Report giving the history of the Chinese Labour Corps used behind the lines in France 1917-19


This 14-page report details the experiences of the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC) in France during the First World War. Written by an unknown author at Noyelles-sur-Mer, the administrative headquarters of the CLC, it gives us one insight into the daily life of the Chinese labourers and their contributions to the war. The report does not detail certain aspects of their working and living conditions which have been brought to light by recent scholarship.

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 different theatres of war.

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 Chinese statesman, recommended ‘the labour plan’: a way to link China with Allied powers by supplying non-military personnel to alleviate their labour costs.

In separate contracts with British and French governments, private Chinese companies and agents recruited men to work in Europe. As the report states, from 1917 onwards Britain recruited 94,146 Chinese labourers from the provinces of northern China. This figure, however, does not include the additional 40,000 men recruited by France, or the men employed in other regions such as Mesopotamia (Iraq).

Those recruited by the British were sent to a central recruiting hub in Weihaiwei (now Weihai). Here, they boarded ships destined for Europe; 84,000 men travelled via Canada, where they moved cross-country from William Head, Vancouver to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Ships then sailed to Britain and onto Noyelles-sur-Mer in France.[1] Alternative routes included travelling via the Suez or Panama canals, as well as via South Africa.

Arrival in France

In France, the men (in drafts of 2,000 or more) were marched to the labour camp. The system of registration, detailed on page 3, could take up to four days to complete.

Labourers were examined for conditions including trachoma (an eye disease), tuberculosis, venereal disease and dental conditions at the No.3 Native Labour General Hospital. 30 to 60% of those were deemed medically unfit, and depending on their condition were admitted to hospital for treatment or joined a distinctive company, such as the Trachoma Company.[2]

The work and life of the CLC

Companies were employed in various roles, often working in and around military zones for ten hours a day, seven days a week.[3]

The skilled tradesmen of the No.103 Company, described here as ‘wonderfully adaptable and quick to grasp new ideas and methods’, were selected for further training ‘in skilled and semi-skilled work’ (p. 6). This included engineering roles to repair tanks.

However, the majority of the CLC carried out work classified as ‘unskilled’, such as digging and maintaining trenches.

The report acknowledges that many men suffered from beriberi, a medical condition caused by a vitamin deficient diet. There is no mention of the other risks and dangers that men faced, such as being required to work within range of shell fire. Nearly 3,000 Chinese labourers died during their employment.[4]


[1] Brian C Fawcett, ‘The Chinese Labour Corps in France 1917-1921’, in Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. 40 (2000), p. 40.

[2] Brian C Fawcett, ‘The Chinese Labour Corps in France 1917-1921’, (2000), p. 36.

[3] Xu, Guoqi, ‘Labour (China)’, 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War, <>

[4] Xu, Guoqi, ‘Labour (China)’

Full title:
Report giving the history of the Chinese Labour Corps used behind the lines in France 1917-19.
24 March 1920, France
Report / Typescript
Usage terms
Crown Copyright
Held by
British Library
Mss Eur F288/110

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