Putting the World Back Into World War I


History is never as straightforward as we might like it to be. Take something as straightforward as the dates of the First World War: 1914-1918. We all know that. Except that the peace treaties that officially ended the war were signed in 1919. And labourers continued to die while doing battlefield clearance until 1920.

And where was the war? We often speak as if it were fought exclusively in Belgium and France, but the first shot of the war may well have been fired in Togo (or Togoland as it was then). What’s more, there were battles across the globe from Qingdao to Gallipoli, as can be seen in this map.


Burial sites are particularly useful in helping us rebalance our accounts of the war. There were 51,442 burials in Iraq, 18,841 in India, 14,851 in Egypt, 3,001 in Australia, 2,467 in Nigeria, 1,936 in Malta, and 1,118 in China.

And 1 in Togo.

History is never as straightforward as we take it to be.

All at sea

160 of the 168 headstones at the St Etienne-au-Mont mark the graves of members of the Chinese Labour Corps. So what about the other eight?




Three merchant seamen and five members of the South African Labour Corps:


These men represent the many thousands whose contribution to the war effort is still largely forgotten today.


St Etienne-au-Mont


On just about the only dreary day we had last summer, I visited a small war cemetery in the village of St Etienne-au-Mont, just outside Boulogne-sur-Mer. Of the 168 graves there, 160 mark the last resting places of members of the Chinese Labour Corps. 


It was a moving experience, walking among the rows, paying homage to the dead one hundred years after the end of the Great War. Except, once more, the dates on the gravestones told a different story. Half the labourers who were buried in that cemetery died after Armistice Day. Half the labourers were unable to enjoy the peace. The war, for them, went on and on and on.

The Joy of Palindromes

After graduating from university, I worked for a while in a night shelter for homeless men, where I met some very interesting people, one of whom called himself Midnight. He was often aggressive and sometimes violent, so I tended to keep my distance. Eventually, though, we discovered a shared interest: palindromes.

“Ah, Midnight!” I would greet him. “I’ve got a good one for you today: level.”

“Ah, good one, good one,” he’d reply. “I’ve got one too: radar!”

And so we went on, not exactly becoming friends but at least finding a reasonably peaceful equilibrium.

I was reminded of Midnight the other day when reading Paul Virilio of all people. In the middle of a discussion about speed and war, he dropped in a great palindrome I’d not come across before: Esope reste ici et se repose – Aesop stays here and rests. Virilio’s point was that “today no one stays at rest, all is in flight and is displaced in a strange inverse transmigration. The habit of returning to our source, of rediscovering our origins, our ‘identity’, suddenly seems an absolute necessity.”

This argument, in turn, reminded me of Great Expectations and the palindromic Pip Pirrip and who went on a palindromic journey away from the marsh country, down by the river, to London and then back again. Unlike many of us today, Pip recovered the habit of returning to source, though he had to shed many prejudices before he could do so.

As Judy Wajcman points out in Pressed for Time, attitudes to time, speed and mobility changed dramatically in the 19th century so that, for Pip before he learned his lesson and for many of us today, “voluntary mobility, like speed, is seen as a social good, while fixity becomes associated with failure, with being left behind.”

As he so often did, Dickens skewered these industrial assumptions, with the palindrome being one of the tools he used to show the joys of being left behind and of returning to where we started.

A multi-national search


Researching the Chinese Labour Corps during World War I is bound to force you outside narrow national boundaries.

Some of the best work on the Chinese in World War I has been done in France, with Li Ma’s book in the picture above being particularly good. It should also go without saying that Chinese authors and publishers, such as the Shandong Pictorial Publishing House, have produced really interesting books.

More challenging for Anglophones are some of the wonderful books published in the Netherlands, including the beautifully illustrated memoirs of Gu Xingqing, a translator with the Chinese Labour Corps.

There is also some interesting material online, with this website providing a good introduction.

Battleground Clearance


Why did so many of the Chinese Labourers buried at Noyelles die after November 11th 1918? One simple reason was that many of them were given the job of battleground clearance. Such an innocuous sounding task: such a deadly reality.

As soldiers were demobilised, the Chinese Labour Corps (and other labourers) were left behind to return the French countryside to its pristine state. That meant clearing bodies and reburying them in the neat cemeteries with which we are so familiar today. It also meant clearing battlefields of the detritus of war, some of which was still liable to explode when disturbed.

It is perhaps no surprise then that, with the war officially over, labourers continued to die in their hundreds right through to 1920. This Remembrance Sunday, spare a thought and a prayer for these poor men who died thousands of miles from home long after the fighting had stopped.

The Chinese Labour Corps


The gravestones in my previous post can all found at the remarkable Chinese cemetery at Noyelles-sur-Mer at the mouth of the River Somme. Why here? Because Noyelles was the base of the Chinese Labour Corps during World War I. Here are some more photos of the cemetery and its fine Chinese arch.



The South China Morning Post has a fine introduction to the Chinese Labour Corps here. Something like 150,000 labourers left China to work in France, Russia, and elsewhere, digging trenches, working in munitions factories, and repairing tanks among many other tasks. They provided invaluable service to the allied cause. 

However, we need to understand why these labourers were still dying in their hundreds after the Great War came to an end. That will be the topic of my next post.

Armistice Day reconsidered

11th Nov

Spare a thought for this member of the Chinese Labour Corps who died on Armistice Day, November 11th 2018. How unlucky can you get?

Well, quite a lot more unlucky in actual fact. Here’s another grave: this time the date of death was November 12th 2018. 

Nov12And here are a few more from November and December 2018:


Ok, so they were really unlucky, lingering on for a few months after the fighting stopped. But what about this stone from 1919?


Or this one from 1920?

1920You get the picture. Something’s up. November 11th 1918 wasn’t quite the terminal point that is usually suggested. In a series of blog posts over the next few days and weeks, I’ll be explaining more. There’s an intriguing tale to be told.