New B.C. book unearths Chinese labourers’ secret role in First World War

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      Forget Apple or Foxconn: the most secretive mass western outsourcing of jobs to China took place almost a century ago when at least 140,000 Chinese labourers were shipped to Europe to help the British and French armies defeat the Germans in the infamous European trench battles of the First World War.

      In a hugely successful mission in 1917 that is just coming into public awareness, more than 84,000 members of the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC) were transported 20,000 kilometres from Shandong province to Canada’s Vancouver Island and then to Halifax to eventually play key support roles in the killing fields of France and Belgium.

      At least another 54,000 were shipped through a more dangerous route: via the Suez Canal and across the Mediterranean Sea to the French port Marseilles, near where German vessels and submarines were known to patrol.

      The little-known CLC, comprising anywhere between 140,000 and 200,000 recruits from northern China, has recently become the subject of scholarly research and media interest for its role in shaping China’s attitude toward the West during its decades-long struggle against colonial rule starting in the late 19th century.

      As the war dragged on, seemingly with no end in sight, the Allied forces’ bold move in August 1917 to inject fresh young bodies from half a world away to support the frontline troops proved strategic, contributing to their victory and the conflict’s conclusion by November 1918.

      In a just-published book titled Quarantined: Life and Death at William Head Station 1872-1959 (Heritage House), Vancouver-based retired teacher Peter Johnson writes that the Empress of Russia sailed from China’s Shandong province to unload the first batch of 2,057 specially recruited labourers at the William Head Quarantine Station near Victoria on August 18, 1917.

      Beating a hush-hush path for more than 82,000 of their countrymen over the next few months, the labourers were examined and quarantined before they were deemed fit to perform a range of battlefield services in Europe, including digging trenches, driving trucks, delivering and preparing food, medicines, and ammunition, and recovering bodies and unexploded shells.

      Johnson’s account of the CLC’s passage and stay in Canada over several months forms a chapter in his book on the life of the William Head complex between 1872 and 1959, when it served as a quarantine facility for people coming into Western Canada by ship. Since renamed the William Head Institution, the complex, located 18 kilometres southwest of Victoria, is today a minimum-security prison designed to hold up to 180 male prisoners.

      But at the peak of the CLC’s clandestine existence, the quarantine station was overrun to the point that the warden was forced to set up temporary camps on the open grounds to house and feed the constant waves of labourers coming through. The British and Canadian guards were on constant watch to prevent trouble breaking out, sometimes with fatal consequences as a result of food riots and overcrowding as well as attempts by some labourers to escape the dismal living conditions.

      Some did escape and were caught, Johnson told the Georgia Straight, but an unknown small number succeeded and were taken in by aboriginal groups living nearby.

      Nevertheless, the vast majority had a huge incentive to make it to Europe, as each labourer was promised a generous payment of one British pound to sign up and between three and five francs per day of service. The alternative in China then was unemployment and starvation.

      But just to be sure, the Canadian government sealed the trains to Halifax and imposed maximum security to prevent any escape attempts.

      In a West Side coffee shop interview, Johnson told the Straight that he stumbled upon the CLC’s existence and passage through Canada as part of his research into the unrelated 1862 death of three young women aboard a ship that sailed to Canada from Europe. He was researching quarantine procedures and facilities in 19th-century Canada as a follow-up to his 2002 book, Voyages of Hope: The Saga of the Bride-Ships.

      After obtaining permission from the Correctional Service of Canada, he set foot in the William Head Institution in 2010 and discovered its previous life as a holding centre for more than 84,000 Chinese labourers destined to play a role in European history.

      So why has this piece of history been so little known until now?

      Johnson dismisses any notion of conspiracy, as the CLC’s role in the First World War was a top military secret. It was officially acknowledged in 2002 when military ceremonies were held in honour of the Chinese labourers who were buried at the cemetery of Noyelles-sur-Mer in France. In April 2010, the Belgian town of Ypres held a big exhibition that further raised awareness of the Chinese presence and forgotten role in the war.

