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Men of the Chinese Labour Corps load sacks of oats onto a lorry at Boulogne (12th August 1917)

The Chinese Labour Corps (CLC) was a force of workers recruited by the British government in World War I to free troops for front line duty by performing support work and manual labour. In all, some 140,000 men served in the CLC before it was disbanded and most of the men repatriated to China between 1918 and 1920.


In 1916, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig requested that 21,000 labourers be recruited to fill the manpower shortage caused by casualties during World War I.[1] As China was initially not a belligerent nation, her nationals were not allowed by their government to participate in the fighting - although the Chinese later declared war against Germany and Austria–Hungary, on 14 August 1917.[2]

The scheme to recruit Chinese to serve as non-military personnel was pioneered by the French government. A contract to supply 50,000 labourers was agreed upon on 14 May 1916 and the first contingent left Tianjin for Dagu and Marseille in July 1916. The British government also signed an agreement with the Chinese authorities to supply labourers. The recruiting was launched by the War Committee in London in 1916 to form a Labour Corps of labourers from China to serve in France and to be known as the Chinese Labour Corps.[2] A former railway engineer, Thomas J. Bourne, who had worked in China for 28 years, arrived at Weihaiwei (then a British colony) on 31 October 1916 with instructions to establish and run a recruiting base.[3]

The Chinese Labour Corps comprised Chinese men who mostly came from Shandong Province,[4] and to a lesser extent from Liaoning, Jilin, Jiangsu, Hubei, Hunan, Anhui and Gansu Provinces.[2] The first transport ship carrying 1,088 labourers sailed from the main depot at Weihaiwei on 18 January 1917. The journey to France took 3 months.[5] Most travelled to Europe (and later returned to China) via the Pacific and by Canada.[6]


Members of the Chinese Labour Corps carry out riveting work at the Central Workshops of the Tank Corps

A total of about 140,000 Chinese workers served on the Western Front during and after the War.[7] Among them, 100,000 served in the British Chinese Labour Corps. About 40,000 served with the French forces, and hundreds of Chinese students served as translators.[8]

By the end of 1917 there were 54,000 Chinese labourers with the Commonwealth forces in France and Belgium. In March the Admiralty declared itself no longer able to supply the ships for transport and the British government were obliged to bring recruitment to an end. The men already serving in France completed their contracts.[5] By the time of the Armistice, the Chinese Labour Corps numbered nearly 96,000,[5] while 30,000 were working for the French.[1] In May 1919, 80,000 Chinese Labour Corps were still at work.[5]

The workers mainly aged between 20 and 35 served as labour in the rear echelons or helped build munitions depots. They were tasked with carrying out essential work to support the frontline troops, such as unloading ships, building dugouts, repairing roads and railways, digging trenches and filling sandbags.[9] Some worked in armaments factories, others in naval shipyards, for a pittance of one to three francs a day. At the time they were seen just as cheap labour, not even allowed out of camp to fraternise locally, dismissed as mere coolies. When the war ended some were used for mine clearance, or to recover the bodies of soldiers and fill in miles of trenches.[9] Their contribution went forgotten for decades until military ceremonies resumed in 2002 at the Chinese cemetery of Noyelles-sur-Mer.

After the Armistice, the Chinese, each identified only by an impersonal reference number, were shipped home. Only about 5,000 to 7,000 stayed in France, forming the nucleus of the later Chinese community in Paris. Most who survived returned to China in 1918.[10] Throughout the war, trade union pressure prevented the introduction of Chinese labourers to the British Isles.[2] Sidney and Beatrice Webb suggested that the Chinese Labour Corps were restricted to carrying out menial unskilled labour due to pressure from British trade unions.[11] However, some members of the Corps carried out skilled and semi–skilled work for the Tank Corps, including riveting[12] and engine repair.[13]

One member of the Corps, First Class Ganger Liu Dien Chen, was recommended for the Military Medal for rallying his men while under shellfire in March 1918. However he was eventually awarded Meritorious Service Medal as it was decided Labour Corps members were not eligible for the Military Medal. By the end of the war, the Meritorious Service Medal had been awarded to five Chinese workers.[14]

After the war, the British government sent a War Medal to every member of the CLC. The medal was like British War Medal issued to every member of the British armed forces, except that it was of bronze, not silver.

