One way of responding to political turmoil

After months of torturous negotiations a compromise agreement was reached but it was an agreement that dissatisfied some and angered others. When the moment came to sign the agreement into law, some politicians refused while their supporters took to the streets, setting off a wave of geopolitical problems that lasted for decades.

Not London 2019 but Versailles 1919.

So how did Lu Zhengxiang, the leader of the Chinese delegation to the Paris peace conference, respond to the political turmoil of his time?

Returning to China, where the political protests against the Versailles peace treaty had evolved into a full scale cultural and political movement for change – the May Fourth Movement – he soldiered on as Foreign Secretary for a while before retiring from frontline domestic politics in 1920, citing “persistent hostility from abroad,” a “lack of support from the Government,” “an accumulation of blunders,” and “the absence of an exalted view and a persevering and co-ordinated campaign for renewing and reconstituting the forces of the nation”

He had domestic problems too – his wife was seriously ill – and so the couple moved to Switzerland where he became Chinese Ambassador. However, when his wife died shortly afterwards, he stepped back even further from the political maelstrom. He became a Benedictine monk in Belgium.

What chance of that among our current political leaders, I wonder?

Thus began years of “almost complete seclusion,” as Lu wrote in his book, Souvenirs et Pensées, translated into English as Ways of Confucius and of Christ. The key word in that phrase is “almost.” When the Japanese took control of Chinese territory in the 1930s, Lu Zhengxiang was spurred into action once more, publishing a booklet about the Manchurian crisis. Then, when the Nazis invaded Belgium, he was expelled from his monastery with the rest of the monks only to have the Gestapo break up a talk he was giving in Bruges. When the war ended he hoped to return to China to “bring to the Far East the monastic work of evangelisation” but death prevented him. It was 1949, the year Mao came to power in China.

Are there any lessons in all this for us today? If there are, I hesitate to draw them because the past never simply repeats itself. The Brexit debate is not the post-war debate and the Chinese situation then is not the British situation now.

However, we can do a lot worse than step back from the turmoil and take the long view, possibly with Lu Zhengxiang as our guide. The past may be a foreign country, as L.P. Hartley reminded us, but the present is beginning to look like one too. Considering the present in the light of the past might just help us find our bearings. 





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.

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.