      The CLC was disbanded after the German surrender, with most of its members repatriated to China between 1918 and 1920. According to French records, between 5,000 and 7,000 stayed in the country, forming the nucleus of its Chinese community today.

      The number of CLC members killed on the war’s battlefields varies from 2,000 to 20,000, depending on the source. Many were killed as enemy targets, and some died from diseases and conditions on the battlefields as well as during the gruelling journey from China.

      “The British Expeditionary Force lied to these boys that they would not be exposed to danger. As noncombatants, they were told they would only repair roads, drive trucks, deliver food and medicines, collect body parts and unexploded shells, and so on,” Johnson said.

      “But, of course, they were not safe. Everyone was a target, and many of the Chinese labourers died on the frontline.”

      His account was corroborated during a phone interview from China with Zhang Yan, a Shandong University scholar who visited Victoria and William Head in November. He also toured France, Belgium, and England earlier as part of his research to gather a complete picture of the CLC, including those members who died during the war or stayed on in Europe.

      According to British writer Chris Baker, who specializes in the First World War, the CLC was conceived and operated as a secret mission after British field marshal Sir Douglas Haig asked the government in 1916 to recruit labourers to fill the manpower shortage caused by the war’s mounting casualties.

      With the support of western missionaries, the British, French, and Chinese governments hatched the audacious plan to tap China’s large population of unemployed young men to help end the 1914 war that had quickly degenerated into a gridlock of dead-end trench battles.

      Each party had motivations to undertake this outsourcing gambit, possibly a first in military use of Chinese labour as a globalization strategy.

      In the “war to end all wars” that eventually claimed the lives of an estimated 8.5 million men, the British and French were desperate to halt their mounting casualties, while the Chinese calculated that their participation would endear them to the Allied forces in their shared struggle to contain German and Japanese expansion in China.

      By the early 20th century, a badly divided China had become the “sick man of Asia” as the European powers and Japan carved up the country to exploit its vast market, strategic location, and natural resources. Shandong, with its deep-water ports, had fallen, first to the Germans and later to the Japanese. By offering the CLC’s services in the war against Germany, the Chinese government hoped—in vain, as it turned out—that the English and French would reciprocate by supporting its desire to expel German and Japanese troops from Shandong.

      For the Chinese labourers and their families desperate for work, the offer of paid employment for at least three years was manna from heaven. The English and French missionaries who came to convert the Chinese to Christianity now had the additional role of headhunting for the military. They found themselves eagerly sought after by both the colonizers and the colonized, cementing their place in Chinese history and society in the process.

      “The missionaries played a key role in securing the labour supply, as they were already in contact with large populations of young Chinese men looking for work,” Johnson said.

      The arrival of so many young, robust Chinese labourers in Europe immediately freed up British and French soldiers for battle, giving the Allies a much-needed advantage over the enemy.

      “These Chinese labourers were from the northern provinces; many were six feet tall and bigger than the Chinese from the south who worked on the railroads of Canada,” Johnson said.

      How did Canada become involved in this secret operation and why didn’t the military strategists of the day recruit from the Asian population already in the country?

      Based on historical, legal, and cultural ties, Britain was in a position to demand that Canada provide both active military and logistical support when war broke out in Europe in 1914.

      Although as many as 600,000 white Canadians signed up for the war and many died in Europe, the growing Asian and black populations already in this country were not allowed to join the military or play an active support role. Given the prevailing anti-Asian sentiments in Canada, it was inconceivable to even consider letting them serve in the military, as that would have elevated their social standing.

      While it might have been an easier logistical task to raise and dispatch a labour corps to Europe from within the migrant population, there were only about 18,000 Asians and probably another 2,000 nonwhite migrants in Canada just before the start of the war. The number was too small to effectively carry out the mammoth tasks required in Europe.

      After discussion with the British, Prime Minister Robert Borden agreed to join the scheme on condition that the transit of the 84,000 Chinese labourers be tightly controlled throughout both legs of their passage through Canada. They would have no contact with their countrymen already in Canada, and they would have no claims to settle in the country after the war.

