The story behind the Chinese Labour Corp is being displayed at the Chinese Community Centre in Digbeth for a few weeks before being moved to Birmingham Library. It tells of one of the least recognised contributions towards the First World War.
In July 1916, some 50,000 labourers came over from China after a three month journey. Many did not survive the journey. A total of some 100,000 Chinese workers joined the British Chinese Labour Corp supporting the allied war effort.
They were told they would be in non-combatant roles and far from the front lines but as the war progressed without end, their roles grew.
Mainly aged 20-35, the labourers were set about building munition depots, carrying munitions to support front line troops, or repairing supply lines, unloading ships, repairing trenches, roads and railways. At the end of the war they were used for mine clearance, and for a long time after the end of the war, they recovered bodies of soldiers and reinterred into the neat rows we see today, and filled in miles of trenches. Dangerous, hard and remitting work.
They worked ten-hour days, 7 days a week, with only three days three holidays. Many went on working till 1920. Many thousands died from disease, a flu epidemic which spread across camps, enemy action or wounds. An estimated 10,000 died. However, some say the number was as high as 20,000.
Tragically at the end of the war, a giant canvas exhibited in Paris at the end of the war- which was at the time the largest painting in the world- showed a victorious France surrounded by her allies. The Chinese workers, whose contribution undoubtedly helped the war effort was literally painted out to allow for the arrival of the United States
Called the forgotten of the forgotten. Britain has over 40,000 war memorials, not a single one is dedicated to the Chinese Labour Corps. An effort led by Steve Lau of the Ensure We Remember CLC Campaign is leading efforts to properly recognise that we indeed remember.