Centenary of the
End of World War I
Members of Chinese Labour Corps at William Head, outside Victoria, BC,
by train across Canada and then by ship to Europe.
Peoples' Resistance in World War One
Conscription of Indians by the British
• Chinese Labour Corps
Workers from the Colonies
Colonial Peoples' Resistance in World War One
The imperialist warmongers today continue to propagate
disinformation that the colonial peoples from Africa, Asia, the
Middle East and the Caribbean were enthusiastic to serve in the armies
of their imperialist overlords in World War One.
This is entirely self-serving because it covers up that the
peoples from around the world who were living under the yoke of
British, French, Belgian, German, Japanese and other
colonizers, were being terrorized, enslaved and exploited, their
resources stolen and their striving for independence and
self-determination criminalized. They were not enthusiastic, to
say the least, for their youth to be used as cannon fodder in an
imperialist war between rival European powers.
With the outbreak of World War I, some 4,000,000 people
in the colonial empires of the belligerent countries in Africa, Asia
and elsewhere, were automatically at war too. From Germany's African
colonies 200,000 porters were conscripted, from France's African
colonies 450,000 soldiers. Not only were troops from the colonies in
Africa and Asia conscripted to fight in Europe, but military
engagements took place in Africa and Asia, including the so-called
Middle East, making it a truly global conflict. In East Africa alone it
is estimated that 1,000,000 people were killed in the war.
Speaking in 1925, the great leader of the Vietnamese
Ho Chi Minh, noted that the 100,000 Indochinese people who
participated in World War One -- half in the French army and the
other half as non-combatant labourers -- "were taken in chains ...
most of them to never again see the sun of their
There has been little enthusiasm among the warmongers,
including in Canada, to tell the truth about the colonial
peoples' resistance in and to the First World War, in order to
justify war and occupation of these former colonial countries
today. The reality is that there were many small and large acts
of resistance against the attempts of the British, French, German
and other colonizers to force the people they oppressed to
participate in their bloody imperialist war. Still, some four
million combat and non-combat participants from Asia, Africa, the
Middle East and the Caribbean were involved in the First World
War, drawn from the poorest of the poor, the unemployed and
illiterate in the colonies. For example, more than 90 per cent
of the Indian troops who were involved in the war were poor
In the period following the November 11, 1918 armistice,
the victorious powers redivided the world between themselves, at the
expense of the Ottoman Empire and Germany and especially the colonial
peoples living there. In Africa, Germany's colonies were handed over to
Britain and France, or in the case of German Kamerun and Togoland
divided between them. Far from being the war to end all wars, World War
I perpetuated the colonial system, denied nations the right to
self-determination and sowed the seeds of future conflicts and wars in
Europe and globally.
Resistance and Rebellion in Africa
Of the many acts of rebellion by the African peoples to
First World War, two stand out.
The Chilembwe Uprising
John Chilembwe, Baptist church minister,
pictured on left.
former Nyasaland, now
Malawi. He was well aware of and spoke out against the abuses of the
British colonialists against his people -- the theft of their lands,
the brutal exploitation of African labour and abusive labour practices,
including flogging and overwork of plantation workers. Following the
outbreak of the First World War, in October 1914, Chilembwe wrote a
letter to the editor
of the Nyasaland Times on
behalf of chiefs, headmen
and elders, to express the people's objections to being drawn into the
British war effort. It said in part, "I hear that, war has broken out
between you and other nations, only whitemen, I request, therefore, not
to recruit more of my countrymen, my brothers who do not know the cause
of your fight, who indeed, have nothing to do with it ... It is better
to recruit white planters, traders, missionaries and other white
settlers in the country, who are, indeed, of much value and who also
know the cause of this war and have something to do with it." The
letter was rejected by the censor.
recruitment of local youth for the war by the British ultimately led to
Chilembwe and members of his congregation, which included local
teachers, taking up arms against the British, in what would become
known as the Chilembwe Uprising.
On January 23, 1915, Chilembwe
and his followers attacked a local British plantation and also an
arsenal nearby where they seized weapons. The uprising lasted three
days before it was brutally crushed by the British military, resulting
in the summary execution of some 40 of the insurgents and the
imprisonment of more than 300. Chilembwe himself was shot dead as he
attempted to seek refuge in nearby Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique).
