Friday, 23 June 2017

On truth and lies. And how to show a troll the difference

Appalled by fake news and half-truths online? In despair at the latest lie on your neighbour’s Facebook page? Fear not. You can fight back. Let’s go trollhunting

There are plenty of lies flying around nowadays, online and in the media. The 2016 Brexit referendum and American election were distorted by fake news and half-truths. The Internet has arrived in politics in a big way and it ain’t pretty.  It shouldn’t be a surprise. The late Günter Grass foresaw its use by the alt-right back in 2004, in his last novel, Crabwalk.  Now the web is heaving with stories from dodgy websites, propagated by social media and reinforced by half-truths from the nastier newspapers. And let’s be clear – while the worst abuses come from the right, the left has had a hand in this as well.

Mill: "the collision of adverse opinions" (Hulton Archive)
This is dangerous. As John Stuart Mill pointed out in On Liberty (1859), the lifeblood of democracy is the information we need with which to make decisions. Since “the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth,” he wrote, “it is only by the collision of adverse opinions, that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.” We don’t know what Mill would make of Facebook, but I suspect he would tell us that this was the new marketplace in which ideas must compete, and that we needed to be out there. But sometimes we feel defenceless. We read something in the Mail or the Express or on someone's Facebook post and we suspect at once that it is either not true or not the whole truth, but we don't know for certain and can't prove it, so we shrug our shoulders and let it go unchallenged.

But we do have the weapons for trollhunting, and sometimes they're much easier to use than you might suppose. First, to track your troll, you need to recognize their droppings, and the exact species from which they came. So here’s a taxonomy of online bollocks.

What’s your source? 
If you're not sure whether the source site quoted is credible or not, Wikipedia will often tell you who funds it. The other day I had an argument about renewables with someone online and he threw figures at me that he said were from the US Gov't's Energy Information Administration (EIA). But they weren't on the EIA site and it turned out he'd got them from something called the Institute of Energy Research. It took me two minutes to find out it was funded by the Koch Brothers. (And they had quoted the figures without giving a proper source; they claimed they were from the EIA, but I could not find the figures on the EIA’s own site, and the data I did find there pointed in another direction.)

Relevant and meaningful? 
With a bit of effort, you can sometimes you can detect b.s. very quickly. It may be that all you need to do with a post or a news story is check its source. If it's Breitbart or similar, it's partisan. That does not of course mean that it is automatically lying. But it is unlikely to be the whole truth, so you'll probably find their original story was not properly referenced and can't be confirmed.

Besides checking the source, sometimes you can check whether a figure or fact being stressed is in fact meaningful. Thus the Daily Express ran a news article a few weeks ago drooling at the prospect of £2bn-a-year trade with India when Britain was free to trade with them after Brexit. What they didn't say was that Britain’s trade with the EU is currently worth more like £240bn. That's a fact easily found from government or international sources. Again, your first port of call can be Wikipedia - you might not want to just quote from them as they are sometimes wrong, but they almost always give an original source that you can check. (In fact Wikipedia at its best is superb.) 

The Express story also omitted to mention that we may not get a trade deal with India.

Image abuse 
Images used online will often turn out to be mislabelled or irrelevant. The left does this as well as the right. Last year lots of people shared a meme showing huge crowds of people attempting to board a ship. “These aren’t Syrians,” said the angry caption. “They’re Europeans trying to get to North Africa during World War II. So next time you think of closing the borders you might want to check with your grandparents.”

The Vlora arrives at Bari from Durres, 1991
The meme had been spread very widely (by my friends among others), but something was not right. First, the images were in colour. The Second World War was photographed in colour, but not much, and mainly only by the German and US press corps. It seemed unlikely either would have shot this. Also, merchant ships in the 1940s had a more angular structure.

When you smell a rat like this, the first step is to do a reverse image search and see if you can come up with the pic in its original context. (Google gives handy instructions on how to do that here.) This often works straightaway, but in this case the pics had been so widely shared that most results just showed the meme. What did work, was to search instead for the name of one of its ships and its port of registry, both of which were clearly visible on its stern. This turned up the pics in their real context and where they had really been taken; they were Albanians at the Italian port of Bari in 1991. This made sense, as the ship’s port of registry was Durres. It should be said that this set of images was misrepresented by the right as well as the left.

