Photographs of the Chinese Labour Corps in France

Description

This selection of photographs provides insights into the lives of men who were part of the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC) in France between 1917 and 1919.

What was the Chinese Labour Corps?

As the First World War progressed, the major powers struggled to maintain the manpower needed to support the large-scale campaigns across the globe.

At the same time, China – although officially neutral – wanted to take advantage of the war to position themselves as a new international power. Liang Shiyi, a government advisor, recommended ‘the labour plan’: a way to link China with Allied powers by supplying non-military personnel to alleviate their labour costs.[1]

From 1916, in separate contracts with British and French governments, private Chinese companies were set up to recruit men to work in France. In total, Britain and France recruited nearly 140,000 Chinese labourers over the remaining duration of the war. Those working under the British formed the Chinese Labour Corps.

The Chinese Labour Corps in France

After travelling to Europe, labourers were put into ‘skilled’ and ‘unskilled’ companies of 500 men and assigned tasks depending on this categorisation.

Skilled companies were employed in engineering roles at light railway and tank workshops. ‘Unskilled’ labour companies dug trenches, transported munitions and unloaded military supplies at depots and ports.[2] On average, members of the CLC worked for ten hours a day, seven days a week.[3]

This work was not only painstaking, but also dangerous. The CLC often worked within military zones, under constant threat from shelling and gas attacks. Living conditions did not ease the strain of the work. The British Army accommodated labourers in barbed wire enclosures, where disease was rife and the diet poor.[4]

In total, around 3,000 men died while employed as labourers. After the war, labourers remained in France and were set tasks including clearing the battlefields of unexploded shells and burying the dead. As seen in the last photograph, Chinese stonemasons engraved headstones for some of the fallen members of the Labour Corps. In Europe, members of the Chinese Labour Corps were subjected to racism, cultural misunderstanding and ignorance. At rare interludes, men were granted opportunities to celebrate special occasions such as Chinese New Year.

Footnotes

[1] Xu Guoqi, Strangers on the Western Front, p. 15.

[2] Xu Guoqi, Strangers on the Western Front, pp. 87-93.

[3] Report giving the history of the Chinese Labour Corps used behind the lines in France, 1917 - 1919

[4] Xu Guoqi, Strangers on the Western Front, p. 82.

Full title:
GRAVES REGISTRATION UNIT IN FRANCE AND BELGIUM 1914-1920; THE CHINESE LABOUR CORPS ON THE WESTERN FRONT, 1916-1918
Created:
August 1917 - December 1918
Format:
Photograph / Image
Creator:
Ivan L Bawtree, Ernest Brooks (Lieutenant), David McLellan
Copyright:
© IWM (Q 2695), (Q 9862), (Q 9848), (Q 3481), (Q 8857), (Q 8919); Jeremy Gordon Smith
Usage terms
This item is available to be shared and re-used under the terms of the IWM Non Commercial Licence.
Held by
Imperial War Museums
Shelfmark:
Q 2695; Q 9862; Q 9848; Q 3481; Q 8857; Q 8919; Q 100877

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