China’s forgotten foreign legion

Shipped over to provide cheap labour in the Great War, these forgotten volunteers left a lasting mark on history, writes Helen Fitzwilliam

The World Today Published 5 June 2014 Updated 2 March 2021 3 minute READ

Helen Fitzwilliam

Journalist and filmmaker

On August 24, 1916, in the middle of the battle of the Somme, a contingent of Chinese workers arrived in France to help the Allied war effort. By the time the war ended in 1918, their numbers had grown to more than 140,000. They dug trenches, unloaded military cargoes in the docks, worked in railway yards and factories, and collected corpses for burial from no man’s land. More than 2,000 paid with their lives.

The story of the Chinese at the Western Front is largely forgotten by Britain and France, both preoccupied with their own suffering, and by successive Chinese governments, which have seen the labourers as victims of colonial exploitation.

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