Lies, damn lies and... 
...Statistics. We are not all adept at reading these.  I found this out with a vengeance when I first tried to crunch the numbers I brought back from my PhD fieldwork. I struggled through with “how-to” books (the current choice includes Statistics without Tears, Statistics Done Wrong, Statistics for Dummies and, interestingly, How to Lie with Statistics – I must get that). The upside is that whoever throws a bunch of numbers at you may not know what they’re talking about either. The first step, if the story, post or comment quotes a source, is to check it. It may turn out to be completely specious. If you cannot find it, you can simply say so. If you can find a reliable figure that contradicts it, so much the better (more below on where to find such numbers).

 What if the other side can supply a source? The answer then is to go to that source, and see whether the numbers actually mean what you’ve been told they do. In the argument about renewables quoted above, my interlocutor was quoting the scale of subsidies to solar per kilowatt hour. As stated, I couldn’t find his figures. But what I did find was that figures for power supplied by renewables should carry a big health warning. Are you talking about generation capacity; about actual power generation; or about the output supplied to the grid? In the latter case, are you looking at the amount received by the grid or the distributed power from renewables? (Solar and wind produces surplus power that can’t be used sometimes, so these won’t be the same figure.

That’s a subtle example. The misuse of figures can be a lot more crass than that – as when, before the referendum, we heard “scare stories” about the number of refugees coming into the EU; these never mentioned that Britain wasn’t accepting more than a tiny fraction. Sometimes a number quoted is simply not relevant; again, before Brexit, the figure of 77m Turkish immigrants was used to scare people. They were not told that Turkish accession to the EU is a long way away and that in any case, Turkey has much closer links with Germany than it does with Britain.

You may also find that the number is quoted without comparators, so that you can’t see if it’s meaningful – as in the Daily Express “Indian trade deal” example above.

Refuted already? 
It sounds obvious, but perhaps someone has already called out the author of a fake news item. In the case of the Albanian ship example, they hadn’t (they have since). But it’s easy to check. Extract a few well-chosen key words from the article and search online. Take one of the more outrageous statements, copy-and-paste it into the “exact word or phrase” box in Google Advanced Search, and see if someone has already quoted that statement – and then taken it apart. 

If it’s been widely circulated, someone will already have checked it. A classic case was a picture sent to me after I made a vaguely pro-Corbyn tweet; it showed him at an IRA funeral. It did look like Corbyn but I suspected it wasn’t.  Fortunately someone else actually knew. The picture had been taken at Bobby Sands’s funeral in 1981 and the individual was apparently Sands’s agent, Owen Carron, who succeeded him as MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

It wasn't Jezza, actually
There are also websites that have been set up to fact-check stories that are whizzing around social media. The granddaddy of them all is, debunking urban legends since 1995. On the day I dropped by while writing this piece, the stories covered included a claim that former Democrat candidate Bernie Sanders had blown $172,000 in campaign donations on an Audi R8 supercar. (Snopes found no evidence of this.) Snopes appears to be genuinely independent and funded from advertising revenue. A site with a similar mission, albeit very different in style, is Hoax Slayer (, based in Queensland. This has also been around for a while. It devotes much energy to email scams, but also has a fake-news section that touches on the political now and then. The day I called by, it had zeroed in on a story that Monica Lewinsky’s son David had been found dead in Central Park. (It pointed out that Lewinsky did not have a son called David.)

For British readers, however, the go-to is probably Full Fact ( This is a heavyweight; it has the cachet of actually being a registered charity, a status that the Charity Commission was initially reluctant to grant it, and which it can remove if the site becomes too political. The trustees of Full Fact include members of the great and the good such as prominent LibDem peer Lord Sharkey and crossbencher Baroness Neuberger DBE, and funding comes from such impeccably liberal sources as the Rowntree Foundation (though also from some businesses – but these are publicly declared, and accounted for only 8% of income in 2015). A measure of Full Fact’s topicality can be seen from the 2017 General Election. Many media sources ascribed the results to the youth vote, but Full Fact quickly posted an item pointing out that no-one could possibly know yet, as there were simply no figures.  Especially attractive is an item headed Election 2017: what the parties haven’t told voters, an object lesson in why everything should be taken with a skipload of salt.

