As part of a two-year project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund to commemorate the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC), The Meridian Society has made a film of oral histories with descendants of Chinese labourers and their Western commanding officers. Peng Wenlan, documentary filmmaker and director of the society's heritage project, will give a brief introduction to the historical background of the CLC story, with insights into the political machinations behind the scenes. This will be followed by a screening of the film Forgotten Faces of the Great War: The Chinese Labour Corps.
At the outbreak of World War I, China was still a neutral country. However, near on a century of foreign incursion and occupation would make the government explore ways in which it could join the Western Allies in order to regain control of Shandong Province from Imperial Germany. Offers of military and ancillary support were made and rejected and it was not until casualties within the first week of the Battle of Somme had reached such staggering numbers that the Allies were forced to reconsider their position.
Finally, on 19 April 1917, after a three-month journey over land and sea, a thousand Chinese men arrived in Le Havre, France, weary and bewildered. This was the first batch of the CLC, recruited by the British to provide logistical help at the Front. They would be followed by several tens of thousands, mainly from Shandong, thus forming one of the largest labour corps involved in World War I. At the end of the war, many stayed on to clear the land of ordnance and restore it to agricultural fields. They dug up the dead and buried them in the cemeteries that dot the rural landscapes of northern France and Belgium. Yet their contribution to the Allied cause is little mentioned and has never been officially acknowledged.