Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Chinese Labor Battalions on the Western Front

The Chinese Labor Corps (CLC) was a force of workers recruited by the British government in World War I to free troops for frontline duty by performing support work and manual labor. The French government also recruited a significant number of Chinese laborers, and although those laborers working for the French were recruited separately and not part of the CLC, they are often considered to be so. In all, some 140,000 men served for both British and French forces before the war ended, and most of the men were repatriated to China between 1918 and 1920. Below is an example of how an unnamed British war correspondent described his first encounter with these men.

CLC Workers on the Boulogne Docks

From: War Illustrated, 27 July 1918

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet

The thought embodied in this hackneyed line of Kipling is but one of many accepted conventions which the Great War has challenged. They who talked rather vaguely at first about a "world war" have long since been able to talk definitely. In a way which they could not dimly have visioned, during the earlier months of the struggle, it has truly developed into a world war, wherein East and West have been fated to "meet."

On my first war-time crossing of the Channel, among the ships of the convoy were two steamers from whose upper decks multitudes of strange folk looked across at us. They were all dressed alike in long, loose-fitting cloaks of ruddy brown material, and they wore little caps with cat-flaps not unlike those donned by our airmen when aloft. Their hair was jet black, their strange, expressionless' faces berry brown. They were Manchurians nearing the land of war to give their labor to the cause of Britain – for a sound, commercial consideration be it premised. Figure what it means to sign a contract for three years' work at a place over six thousand miles away from your home! And those Chinamen, when I first saw them at a Channel port, might have been on a day's outing, if one could have judged by the unruffled calm of their faces.

CLC Workers at a Tank Repair Yard

At that time one had heard vaguely about "Chinese labor," but here was its embodiment in these two shiploads of grinning Orientals, who looked so curiously alike that one seemed to see the same man a hundred times over.  It is a success – one of our real war successes. These Chinamen can and do, work well, and thus augmenting the labor power behind the lines, release men for the fighting-front. They are not all mere unskilled laborers. Many of them are craftsmen, and these are carefully sorted out and put to superior work, receiving special pay. Most of all these Chinamen interested me. I felt that East and West had met, and, working as they were to a common end, though differently impelled, there would be some interfusion of thought which would in a future day help towards a kinship of humanity where Kipling saw only a cleavage.

Source: Wikipedia, Relevance


  1. Fascinating mix of praise and racism.

    1. If you go to the Battlefield Museum in Ieper, Belgium(in the history books referred to as Ypres)there is film footage showing interactions between the Chinese laborers and their British "superiors". By my observation, racism trumped praise in those interactions.

  2. There were also Indochinese troops fighting in France.

  3. I have read that there were 600,000 Chinese laborers. I have a picture of an aero squadron, formally posed with the commander in the middle of the first row. In the background, like a pet dog, is a Chinese person, complete with conical hat.

  4. By the end of 1917 there were 54000 Chinese labourers with the BEF on the Western front. At the time of the armistice there were nearly 96,000. There were still 80,000 working on the great clear up operation as late as Spring 1919. There were around 2000 killed during the war and there is a fine memorial at Noyelles-sur-Mer, the Chinese Labour Corps HQ in France. By the way, Kipling is easy to mis-read. Find the whole poem and you will discover it is about mutual respect between the races.

    " But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
    When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth! "

  5. Mike, i know you folks are gathering in Vienna today. UCSF as a small exhibit going now in its main library regarding UCSF's contribution to Base Hospital#30. Have a great trip. Be safe.