But if no-one’s refuted it yet? How do I do so? 
Sites like Full Fact are great at dealing with memes and urban myths that have attracted widespread attention. But what about the man who lives two doors up and posted a reply on one of your Facebook threads saying that ten thousand refugees are settling in Tonbridge every day, or that Europe is totally dependent on Britain for supplies of bendy bananas? Where are you going for the real facts?

For Brits, the first place should probably the Office for National Statistics ( This has been around since 1996, but is descended from the Central Statistical Office, which had its origins in the second world war.  The ONS is independent of the political arm of government, and covers a wide range of subjects, including the economy and areas that are politically sensitive, such as migration (its latest Migration Statistics Quarterly Report was in May 2017 and is here, complete with a useful summary). Datasets are normally presented with definitions, including qualifications and exclusions. The ONS is a big haunted house, but if one searches for long enough, one can often find what one needs. Thus this afternoon a  conservative journalist tweeted that Britain’s population had risen by 5 million in 5 years and that this was a good reason for Brexit. It took me minutes to find out, on the ONS site, that the figure was untrue, and I tweeted back a link to the relevant page. The ONS site also has instructions on how to submit a Freedom of Information (FoI) request.

Not just for MPs
Should you need your information in a more digestible form, you can head for the House of Commons Library. This  has a mass of research and information put together over the years to help MPs, including an impressive list of research briefings on (for example) social care, poverty and pensions – all topical. Much of this information might also be available on the ONS site if you know where to look, but the HoC Library might be easier. The website also has an impressive subsite providing information on Brexit and its projected consequences; it can be found here. For economic and budgetary information, there’s also the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), intended as an independent watchdog on budgetary and economic matters. Its mandate is to provide facts, not to pass judgement on policy; it won’t tell you that a policy is a good or bad idea, but will outline the fiscal consequences.

Many countries have similar offices and the OBR helpfully provides links to them on its own page. In the US, if you’re a member of Congress you might well ask your party leadership to submit your request to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which has lately been busy costing, among other things, the latest healthcare options as Republicans prepare to scrap Obamacare. The CBO is meant to be strictly nonpartisan. Specialist US government agencies also have information available on their websites (including the US Energy Information Administration, referred to earlier). Both these offices have a mass of information and data on their websites.

In the international arena, the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme and specialist UN and other transnational agencies all provide reservoirs of online information on matters such as poverty, access to education, health and more. To list them would take too much space, and in any case Wikipedia has a handy list of the UN bodies here. However, it is worth mentioning two that are worth visiting if you frequently argue with people over refugees or asylum seekers; these are the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Both have stats; UNHCR, in particular, has figures on the top refugee-hosting countries (hint: they’re not rich ones). It also points out that 55% of refugees are from three war-torn countries, casting doubt on the belief that most are economic migrants. 

Last but not least, Google is your friend. The advanced search facility allows you to specify accurate and specific search parameters. It can be set to return only recent results. It also permits a domain-specific search, so that if you want to find out when the OBR, say, or the BBC has referred to a particular topic, you can. This is sometimes much quicker and more accurate than using the search engines on the sites themselves, and presents the search results in a helpful hierarchy of relevance.

Learn your craft 
Many people’s online activism is devalued from the start because they don’t have any tradecraft. Some of us will never be very good with PCs, websites etc.; that’s just how it is, especially for older people like me. But often the tools are easier to master than they seem, and doing so can give you a huge advantage.

No, Bernie didn't buy an Audi R8 with campaign contributions
If you’re fighting battles on Facebook, and you want friends to help – informally, or as part of an activist group – learn how to help them help you. If you are dealing with a mendacious troll on the Facebook site of (say) a newspaper, you need to give people the exact link, not just say “please help me on the Express Facebook page”. If you do that they won’t find the post or thread, as newspaper sites can post tens of stories a day. It’s like calling in an airstrike without giving a map reference.

To get the exact link, go to the post or comment. Just under the posters name or comment is the time at which they posted it (“just now”, “1hr ago”, “20 June at 20.00”, etc. Right-click on that date/time and a drop-down menu will appear, including the option “copy link”. Click on that then paste the link on your timeline of in a group where you are seeking help.Always remember that it is useless posting something that only a few people can see; you need to give your post the right privacy settings. Be aware that if you change them on a post, the next post may default to the same setting so you will need to change it again. 

