Chinese in World War I

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand, an event that would trigger what we know today as World War I. One of the little known stories from the war is the role of 140,000 Chinese laborers on the Western Front.


The Chatham House recently posted an article about these forgotten laborers:

On August 24, 1916, in the middle of the battle of the Somme, a contingent of Chinese workers arrived in France to help the Allied war effort. By the time the war ended in 1918, their numbers had grown to more than 140,000. They dug trenches, unloaded military cargoes in the docks, worked in railway yards and factories, and collected corpses for burial from no man’s land. More than 2,000 paid with their lives.

The story of the Chinese at the Western Front is largely forgotten by Britain and France, both preoccupied with their own suffering, and by successive Chinese governments, which have seen the labourers as victims of colonial exploitation.

Yet, as the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War approaches, scholars in Europe and China are studying their history and reassessing their role in China’s modern history. The Chinese republic’s decision to send non-combatants to the mud and barbed wire of the Western Front is now seen as a first, hesitant step away from centuries of imperial isolationism.

It was a gamble by the republican government, which had only a shaky hold on power three years after the overthrow of the Ch’ing dynasty.

The film was recently shown at Chatham  House House as part of a panel discussion on the Chinese contribution to World War I. The video an be viewed on the Chatham House site, or on YouTube.

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Fascinating stuff!

Image source: Chatham House