This is a bit of a mis-mash, mostly because it is based on recollection, and it might be the last on the CLC. Some of it is repeated from earlier blogs. Apologies if you have heard, or read, it all before I was asked again.
The first of these recollections date back to 50 years ago. I remember going to Outram Road in Singapore. I wanted to see where the First World War Soldiers were executed. The executions were something one was not expected to know about. Most people then did not know, today it is still not known about by the vast majority of people. Julian Putkowski, in his book “British Army Mutineers 1914-1922” doesn’t give the events at Outram Road a mention. Over 45 soldiers were shot at Outram Road in the greatest mass execution carried out by the British Army in the First World War, and the execution was carried out in public watched by thousands. (1) I knew about the executions not from books, or from school, and not from talking to people. I heard about them from listening. The reading of books came later, the prime source of my knowledge back then was from letting people talk. Papers about the execution are available by request at the Imperial War Museum.
The soldiers were Indian, not Chinese, but it is a good illustration of how I first heard of events a hundred years ago. Listen to people, go away and check in a library, now check online, but wary of some online sites.
The next recollection dates back to just after the visit to Outram Road and a move to Malaya. It was a reconnection to the 4th Royal Tank Regiment (4th RTR) of the British Army. At the time 4th RTR did not have tanks, it was an armoured car regiment. On the turrets of the armoured cars were painted “Eyes”. Chinese Eyes, those who for various reasons follow my blog may remember I mentioned going to the Imperial War Museum to see the gift from the Chinese that is still used by the British Army today, this is it. Everyone with only the slightest interest in the First World War would look at the tank from that war in the museum. Everyone would see the “Eyes” on the tank. They were a gift from a Chinese business man who was a member of the governing board of Singapore in 1918, Mr Eu Yew Tong Sen. Mr Eu Yew Tong Sen had donated enough money to Britain to buy a tank for the army. The only condition was that it must have eyes painted on it. The Chinese have a long tradition of painting eyes on the front of fishing boats for if they do not have eyes how can they see? It was also thought that the eyes also warded off evil spirits. This is part of the history of 4th Royal Tank Regiment, and now the Royal Tank Regiment, it is something every Trooper in the regiment, and the children of the regiment would be told and knew by heart.
While in Malaya I used to play with the children of the communists who were fighting or had fought the British. It was the tail end of the Emergency, apparently over since 1960, the fighting continued until the end of the 1970s. The communists were mostly ethnic Chinese. As a British Army Brat, it was very much against the rules to go near the Chinese villages, and there were regular warnings from school that the local communist guerrillas were still active. It was a bit like dangling a piece of forbidden fruit. The Chinese villages were places I had to go and see. After a while, playing with kids of my own age they would tell me about themselves and the shared history of British-Chinese relations from their point of view. That is how I first heard of the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC) (2)
Now if you go to France or Belgium and visit the war cemeteries it is very noticeable that the graves of the CLC are very often “Apart” or the headstone face a different direction. There are a few possible reasons for this. The CLC were technically civilians, not soldiers. Also, like most peoples, they were proud of their origins and if possible wanted to be buried facing east. There are at least four, possibly more epitaphs on the graves of the CLC,they translate roughly to, “Faithful unto death”,”Though dead he still liveth”, A noble duty bravely done”, and “A good reputation endures for ever.” At Noyelles-sur-Mer, is Europes largest CLC cemetery.
Most of the Chinese labourers came from the Shandong area of China, they were recruited at Weihaiwei, which was controlled by the British. After the labourers were recruited they came to Europe via two routes. The first across the Pacific to Canada. Then by train on the Canadian pacific Railway, finally by sea across the Atlantic to Southampton and onwards to the Western Front. The Canadian pacific Railway was first built by Chinese labourers, and some Chinese claim it was “Their Burma Railway”, the deaths among Chinese who originally built the railway were undoubtedly high, perhaps one a mile, but it is not a fair comparison to the deaths of the Burma Railway in a later war. There was a “Rest Camp” for the Chinese at Folkestone.
The second route was by sea to India and onwards through the Suez Canal and across the Mediterranean to France. At least one ship carrying Chinese labourers was torpedoed in 1917 and hundreds lost their lives.
On arrival in France and the western Front the CLC did mostly the heavy labouring work, at docks, loading trains, building railways. Some worked at the Steel mill in Dunkirk, that is mentioned in Putkowski’s book on British Army Mutineers. Some were highly skilled and worked at repairing tanks, (mentioned in note 2). They do not seem to have been employed digging frontline trenches. As yet I have not seen or heard of any evidence of the CLC working at the frontline.
There is not much in the way of recognition for the part the CLC undertook in the First World War, there are plans for a memorial to them here, and there is a memorial in France. The CLC were also entitled to a cheaper variant of the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. The work of the Chines in the service of the British Empire, started before the First World War, there was a Chinese Regiment in the British Army circa 1900 and did not end with the end of the War. The Chinese were still serving on Royal Navy ships, as civilians in the Falklands war.
The other thing I learnt about in Singapore, Malaya, and on a later visit to China, is that the poppy is a symbol of humiliation at the hands of the British during the Opium wars. So if you visit a CLC war grave., think about the flower you place. They did so much to help ensure allied victory, and Bad, as well as Good, Deeds endure forever
1, The Thin Yellow Line, William Moore. Does mention the execution and the events surrounding them.
2. For more information see “Over There” published by the Shandong Pictorial Publishing House, which is also a good source of further information on the CLC.