To comment on a story on a newspaper’s own site, you will need to be signed in. The site will almost always offer you the option to do so with social media, but you can also set up an account for that newspaper, or (with a lot of publications, including the Spectator) with a service provider called Disqus. These can be better options than your Facebook or Twitter account if you wish to use a screen handle rather than your own name.

If you are involved in an argument on Twitter and need to ask friends or a group for help, you can get a link to the string by going to the small downward-facing arrow at the left of a tweet or reply; clicking on that will give you the option of displaying a tweet-specific link that you can then copy. If you have multiple battles going on and want your friends to come over and lend a hand, tell them to go to your Twitter profile and to click on the tab “Tweets and replies”; otherwise they won’t see your conversations and arguments, only your original tweets. Learn also how to use hashtags – this is very important; Twitter provides instructions here. You can use them on Facebook too and there are instructions (rather sketchy) here.

Last but not least, one does not want to state the obvious but: Who are you talking to? If you want to argue on behalf of refugees, do it in the comments section of a paper where people are unconvinced. This could be the Express or Mail but could also be the New Statesman or Telegraph. It sounds basic, but you will not change minds by talking only to those who agree with you.

Don’t give up 
All this is important. We are at war. Back in 1977 Paul Johnson, Boris's uncle, published a book called Enemies of Society, in which he castigated all those who made meaningless or unverified statements. They would, he said, destroy the basic certainties societies need to function. The book was written from a right-wing perspective; Johnson was a polemicist. But he was not wrong about this. Hannah Arendt made a similar point, in a very different way, from farther left, in her essay On Lying in Politics.

Check everything. Question it all. The enemies of society have not won yet, but there is not much time. Lies are a luxury we can’t afford.

was published in December 2016 and is available from Amazon and other online retailers, or through bookshops
(ISBN  978-0-9978815-0-9, ebook; ISBN 978-0-9978815-1-6, paperback)

Sunday, 14 May 2017

The Chinese who helped win WW1

Daryl Klein’s book With the Chinks is an example of why we should not censor or bowdlerise the past. Let it speak for itself, and it may tell you more than it meant to

Towards the end of 1917, a junior officer named Daryl Klein arrived in Qingdao in China’s Shandong Province. He had come to take up a posting as a Second Lieutenant in the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC), which between 1916 and 1918 recruited nearly 100,000 Chinese labourers to do war work, including the digging of trenches on the Western Front. In so doing it freed up huge numbers of Allied troops to take a more direct part in the fighting. The French also recruited Chinese labour on a large scale.

Chinese New Year, Noyelles, 1918 (Imperial War Museum/2nd Lt David McLellan)
I had known about this episode, and the book that Klein would later write, for a long time; although little-known in Britain, the CLC’s story has not been a secret. I first read of it back in the 1970s, when the Sunday Times Magazine ran a series called The Unofficial History of the 20th Century. This looked at bits of history that the editors felt had been brushed under the carpet; they included (for example) the massacre of Poles by the USSR in the forest of Katyn, which was indeed largely unknown in the West then. A smaller item mentioned the CLC, and referred in passing to a book by one of its officers, Daryl Klein, “with the nonchalant title With the Chinks.” The title stuck in my mind but it was only recently that I was able to confirm that the book existed; it was rediscovered and republished by Naval & Military Press in 2009 and is now available as a download as well as a paperback.

Klein’s book is based on his diary from December 1917 to May 1918, and covers the training of the labourers at their camp in Shantung (as it was then called), their transport across the Pacific to British Columbia and their stay there, and their onward passage towards France as far as New York. It ends there, and does not cover the labourers’ service on the Western Front. Nonetheless it is fascinating, the more so because it was published in 1919 and is thus a very contemporary account. It is also shocking, confronting the reader with a stunning level of casual prejudice.

The CLC’s story has slowly been uncovered and there are now several books about it. For the casual reader, it is set out in a short but very well-written and well-researched book, Mark O’Neill’s The Chinese Labour Corps (2014), one of a series called China Penguin Specials. O’Neill has a family connection; his grandfather was a Presbyterian minister in China and accompanied the CLC to France.  