Other workers

As well as Chinese workers, there were Labour Corps serving in France from Egypt, Fiji, India, Malta, Mauritius, Seychelles, the British West Indies as well as a Native Labour Corps from South Africa.[2] It was estimated that at the end of the war over 300,000 workers from the Colonies had aided in labour. There were 100,000 Egyptians, 21,000 Indians and 20,000 South Africans working throughout France and the Middle East by the end of the war in 1918.[1]


After the end of the war Chinese labourers were given transport back to China between December 1918 and September 1920.[15]


The entrance to the Chinese cemetery of the British Army at Noyelles-sur-Mer

Gravestone in Ascq Communal Cemetery

Gravestone in Noyelles-sur-Mer

The Corps did not take part in combat. According to the records kept by the British and French recruiters, around 2,000 men of the Chinese Labour Corps died during World War I,[8] most from the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu pandemic, and some as a direct result of enemy action or of wounds received in the course of their duties. In all, an estimated ten thousand died in the war effort, victims of shelling, landmines, poor treatment or the worldwide Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. Some Chinese scholars, who contest these figures, say the number of deaths was as high as 20,000.[8]

Fifteen members of the corps were sentenced to death for murder during the course of the war.[14] In addition, four died and nine were wounded when British troops fired on them in December 1917.[14]

The members of the CLC who died were classified as war casualties and were buried in about 40 French and Belgian graveyards in the North of France, with a total of about 2000 tombs and a few tombs in one cemetery in Belgium.[5] The largest number of graves are at Noyelles-sur-Mer on the Somme, next to the workers' camp of the British army where a cholera outbreak and some of the fiercest battles occurred as well. The cemetery contains 842 gravestones each engraved with Chinese characters, guarded by two stone lions, gifts from China.[9] One of the four following proverbs were inscribed on the standard Commonwealth War Grave Portland stone gravestones: "Faithful unto death", "A good reputation endures forever", "A noble duty bravely done" and "Though dead he still liveth".[4] Cemeteries include:


  • Abbeville Communal Cemetery Extension.[4]
  • Albert French National Cemetery.[4]
  • Arques-la-Bataille British Cemetery has more than 70 Chinese graves.[5]
  • Ascq Communal Cemetery.[4]
  • Ayette British Cemetery.[4]
  • Beaulencourt British Cemetery, Ligny-Thilloy.
  • Blargies Communal Cemetery Extension.
  • Caudry British Cemetery.
  • Charmes Military Cemetery, Essegney.
  • Chocques Military Cemetery.
  • Ebblinghem Military Cemetery. The grave is numbered "106247" and bears the inscription "A good reputation endures forever." It is listed simply as a "Non-Commonwealth" grave in the register.
  • Foncquevillers Military Cemetery has 2 graves.[4]
  • Gezaincourt Bagneux British Cemetery .
  • Haute-Avesnes British Cemetery.
  • Laventie Military Cemetery.
  • Le Portel Communal Cemetery has 1 grave.
  • Les Rues-des-Vignes Communal Cemetery has 1 grave.
  • Longuenesse (near Saint-Omer) Souvenir Cemetery has special memorials commemorating 23 men of the Chinese Labour Corps whose graves could not be exactly located.
  • Mazargues War Cemetery, in the southern suburb of Marseille.
  • Noyelles-sur-Mer Chinese Cemetery and Memorial, in the village of Nolette, is the largest one. It contains 838 Chinese workers' graves, while the memorial commemorates 40 more who died on land and sea and whose graves are unknown.[5]
  • Ruminghem Chinese Cemetery, contains 75 Chinese graves, half of them transferred from a Chinese cemetery at Saint-Pol-sur-Mer after the war.[5]
  • Sains-en-Gohelle Fosse No.10 Communal Cemetery Extension.
  • Saint-Étienne-au-Mont Communal Cemetery. Most of the cemetery's 170 burials are Chinese.[5]
  • Saint-Sever Cemetery Extension is located within a large communal cemetery situated on the eastern edge of the southern Rouen suburbs of Le Grand Quevilly and Le Petit Quevilly. Contains 44 graves.
  • Les Baraques Military Cemetery in Sangatte has more than 200 Chinese graves.[5]
  • Tincourt-Boucly New British Cemetery.
  • Villers-Carbonnel Communal Cemetery.


