Chinese Labour Corps | 23 Aug 1916

Chinese Labour Corps

The story of hired Chinese labourers in the war is about to officially begin. The French government has spent the better part of 18 months working on a scheme to recruit men from China to do labouring work, and so free up French soldiers for duties closer to the firing line. However, in order to preserve the appearance of Chinese neutrality, they’ve used a deeply convoluted cover by which various private companies do all the official business of recruiting. Both governments can then claim that this is a strictly private arrangement and nothing to do with the war effort.

This of course is bullshit. It’s also led to some dangerous infighting; the French Foreign Ministry has organised one effort, the Ministry of War another, and the Ministry of Works a third. Inevitable disagreements will follow between the various government departments as to who will be in charge of the men and who gets to put them to work. When the French trade unions find out, they too will protest against job losses for their members. At one point there had been grand plans to bring over at least 100,000 men; the final figure will be barely a quarter of that.

Meanwhile, at the end of last month the War Office performed a remarkable about turn. Having been utterly opposed to the hiring of Chinese labourers before the Battle of the Somme, it’s now clear that the manpower situation has entirely changed. This could be a war of attrition, and minister of war David Lloyd George has just authorised the opening of negotiations, on an absolutely top secret basis. So it is that the British Empire, and not the French, will become by far the most extensive hirer of Chinese labourers in the war. More to follow.

There is an interesting footnote on this subject, by the way. A couple of days ago we caught up with Colonel Northey’s Rhodesians in German East Africa. They’re just approaching Iringa; and apparently they found in the town 100 Chinese labourers who’d been working there for the Germans. An explanation of how they got there (beyond the obvious “on a boat?”) has, unfortunately, defeated my limited research abilities.

E.S. Thompson

Walking accident E.S. Thompson continues blundering around Kondoa Irangi. They’re having a concert party tonight to keep morale up, but will he make it there?

Steak and tea for lunch. Cleared away the bush over my head, and then caught a thorn in my finger which poisoned it and made it swell up. Had a shave. My guard from 4pm to 6pm. Stew as usual for dinner. Went to the concert on the square with Wackrill. Electric lights were on poles but were too dim. A piano was on a transport wagon and there was a big log fire burning. The colonel presided.

The concert opened with a violin solo, during which the seat on which Captain Meser, Lieutenant Newton, Captain Tucker and 2 or 3 other officers were sitting collapsed, much to everybody’s amusement. The next thing was ‘Bandalero’ followed by ‘Keep the home fires burning’. Sutcliffe then sang ‘Perfect Day’. Corporal MacMaster recited about some Yiddisher gentleman, then imitated an Indian juggler, chiding the colonel about too much building, poor rations, etc.

Had to get back to do guard from 8pm to 10pm. Time did not seem so long as we listened to the music in the distance.

Amusing as it is to think of these soldiers enjoying a Lou Reed song about heroin, Sutcliffe is almost certainly singing “A Perfect Day”, a popular standard of the time.

Herbert Sulzbach

Lazy gunner Herbert Sulzbach has not only been given a little more work to do, he seems grateful for it.

Thank goodness, I was given another tour of duty with my infantry friends, occupying our observation post and sharing quarters with Sergeant [R.] of 315 Trench Mortar Section. At the same time the French began to give us another good going-over with trench mortar shells, and we had a fair numbers of casualties. We returned the fire, lobbing 250 heavy-calibre jobs. We hear in the meanwhile that the Bulgarian offensive in Macedonia is making progress, and that the [Brusilov Offensive] has come to a halt.

Two firm “eh, sort of” pieces of news from our German correspondent here. Jean Bonhomme across the way is probably being told that the Bulgarian offensive has been arrested and the Russian offensive continues marching on. Both are reasonable descriptions of parts of the offensive.

Henri Desagneaux

Another intermittent missive from Captain Henri Desagneaux.

In the evening, a huge din. Flares sent up all along the line. A barrage starts up and lasts until 2am. The cause of it all, a German [raid] and the panic of the 23rd Company on my right, which lost a man taken prisoner.

The word used by the translator is “patrol”. The BEF at the time differentiated between a “patrol”, which only involved going out into No Man’s Land, and a “raid”, which involved entering enemy trenches. If the Germans took a prisoner, this was almost certainly a raid.

Ruth Farnam

Ruth Farnam, American agent of the Serbian Relief Fund, crosses the Channel and heads for Paris.

Every one of the several hundred passengers kept as sharp a lookout as if he were personally responsible for the safety of the ship. However, we landed at Le Havre unharmed, and after endless formalities were allowed to proceed to Paris. Such a long journey! We seemed to stop at every barn and cottage on the route and arrived at dead of night, hungry and cross, as if our troubles and discomforts were all-important. But just as we finished the short examination at the station gates, a train-load of wounded French soldiers came in and the first men were carried past us on their stretchers to the waiting ambulances.

We stood ashamed of our peevishness when we saw the glowing eyes shining in the dim light and heard the feeble voices shout “Vive la France.” The men about me took off their hats and the grossest, most cantankerous woman of us all, who had made the journey even more uncomfortable than need be by her constant grumbling, ran forward weeping and tried to kiss one pathetic lad whose blanket lay hideously flat where his legs should have been.

She’s a practical woman, mind you. She’s seen this sort of thing before. Anyway, she’s succeeded in getting into France; now she must get back out again.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Brusilov Offensive
Siege of Medina
Battle of the Somme
Battle of Bitlis
Battle of Doiran (First Doiran)

Further Reading

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