The ugly truth behind the First World War’s Chinese labourers

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Long after the event, Corporal Harry Rodgers from Birmingham remembered the Chinese rebellion at Boulogne in September of 1917. “It was a wretched, pitiful business,” he recalled. “The poor bastards had been little more than slaves, earning one penny a day compared to our shilling a day… They were nearly all illiterate peasants without the slightest notion of why they were slaving 18 hours a day… Our officers ordered us not to accord them even the dignity of rebels. We were under strict instructions to look upon them as pure rabble.”

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It’s not surprising that Britain’s First World War commemorations over the past decade did not much focus on the 140,000 Chinese labourers shipped to France to dig trenches and move food and fuel behind the lines – and sometimes to die under German shellfire. They weren’t exactly slaves. They were under military contract, and most returned home after the war. But it’s easy to see why, right now in the new era of Black Lives Matter, it’s not a subject the British – or the Canadians or French, for that matter – would wish to dwell upon too deeply.

Because Chinese lives did not matter in the First World War. Up to 4,000 of them – perhaps well over 10,000 – never returned home. Two Chinese cemeteries on the Western Front contain the graves of around 2,000, many of them victims of cholera and the Spanish flu epidemic which followed the 1914-18 conflict. At least 10 were executed for alleged murder. There are records of their deaths before British firing squads. In the National Archives at Kew, researching more than 20 years ago through the records of Chinese dead under British military control, I found – inside the paper file – the actual bullet which allegedly killed the victim of a Chinese labourer. The latter had been shot at dawn.

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