When volunteer Jan Shone brought in her grandfather’s photographs from the post-war clear up of the railways, one photograph in particular stood out from the rest – an image of Chinese soldiers working alongside European soldiers.
The use of non-European labour in France and Belgium became necessary following heavy losses by the English and French troops due to the Battle of the Somme in summer 1916. A plan to recruit from China was put into place in August 1916 and direct recruitment begun in October 1916 when the War Office sent their representative Thomas J.Bourne to China. He had been the engineer-in-chief of the Beijing-Hankou Railway, working in China for 28 years.
Approximately 100,000 Chinese labourers were employed by the British Forces between 1916 and 1919. They were known as the British Chinese Labour Corps. An additional 40,000 men served with the French army.
Their work included unloading ships, building dugouts, and repairing roads and railways. Some of this work continued after the Armistice, and this is evident from the photograph.
Whilst the Chinese Labour Corps were not involved in combatant service, it is estimated that 2,000 men died during the war. They are remembered in the French and Belgian war cemeteries and graves can also be found in the United Kingdom.
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