The Chinese Labour Corps: World War One's Hidden History

Chinese labour corps

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Uncover a hidden history

Discover the fascinating story of the Chinese Labour Corps – 96,000 men recruited by the British Army to provide support at the Front – in this afternoon of talks, a documentary film and musical tributes.

When Britain realised with horror that the war would last longer than expected and was taking its toll on its troops at the Western Front, they looked east to China to recruit men who could provide logistical help behind the lines. China, then a fledgling republic, was keen to assist the Western Allies, as this was an opportunity to cast off its humiliating label of being 'the sick man of Asia' and regain its status in the international society. Nearly 100,000 men were shipped over from the province of Shandong to the battlefields of France and Flanders. This was the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC) and, together with a further 40,000 employed by the French, they would become the largest foreign labour corps to serve the Allies during World War I.

Over 2,000 who worked for the British died from shellfire or disease. In northern France and Flanders, monuments and plaques have been put up in their memory. Here in Britain, there is nothing – no mention of the Chinese Labour Corps; no recognition of the part they played in the Great War; no memorial to those who gave their lives to a cause about which they knew little.

Frances Wood, former Curator of the British Library’s Chinese Collections, gives an introduction to the historical background of the CLC and explains the reasons and challenges behind China’s involvement in the Great War.

Gregory James, author of The Chinese Labour Corps – 1916-1920 explains the role of the British military in the recruitment and management of the Chinese.

Philip Vanhaelemeersch from Howest University in Belgium will draw on his translations of two diaries by Chinese labourers to illustrate the disparities between their initial expectations and actual experiences at the Front.

Documentary filmmaker Peng Wenlan introduces her film, The Chinese Labour Corps – Forgotten Faces of the Great War, which uses anecdotes recounted by descendants of Chinese labourers and Western officers serving with the CLC to recreate the experiences of the men as they make their arduous journey to Europe, the cultural conflicts they encounter at the Front and the devastation awaiting them on their return home.

Short pieces inspired by the story of the CLC will be performed on the erhu (Chinese violin) by their composer Charlie Tienyi Wardle.

In association with the Meridian Society

Image from W J Hawkings Collection courtesy of John de Lucy


Name: The Chinese Labour Corps: World War One's Hidden History
Where: Knowledge Centre
The British Library
96 Euston Road
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When: -
Enquiries: +44 (0)1937 546546