Sunday, August 17, 2014

Chinese Labour Corps and Sons of Africa

Until now, there has been little attention paid to the Chinese Labour Corps that consisted of thousands of labourers in the trenches of the First World War and it is gratifying to see that at last something is being done to remember their contribution to the war effort.

This article from The Guardian leads to a website called Ensuring We Remember that is dedicated to providing a lasting memorial to these forgotten Chinese men who did so much yet have been sidelined by history.

When one reads of how shamefully they were treated, it is even more important that their work and sacrifice is given publicity. Many of these men were simple peasants, and they endured often disgraceful conditions - as per this extract from The Guardian article:
Recruitment of the Chinese began in 1916 as ever escalating casualties meant labourers became disastrously scarce. Many came from such remote farms that when they reached the tall buildings and busy waterfront of Shanghai, they thought they had arrived in Europe. In fact it was only the start of an appalling journey on which many died – by ship across the Pacific, six days crossing Canada in sealed trains to avoid paying landing taxes, on by ship to Liverpool, by train again to Folkestone, and on to France and Belgium, where they lived in labour camps and worked digging trenches, unloading ships and trains, laying tracks and building roads, and repairing tanks. 
Book on the subject. Click here
Some who died on the voyage are buried in Liverpool, and 2,000 more lie in Commonwealth war graves, but some sources believe 20,000 died. They worked 10-hour days, seven days a week, and had three holidays including Chinese New Year. When the war ended and other men went home, they worked on until 1920, clearing live ordnance and exhuming bodies from battlefield burials and moving them to the new war cemeteries.
... when Britain distributed 6 million commemorative medals to all who took part in the war, those received by the Chinese bore only their numbers, not their names, and were bronze, not silver. Painfully symbolically, the Chinese were also painted out of a giant canvas exhibited in Paris at the end of the war. It was believed to be the largest painting in the world, and showed a victorious France surrounded by her allies. It was begun in 1914, but had to be changed in 1917 to include the arrival of the United States – the space was found by painting over the Chinese workers.
It is also important to note that the Chinese weren't the only labourers, that thousands of non-combatant men came from other parts of the world like the West Indies, Africa and India and laboured for both British and German forces and they too are largely forgotten. 

In this connection, it is worth recalling the loss of the SS Mendi off the Isle of Wight in 1917 when up to 650 men, mainly South African labourers, perished. After the war, none of the black men on board SS Mendi received any recognition, not even a war medal, although their white officers were decorated. These wrongs have been progressively righted and the South African government recently instituted the Mendi Medal for Bravery.

The story of the chaplain, Reverend Isaac Dyobha, addressing the men and leading a Death Dance as the ship sank, has become a South African legend ...
'Be quiet and calm, my countrymen ... You are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers. Zulus, Swazis, Pondos, Basothos and all others, let us die like warriors. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war cries my brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais back in the kraals, our voices are left with our bodies.
... and the men took off their boots and stamped out the dance as they went to their deaths. 

One can hardly imagine the extraordinary scene, it is every bit as powerful as the orchestra continuing to play as Titanic slipped beneath the waves.

Memorial to the men of SS Mendi. Copyright Janet Szabo

More details can be read here and here.