An inquiry into the uprising carried out by the British colonial
authorities confirmed that the local British plantations had treated
their workers as slave labour and punished their workers with impunity.
The memory of the Chilembwe Uprising inspired the people of the region
in their anti-colonial fight against British imperialism in the coming
British military brutally crushed the Chilembwe uprising and executed
40 of those
When the First World War
out, the French needed recruits for the front. They
were keen first of all to recruit Africans including from Algeria
and Morocco. When the French introduced conscription in West Africa,
the people rose up against them. French colonial administrators
spent much of their time during the war trying to neutralize the
people's resistance to conscription. Africans in the French
colonies of West Africa feigned illness, abandoned villages and
took up armed revolt in northern Dahomey (now Benin), north of
Bamako (now in Mali) and in the southern desert of French Sudan
(now in Niger).
One of the main acts of resistance to French
during the war was the Volta-Bani Uprising against conscription
which began in 1915 when a few villages in the area united
against the French. At its height in 1916, the rebels numbered
from 15,000 to 20,000 men who fought on several fronts and struck
terror in the hearts of the colonizers. After about a year and
having been defeated on several occasions, the French took action
and concentrated 6,000 regular army and mercenary troops to put
down the rebellion. The French carried out a "scorched earth"
campaign against the insurgents, sacking and bombarding their
villages and massacring the people, including women and children,
as a warning to others. The leaders were executed and many others
jailed. After the war, to continue their rule by dividing the
people, the French colonizers created the colony of Haute Volta
(now Burkina Faso), by splitting off seven insurgent districts
from the large colony of Haut-Sénégal and Niger.
The Volta-Bani Uprising was one of the key uprisings
the French that served to inspire other such anti-colonial
struggles in the region and in other parts of Africa.
Resistance in Vietnam
Numerous revolts took place in Vietnam, which was part
French Indochina. When the war began, the French
colonialists had been ruling French Indochina with an iron fist
for almost 70 years, exploiting the labour and resources of the
Vietnamese, Cambodian and other peoples of the region which
sparked ongoing armed resistance.
As a measure of the exploitation of the Vietnamese
during the war -- the French levied a "contribution" of 281
million gold francs, which was 60 per cent of the total imposed
on all French colonies, and also forced the Vietnamese to provide
340,000 tons of raw materials which amounted to 34 per cent of
all raw materials supplied by the colonies.
When conscription was imposed by the French in Vietnam,
resistance stepped up. Entire villages refused to cooperate and
often the villagers drove away the recruiting officers. To deal
with this resistance the French suppressed the patriotic
organizations and imprisoned or executed their leaders.
One of the most significant uprisings during this
in the northern Vietnamese province of Thai Nguyen in 1917 where
some 300 Vietnamese soldiers and prison guards revolted and
released 200 political prisoners, who together with several
hundred local people, held the town of Thai Nguyen for several
days till the French arrived with reinforcements and suppressed
the rebellion. The French were never again able to completely
suppress the people's anti-colonial movement in that
Resistance of the Caribbean Soldiers to Racist
While there were many newspapers in the West Indies
spoke out against the First World War as a war of the "Whites"
that did not concern West Indians, by 1915, the British War
Office, anticipating the need for more soldiers for the war
effort, and pressured by the ruling elites in the Caribbean
islands, created the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR)
comprised of workers drawn from Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad,
Guyana and other colonies in the region with the false promise of land
and other rewards following the war. A total of almost 16,000 men
served with this battalion.
Conscientious objector Isaac Hall, who lived in England
in 1916, aptly expressed his countrymen's opposition to the war, when
he declared, "I am a Negro of the African race, born in Jamaica. My
country is divided up among the European Powers (now fighting against
each other) who in turn have oppressed and tyrannized over my
fellow-men. The allies of Great Britain, i.e. Portugal and Belgium,
have been among the worst oppressors, and now that Belgium is invaded I
am about to be compelled to defend her. In view of these circumstances,
and also the fact that I have a moral objection to all wars, I would
sacrifice my rights rather than fight." Hall was tortured and
incarcerated in Pentonville Prison in north London for two years but
refused to renounce his principles.
