As the scale of the fighting on the Western Front became apparent to High Command, the need for labour to carry out support duties also became apparent.
Field Marshal Haig suggested the recruitment of manual labourers to free up fighting men from some of the mundane physical tasks required and recruits were sought from the British Empire; 100,000 labourers came from Egypt as well as contingents from South Africa and India. As China was not an official combatant in the war until August 1917 – when China declared war on Germany and Austro-Hungary – early efforts were on a semi-official basis. When China entered the war, the recruiting of labour took on a more organised and official stance.
France had begun recruiting labour in China first; requesting 50,000 labourers in May 1916 with the first arriving in Marsailles in July. Britain sent out an ex- railway engineer, Thomas Boune, who had 28 years of experience working in China. He established an office in Weihaiwei and the first group of his recruits started their long journey to the Western Front in January 1917, it would take them three months to arrive travelling over the Pacific and across Canada. Labourers were tempted by the relatively lucrative money offered, each would receive an embarkation fee of 20 yuan, followed by 10 yuan a month to be paid over to his family in China. Most labour was recruited in Shandong province, with the political unrest and poverty of the region spurring recruitment.
On arrival workers were tasked with a number of duties – all officially non – combatant. These ranged from building depots and hutted encampments to battlefield salvage, unloading ships, road and rail repair and in the case of the Tank Corps, maintenance and certain engineering tasks. Pictures show some of the labourers at their Tank Corps tasks at Erin, washing down muddy tanks, riveting track plates and maintaining engines. The use of Chinese labourers in semi-skilled roles, such as riveting track plates for tanks, led to arguments in Britain in the unions and no Chinese Labourers were allowed in Britain itself.
By the end of 1917 there were 54,000 labourers in France, rising to 96,000 in November 1918. Ultimately, there was a trailing off of recruiting as the Navy found it hard to supply enough transport ships in the Pacific. Labourers stayed on in large numbers for a year after the war, helping clear battlefields and most then returned to China, although a small number stayed and set up a community in Paris.
Treatment of the Chinese labourers was mixed. Many accounts by British soldiers reflect the casual racism of the time and the view of the labourers as mere coolies, yet many also show a true affection. If a Chinese worker died (and many did in the flu epidemic at the wars end) they were given an official war grave just as a British soldier would have been. Each CLC member was sent a war medal (in bronze not silver) at the end of the war.
The experience meant a number of Chinese citizens returned from Europe having seen the failures in the system there and others genuinely thought they had benefitted from the experience. Chen Duxiu, (co founder of the Chinese Communist Party) said that “while the sun does not set on the British Empire, neither does it set on Chinese workers abroad.”
The graves of CLC workers can be seen across northern France but the largest concentration is at Noyelles-sur-Mer, where two lions – gifts from the Chinese Government – guard the gravestones.