O’Neill explains that the roots of the CLC lay in China’s weak international position and its wish to use the war as a way to improve it. In 1914 China, although an independent state, was firmly under the thumb of the Western colonial powers and Japan. It was saddled with a huge indemnity for its supposed crimes during the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the century, when nationalist Chinese rose against the imperial powers and their “concessions” in China. The latter were extraterritorial enclaves where the foreign powers had special privileges; the most famous was Shanghai, but in 1914 there were actually 27 concessions, according to O’Neill. (If you broaden the definition to include all foreign enclaves, there were more.)

Tank maintenance, Teneur, 1918 (Imperial War Museum/2nd Lt David McLellan)
In particular, the Chinese would have liked to regain control of Shandong, where the German concessions had been seized by the Japanese in November 1914. Japan was an ally of Britain and France, and China also hoped that taking a pro-Allied line would earn it their help in dealing with its neighbour. Thus in 1915 the Chinese offered to send a total of 300,000 workers to Britain and France. In the event, Britain would recruit just over 94,000 and the French a further 40,000; of this 135,000-odd men, about 10,000 would later be “lent” to the US when it entered the war. About 80,000 of the CLC were from Shandong, and were from a predominantly agricultural background; it was felt they would deal better with the hard work, and the North European winters, than the Cantonese from further south.

The CLC was not to bear arms or be exposed to combat. Inevitably, however, some did come to harm; O’Neill says that about 3,000 died from bombing and shelling, accidents while clearing munitions (which was clearly dangerous work), and illnesses such as tuberculosis and ’flu (a number would perish in the Spanish Influenza epidemic at the end of the war). Modern Chinese researchers have claimed that the losses were higher. Moreover China would reap few diplomatic rewards in return for their sacrifice.

To read O’Neill’s account in conjunction with Klein’s is to be hit hard by the changes in the way we think about the world.  For a start, one is taken aback by the title With the Chinks. In fact, “Chink” was then American slang, not British. Klein barely uses it in the book. Instead he calls the men “coolies”, a word that has mostly vanished now but was still used when I was a child 50 years ago for a Chinese or Indian worker. But it would now be mostly regarded as offensive, and “chink” would now be taken as a racial slur. These are not words I would use out of context today.

Although coolie was sometimes used simply for Chinese manual workers, strictly speaking it meant an indentured labourer – that is, one who works to pay off a debt, and is effectively unfree. The history of empire includes the most awful abuses of such men, mostly Chinese and Indian, who were transported across the world, worked in many cases to death and, if they survived, left to rot rather than brought home. The worst abuses had been brought to an end in the late 19th century, but in 1918 they were well within living memory. One wonders to what extent Klein knew of them.

The CLC men were not indentured as such, but they were under contract and could not leave. Early in the book, Klein states that they were free men and could do so, were they able to produce a good enough reason. But the fact is that they were effectively prisoners, and at several points Klein describes incidents in which they “escaped” and were forcibly brought back. Klein expresses no great surprise at this. Moreover his attitude to the men was completely paternalistic. He describes the induction process at the camp as the “sausage machine”, in which a man has his hair cut, is washed and is taught to drill:

...a process which turns an ordinary uninviting workaday coolie into a clean, well-clothed and smartly active human being. An astonishing process which is doing a great good for a corner of China. If the whole nation, male and female, could pass through the Sausage Machine it would make the people anew, as it is making them, two to three hundred a day, in this camp.

When a man tries unsuccessfully to escape, Klein is simply puzzled:

Questioned why, at a court of inquiry held this morning, he was desirous of so impolitely leaving his comrades, a dry warm wooden bed, no end of rice, and the interesting prospect of seeing France at war, he said that he wanted to give up all for his wife and follow her.

