When the allied powers ran out of men, they turned to China for help.
From 1916 until the end of World War I in 1918, up to half a million Chinese people worked for British, French, and Russian forces on the front lines of a war they had no stake in fighting.
They dug trenches, repaired tanks, assembled artillery shells, and transported munitions. They cooked, cleaned, and buried the dead.
They were part of the largest and longest-serving non-European labor force in World War I, and their story had largely been forgotten, but it is now slowly being rediscovered a century later.
Many of the survivors returned home with savings, but without the recognition that came to the troops they served. Those who remained in Europe set up immigrant communities in Paris, London, and elsewhere.
Chinese workers helped rebuild war-torn Europe, says Xu Guoqi, a history professor at Hong Kong University who documented their stories in Strangers on the Western Front. About 140,000 worked for British and French troops, according to his research. Another 200,000 labored on the eastern front for Russia, according to Mark O’Neill, author of From the Tsar’s Railway to the Bolshevik Revolution.
When the war began in 1914, China officially declared its neutrality. But in secret, the president at the time, Yuan Shikai, wanted to enter the conflict to demonstrate his country’s might on the world stage.
He lobbied the British to let China join their side, but the British refused, worried that it would affect their economic interests in the country.
As the war took its toll on the Europeans, China again approached the allied powers with a proposal: it would not send soldiers, but it could send workers.
In August 1916, the first batch of laborers left for Marseille in southern France. Most of them were illiterate farmers from the northern provinces of Shandong and Hebei.
Thousands never made it to their destinations, dying aboard ships in German submarine attacks or succumbing to the bitter cold in Russia. Many others died on the front lines.
To avoid further attacks, the United Kingdom shipped more than 84,000 Chinese laborers through Canada in a campaign kept secret for years.
“They were herded like so much cattle in cars,” The Halifax Herald reported in 1920, “forbidden to leave the train and guarded like criminals.”
By 1919, a year after the war ended, the laborers had taken home 6 million British pounds in savings, roughly $2 billion today, according to the South China Morning Post.
There was hope that the workers, equipped with valuable technical knowledge, would help develop China’s economy when they returned home.
“The best ones, who may be able to learn about the management of French factories, can become excellent managers in China when they return,” China’s ambassador to France, Hu Weide, wrote at the time.
Instead, they returned to a divided country with an economy in ruins. One laborer, Dai Chuanxin, a wheat farmer who left Shandong province to work for French troops in Europe, returned to poverty in the same village. He eventually swapped his war medal for food, says his grandson, Dai Hongyu.
About 3,000 laborers remained in France and formed Chinatowns there. In his memoirs, Belgian priest Achiel van Walleghem noted how shopkeepers had started to learn Chinese to cater to these new customers, and video footage preserved at the Imperial War Museum in London shows Chinese workers in France performing traditional opera and stilt dances.
For nearly a century, the stories of these Chinese laborers remained hidden, but in the past decade, there have been efforts to recognize their contributions to the war.
In 2014, to commemorate 100 years since the start of the war, France’s defense minister laid a wreath at a commemorative stele in Paris’ Chinatown to honor their efforts.
At this year’s commemoration of the 100th anniversary since the end of the war, the United Kingdom gave a military send-off to five Chinese men who died while working in Liverpool.
A commemorative stele, to be erected in London, is in the works to honor the entire labor corps.
Adapted from an original article first published in the South China Morning Post.