      By 1917, the war had reached a critical stage as the Germans were poised to attack and capture coastal towns in France and Belgium vital for the protection of supply lines. Allied forces had to be deployed to the frontlines, but they needed a large support corps to provide backup services and equipment. The involvement of the CLC became imperative and almost inevitable.

      “If the Germans had succeeded in taking over those towns, it would have been game over for the British and French,” Johnson said. The decision was then made to speed up the mass recruitment and movement of the Chinese labourers into Europe, with Canada offering the safest and easiest passage for such a logistical feat.

      But the recruitment process had to be delicately managed, as the Allied forces who themselves had colonized parts of China since the late 19th century made sure that the labourers did not participate in the fighting or receive any form of military training. The last thing they needed was a group of Chinese militia trained on the battlefield who could eventually turn against their masters.

      But it wasn’t just sheer numbers or youthful energy that the CLC brought to Europe. Generally disciplined and reliable, many also came equipped with skills surprising to their military employers, skills that made the corps a useful mobile factory that provided many services and products for the war effort.

      According to Shirley Frey of the University of Texas at Arlington, the British and French military began deploying CLC members to different tasks upon realizing the range of skills and talents at their disposal.

      Although the less educated were given tough manual work—deployed to man the docks, dig trenches, lay railroad tracks, and unload supplies and munitions—the skilled were deployed to maintain and repair machines, ammunition, vehicles, and even tanks and aircraft parts. Those who had learned to speak and write English or French from European missionaries played important intermediary roles between the officers and the CLC members under their command.

      “The Big Tank Corps depot at Auby-les-Hesdin was serviced almost exclusively by Chinese,” Frey noted in her 2009 history master’s thesis. She also found that the CLC force almost exclusively maintained important railroad lines between Calais, Zeneghem, Dieppe, Boulogne, Audruicq, Dannes, Abbeville, Saigneville, Abancourt, and Soquence.

      The French deployed CLC members familiar with agriculture to work the farms.

      “The manpower shortage in France was so severe that a number of CLC were assigned to agricultural work. The CLC were able to double the productivity of many farms by using farming techniques from the Middle Kingdom,” Frey wrote.

      In contrast, Canada missed out on these talents as tens of thousands of CLC members were quickly repatriated along the same way that they had travelled years earlier, passing through Halifax and William Head on their way home to China.

      Their amazing story and passage through Canada have been so well buried that they remain little known beyond academic circles.

      The Chinese Canadian Military Museum Society, which has pictures of some CLC members in its exhibit in the Chinese Cultural Centre complex in Vancouver’s Chinatown, is expanding its research on the labourers. In early November, society members visited the William Head Institution, where they were briefed by Johnson, the institution’s librarian, Kim Rempel, and another researcher, Mike Stacey.

      “We have known [about] this all along and…are doing more research and knowledge for further dissemination to educate the public,” said King Wan, a member of the museum society.

      Clearly, the CLC offers lessons in the early days of mass outsourcing and much more for a better understanding of the shaping of modern China’s relations with the West.




      Nov 29, 2013 at 9:53am

      wow. What an amazing story. It wold be nice if this could be incorporated into the BC school curriculum

      Clifford Pereira.

      Dec 5, 2013 at 2:44pm

      The story of the CLC has been raised in the UK (which also has a large community of Chinese Heritage). It is mentioned in my book The View From Shooters Hill, which was commissioned by local communities as a local history book to sit beside the school curriculum. One of the things I uncovered while researching, was that a number of the CLC were injured with horrible shrapnel wounds. These men were taken to the Queen's Hospital in Sidcup and were treated by Dr H. Gilles an New Zealander who learnt his "Plastic Surgery" skills in India. The treated men were repatriated to China. I would love the opportunity to meet Mr. Johnson as I think there was another secret deal to redistribute Indian Merchant Navy seamen who were manning most of the war effort shipping, while the British seamen were in the Royal Navy. In fact these Indian Seamen (called Lascars) often cooked and served on the ships taking Canadian seamen to Europe, Australians to Gallipoli, and Indian soldiers to Mesopotamia and Egypt.