A book written by Gerard Oram and published in 1998, entitled 'Death Sentences Passed by Military Courts of the British Army', mentions that '10 Chinese Coolies, four Coloured Labourers and five Camp Followers' were executed by the British Army in the Great War. The author was particularly intrigued to learn more about the circumstances concerning the circumstances and fate of the 10 Chinese labourers.

cooliesIn Oram's book, the Chinese were actually described as eight Coolies and two Labourers. All were executed by a British firing squad - i.e. Shot at Dawn - for murder, or offences relating to murder. As will be seen, by their conditions of employment, the Chinese were all subject to British military discipline. An 11th Chinese, who was not quoted by name, only his coolie number (Anon #4976), committed suicide whilst under sentence of death for murder.

The Chinese death sentences

All the death sentences of the Chinese Coolies were passed between 1918 and 1920, and all the offences took place on the western Front in either France or Belgium in 1918-19. The military justice system on the Western Front tended towards both the expeditious and the drawn-out: the mean time between the commission of the offence and execution was 43 days, with a minimum of 12 days and a maximum of 276 days.

The executed coolies were:

  • 26/06/18. Coolie # 10299. Wang, E.J.
  • 26/06/18. Coolie # 10272. Yang, C.H.
  • 23/07/18. Coolie # 53497. Cheng, S.K.
  • 09/o8/18. Coolie # 46090. Chao, H.I.
  • 12/09/18. Coolie # 42476. Hui, I.H.
  • 15/02/19. Coolie # 5884. Wan, F.Y.
  • 08/05/20. Coolie # 44785. Wang, C.C.
  • 14/02/20. Coolie # 16174. Chang,J.C.
  • 21/02/20. Coolie # 97170. Hei, C.M.
  • 27/02/20. Coolie # 44340. K'ung. C.H.


As per the established British Western Front protocol for the executed, all 10 were buried in marked graves in established Commonwealth War Graves Committee cemeteries located in France and Belgium, namely:

  • Les Baraques Military Cemetery, Rouen, France (5);
  • St. Sever Military Cemetery, Calais, France (3);
  • Poperinghe Old Military Cemetery, Belgium (1)
  • St. Etienne au Mont Community Cemetery, Boulogne, France (1).

Other Chinese who died in British service are buried at the Ayette Indian and Chinese Military Cemetery, France, which is located on the D919 (Arras - Puisieux) road.

The story of the involvement of the Chinese on the British side on the Western Front in the Great War, is as follows.

Genesis of Chinese and other labour corps

On the 30th December 1916 an agreement was signed between the British and the Chinese Governments for the employment of Chinese men for a labour force on the Western Front. From 1917 onwards, large numbers of Chinese (altogether 100,000) were recruited by the British in Shantung Province, China, as volunteers under military discipline. Recruitment in Shantung Province, largely from the town of Weihaiwei, was facilitated by the enrolment of British missionaries, traders and their families as interpreters. The close personal contact these expatriates had with the local Chinese community also proved to be extremely useful in getting the required number of recruits to come forward. The first batch of volunteers left by sea for Le Havre, France, in January 1917 - amid fierce protestations by the Germans from their embassy in Peking - and arrived in April 1917. The initial British Chinese Labour Force encampment on the Western Front was at Noyelles-sur-Mer, on the Somme estuary. It was located on the D40 road about 12km from Abbeville. By the end of 1917 there were 54,000 Chinese in the British Labour Force on the Western Front.

Chinese coolies, and other colonial labourers, were also widely used by the Allies elsewhere. Ten thousand Chinese were employed by the Russians in the construction of a railway linking Murmansk to Petrograd, and 2,000 Chinese and Africans were employed in military installations at Folkestone, in Southern England.

The French military authorities allowed private contractors to hire Chinese and Ammanese (Vietnamese) but the French employment conditions were less regulated and the numbers are less reliable. However, it is known that 15,000 were recruited in 1916 for a Chinese Auxillary Labour Force and were employed in the construction of road works in Northern France.

