The missing grandfather
Tranquil in a French wheatfield – the Chinese Labour Corps cemetery
It’s a story that’s shocking—even by the brutal standards of war.
Tucked away behind the hamlet of La Nolette in northern France is the cemetery for the Chinese Labour Corps; up to 100,000 men recruited from China to work for the British Army in the First World War. Among them was the fictional character of Tseng Hsiao Ling’s grandfather.
Despite their vital contribution to the Allied war effort, there is still no UK memorial to the sacrifice of these men.
Signed up as indentured labourers in impoverished villages primarily in Shandong, northern China, they were transported across the Pacific by ship, then on sealed trains across Canada before crossing the Atlantic for Europe. The French also recruited about 40,000 labourers from more southern parts of China.
Initially, China was not a participant in the war, so the men could not be involved in combat. Instead they dug and cleared trenches, unloaded ships, maintained railway lines and the like, after the Allies ran short of labour to do these jobs. Although non-combatants, the men were put in line of fire: First Class Ganger Liu Dien Chen was recommended for the Military Medal for rallying his team of labourers while under shellfire in March 1918, an award for which he was later deemed ineligible.
Conditions for the Chinese Labour Corps were harsh. The men were strictly controlled in compounds, working long hours in cold and damp. Some mutinied, or broke out of their compounds in search of food. In one such disturbance British troops opened fire, killing four men and injuring nine. The labourers were paid a fee of 20 yuan when they left China and wages of 10 yuan a month, about a third of a soldier’s pay. Wages were supposed to be paid to the men’s families in China, although this did not always happen.
A panoramic video of the cemetery at La Nolette in northern France
Their service did not end with the war. Ten days before Germany surrendered, the first contingent of 365 workers were repatriated. However, most of them remained behind to clear up the wreckage of war, clear mines, fill trenches, remove bodies. Many died of illness during this period, including in Europe’s deadly flu epidemics. The last person to be buried at La Nolette was Ch’iu Hsiu Feng, service number 100842, who died on 23 March 1920.
Some of the men remained in France, where the last survivor died in 2002. It is thought none settled in the UK, as they were refused permission. The only vestige of their presence in the UK is the so-called “Chinese Wall” built by a contingent from the Chinese Labour Corps at the military base, now in ruins, at the Orford Ness Nature Reserve near Orford in Suffolk.
The cemetery at La Nolette, across a field from the site of the hospital in Noyelles-sur-Mer where many of the men died, contains 842 graves. Up to 1,200 others whose deaths were recorded are buried elsewhere across Europe. Some died during transit, including in Canada and the UK. Up to 18,000 deaths are thought to have gone unrecorded.
Although there is a campaign to get a statue erected in London to the Chinese Labour Corps, the service of these men is yet to be honoured with a memorial in the UK.
“The Chinese Labour Corps – 1916-1920” by Gregory James published by Bayview Educational, Hong Kong SAR, China
“The Chinese Labour Corps (The Forgotten Chinese Labourers of the First World War)" by Mark O'Neill, published by Penguin eBooks, 2014
“Ensuring We Remember” The campaign for a memorial to the Chinese Labour Corps has a website - Ensuring we remember the Chinese Labour Corps
“Forgotten faces of the Great War: The Chinese Labour Corps” film by Peng Wenlan can be found on SOAS University of London Youtube channel or on Prime Video