China in the Great War

Betrayed Ally: China in the Great War

By Frances Wood & Christopher Arnander

Pen and Sword (2016)

£19.99 ISBN 978-1-47387-501-2

182pp 108 b/w photos 10 b/w maps & tables


This book seeks to fill a notable gap in the historiography of the 1914-18 world war. Whilst many readers will know that Chinese labourers were active on the Western Front throughout the conflict and indeed for some time afterwards, many will be unaware of the full breadth of China’s involvement. In attempting to fill this gap the scope of this book is hugely ambitious taking in, as it does, the history of foreign involvement in Chinese affairs through the preceding one hundred years, the military actions against German interests in the Far East during the1914-18 period, the impact on the home front within China, the Chinese contribution to the Allied war effort in Western Europe and the post war geo-political legacy.

In this meticulously researched book the authors make two main arguments. Firstly, that the Chinese contribution to the Allied war effort has been hitherto understated and, secondly, that China was severely disadvantaged – ‘betrayed’ - in the Versailles post war settlement because of duplicity on the part of the Allied powers. In the reviewers’ opinion, they succeed in respect of the former but are less convincing in respect of the latter.

The direct contribution of the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC) to the Allied war effort is covered in just twenty-five totally absorbing pages. The role of the CLC went way beyond the provision of logistical support in the communication lines on the Western Front. Chinese labourers played a critical role in back-filling French industrial jobs, helping to dig trenches and dug-outs within the range of enemy artillery and, crucially, in manning the workshops of the Tank Corps. The authors offer a compelling argument that the CLC was an essential pre-requisite of scaled tank deployment in 1918. Furthermore after the conflict finished the CLC played an important role in interring the dead and disposing of battlefield munitions. In considering whether the CLC made a difference it is difficult to finish this chapter without agreeing with the authors that the Chinese contribution was material – perhaps even critical.

The bulk of the book however is concerned with other aspects of the Chinese Great War experience. The first three chapters deal with what the authors characterize as unwarranted interference in Chinese affairs. The authors are heavily invested in the prevailing Chinese narrative of national humiliation – a viewpoint that positions European activity in pre-war China as predominantly exploitative and in variance to Chinese national interest. As the chronology moves into the twentieth century however, the authors’ academic credentials manifest themselves more overtly in a thoroughly convincing overview of Japan’s ambition to subjugate vast areas of Chinese territory. Three more chapters are devoted to the wartime situation in China. The machinations of European diplomats and business leaders in Shanghai and Tianjin make for fascinating reading. Similarly the actions of the German Navy including the thrilling story of the Emden’s cruise which ended in the Cocos Islands are compelling topics. Perhaps the biggest revelation for this reviewer was that British troops served under Japanese command in the successful assault on the German ‘concession’ territory of Tsingtao in November 1914. It was the Japanese retention of Tsingtao after the war that the authors’ cite as the most impactful example of Chinese betrayal and it is this subject which occupies the final 56 pages of this fascinating book.

In the early years of the war the British Government gave repeated indications that they would support the repatriation of Tsingtao to the Chinese notwithstanding the fact that it was the Japanese who had driven the Germans out by means of military force. President Wilson of the USA reinforced this impression in 1918 when he set out what have since become known as the Fourteen Points. Central to this idealistic view of the post war settlement was the idea that nations should have autonomy and that colonial claims must be settled. Wood and Arnander make the argument that the allied powers reneged on this undertaking and in doing so fatally wounded Chinese political stability and national cohesion. The result was, according to the authors, a catastrophic outcome for China in the 1930s and 40s.

The counter-argument which is evident in the facts presented in this book if not in the main argument, is that it is almost inconceivable that the European powers would allow the repatriation of previously ‘occupied’ territory given a strategic reliance on the European concessions for the furtherance of trade in a post war world. Moreover it was only in August 1917, after the USA had joined the Allied cause, that China declared war on Germany. It is perhaps unrealistic to think that such opportunism after considerable prevarication would drive a similar level of influence as Japan who committed early, taking on board a high degree of risk.

The text is supplemented by a couple of informative appendices. The first consists of a useful chronology of recent Chinese history ranging from the start of the Manchu dynasty in 1644 through to the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The second offers a brief biography of all of the key personalities. The narrative is helpfully referenced throughout and the authors have used a wide range of primary and secondary sources – drawing from Chinese as well as European archives, journals and books. Frances Wood studied in Beijing, has written extensively about China and was curator of the Chinese collections at the British Library. Christopher Arnander has a background in public finance and has blended this with an interest in military history. With these impressive credentials it is not surprising that these two experienced writers have produced such an entertaining, thoroughly researched and provocative introductory study of China in the Great War.

 Review by Phil Curme

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