The racist colonial outlook of the British imperialists
towards the peoples of the Caribbean was such that members of the BWIR
who served in Europe, the Middle East and
Africa, were most often put in service to do construction, labour
and other menial jobs. A small number saw combat duty at the
front. As well, the BWIR soldiers received less pay than their
British counterparts, were housed in the worst quarters, and
suffered various other humiliations.
Members of British West Indian Regiment stacking shells, Ypres, France,
On March 6, 1916, the Verdala, a ship
25 officers and 1,115 soldiers of the third Jamaica contingent of
the BWIR, departed for England. Due to enemy submarine activity
on route, the ship was ordered to make a detour to Halifax,
Canada. On route to Halifax, the ship encountered a blizzard and
because the soldiers were not properly equipped with warm
clothing, some 600 men suffered frostbite and exposure and five
died, a bitter foretelling of things to come. The Halifax
Incident seriously damaged the recruitment campaign, which had to
be temporarily suspended. The recruiters subsequently were forced to
adopt a more vigorous strategy of house-to-house visits and even
had to resort to recruiting from Panama when the U.S. entered the war
in 1917 to replenish the BWIR with new recruits.
Second Battalion of British West Indian Regiment embarking for East
Uprising at Taranto
One of the most militant acts of resistance by the BWIR
occurred on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, at Taranto, a port in
southern Italy and a large logistics point for the British army, where
BWIR ballalions were concentrated for demobilization. Eight BWIR
battalions from France and Italy were joined by three BWIR battalions
from Egypt and Mesopotamia which caused a logistical crisis.
The West Indians were ordered to assist with the
unloading of ships and other labour including cleaning the
latrines for the white soldiers, which they themselves were
barred from using. This led to simmering anger reaching a boiling
point. On December 6, 1918, the men of the 9th Battalion of the
BWIR revolted and attacked their officers. On the same day, 180
BWIR sergeants forwarded a petition to the British Secretary of
State complaining of the pay discrimination, the failure to
increase their separation allowance and protesting that they were
discriminated against regarding promotions.
On December 9, the 10th Battalion downed their tools. A
senior officer who had ordered some BWIR men to clean the
latrines of the Italian Labour Corps was assaulted. In response
to a call for help from the commanders at Taranto, a machine-gun
company and a battalion of the Worcestershire Regiment was
brought in to restore order. The 9th BWIR was disbanded and its
members sent to other battalions and the entire BWIR was
disarmed. Sixty soldiers from the BWIR were charged with mutiny
and those convicted were jailed for up to 20 years. One soldier
was executed by firing squad.
Of significance is that on December 17, 1918, a group
Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) from the BWIR held a meeting to
discuss their rights, self-determination for the nations of the
West Indies and better cooperation. At another meeting one NCO
affirmed that the "black man must have freedom to govern himself
in the West Indies and that if necessary, force and bloodshed
should be used to attain these aims."
They formed an organization called the
Caribbean League to further these goals with its headquarters to
be in Kingston, Jamaica and sub-offices in the other West Indian
The First World War and the experience of the colonial
peoples within it, and the inspiration drawn as a result of the
Russian Revolution, made a qualitative change in consciousness
among the colonial peoples. The war removed any doubt that the
colonial powers were out to seize more wealth and booty for
themselves and that the colonial peoples had to rely on their own
initiative and just cause, to step up their organized resistance
to colonial domination, and advance their struggle for
self-determination, independence and peace.
1. Nguyen Ai Quoc. Le
française. Hanoi, 1962,
pp. 9-22; Joseph Buttinger, Vietnam.
Embattled, (Vol. 1. London: Pall Mall, 1967, pp.
Encyclopedia of the First
Encyclopedia of the First
4. Jacques Enaudeau. "African
War One," Al Jazeera,
September 22, 2014
5. Mahir Saul and Patrick Royer.
West African Challenge
Empire: Culture and History in the Volta-Bani Anti-Colonial War.
Athens: Ohio University Press, 2001, p. 1.
7. "History of
World War One," BBC.
Massive Conscription of Indians by the British
Indian troops in France in 1915.
