Chinese Labour Battalions: Vancouver’s little-known role in the Great War

( [email protected] ) Apr 16, 2012 02:27 PM EDT

Gulls wheel overhead as the guards funnel hundreds of uniformed men off the hulking ship to be counted, then marched down the long line of boxcars and onto the waiting train. Young men from a far-off land, casting more than one beseeching glance toward the knot of silent onlookers on the yard’s grey margins.

The port is Vancouver, over ninety years ago. The event is the transport of Chinese labourers recruited by Britain in China, en route to the supply ports and fields of France during the Great War, one of many such transports contracted to the Canadian Pacific Railway. Swept up in the gritty drama is my grandfather, a young Canadian medical officer in the British Army who speaks Cantonese.

Due to the massive losses incurred early in the war – 600,000 British troops in a single battle at the Somme – the British and French governments were compelled to look beyond their borders to fill desperate shortages of labour needed to support the logistics of the war. By 1918 there were 96,000 Chinese nationals working as “coolies” in northern France.

In those years China had little in the way of a military, but it did have plenty of men willing and able to work. Both Britain and France negotiated with the Chinese government to recruit labour battalions from the province of Shandong, where political uncertainty and poverty drove enlistment. The pay offered was attractive: 20 Chinese dollars to ship out, with ten dollars a month going to the recruits’ families for the duration of their service.

The first ship carrying labourers enlisted by France steamed for Europe in 1916 via the Suez Canal. Upon reaching the Mediterranean, however, the ship was attacked and sunk by German submarines: all 543 Chinese perished. The only safe route, then, was to sail to Vancouver across the Pacific Ocean, cross Canada by rail to Montreal and then make a second voyage across the North Atlantic to France.

My grandfather, Claude W. Freeman, was a surgeon and my grandmother, Florence, a nurse. Both from Ontario, they ran a small mission hospital in Chengdu in western China early in the last century. When war was declared my grandfather enlisted in the British Army and was assigned as a medical doctor attached to the labour battalions.

Disembarking in Vancouver just ten years after the city’s anti-Asian riots, the Chinese nationals were tightly controlled. Despite their enlistment in service to the British Empire, they had no status in Canada and were transferred directly to railway cars. According to my grandfather, a packed train might wait for days before beginning on its long journey. Members of the Vancouver Chinese community, he said, would come down to the rail yard and pass food to their compatriots locked inside. Perhaps names were exchanged, news of relatives sought, word from home.

Arriving in ill-health from cramped quarters on the long sea voyage or sick from the strange diet, some were taken to Vancouver General Hospital. Treatment however was limited by lack of translation or cultural understanding on the part of the medical staff.

For their entire journey by rail across the country to Montreal, the men of the battalions would remain locked in the cars and never set foot on Canadian soil, an experience which would leave them with a distinctly unfavourable impression of our country.

In Europe the conditions were grim. Labour battalions would work ten-hour days, seven days a week, building roads, barracks and hospitals, handling ammunition, digging trenches and unloading cargo. Sometimes men would be blown up from un-exploded ordnance while digging trenches, or bombed or shelled by German planes. The cold and damp were constant, and many would become sick from the unfamiliar diet.

By the end of the war, nearly 2000 Chinese workers would die in France and Flanders, their bodies laid to rest in special cemeteries, each grave marked with a serial number and the characters of their Chinese name. Those who survived would be kept working long after the war’s end, clearing the dead and loading military cargo whose return was more pressing than their own.

When they, like my grandfather, finally return to China they will be changed men: some will have interned as medical assistants, others in engineering and construction. A form of basic literacy will have spread among the battalions, due to efforts by Chinese staff of the YMCA responding to the needs of men so far from home.

They will come home more knowledgeable, and with cash saved by their families. Their relationships to their homeland and to the world will be more complex. And in the years to come they will contribute, each in his own way, to the making of a modern China.

Phil Vernon is a designer and musician living on Salt Spring Island.