United Kingdom

  • In Britain, there are 8 CLC graves in Efford Cemetery, Plymouth, 6 graves in Shorncliffe Military Cemetery, near Folkestone, and 3 in Anfield cemetery, Liverpool.[17]


The workers saw first-hand that life in Europe was far from ideal, and reported this on their return to China after the war. Chinese intellectuals of the New Culture Movement looked on the CLC as a point of pride - Chen Duxiu, for instance, bragged that "while the sun does not set on the British Empire, neither does it set on Chinese workers abroad." But the ill treatment of these workers was added to the list of grievances against Britain. A more positive impact was on the educated youth who came to France to work with them, such as James Yen, whose literacy programmes under the auspices of the YMCA showed him the worth and dignity of the Chinese common man. He worked out a 1,000 Character Primer which introduced basic literacy and became the basis of his work in China. [18] Chinese intellectuals who worked with the CLC included Jiang Tingfu and Lin Yutang.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 The Long, Long Trail: The Labour Corps of 1917-1918
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Fawcett, Brian C., "The Chinese Labour Corps in France, 1917-1921", in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch, Volume 40, 2000, pp. 33-111
  3. Xu (2011), p.27
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 Waters, D., "The Chinese Labour Corps in the First World War: Labourers Buried in France", in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch, Vol. 35, 1995, pp. 199-203
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 5.7 5.8 5.9 Commonwealth War Graves Commission: The Chinese Labour Corps at the Western Front
  6. Xu (2011), p.5
  7. The Economist: "Strange meeting", Apr 26th 2010
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Peter Simpson, "China's WW I Effort Draws New Attention",, 23 September 2010
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Picquart, Pierre (2004) (in fr). The Chinese Empire (L'Empire chinois). Favre S.A.. ISBN 978-2-8289-0793-8.  Picquart, a French China specialist, gives a description of the fate of the Chinese workers.
  10. Condliffe, John Bell (1928). Problems of the Pacific: Proceedings of the Second Conference of the Institute of Pacific Relations Conference. United States: University of Chicago Press.  (page 410)
  11. 'Limehouse Blues: Looking for Chinatown in the London Docks 1900-40' by John Seed, in History Workshop Journal 62 (2006) p.74
  12. "H09620". Australian War Memorial. Retrieved December 5, 2012. 
  13. "H09619". Australian War Memorial. Retrieved December 5, 2012. 
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 Holmes, Richard (2011). Soldiers: Army Lives and Loyalties from Redcoats to Dusty Warriors. HarperCollins. pp. 345. ISBN 0007225695. 
  15. 'Limehouse Blues: Looking for Chinatown in the London Docks 1900-40' by John Seed, in History Workshop Journal 62 (2006) p.75
  16. New Irish Farm Cemetery: Cemetery Reports
  17. Stevens, K., "British Chinese Labour Corps labourers in England", in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch, Vol. 29, 1989, p. 390
  18. "With the Chinese Labor Corps in France," Charles W. Hayford, To the People: James Yen and Village China (Columbia University Press, 1990) pp. 22-27.
  • Guoqi Xu, Strangers on the Western Front: Chinese Workers in the Great War (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011) ISBN 978-0-674-04999-4.
  • James, Gregory. The Chinese Labour Corps (1916-1920) (Hong Kong: bayview Educational, 2013). ISBN 978-988-12686-0-0.

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