Posted by: Sam Olsen | November 15, 2012

Hong Kong’s Great War

It was Remembrance Sunday here last weekend, and although we didn’t get a chance to blog about it then, we thought we would share a few observations now.

As you stroll from our house to the Cenotaph, where we were heading for the annual Remembrance Sunday service, you pass through the Hong Kong Botanic Gardens. The cool shade of the trees and the snuffles and cheeps from the caged wildlife makes it a calm, peaceful walk. There is though a reminder on the path of the horrors that once came to this small part of China. A huge paifang-shaped arch sits astride the southern entrance to the park, dedicated to the Chinese who died assisting the Allies during the two World Wars. The inscription on the lintel reads: “In Memory of the Chinese who died loyal to the Allied cause in the Wars of 1914-1918 and 1939-1945”. Sadly, as the years increase, the knowledge of the sacrifice of Hong Kong in these wars drips away, particularly of the Great War.

We wrote last year about the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during the Second World War. The War certainly still holds a grip on the imagination of many, which is not surprising given the nature of it. The autobiographic memoir Gweilo, by Martin Booth, describes how, when he was a boy, he was taken to the New Territories’ to see the site of a small-scale massacre of six Japanese soldiers by Chinese partisans. They had been buried standing up so as to ensure that their spirits never rested – if they didn’t lie down they couldn’t go to heaven.

The Hong Kongers were working in cooperation with the British Army Aid Group – led by the uniquely named Sir Lindsay Tasman Ride – which continued the Allied struggle after Hong Kong fell to the invaders. During World War I the contribution to the British cause was slightly different.

Although East Asia was not a core part of the struggles of the First World War, Hong Kong certainly made its fair contribution. For a start, 579 out of a total of 2,157 volunteers opted for military service outside the colony. In addition, aside from the normal financial contribution made to the war effort by the Empire’s constituent parts, Hong Kong paid a further HK$10 million, equivalent to total government revenue for 1914. Individual Chinese made significant contributions too, such as fighter aircraft, which the historian Steve Tsang believes to have been a “reflection of the appreciation the better-off Chinese had for the British administration”.

The average Chinese worker had a chance to join the blood and mud of the trenches when, in 1917, Beijing volunteered to send 200,000 non-combatant labourers to the Western Front. The British and French governments were becoming very anxious at their declining manpower – not surprising when they were losing 28,000 men a week, and had been for three years. As Blackadder once said, it would have been easier for the governments to keep everyone at home and machine-gun a set number each week, but they liked to add to the challenge, I suppose.

Chinese Labour Corps: smartly does it

If there is one thing that China has is a lot of people. The Chinese government knew that, and so offered up the Chinese Labour Corps to the British. For them it was a win-win situation. Not only would they be able to get rid of 200,000 under-employed men (a perennial and current problem of China) but would be able to use them as political pawns in their struggle to reclaim the territory that had been hacked away from them over the past half century by numerous foreign powers. The theory was that German possessions (e.g. Tsingtao, home of the beer) would be given back to the Motherland in exchange for its war effort once the Central Powers had been beaten. Unfortunately for them, the Japanese were the lucky post-War recipients of former Teutonic strongholds, a decision that led to probably more political upheaval in China than if they had never bothered trying.

At least the coolies, as the labourers were known, fared better. In return for a generous daily allowance of rice, meat or fish and vegetables, along with half an ounce of tea, the Chinese were asked to work ten hours a day. Admittedly this was in the middle of the deadliest war the world had ever seen, but it was still probably better than toiling in water-clogged paddy fields every waking hour. In fact, so popular was the opportunity to go to Flanders that the logistical system – based in the now forgotten British-Chinese colony of Weihaiwei – could barely cope with the demand. And it probably wasn’t the smart blue uniforms they were given that made them keen.

Despite there being no strategic benefit gained by sending the coolies over, the British Government understood their contribution: the Secretary of State wrote that they had “performed services of great value”. He was also probably minded to thank the other Chinese that helped out, mostly serving as coal stokers in the merchant ships that ferried supplies around the Empire keeping the war fully supplied, but this is not recorded.

So although the majority of minds at the Cenotaph last Sunday would have been thinking of the Second War, it would not have gone amiss to have thought a little prayer for the 2,000 or so Labour Corps members – and countless other Chinese – that died helping the British win a war that will soon be seeing its centenary.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: