841 members of the CLCs were buried in the northern French region

I have just returned from a 4 day road trip to France and Belgium over Easter with some of the descendants of the Chinese Labour Corps (CLCs) visiting 1st World War memorial sites in Arras, Vimy Ridge, Poperinge and Ieper.

Less well known is the Chinese cemetery in Noyelles sur Mer where 841 members of the CLCs have been buried.  Admittedly these numbers are not impressive as compared to the millions who had died in the Great War, but I would argue that 140,000 CLCs recruited by Britain and France to help in the war effort should nevertheless not be forgotten.

One of our travelling companions came to pay her respects to her late grandfather buried at Beaulencourt, Commonwealth War cemetery near Arras.  This was her second visit, the first in 2008, and she was delighted to see that his name was now engraved on the headstone.  For reasons too complex to go into here, many CLCs merely had their number engraved, and these were the lucky ones who were even given a grave, as thousands more had perished without trace.

The trip was organised by the Meridian Society as part of their heritage project to mark WW1 in the centenary year. The first batch arrived in April 1917 after journeying over a gruelling 3 months from Wei Hai in Shandong to the Western Front via Canada and England.  Some never made it to France and lie buried in Liverpool, Plymouth and Folkestone.  Yet out of over 40,000 WW1 memorials in the UK, not a single one has been dedicated to the CLCs.

Why do I think it important to remember the CLCs who were only “coolies” and not combat soldiers? I can think of at least 3 good reasons:

Firstly, of the 300,000 workers recruited by Britain (including Egyptians, Maltese, black S Africans and West Indians), the CLCs were by far the largest group.

Secondly, China had participated in the War hoping in exchange they would regain sovereignty over Shandong, the birth place of Confucius.  However under Article 156 of the Treaty of Versailles, the concessions in Shandong were instead transferred to Japan.  Nevertheless, it may be timely nearly 100 years after the event to come up with a new narrative for China. This should not be viewed as a period of shame, rather China had made an invaluable contribution towards the war and successfully played a part on the world stage.

Thirdly, and perhaps the best reason of all, is that by jointly commemorating the sacrifices and losses suffered in the Great War, we can come together in shared grief and to work together for peace.

We learnt on this trip of centenary memorials being erected in Arras in France and in Poperinge in Belgium.  The curator at Flanders Fields Museum was hugely supportive and even the Canadians have shown an interest in the CLCs story.  (Canadian film maker, Jordan Paterson has made an award winning film, “Tricks on the Dead” which will be screened in Parliament on 21 June, courtesy of Baroness Lorely Burt.)

In the UK, the Ensuring We Remember campaign are fundraising for a permanent memorial to be finally erected in London.  Please feel free to contact info@chineselibdems.org.uk if you would like to support the campaign.