some 100,000 Chinese “coolies” in the British Army’s Chinese Labour Corps. An additional 40,000 were recruited by the French. On signing three-year contracts, the volunteers journeyed for about 100 days by sea and rail in stifling conditions, during which a percentage died from stress, disease or enemy attack. Most of them were transited through Canada in secrecy and packed into railroad cars, where more would die from the cramped conditions.
Upon arrival at the Western Front, they were put to work for a minimum of 10 hours a day, seven days a week, digging latrines and trenches, repairing roads and railways, and unloading munitions and supplies for the Allied effort. Many worked in armaments factories and naval shipyards, or helped in the construction of munitions depots. Hundreds of Chinese students served as translators. Although some of the Chinese recuits had come with a military background, they were officially restricted to serving in noncombatant roles as menial laborers. Regardless of their role, all were subjected to strict military discipline and frequently exposed to just as much danger as official frontline troops.
As virtual prisoners, members of the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC) were segregated, restricted to camp grounds when not working on site, surrounded by barbed wire fences and armed guards, flogged by missionary officers, prohibited from fraternizing with the locals (particularly white women) and, if caught beyond the confinements, escorted back to camp at bayonet point. They were never identified or addressed by their proper names — only by a reference “coolie number.”
By Armistice at the end of WW1, approximately 80,000 of the remaining CLC were put to work clearing mines (untrained and ill-equipped, they in effect, often served as “human mine detectors”), recovering and burying the bodies of soldiers, filling in hundreds of miles of trenches and rebuilding European infrastructure. However, as their presence in Europe continued through 1919, they became the target of scapegoating by returning war refugees and were vehemently ordered out of countries such as Belgium.
In the face of intense xenophobia and resentment by the general populace and Allied troops, all members of the CLC were suddenly confined to camp 24 hours a day for months on end, where they were subjected to frequent provocations. Demonstrations for better conditions were ruthlessly suppressed. Some were killed when racist Allied (British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealander) troops lobbed grenades into CLC camps. On several occasions, British troops opened fire on the CLC when their insistence adherence to the terms of their contracts was construed as mutiny, resulting in dozens of casualties. Dozens were sentenced to death. Others were allegedly killed to avert repatriation costs and embarrassment or potential incrimination arising from altercations. On the outbreak of the Spanish Flu pandemic, a considerable number became ill and/or died due to unprioritized infirmary care. Contracts that were yet to be fulfilled were suddenly nullified and the bulk of the CLC were repatriated. Some 5,000 of the corps remained in France, forming the nucleus of the present-day Chinese community in Paris.
The butterfly effect: Did maltreatment and international betrayal result in 35 million deaths and the rise of communism?
The Chinese Government had contributed this labor force to the Allied war effort in the hopes of recovering sovereignty over German colonies and concessions in the Shandong Peninsular, including mining rights and the ports of Tsing-tao (Qingdao), Jiaozhou Bay, Kiautschou Bay, Tianjin. However, at the 1919 Treaty of Versailles — a series of post-war conferences in Paris supposedly aimed at implementing US President Wilson’s New World Order of self-determining nation states — the centuries-old practice of territorial and economic encroachment by colonial powers was advanced, not reversed. Despite China’s objections, Germany’s forfeited colonies and economic rights in the Shandong Peninsular were transferred to Japan, which at the time of WW1, was an ally of Britain and the US.
Dissatisfaction in China over the Treaty of Versailles led to the May 4 Protest Movement, which saw the eventual rise of the Communist Party that has ruled China since 1949.
The “post-colonial” betrayal also provided Japan with its first major territorial foothold on the Chinese mainland, which precipitated the Sino-Japanese conflict and the full-scale invasion of Manchuria (Northeast China) in 1931, and which culminated as WW2 in Asia and the Pacific, resulting in 35 million lives lost in China alone by 1945—figures that continue to be excluded from all standard history textbooks in the western hemisphere today.
(For the Chinese, WW2 essentially started in 1931—a fact that also continues to be ignored from Eurocentric perspectives.)
The Chinese Labour Corps’ contribution to World War I remains largely forgotten to this day, but received some minor attention when annual military ceremonies were resumed in 2002 at the Chinese cemetery in Noyelles-sur-Mer in France. Members of the Chinese Labour Corps are buried in some 40 cemeteries throughout France and Belgium, some of whom continue to be identified on their grave markers only by their “coolie number” and not by their names. The commemorative medals subsequently distributed to members of the CLC were made of cheap metal and bore only their coolie numbers, not their names. The CLC were also deliberately excluded from a giant canvas exhibited in Paris at the end of the war — they were painted over to make room for the depiction of American troops, who, in reality, were latecomers to the war, in 1917.
©Zak Keith 2013