Among the 600.000 victims were Chinese labourers who came to the Western Front in 1916 to help behind the front by loading trains, building roads and cleaning the battlefields.
The Chinese labour corps
As early as June 1915, the Chinese government had offered to send Chinese workers to Europe to help the Allies. The British government originally rejected the proposal, but changed its mind in the autumn of 1916, when the heavy losses at the Somme led to an acute shortage of labour. In sending workers to the Western Front, the Chinese Republic, founded in 1911, had two objectives in mind. It hoped that its participation would convince the European powers that China was, once and for all, on its way to becoming a modern nation and that it would in future abide by the international rules of the game and could be a reliable partner. In addition, the Chinese authorities hoped to secure a place at the post-war peace conference, at which the future of the German concessions in China would be decided. China’s rival Japan had already, at the outbreak of the war, invoked its military alliance with the United Kingdom and occupied the strategically important German concessions on the northern Chinese peninsula of Shandong.
Practical considerations led the British to concentrate their recruiting for the Chinese Labour Corps in Weihaiwei and, later, Qingdao, two concessions on the northern peninsula of Shandong. The conditions were attractive enough to motivate many tens of thousands, most of them poor peasants, to travel to Europe.
The first Chinese labourers arrived in 1916 on the Western Front. They were in service of the French Army and counted 40,000 people.
In april 1917 arrived another 95,000 people joining the British army. They called them the Chinese Labour corps. The last repatriation was in September 1920.
In all, 1,834 Chinese died on the Western Front and 279 died during the sea crossing, while 32 Chinese were listed as missing.
The Chinese in Poperinge
In July 1917 the first Chinese arrived in Poperinge, the hub of the logistics sector in Flanders Fields, where they were housed in separate labour camps set up on the outskirts of the town.
The Chinese were a specific group within the British Labour Corps. They were deployed for the loading of ammunition and goods trains in the sorting station, for the building of roads, and in ammunition depots. Their contracts were not terminated when the war came to an end: they would remain active in the Flanders Fields district until 1919, helping to clear the battlefields, to dismantle railway lines, and to dig up and remove bodies.
The arrival of the Chinese labourers was a culture shock for the inhabitants of Poperinge. The Chinese stayed in the camps but also came into town to do their shopping. The perception was negative. The Chinese were considered uncouth, dirty, and loud; they were seen as thieves and even murderers. The local accounts of the time were coloured by that perception: “They are strange and very childish, no better than our 10- or 11-year-old boys. Their favourite activity is to stare at the shop windows, preferably sweet and fruit shops, and when they see something they like, they go into the shop, at least ten of them at the same time, ask the price of everything, and if they feel like buying something, they are very suspicious that they might be taken advantage of.” (Van Walleghem diary, August 1917).
In René Matton’s studio, photographs were taken of workers who were based in Proven (Poperinge). Here, Matton’s son Maurice is portrayed in a playful way. The text in front of Maurice is a bastardisation of the Chinese “Che pupe now goedze” which means “The little one who likes to run amock“. The board to the right, in semi-literary Chinese, identifies the man as No. 19693 Song Xiufeng. The objects on the floor suggest offerings for the Chinese Child-God.
Places with Chinese connections in Flanders Fields
A total of 85 Chinese workers are buried in the WWI Commonwealth cemeteries in Flanders. The largest concentration of Chinese graves in Flanders is at Lijssenthoek cemetery, where 35 members of the Chinese Labour Corps are buried. The cemetery was situated next to the hospital at Remy Siding. Chinese workers were also treated in this hospital. Their numbers increased in the spring of 1919 and at certain times the numbers of Chinese patients peaked at 150, most of whom were suffering from the Spanish flu or pneumonia.
Other cemeteries where Chinese labourers were buried are:
- Reninghelst New Military Cemetery: 7 graves
- Mendighem Military Cemetery: 8 graves
- Haringhe (Bandaghem) Military Cemetery: 4 graves
- Gwalia Cemetery: 4 graves
- Poperinge New Military Cemetery: 1 grave
- Poperinge Old Military Cemetery: 1 grave
The thirteen of Busseboom memorial
On 15 November 1917, thirteen Chinese labourers lost their lives in a direct shell hit on the camp in Busseboom (Poperinge). They were buried near the Roobaertbeek stream; later, their bodies were exhumed and transferred to Bailleul. Research into those thirteen Chinese workers has yielded not only their names, but also contact with the families in China.
On 15 November 2017, a memorial was unveiled at Busseboom to remember the fallen labourers.
Location: at the corner of St-Jansstraat and Visserijmolenstraat, Poperinge.