Once World War I broke out, Britain called on all its
Dominions and colonies for men and materiel. Of these, none bore
a greater burden and sacrifice than India. By the end of the war,
nearly one-and-a-half million soldiers and non-combatants from
India had been brought to the Western Front in Europe and to the
other theatres of war. Of these, around 70,000 were killed, and
tens of thousands more left shell-shocked, blind, crippled or
suffering other severe wounds and mental trauma. India was also
bled dry in terms of foodstuffs and other resources for the war
effort, with disastrous consequences.
At the outbreak of war, the British Indian Army
76,953 British, 193,901 Indians and 45,600 non-combatants. It was
claimed to be a "volunteer" army. Unlike Britain, there was no
conscription in India during the war, though considering the
disastrous effect that colonial plunder and exploitation had had
on the Indian economy, regular pay and subsistence was an offer
many could hardly refuse. It was a disciplined and experienced
army. The British only recruited from what they termed "the
martial races" from northern India: Pathans, Baluchis, Punjabi
Muslims and Sikhs, Nepalese and others. No lower castes were
recruited as soldiers, while thousands were employed for cleaning
and other menial tasks. No Indians could become commissioned
officers, only junior officers of the regiment, while even the
most senior Indian officer was subordinate to the most junior
British officer. Loyalty was primarily to the regiment, which
functioned very much as a "family," the expression being "loyalty
to the salt," to the provider. Regiments were organized on common
regional, religious and linguistic lines, with many soldiers
coming from the same villages. The British were ever-mindful of
the lessons of 1857, when disaffection in the Indian Army was one
factor which led to the First War of Independence.
The first Indian troop ships arrived at Marseilles on
September 26, 1914. They were warmly received by the local
population. By early October two divisions of the Indian Army
were encamped in France. Within just a few weeks they were moved
north to the Western Front. Though winter was setting in, they
did not have adequate clothing. They remained in their thin
cotton khaki drill and sweaters which provided no protection from
the wind, sleet and rain of the dark October and November months.
In fact it was New Year before they were issued with greatcoats,
by which time many had died from cold and frostbite. Initially it
had been considered that the Indian troops would be used as
reserve or garrison troops, but in fact they were sent
straight into the front lines.
Initial enthusiasm soon gave way to despair. The
in the trenches were appalling. As well as the bombing and
incessant shelling, rains brought flooding. Disease was rife.
Trenches collapsed. Frostbite was common. Letters home captured
the situation. A Pathan soldier wrote: "No one who has ever seen
the war will forget it to their last day. Just like a turnip cut
into pieces, so a man is blown to bits by the explosion of a
shell.... All those who came with me have all ceased to exist....
There is no knowing who will win. In taking a hundred yards of
trench, it is like the destruction of the world."
If soldiers were injured, they would be sent to the
and convalescent depots in France. Once recovered, they would be
returned to the front line. A wounded soldier wrote home: "I have
no hope of surviving, as the war is very severe. The wounds get
better in a fortnight and then one is sent back to the
trenches.... The whole world is being sacrificed and there is no
cession. It is not a war but a Mahabharat, the world is being
Despair was compounded by the fact that, while British
soldiers were given regular home leave, no leave was ever given
to the Indian troops. This was constantly asked for but
This despair was noted with concern by the British
authorities. Ever wary of disaffection, they had taken great
care, for instance, to provide separate cooking facilities and
water supplies according to the various religious obligations, as
well as other measures. Strict censorship of letters home was
imposed. Many letters were stopped altogether. In addition great
vigilance was shown by the authorities in preventing what they
termed "seditious literature" reaching the troops. So concerned
were they, for example, about literature from the Ghadar Party
that all mail from San Francisco, Rotterdam and Geneva was
Yet even in such trying circumstances, the Indian
fought with great bravery. This was shown clearly in the battle
to seize a German-held salient at Neuve Chapelle in February
1915. The battle raged over four days of relentless fighting.
General Douglas Haig had believed a prolonged attack would
produce results in the end, even if it meant taking heavy
casualties. Both Indian divisions played a prominent part in the
battle. One Indian soldier killed in action was awarded the
Victoria Cross. In all 4,233 of the Indian Corps were killed,
mainly from the heavy German artillery bombardment. Neuve
Chapelle was taken. But in the four days of intense fighting and
thousands of casualties, only 1,500 metres was gained.
