With manpower shortages hampering the war effort, the British Army looked further afield in order to find able workers.
1915 was the worst year of the war for Britain and France whilst, correspondingly, proving to be one of the best for Germany and its allies. The casualties sustained in battles at Ypres and Gallipoli had brought precious little success and cost the British Army so much that the start of 1916 saw the introduction of forced recruitment through conscription.
Beyond the need for fighting men, however, was the additional requirement for men to provide labour at various supply depots and ports both in Europe and Britain.
The French initially led the attempts to solve this problem with the foundation of their own Chinese Labour Force in May 1916. This saw 40,000 Chinese men serve with the French and hundreds of Chinese students serve as translators. Shortly after the French had launched their project, the British followed suit by creating a recruitment base in the British colony of Weihaiwei in October 1916.
China was a confirmed neutral power at the time and citizens were forbidden from fighting in the war by their government. Working as labourers however was permitted and around 95,000 men would join this British Corps over the remaining course of the war.
The Chinese Labour Corps
Life in the Chinese Labour Corps began under terrible conditions with men sailing across the pacific and then, to avoid landing taxes, travelling for 6 days across Canada in sealed trains. By the time they then sailed across the Atlantic, no mean undertaking in itself considering the U-Boat threat, and then journeyed by train down the length of Britain, many of the men who had set out from China had died.
Every man who joined the Labour Corps was assigned a number that would effectively replace their name for the duration of their service. Whilst translators were on hand to explain orders to the men, British officers referred to each man by the numbered wristband each wore and it was reproduced on the headstones of those men who had died.
Men who had joined the Labour Corps existed under the restrictions of Military Law and were contracted for a duration of 3 years. It was not uncommon, therefore, to see groups of Chinese labourers continuing to work on the abandoned battlefields in 1919 and 1920 long after the soldiers had departed them and returned home.
Service in East Sussex
Duties for men in the Labour Corps included digging trenches, filling sandbags, building huts, repairing roads, loading and unloading vehicles and munitions, and even cooking.
The port of Newhaven was the key supply point on the East Sussex coast and was heavily guarded by the watchful guns of the Fort and the nearby Seaplane base. Chinese Labourers would also become a common sight in the town as they worked on the dockside and handled the train-ferry to Dieppe.
China officially declared war on Germany in 1917 after a U-Boat sunk the French ship Athos at the cost of 543 Chinese lives. Britain and France had promised China that, if victorious, they would ensure the Shandong Peninsula would be returned to them from the Japanese. During the fierce negotiations and jockeying for position that marked the negotiations at the end of the war this promise was not kept and, as a result, the Chinese refused to sign the Treaty of Versailles which brought about the end of the war and dictated the terms and cost that Germany and its allies would have to pay.
Most Chinese labourers returned home in 1920 with a small number remaining in France.
Official statistics suggest that around 2,000 men of the Chinese Labour Corps lost their lives but modern estimates place the actual number at around 20,000.
The information for this article was provided by the Brighton and Hove Black History project and we are extremely grateful for their assistance.
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