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

Thursday, November 14, 2019

The U-boat Sinking of SS Athos I Brings China into the War


After the German declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare on 1 February 1917,  the United States demanded that other neutral powers, including China, follow their lead by likewise rupturing ties with the German Reich. . .  Further figuring into China’s decision to sever relations with Germany and enter into the war was Japan’s promise to extend much needed loans (the so-called Nishihara loans) to the government of Duan Qirui (1865–1936), which had been in power since 1916. All the same, apart from Duan Qirui, there was generally no stomach for taking a stand in the war against Germany. 

SS Athos I

A momentous event, however, led to a change in China’s position: The sinking of a ship with Chinese workers, en route to France, by a German U-boat became known at end of February 1917. The ship was the "SS Athos I," a steamship of the French shipping company Messageries Maritimes that had been put into service in 1915 and served as a troop carrier during the war. The vessel was torpedoed at 12:27 p.m. on 17 February 1917, 180 nautical miles south-east of Malta, by the German submarine U-65. On board, there was a total of 1,950 people, including 900 Chinese workers, a large contingent of Senegalese soldiers, along with civilian passengers. The ship sank at a near vertical angle within 14 minutes. The captain, 112 crew members and 642 soldiers and workers and passengers (including 543 Chinese) were killed—a total of 754 people. The Athos I  was the biggest ship ever to have been sunk by U-65. Germany’s breach of international law through its unrestricted submarine warfare damaged the positive image of the country that had otherwise existed in China. At the same time, the attack was an unjustified act of aggression. In March 1917, China broke off its diplomatic ties with Germany. Germans, however, still continued to largely enjoy free movement in China.

Over the pending question of China’s entry into the war, an intense debate was ignited that involved almost every influential personality. It constituted an unprecedented episode in Chinese history, for never before had China taken an active role in a global event being played out far away from its own national borders. By participating in the war, the government hoped to regain its sovereign rights to Shandong in the event of a German defeat. . . Due to the ongoing domestic political resistance, Duan Qirui did not succeed in pushing through the declaration of war against Germany in the National Assembly until August 1917.

A Contingent Arrives in Boulogne 

China's contribution to the war in Europe consisted in its deployment of workers to Western Europe and Russia. [See our previous articles HERE and HERE.] This, too, was an event without parallel in Chinese history, as the Qing dynasty had long attempted to keep the Chinese from going abroad. It was not until the mid-19th century that the government began to change its policy and allow emigration.

Beginning already in the summer of 1916, negotiations were being carried out with France and England regarding the deployment of Chinese workers. Chinese officials hoped that the workers in Western Europe would learn valuable technical skills. Above all, the progressive social and intellectual elite of China .  . .  was involved in planning the migration of Chinese workers to Europe. They harbored the hope that the workers would not only enhance their knowledge and skills by living in the West, but also widen their horizons and consciousness.

As a consequence, they would be able to contribute to the reform of Chinese society and thus to the formation of a new national identity. In short, "working was the means and learning was the end.". . . The workers from northern China (mainly Shandong) were not meant to serve as combatants in any campaign, but to provide the Western troops with necessary additional personnel. In turn, this would allow the Allies to continue fighting ("laborers in the place of soldiers").

A Contingent with the French Army

They were active behind the front but quite close nonetheless to the combat. The workers’ tasks consisted in unloading military goods in ports and stations, digging trenches, constructing barracks and field hospitals, burying victims of war, and working in armament factories. They worked seven days a week, ten hours a day. Their activity was also not free of danger. Although the Chinese were assured they would not have to work while under fire, they were actually deployed in or near military combat zones. In France alone, approximately 2,000 workers were killed. China would eventually mourn around 3,000 victims in total.


Source:  Selection from Mühlhahn, Klaus: "China" in 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War

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