Conditions of work and pay

Conditions of work for the Chinese Labour Corps on the Western Front was rather onerous even for the time, with contracts stipulating a seven-day working week of 10-hour days. Daily rates of pay for the coolies ranged from 1 to 3 French Francs, with 5 French Francs for supervisors and interpreters. To deter fraud, fingerprints of the entire British Chinese Labour Force were registered by Scotland Yard. Lloyd George, in his memoirs, made particular note of the imperturbability of the Chinese coolies under the harsh and dangerous conditions of war at the Front.

Apart from a few demonstrations demanding better working conditions and food - a notable example being the one at Etaples in 1917 - which were ruthlessly suppressed by British troops, there was generally little in the way violent protest or strikes. From the start there was a mutual understanding that the celebration of certain essential Chinese customs, such as Chinese festivals and the ceremonial disposal of the dead, would be allowed. On the other hand, there was a strict policy of maintaining the segregation of the Labour Force from the military canteens and the civil population, particularly white women. Accordingly, other than when working, the labourers were rigorously contained within their camps.

In all, thirty-two camps were established on the Western Front for the British Chinese Labour Corps. The Corps was headed by Lieutenant-Colonel Faixfax who had been brought back from retirement in 1916 for this specific task. Within these camps efforts were made by the administration to maintain and support Chinese cultural practices. Seven camps, which were located in the Pas de Calais and Somme Departments, were in continuous use for the remaining duration of the war. Special hospitals were established near these camps to serve the British Chinese Labour Corps. The British Chinese Labour Force also participated in the clear-up and recovery operations after the Armistice and sustained many further casualties from unexploded munitions and the like. Almost 80,000 of them were still at work on the former Western Front in May 1919.

Casualties

British Chinese Labour Force deaths totaled 1,612 (i.e. nearly 2%) and these were routinely interred alongside Allied soldiers in 20 military cemeteries across France and Flanders. Two cemeteries were specially designated as having Chinese graves and/or memorials. One, already mentioned, was the Ayette Cemetery that contains the remains of 10 Indian Army soldiers, 42 Indian Labour Corps labourers, 1 German POW, and 27 British and 7 French Labour Corps coolies. The second, located at Nolette on the road to Fliheaucourt has 842 Great War war graves and the Noyelle-sur-Mer Chinese Memorial, commemorating 41 men of the Chinese Labour Force who died on land or sea and who have no known grave*. The Ayette Cemetery is unique in the Western Front Military Cemeteries as it does not have the usual Cross of Sacrifice; a pagoda of eastern design dominates the entrance. A similar oriental-type building in the form of a portico was erected at the Noyelles-sur-Mer cemetery at Nolette. The Noyelle-sur-Mer cemetery was designed by the renowned architect Sir Edwin Lutyens. The second largest British Military Cemetery in Flanders, at Lijssennhoek, contains Chinese Labour Force graves with inscriptions in Chinese. Other similarly inscribed head-stones, usually in both Chinese and English, are found elsewhere on the Western Front and, and in accordance with the practice for Commonwealth Graves, bear one of four standardised Chinese dedications chosen by their relatives and carved by a selected group of their colleagues.

Conclusions

Despite the large numbers of Chinese coolies employed by the British on the Western Front, and elsewhere from April 1917 onwards, there were no capital courts martial of Chinese coolies in 1917 and, thus, no executions in that year. In 1918 seven Chinese coolies were given courts martial sentences for which the death penalty was confirmed and five were executed by shooting. (As related earlier, one of the condemned committed suicide whilst awaiting execution). Two more Chinese coolies/labourers were executed by shooting in 1919** and three more in 1920.

Nevertheless, there is no apparent explanation for the sudden increase of capital crimes in 1918. Perhaps, even the stoic but socially isolated Chinese workers eventually succumbed to traumatic stress disorders brought on by the war and turned to violence, rape and murder in despair and loneliness.

* Neither Rose Coombs nor The Holts make mention of this cemetery, and the Chinese Memorial, in their well known books on the Western Front. Indeed, in Coombs' book, a legend box blots out the whole area of the map where the cemetery is located.

** The execution post on display at Poperinghe Town Hall is said to be that used on 8th May 1919 for Wang Ch'un Ch'ih of the 107th Chinese Labour Corps. He is buried at Poperinghe Old Military Cemetery.

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