The 140,000 Forgotten Chinese who helped win World War I
Agence France Presse,11th November 2004
France has rediscovered 140,000 forgotten Chinese labourers who helped win World War One for the Allies by clearing mines, repairing roads, unloading ships, but whose contribution went unsung for decades.
Ten thousand never went home. Their remains lie in 30 French graveyards, each headstone marked in Chinese characters, silent witnesses to a shamefully neglected sacrifice.
Between 1915 and 1916, with the conflict at its height between the Allies and the Central Powers Germany and Austro-Hungary, the British recruited more than 100,000 Chinese and their French allies some 38,000, and shipped them to the western front as desperately needed labour to relieve an acute manpower shortage.
Aged between 20 and 35 and hailing from the southeastern Chinese provinces of Hebei, Jiangsu and particularly Shandong, they served as labour in the rear echelons or helped build munitions depots, repair railways and roads, and unloaded ships at Allied ports.
Some worked in armaments factories, others in naval shipyards, for a pittance of three to five francs a day.
At the time they were seen just as cheap labour, not even allowed out of camp to fraternise locally, dismissed as mere coolies.
When the war ended some were used for mine clearance, or to recover the bodies of soldiers and fill in miles of trenches.
"They were despised," said Alfred Duparcq, an elderly local resident of the northern French community of Loos-en-Gohelle near what was then the western front.
"Their work was hard, but they were not even allowed out of their camps to mix with local people.
"My mother was 15 at the time and she told me she was scared of them and even went out of her way to avoid going past the 'Chinese camp,'" said Mr Duparcq, now in his seventies and chairman of a local association to keep alive memories of the Great War, much of whose carnage occurred in France.
After the Armistice, the Chinese, each identified only by an impersonal reference number, were shipped home.
Only about 5,000 to 7,000 stayed on, forming the nucleus of the later Chinese community in Paris, said French China specialist Pierre Picquart.
An estimated 10,000 did not survive, victims of either shelling, landmines, poor treatment or the worldwide Spanish flu epidemic of 1918.
They lie in some 30 graveyards, the largest at Noyelles-sur-Mer on the Somme, where some of the fiercest battles occurred.
The cemetery contains 842 gravestones each engraved with Chinese characters, guarded by two stone lions, gifts from China.
After decades of neglect, the Chinese World War I labourers have again aroused interest in France.
An annual ceremony of tribute has taken place since 2002 at the cemetery at Noyelles-sur-Mer each April to coincide with the Chinese Festival of Qingming, the Festival of the Dead, attended by representatives of the French veterans' associations, the Chinese ambassador to France and members of Chinese associations in France.
A new documentary film, "Journey With no Return," (Voyage sans retour) was shown this month on French television.
And a book, "The Chinese Empire" (L'Empire chinois) by Mr Picquart, contains a description of the fate of the Chinese workers.
Mr Picquart says their story, overlooked for so long, should be writ large in the collective memory.
Speaking ahead of the annual World War I armistice commemoration on November 11, the Paris academic told AFP:
"These men contributed to France's war effort and have a right to be recognised as heroes of the conflict."