One of the rarely told stories of WW1, how over 140,000 Chinese travelled to Europe to support the Allied forces is the subject of a fascinating exhibition at the Brunei Gallery in central London.

The exhibition, based on a collection of photographs taken by Lt W J Hawkings between 1917 to 1919, gives a rare and remarkable look at the life of Chinese labourers in France during the war.

It’s a famous saying that an army marches on its stomach, and an often overlooked aspect of war is the logistics to get guns and food to the frontline. Both France and Britain were facing severe labour shortages keeping their war effort active as working men were being sent to the front line – while civil war and floods in China meant there was a large workforce desperate for work.

For diplomatic reasons, the supply of Chinese labourers to the war effort was not national governments working together, but private commercial agreements where the Chinese were recruited to work on the supply lines by British and French employers.

In France, the British contingent of Chinese Labour Corps took over many of the logistical tasks from unloading ships to loading trains, all under the eye of British military officers.

It wasn’t just logistics though – the more skilled workers were sent to factories, such as one repairing tanks damaged in battle. How many people realise that many of the British tanks were repaired by Chinese hands?

Although their contracts were for a seven-day week, this was reduced to six-days so that the men could relax, and the exhibition shows off many photographs of kite making and theatrical performances. The photos look typically Chinese in style, and then you spot the unmistakable presence of a British officer, all smartly booted and big moustaches in the corner.

It’s this mixing of cultures that the exhibition does such a good job of showing off, from the British — by the standards of the time — approval of their “Coolies” work ethic, to providing Chinese facilities, and a forbearance for the Chinese addiction to gambling away their wages.

Dotted around the exhibition is something very different – Trench Art — lots of munitions shells that have been engraved to often quite astonishing levels of artistry. The sizes of the munitions themselves also being a reminder of how devastating the war was, with some of those containers carrying huge amounts of explosive.

And yet here, they’re art.

Trench art often appears on the Antiques Roadshow, but usually Allied or enemy works from the soldiers. Has the show ever had someone turn up with a Chinese work? I doubt it.

After the war, it seems sadly, if all too typically for the time, there was little regard for the foreign workers.

French people returning home were sometimes hostile, British officers who had come to respect the Chinese workers were moved away and replaced by less enlightened officers, and the journey home via Canada was an ignoble affair. After the war, all of them were sent medals in memory of their service, not handed to them in person in a ceremony befitting the event as would happen for a soldier, but simply sent in the post.

The Chinese Cemetary at Noyelles-sur-Mer on the Somme contains 838 graves, while almost a thousand other men from the Chinese Labour Corps are buried in Commonwealth War Graves elsewhere in France.

In the UK, 17 are buried, at Plymouth, Folkstone and Liverpool.

The Chinese contribution to the Allied war effort is little known. It’s not taught in schools, not commemorated on Armistice Day, and no Hollywood movies mention it. In a final affront, a huge painting — the Panthéon de la Guerre — painted to celebrate the (at the time hoped for) victory later had the Chinese allies painted over with a huge flag for the USA.

This is an exhibition that’s not just fascinating to visit to learn about the Chinese support for the Allies, but one that tells a story of a forgotten sacrifice made on our behalf and you should visit it for that alone.

The exhibition, Western Front – Eastern Promises is open at the Brunei Gallery until 12th December. The gallery is open Tues-Sat and entry is free. You need to book a ticket in advance from here.

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5 comments on “The forgotten story of Chinese aid for the British in WW1
  1. Andrew says:

    At my age I am surprised at little, but I had no idea at all about Chinese in Europe during WWI. Thank you for educating me.

  2. John Allan says:

    I read somewhere that the Chinese were tasked with collecting the battlefield dead from their shallow , muddy ,graves after the Armistice and re burying them in War Cemeteries.
    If so, they deserve our thanks for what must have been a horrible task.

  3. Paul Chapman says:

    The 100,000 Chinese men were mostly shipped in from Shandong where they were noted for their strength and endurance. Apparently the first shipload were torpedoed in the Med and 600 men were lost. I am very interested in the kite making photos…Weifang in Shandong is noted as a specialist kite making centre. I am in the process of writing a history of Chinese Kites and would love to be able to commemorate their contribution and use a photo. Would that be possible? Unfortunately I am in Bristol and can’t get to London because of the coronavirus.

  4. Leslie says:

    Actually got a couple of shells myself smaller ones about 3″diameter by 12″ long done by my
    greatgrandfather I remember because my father actually seen him hammer out design, Shamrock (he had volunteered for 36Ulster Division) 4 in total the longer ones went who knows were! But chuffed we’ve got these.But have to say work on Chinese ones brilliant, really elaborate and intricate they must have been very patient and skilled men!

  5. jason leahy says:

    The documentary Britain’s Forgotten Army on all 4/channel 4 is about the 140,000 Chinese workers in WW1. https://www.channel4.com/programmes/britains-forgotten-army/on-demand/66287-001

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