Forgotten Faces of the First World War: The Chinese Labour Corps

Forgotten Faces of the First World War: The Chinese Labour Corps

A black and white photo of chinese men who were members of the Chinese Labour Corps
Members of the Chinese Labour Corps. Photo: W J Hawkings Collection, courtesy of John de Lucy.

Our Heritage

Dyddiad a ddyfarnwyd
Awdurdod Lleol
The Meridian Society
Rhoddir y wobr
The Meridian Society and documentary filmmaker Peng Wenlan collected oral histories for a documentary about the Chinese men who worked as labourers on the Western Front during the First World War.

The Chinese Labour Corps (CLC) was the largest group of foreign labourers to assist the Allies during the First World War, but their contributions were almost entirely forgotten.

Peng Wenlan travelled to China to interview descendants of those who served in the corps, and used this material, along with interviews with descendants of their British officers, to produce a documentary.

Britain and France recruited 140,000 men from the Chinese province of Shandong to do manual work behind the front lines in northern France from 1916.

The men worked gruelling 10-hour days. They unloaded guns, built roads and railways, dug trenches and worked in munitions factories. The CLC stayed in France until 1920 to clear the battlefields of debris and bury the dead.

Conditions were harsh, and they were mocked by Europeans who found their language and customs strange. However, the men were well paid, with their families back in China also receiving a regular income.

The Chinese labourers celebrated Chinese New Year with dragon dances, stilt-walking and folk dancing, and some carved Chinese dragons and other intricate traditional designs into shell cases to sell as trench art.

The Meridian Society ran a public events programme to raise awareness of the CLC’s story, including:

  • eighteen screenings of the documentary
  • three museum exhibitions
  • three commemorative events at cemeteries in Folkestone, Liverpool and Plymouth where members of the CLC are buried
  • four training workshops, and 15 educational workshops for adults and children
  • public events at SOAS University of London and the British Library, and a dragon boat race in London

Discover more about the Chinese Labour Corps: