by Stacey Turner, Events and Audience Development Coordinator

In 1916, over 95,000 farm labourers from remote Northern China volunteered to leave their homes. They packed their belongings, said goodbye to their families and began a three-month journey to the Western Front. Many of them would never return.

Men of the Chinese Labour Corps, Caestre on 14 July 1917 CLC © IWM (Q 5891)

Men of the Chinese Labour Corps, with bread they’ve baked at Caestre on 14 July 1917 CLC © IWM (Q 5891)

These men were the Chinese Labour Corps; a forgotten civilian force recruited by the British Army during the First World War. They were to provide essential manual labour in France and Belgium. Eight of these men are now buried at Efford Cemetery, Plymouth and are the largest group of Chinese Labour Corps (CLC) graves in the UK.

Over 9,000 CLC arrived in Devonport and Plymouth between April and July 1917. The men that docked at these ports had spent three months travelling across the Pacific Ocean and, when this proved to increase fatalities, Canada.

Their experience was difficult with overcrowding and malnourishment increasing the spread of disease. The routes taken at sea had been indirect in order to avoid U-boat attacks in the Mediterranean. Canada proved to be just as gruelling. All news outlets were banned from reporting on the trains that carried the CLC and this air of secrecy affected the conditions on board, with the journey often being spent in dark carriages with minimal stops.

Men of the Chinese Labour Corps at work in the timber yard at Caestre, 14 July 1917 CLC © IWM (Q 5895)

Men of the Chinese Labour Corps at work in the timber yard at Caestre, 14 July 1917 CLC © IWM (Q 5895)

It’s no surprise that on arriving in the UK the health of the CLC had been compromised. All eight of the men buried in Efford died from complications as a result of their journey; with dysentery, gastritis, pneumonia and cerebro-spinal fever being listed as causes of death. One disease the British Army had not anticipated was beri-beri, caused by a thiamine deficiency which is often bought on by eating excessive amounts of white ‘polished’ rice. Many of the CLC had only eaten wheat for much of their lives and it was not until lentils and beans were added to rations that the fatal effects of the disease were reduced.

Upon arriving in Plymouth the sick men were taken to Ford House Military Hospital and given full military honours. Their surviving comrades continued to the Western Front via Folkestone. They would endure over three years of manual labour, 10 hours a day, 7 days a week, in one of the most dangerous places in the world. They built roads, dug trenches, cleared unexploded ordnance and repatriated the dead. It’s estimated that over 140,000 CLC men carried out this vital work from 1917 to 1920.

Despite their efforts in the Great War the CLC have never been officially honoured by the British Government. There is no tribute to them among the 40,000 British War memorials. Their descendants were also refused the right to settle once the war had ended and the records of their service were destroyed during the Blitz.

We’ve been working with The Meridian Society to host a series of events in Plymouth to commemorate these eight men and honour the CLC.

On Monday 5 November from 2.30pm to 3.30pm there will be a Service of Commemoration at Efford Cemetery. The event is supported by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The ceremony will be non-denominational and will blend British tradition and Chinese Custom. Anyone who would like to join us to honour the eight men buried there is welcome to come along. The men are:

  • Wu Jinsheng (recorded as Wu Shieng Sheng): died on June 28, 1917 of dysentery at the age of 24
  • Wang Fengzhu (recorded as Wang Feng Chu): died on June 29, 1917 of gastritis at the aged of 37
  • Zhang Enqing (recorded as Chen Chu Chieng): died on June 29, 1917 of beri-beri at the age of 24
  • Wang Peisheng (recorded as Wang Pu Sheng): died on July 3, 1917 of gastritis at the aged 45
CLC graves at Efford Cemetery, Plymouth

Clockwise from top L: the graves of Wu Jinsheng, Wang Fengzhu, Zhang Enqing and Wang Peisheng at Efford Cemetery.

  • Wang Defu (recorded as Wang Te Fu): died on July 3, 1917 of beri-beri at the aged 30
  • Song Jinglong (recorded as Sung Ching Lung): died on July 7, 1917 of beri-beri at the age of 23
  • Yang Meilin (recorded as Yang Wu Lin): died on August 3, 1917 of pneumonia
  • Sun Yuchen (recorded as Shun Yu Tsai): died on August 22, 1917 of cerebro-spinal fever at the age of 30
CLC graves at Efford Cemetery, Plymouth

Clockwise from top L: The graves of Wang Defu, Song Jinglong, Yang Meilin and Sun Yuchen at Efford Cemetery.

If you’re interested in finding out even more about the CLC, the Meridian Society are hosting an evening film screening called ‘Forgotten Faces of the Great War – The Chinese Labour Corps’ at the Council House on Thursday 25 October. Find out more here.

Families can also learn about the CLC at a special ‘Calligraphy and Drama’ workshop on Saturday 20 October at the Mayflower Museum. Find out about this here.

You can also see an exhibition at the Devonport Naval Heritage Centre on 17 (9am-4pm), 19 (9am-1pm), 24 (9am-4pm) and 26 October (9am-1pm) called ‘A Good Reputation Endures Forever’. The exhibition includes photographs, documents and artefacts from the Oriental Museum of Durham University and the Meridian Society. Book a free ticket here. There will also be a talk and film screening from 6pm on Thursday 18 October.