St Omer, 1918 (Imperial War Museum/2nd Lt Thomas Keith Aitken)
In Klein's view the men are not much troubled about their destination provided they are not going into combat. It does not occur to him that they should worry about this point. He describes how a mutiny broke out at sea in one of the first drafts because an “absurd rumour” had spread that they were going into a “death trap”. But as stated above, some 3,000 men of the Chinese Labour Corps and its French equivalent would indeed die in France. As Klein's book was published in 1919, he should by then have known that, and his insouciance seems inexcusable. Moreover he makes light of the danger from the journey itself.  Thus in January 1918 there is a mass break-out from the camp:  “A malicious report has lately gained credence among them that the last two transports were either torpedoed, or captured by the Germans; a story, needless to say, entirely baseless.”  But it wasn’t. In February 1917 the French troopship Athos, carrying Chinese labourers to France, had been torpedoed in the Mediterranean. “The incident resulted in the loss of 754 lives,” says Mark O’Neill, “including 543 Chinese men who were destined to never set foot on European soil, and who would be the first Chinese casualties of the Great War.” In the Atlantic, 1917 had been the worst year for submarine warfare, and later in his own book Klein will describe disciplining labourers who light cigarettes on deck, lest they attract submarines. Klein’s paternalism had blinded him to the fact that these men were not imagining things; that their concerns were, in fact, real.

And yet Klein clearly liked “his” Chinese. The book is peppered with references to their strength and to their solidity of character, and he was especially impressed by their kindness to each other:

They showed the sort of spirit which makes one positively love the Chinese—the Chinese of Shantung at any rate. They are wonderfully good to one another in adversity. They have warm hearts and willing hands. There was something so eternally and touchingly human about this business that whatever vestige remained in me of the conventional conception of the coolie quite disappeared.

Klein's narrative takes us across the Pacific to British Columbia, where the labourers were kept in camps until transport was available to take them onwards. Although Klein does not say so, the camps were secret – initially to protect Chinese neutrality (though by now China was in the war) but also so as not to inflame anti-immigrant sentiment in Canada. The men were then usually taken across the country in sealed trains and embarked for France in, one assumes, Montreal or Halifax. Klein's draft, however, were unusual, being taken instead on the Empress of Asia, through the Panama Canal and on to France via New York. It is, Klein tells us, a constant battle to make the men understand the danger from submarines. (Oddly, the ship would survive the First World War but be sunk in the second.)

Embarcation at Shandong, from With the Chinks; pic possibly by Klein himself
The journey through the Canal and the Caribbean gives Klein further occasion to shock the modern reader, with descriptions of n*****s and c**ns. (“Coolie” and “chink” I can manage, but only given the context; and I cannot bring myself to type those.) The narrative ends in New York, a fact that disappointed the reviewer for Punch when it was published the following year. The review also criticised the book for failing to show why the men had joined up, but conceded that: “For the conscientious historian it will have a certain unique value. And in fairness it must be added that in the latter half there are touches of humour and humanity which make the reading easy and pleasant.” This was not entirely wrong. Klein was clearly not a bad man and for all his youthful paternalism, his regard for the Chinese was real. Yet there is little evidence of him talking to, or trying to understand, them, or to see them as individuals.

Or is there? Some way through the book Klein introduces his friend Julius East, or Jule, who has, he says, given up a good career in banking to join the CLC. On the three-week voyage across the Pacific it occurs to East to find out more about his charges: “The second day out in the Pacific it came to Jule that it would be interesting to know what was passing in the minds of his coolies. So, picking out the most intelligent of the interpreters, he descended to the 'tween decks and closeted himself with his two sergeants.” The ensuing conversation is described in some detail. Jule appears to have learned little of the two men’s thoughts and interrogates a third, a “six-foot-two, magnificently built, open-mouthed hayseed, one Lun Zun Chong ...Jule asked many straight questions, but never a satisfactory answer did he receive.”  Klein concludes that “the moral to be drawn from Jule's interview with three members of his company is that nothing passes in the mind of a coolie ...Nothing, that is, of a philosophic nature.” Jule is disappointed. “He expected whimsical points of view, quaint definitions, intellectual oddities.” He still maintains that he can uncover them, but not through an interpreter, and decides he will learn Chinese.

We don’t learn whether he does, but we do encounter Jule again, and hear of his thoughts and actions in surprising detail. Finally, in New York, he has dinner with his sister – who lives there – and her friends. The coolies, he assures them, will not be allowed to fight in France even if they want to (and as we have seen, they didn’t). But Jule makes the following observation:

At all events, if they don't get a Tommy's chance in this war, they will get it sooner or later in their own country. It will be a war of their own—a civil war ...clean, clear open minds against the dirt and truck and turgidness of centuries. When these men go back to China they won't be satisfied with the old life, the constricted and congested village life; they will want an existence more akin to our Western ideas and ideals of life; they will want more order, more open spaces, more cleanliness ... In a word they will be progressive.