Subsequently Haig's report and numerous books written about the
battle, including the British state's History
scant if any mention
of the contribution of the Indian troops.
The Battle of Loos in September 1915 was to be one of
last major operations undertaken by the whole Indian Corps on the
Western Front. The battle raged for two weeks, yet no gains were
made. Casualties were high, with most battalions reduced to fewer
than a hundred. At the end of the year, having endured a second
winter in the trenches, the bulk of the Indian Corps were moved
to other theatres of war -- the Middle East, Gallipoli and Africa.
In early 1917, further Indian troops were recruited for these
theatres, where casualties had been high and reinforcements were
urgently needed. The Secretary of State for India had asked the
Viceroy to raise no less than an additional 100,000 troops by the
Spring of 1918 to fight the Turks. Only the cavalry would remain
on the Western Front until 1918, and the sappers and miners until
1919, clearing mines.
Indian troops headed for East Africa, 1917
In the summer of 1916, Haig amassed over a million
in the Somme for a major onslaught on the German lines. The
Indian Cavalry would bear the brunt of the operation. In the
first few hours alone British troops and their allies, with the
Indians to the front, took nearly 60,000 casualties with 20,000
dead. Despite the casualties, Haig ordered the action to
continue. The battle raged until mid-November. The total number
of dead was 1.3 million. The allies had advanced six miles.
Though reports in the newspapers continued for months, few
mentioned the Indian Cavalry.
Official postcard of Brighton hospital sent to India painted false
Great publicity was done by the British authorities
regarding the hospitals provided for wounded Indian soldiers in
England, the care to observe religious rites, and the amenities
provided. It was even claimed that the King of England had handed
over one of his palaces, the Brighton Pavilion, for conversion
into a hospital. This was a blatant lie, since Brighton Council
had been its owners for over 50 years. Nearly 120,000 carefully
stage-managed postcards of the hospital were distributed and over
20,000 souvenir booklets sent to India. The reality, however, was
otherwise. The Pavilion and other hospitals were surrounded by
barbed wire. Kitchener's Hospital, the former Brighton Workhouse,
was described in one letter home as "Kitchener's Hospital Jail."
No English nurses were allowed to treat the patients, only to
carry out supervisory roles. There was no fraternization. Outside
activities were limited and under heavy supervision. Visits to
the patients were only allowed with passes and under scrutiny, to
guard against what were termed "Indian nationalists." Only those
with the most severe injuries were returned to India. The others
were sent back to the front. Self-harm and suicide were common.
Letters home revealed many complaints about the food and the
treatment. Many expressed the suspicion that the Indians were
being sacrificed as "cannon fodder." Some urged their relatives
at home: "Do not enlist!"
The Jallianwala Bagh massacre took place in Amritsar, April 13, 1919.
Today the site commemorates all those who were killed there under
The war was brought to a close with the Armistice of
November 11, 1918, the October Revolution in Russia the previous
year being a major factor in bringing peace. The Peace Conference
convened in Paris in January 1919, was to last six months, and
conclude with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. India had
three delegates at the Conference, the Secretary of State for
India, Edward Montagu, the Maharaja of Bikaner and Lord Sinha.
All three shared a vision of India eventually governing itself,
but within the British Empire, with Sinha commenting that Britain
must remain "the paramount power."
Back in India the intellectual elite had backed the war
expecting concessions as a reward for the sacrifices made. But
they were to be bitterly disappointed. The Government of India
Act of 1919 only consolidated colonial rule.
The war had had a devastating effect on India. Crops
failed, prices were high and a spirit of unrest was growing.
Famine had been declared in Central India. The greatest unrest
was in the Punjab. Severe hardship was occurring in the cities.
There was great anger at the seizure of foodstuffs for the war
effort under the Defence of the Realm Act. War weariness
gripped the region, which had sent the most combatants to the
front. Villages were mourning the dead and tending the
The response of the British Government was the Rowlatt
Act, passed in London in March 1919. It banned public
meetings and muzzled the press. It authorized in camera trials
without jury. Persons suspected of revolutionary activity were
imprisoned without trial for up to two years. Protests were put
down by troops with lethal force.
