Members of the remembrance campaign at the unveiling of a plaque to the CLC at the China Exchange in London this week filmed as part of Channel 4’s documentary Britain’s Forgotten Army. From left to right: Karen Soo, descendant of a CLC member; TV presenter Joanna Lumley; actor Jing Lusi; actor Gemma Chan. (Photo copyright Transparent TV Ltd.)
The first ever UK official remembrance ceremony for Chinese people who joined British and Allied troops in the First World War trenches was held in London over the weekend, honouring a group described as ‘neglected from history’.
Held at the Cenotaph in central London on 11th November to mark UK Armistice Day, the event commemorated the Chinese Labor Corps (CLC) who served on the Western Front in World War I. Up to 140,000 people worked as CLC members and 20,000 died in the effort, according to CGTN, but the UK has never officially commemorated them with a ceremony before now.
As part of the ceremony, Chinese community groups and historical memory organisations gathered to lay wreaths. Ms Peng Wenlang orchestrated community participation in the event. Speaking to campaign group Ensuring We Remember, who are working to have a memorial erected to honour the CLC, Ms Peng said that “the story of the Chinese Labour Corps belongs not only to China, but also to Britain.”
Clive Harvey, author of a historical novel about the CLC called Yang’s War, told SINO Radio that Chinese workers carried out important work such as repairing trenches, burying dead bodies, repairing tanks and providing backup to troops. Despite this, their contribution is little known and recognized.
“Out of the 60,000 monuments dedicated to the many people, countries and soldiers who participated in the war, including animals such as horses, there were none dedicated to the Chinese,” he said.
He explained that although China was unable to officially declare war alongside the Allies because of a military threat from Japan, they secretly offered help in the form of a so-called ‘commercial arrangement’ where Chinese labourers, many of whom were facing extreme poverty back home, could volunteer to travel to Europe and participate in the war in exchange for wages sent back home to their families.
Harvey added that while the security threat from Japan can be seen as the initial reason for the arrangement being kept secret, as the war went on “Britain and the allies were in denial that they needed more support” and as a result, they kept the CLC’s contributions hidden.
Since 2014 the Ensuring We Remember campaign group have been working to fund a memorial to the CLC in London, supported by a number of organisations linked to the UK Chinese community. They are currently still fundraising for the project, selling forget-me-not pins and books of historical photos related to the CLC.
Britain's Forgotten Army, a Channel 4 documentary on the CLC which aired on Remembrance Sunday, is available to watch on All 4 until 12th December.
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