95,000 Chinese farm labourers fought for Britain in the first world war
13 November 2016: Today, the UK remembers the hundreds of thousands of British soldiers who tragically lost their lives serving the country in WWI.
Dating back just over 100 years ago, WWI is still regarded as one of the darkest moments in European history. An estimated 17 million lives were lost as the strongest western powers engaged in a war of an unprecedented scale. The horrors and ripples of the war are still felt today and as a result, Rememberance Sunday in the UK is dedicated to remembering the atrocities and lost soldiers.
An estimated six million men were mobilised in the UK for the war and amongst those, 95,000 were Chinese. It has been reported that these Chinese soldiers were farm labourers who volunteered to leave their villages to fight for Britain. The Chinese were recruited as early as 1916. Recruitment to Britain and consequent casualties meant that local farms suffered from a shortage of labourers. Futhermore, crossing the Pacific and crossing Canada in sealed trains across six days and moving to Liverpool to Folkestone to France and Belgium, made for a horrendous journey.
Some died on their voyage whilst some 2000 lie in Commonwealth war graves. Some sources report 20,000 died. The soldiers worked 10 hour days, seven days a week and only had three holidays including Chinese New Year. Many continued to work until 1920 clearing the field and exhuming bodies.
Despite their contributions, the Chinese Labour Corp were hardly recognised after the war and since, these soldiers have been called “the forgotten of the forgotten”.
In the UK, there are 40,000 war memorials but there are not attributed to the Chinese soldiers. Whatsmore, shortly after the war, the Chinese were refused any right to settle in Britain and as a result, there are no descendants of them. A number of their records of service as destroyed in the blitz of WWII.
Campaigns have since been launched by the Chinese community in the UK to create a memorial for the Chinese Labour Corps.
Steve Lau, chair of the Ensuring We Remember campaign said, “my invitation was probably the first time the British government properly recognised the Chinese Labour Corps since the end of the war.”
Lau claims that of the 6 million commemorative medals distributed in Britain to those who took part in the war, those received by the Chinese were bronze, not silver and bore only their numbers, not their names. The Chinese were also not included on the giant painted canvas exhibited in Paris at the end of the war.
So today, as well as remembering all of those who gave their lives for Britain, we particularly remember the “forgotten of the forgotten” Chinese soldiers.
Who knew Asians could be under-represented in history books too?