On April 11, 1919, General Reginald Dyer occupied
imposing a curfew and banning all gatherings. A proclamation to
that effect was read out on April 13. That day was the festival
of Baisaki, the Sikh New Year. Crowds had gathered at the Golden
Temple in a festive mood. Nearby was the enclosed park called
Jallianwala Bagh. Thousands had gathered there peacefully at a
rally to discuss the Rowlatt Act and recent police
killings. As is now well known, Dyer brought armed troops in
through the single narrow entrance to the park and opened fire on
the crowd, ordering his troops to keep firing until their
ammunition was exhausted. There was no escape. Around 1,000 were
killed and some 1,500 wounded.
The Jallianwala Bagh massacre shocked and enraged the
country. Barely five months from the end of the war, in which
400,000 Punjabis had fought, this was Britain's reward. Dyer was
unrepentant. The massacre was followed by the bombing of Punjab
cities, the extension of martial law and further repression. In
London, the report to the War Cabinet for that week barely
mentioned the event, simply stating that there had been "trouble"
at Amritsar where "troops were called in to restore order." No
mention was made of the killings. It was not raised at the Peace
Conference in Paris either.
The troop ships returned to Bombay and Karachi. Bands
but there was no heroes' welcome. Too many had died. Too many were
crippled, blind or shell-shocked. Some hospitals for the wounded
and limbless were set up, but of little help to those returning
to remote regions. Crops had failed. Unrest was rife. A new mood
of nationalism was growing in the country. The heroes would now
be of the Independence or Freedom Movement. In the British
official histories of the war there would be little mention of
the Indian soldiers who had made such sacrifice.
1. The reference is to the 109
volumes known as History of the
Great War Based on Official Documents by Direction of the Committee of
Imperial Defence, abbreviated to History of the Great War or British Official History.
Chinese Labour Corps and Other
Close to 10 million soldiers died in the First World
By 1916, two years into the war, the British imperialists and
other belligerents, including Czarist Russia, had not only suffered
massive troop losses, they were facing a labour crisis as all
able-bodied men were being sent to the front. The imperialists
had not taken into account the quantity of labour required for
logistical support in the war, nor had they anticipated the
massive number of casualties. Workers were desperately needed to
dig ditches and trenches, build roads, clean guns, tanks and
weapons, bury the dead, remove barb-wire, transport ammunition
and other supplies as well as do other tasks.
The solution found was the creation of the Chinese
Corps (CLC) which, along with hundreds of thousands of other
similar non-combatant corps from Africa, Asia, and the West
Indies, played a huge role in the war.
The Chinese government in 1915 had secretly approached
Britain, France and Russia with a scheme to supply non-combat
workers for the war with the understanding that China would have
a seat at any post-war negotiations. The French and British
agreed but, as it turned out, had no intention of keeping their
The Chinese Labour Corps was comprised of the most
impoverished workers and peasants from a China that was being
bled dry through foreign domination and exploitation led by the
British imperialists who paid for their trade with China in opium
imported from India. From 1839-1842 the British colonizers
launched the so-called Opium Wars and with the Treaty of Nanking
in 1842, "opened up" China to foreign powers including France,
Russia and Japan.
The Chinese Labour Corps numbered close to 140,000 men
served in France and Belgium. This does not take into account
another estimated close to half-a-million Chinese who served with
the Czarist army on the Russian front. Of the CLC, close to
100,000 workers were secretly transported to Europe via Canada in
order to avoid the German U-boats and submarines that were
menacing English and French ships.
Hundreds of these workers died on the way to Europe.
example, in his 2011 book, Strangers on the Western Front:
Chinese Workers in the Great War, Hong Kong University
historian Xu Guoqi cites that up to 600 workers died on February
17, 1917 when the ship that was transporting them to France, was
torpedoed off the coast of Malta. It is also estimated that
thousands died on the overland journey from China to the Russian
front. It is estimated that some 3,000 Chinese workers died
during the war in France and Belgium while up to 30,000 perished
on the Russian front.
