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Chinese history

Chinese who helped allies in first world war commemorated in Britain

Ceremony held for five members of the 100,000-strong Chinese Labour Corps, who grew food, built roads and dug trenches during the conflict

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 August, 2018, 7:23pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 August, 2018, 10:11am

One hundred years after they died, five Chinese labourers who went to Europe to serve on the battlefields of the first world war were given a military send off in the northern English city of Liverpool on Friday.

A representative of Queen Elizabeth paid tribute to the men, who all died of contagious diseases in Liverpool hospitals, and to the rest of the 100,000-strong Chinese Labour Corps (CLC), as part of Britain’s centenary commemorations of the war.

The CLC was largely made up of peasants from Shandong, mainly recruited in 1917 – a year before the war ended – to reinforce the British and French army who lost thousands of troops.

Hoping to make some money, they crossed the Pacific on overcrowded ships, were transported secretly across Canada and then the Atlantic to avoid German gunboats in the Mediterranean.

Between April and May that year, 27 ships arrived in Liverpool carrying 65,000 Chinese labourers.

Their jobs included digging trenches, building hospitals and growing food for the troops fighting in Belgium and France the Chinese workers did not stay in the city long. They were quickly moved to the coastal town of Folkestone where they then set sail across the English Channel to the killing fields of France and Belgium.

“The Chinese labourers shall not remain forgotten,” said Mark Blundell, Her Majesty’s Lord Lieutenant of Merseyside at the memorial ceremony. “Theirs was a civilian army which deserves as much respect and recognition as our armies of soldiers.”

Blundell said his grandfather was a junior officer in the first world war and organised cabbage planting using Chinese labour.

“They could not have imagined at that moment that they would soon be confronted by the horrors of a brutal war” said Christine Banks, the Lord Mayor of Liverpool. “To their descendants back in China, I want to assure them that Liverpool is and always will be their home and we are proud to count them among our own.”

Brigadier Peter Rafferty, colonel of the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, said the CLC men kept vital supplies moving to the front lines and carried the dead from the battlefield. They also built roads and worked in armament factories, and even made cemeteries for the dead soldiers.

“The contribution made by the Chinese Labour Corps was barely recognised at the end of the war. There is no tribute to them among Britain’s 40,000 war memorials, and most of their records were destroyed during the Blitz of world war two,” he said. “These men deserve better, and our nation’s promise never to forget should apply to them as much as any other allied contingent.”

The ceremony was at the Chinese section of Anfield Cemetery.

Officials from the Chinese Consulate in Manchester and representatives of Liverpool’s 12,000-strong Chinese population – the oldest Chinese community in Europe – also attended. Wreaths were laid, as well as traditional Chinese funeral candles. British army veterans were also there.

Headstones and plaques for the five CLC men who died in Liverpool were placed at the cemetery, among other gravestones for Chinese residents of Liverpool. The men were Kuo Ching Shan, who died aged 26, Sun Chensheng, 22, Fan Chuansheng, 30, Guo Dexiang, and Liu Fengxiang.

Karen Soo’s grandfather Soo Yuen Yi served in the CLC but under the command of France. She told how he stayed in Britain after the war and opened a laundry.

“He undertook the long voyage by ship from Hong Kong to France, and he made it there, hundreds did not,” she said. “He had no choice, he could not leave, he could not return, he was 19 years old. Almost a child.”

She said her grandfather was put to work on an active airfield, filling bomb craters and keeping the airfield clear so that allied warplanes could land, sometimes under heavy bombardment. Like many others from the CLC he continued to work after the war clearing the battlefields of dangerous ammunitions.

The event in Liverpool was organised by the Meridian Society, a charity set up to promote better understanding of China and the Chinese.

China declared war on Germany in August 1917, when a German torpedo sank the French ship Athos, killing 543 Chinese. Two years later, when the war had ended, China refused to sign the treaty of Versailles because the Allies had broken their promise to return the Shandong peninsula, from whence the CLC came, from Japanese control.