China on the Western Front: Britain's Chinese Work Force in the First World War

TitleChina on the Western Front: Britain's Chinese Work Force in the First World War
Publication TypeBook
Year of Publication1982
AuthorsSummerskill, Michael
Number of Pages236
PublisherMichael Summerskill

The 200,000 Chinese hired by the French and British governments to work behind the front line in 1917-18 have already entered historical literature through various mentions in memoirs and studies about the First World War and 20th-century China. Several authors have also discussed some political, social or cultural aspects of coolies' experience in Northern France. However, the detailed story of the proceedings of that unprecedented large-scale transfer of Chinese labourers to European soil had yet to be written. By thorough investigation of a wide range of British public and private records, supplemented by some American sources, the author of this volume has reconstructed the saga of those 94,700 men who were recruited in Shandong province by British authorities to form the Chinese Labour Corps and who were sent out under British command to supplement and eventually to relieve British civilians employed in France on railways and at pioneer works at the rear for the home labour market. The author shows how, under the growing pressure of war, the decision to use Chinese coolies slowly took shape in spite of the opposition fed by painful memories of Chinese indentured labour in South Africa, Labour Party and Trade Union objections against employment of foreign manpower, and by the shipping difficulties involved. In this account, the author provides a host of interesting observations on the origins of the labourers, on their life at the camps, and on the treatment received under the British as compared to their compatriots employed by the French.

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