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The Chinese labor force on the Western Front

Reporter: Jack Barton 丨 CCTV.com

07-28-2014 18:12 BJT

During the First World War, China had the largest of the non-European workforces on the Western Front. CCTV’s Jack Barton visited the battlefields to explore the legacy of the Chinese Labour Corps who would help set the course of history, in Europe and at home.

The Somme region in northern France… a quiet rural landscape that once paid witness to some of the most brutal battles of the First World War.

The grim reminders of that war dot the landscape every few kilometers… cemeteries containing the remains of those who fought as well as non-combatants, such as men from the Chinese Labour Corps.

“There were some 140,000 Chinese laborers sent from China, from Mainland China, to France and the Western Front,”historian from Flanders Fields Museum said.

Historians say the allied armies soon ran short of manpower with tens of thousands of Europeans dying in the trenches… sometimes on a single day.

“At that very same moment the new Chinese republic offers to join the allies. Not by sending troops, but by sending laborers,”Dominiek Dendooven said.

The men who arrived were not supposed to work on the frontline, but with the recent inventions of planes, modern artillery and chemical warfare nowhere was safe.

“About 3000 were killed, of which about 1,800 have known graves,”Dr. Philip Vanhaelemeersch, Director of Confucius Institute, said.

Those graves range from a half a dozen men to this, the largest at Noyelles-sur-Mer, which served as their headquarters.

This cemetery contains the remains of 842 members of the Chinese Labour Corps. Some died on the battlefield, others from the influenza that swept across Europe in the years after the war.

The men helped turn the tide against the Germans and ensured China was a signatory of the armistice treaty.

“They expected to get compensation for their territorial losses during the war, particularly Shandong, but to their surprise they arrived at the peace conference to find out everything had been arranged before hand,” Dr. Philip Vanhaelemeersch said.

“And because China was really humiliated by the other allies, including Japan, particularly Japan, the Chinese government refused to sign the treaty, but it also, as a reaction to the humiliation, it caused the May 4 movement in China which would galvanize modern Chinese nationalism,” Dominiek Dendooven said.

So these are the men who helped set the course of modern Europe and China and whose legacy, after one hundred years, is only now being fully understood and appreciated.

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