Journey Through Canada
Chinese Labour Corps members disembarking from trains at a camp in
The Empress of Russia, the first ship of CLC
labourers, arrived at William Head immigration processing centre
on the BC coast near Victoria on April 2, 1917, carrying more
than 2,000 Chinese workers. They were immediately quarantined for
two weeks. Soon other ships from China arrived and the numbers of
CLC workers at William Head swelled to 30,000 and the cramped quarters
they were confined to created
sanitation and other problems. The Canadian military then got the
Chinese workers to create a "Coolie Camp" where they were held
under guard till they were checked and processed for health and
From William Head, members of the Chinese Labour Corps
on smaller vessels across the Strait of Georgia to Vancouver and
from there were transported across Canada by rail to Halifax and
St. John, the embarkation points from where they sailed for
The CLC workers travelled across Canada in special
the cars sealed and under armed guard. The Borden Conservative
government aimed to ensure that Canadians did not know about
these men being treated like convicts, nor did it want the
Chinese citizens and residents in Canada to have any contact with
the workers. There was also the suspicion that among these
workers were spies working for the Germans. "They were herded
like so much cattle in cars, forbidden to leave the train and
guarded like criminals," the Halifax Herald reported in
1920, when transports had ended and Canada relaxed its censorship
of the press after the end of the war.
Left: Chinese Labour Corps in France. Right: working on road
construction on the western front.
Once in Europe, the CLC workers came under the authority
the British Directorate of Labour which assigned them to various
branches of the military. By this time in the war, the British
were dealing very harshly with those whose minds had snapped
under pressure or fled the battlefield. This was doubly so for
the Chinese and other colonial non-combatants. For the CLC
workers, many of whom came from the far reaches of China, and had
never left their villages, being in the front lines of the First
World War digging trenches in the midst of falling German shells
and bombs was a traumatic experience. On
Christmas Day 1917, a large mutiny by members of the CLC
protesting their working conditions was put down by the Royal
Welsh Fusiliers. Nine of the workers were executed by firing
squad and others court-martialled.
Following the war, most of the CLC workers were
China. Some remained in Europe and settled in France, Belgium and
England. It is significant that a large number of the Chinese who
were stranded in Russia when the Russian revolution ended the
Czarist Russia's participation in the war, joined the Red Army
and became part of the Russian revolution along with hundreds of
Koreans and others.
Recruitment of Other Non-Combatant Workers
Porters, members of the 2nd Road Corps in the Chikukwe swamp.
Besides the more than half million Chinese workers who
recruited for non-combatant duties in World War One, Britain and
France recruited other workers as well. For example, it is
estimated that more than 600,000 Indians were involved in
non-combat roles in the war.
Britain also recruited some 1,000 workers from
8,000 from the West Indies, 31,000 from South Africa and 82,000
from Egypt and deployed them in Europe and elsewhere.
Besides some 37,000 Chinese, the French recruited
workers from Madagascar, 18,000 from Tunisia, 35,000 from
Morocco, 49,000 from Indochina and 76,000 from Algeria and used
them on the docks of France, on ships and in other services.
The contributions of these workers -- the CLC, the
who served on the Russian front, the more than half-a-million
Indians, and some half a million others from the colonies in
Africa, Asia and the Caribbean were critical. It is the
pro-imperialist rendering of history by the imperialist powers
and their allies like Canada today that have continued to
diminish the true history and decisive role these workers played
in the First World War -- so as to continue to glorify the
contribution of the "civilized nations" over the "uncivilized"
and to interfere in the internal affairs of other sovereign
nations in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean
1. "The forgotten army of the
first world war: How
labourers helped shape Europe," South
China Post, July 24,
2. Peter Johnson. Quarantined: Life and Death at
Victoria: Heritage House Publishing Company,
3. Nicholas J. Griffin.
"Britain's Chinese Labour
World War I." Military Affairs
40, no. 3 (October 1976),
4. Brian Murphy. Rostov in the Russian Civil War,
The Key to Victory. London: Routledge, 2005, p. 154.
5. War Office, "Statistics of
the military effort of the
British Empire during the Great War, 1914-1920," London:
1922, p. 777.
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