Sword display, Crecy Forest, 1918 (Imperial War Museum/2nd Lt David McLellan)
Was that Jule’s opinion? Or was he an imaginary cypher for Klein himself?  I think the latter. A search of the website of Britain’s National Archives turned up his full name, and his middle names were Julius Ernest. Julius East? It may be that Klein wrote the racist hogwash he thought was expected of him, but used the Jule device to express his genuine interest in the Chinese themselves – an interest that might then have been seen as a little odd and even unsettling in some circles, including those in which Klein would return to work as a civilian. It may be that the book does reflect Klein’s own attitudes. But it could also be that this whole book is subversive.

Of the man himself, I can find out very little. He was a British officer, but his name sounds more American – and as we have seen, if he was Jule, his sister lived in New York. He could also have been Canadian or Australian; many Empire subjects would have been thought of as British then. The fact that the National Archives had his full name meant I could establish from other sources that he served from 1914 to 1920, and was gazetted temporary 2nd Lieutenant with effect from December 31 1917. I also found reference to an American with a Russian-born father and English-born mother who may have been our Klein; if that is our man, he was probably born in 1895. The answers will be buried in the War Office files, for those with the time and skills to find them.

Whatever Klein really thought, I found parts of his book hard to read, and if I were Chinese I would have been climbing the walls somewhere around page three or four. Behind the paternalism was the historical suffering of indentured labourers alluded to earlier, and while the CLC men did not suffer as badly as that, their conditions in France were hard.  Neither was this the case only for those employed by the British. Mark O’Neill states that those employed by the French fared better, but his own account does not always seem to bear this out:

Several Chinese workers died in the French factories, due to accidents, disputes and illnesses that were not properly treated. Between 1916 and 1918, the men were involved in twenty-five strikes or violent demonstrations. There were arguments among themselves, usually related to gambling, and clashes with other foreign workers. In January 1917, in a gunpowder factory in Bassens, a brawl with Arab workers left two Chinese dead. A few days later, at a gunpowder factory in Bergerac, 500 Chinese attacked 250 Algerians; one Chinese was killed and sixty people were injured.

Meanwhile the British organize a well-equipped hospital in the base area that has 1,500 beds and Chinese-speaking doctors and dressers, and the workers receive the same care and attention as the British soldiers. “To give a flavour of home, each ward had a canary and a model pagoda several metres high stood near the main entrance, with a gong that struck the hours of the day.”

On the other hand, O’Neill also reports that the British-built hospital had “a large compound for the treatment of those who had lost their mind under the stress of war.” He also records that quite a number of workers died in bombing raids on their camps and elsewhere.  Moreover O’Neill does recount incidents in which British officers mistreated Chinese workers, saying that when workers presented a complaint and their officer could not understand them, it was not unknown for them to simply open fire: “A lieutenant in charge of 1,000 men was reported as hitting the workers on the face, kicking them and calling them names," he writes. “In turn, they cursed him and finally a strike occurred. The guards opened fire and four workers were killed.” Neither was this the worst incident; in October 1917, five men were killed and 14 wounded after a dispute over discipline, while two months later there was a mutiny because of bullying by British NCOs. This resulted in the deaths of four Chinese workers and a Canadian soldier.

Gravestone, Noyelles, 1919 (Imperial War Museum/Ivan L. Bawtree)
Reading With the Chinks, it is not hard to see how this happened. Klein, though of his time, was clearly decent enough but his fellow-officers seem to have been a rum lot. One, for example, is a Russian officer in a crack cavalry regiment (or so Klein assures us) who has been stranded by the Revolution and has left all his baggage “in the Carpathians”. He misses the sophisticated company he had when he served in the London and Washington embassies before the war, and finds his brother-officers a poor substitute. The other officers seem to have been a mixed bag of missionaries and other China hands. One advocates converting all the labourers to his muscular brand of Christianity. This idea is wisely quashed by the others, but most are not above a little casual violence: “There is rivalry among the officers in regard to the number of canes broken on the backs, legs and shins, not to speak of the heads of defaulters,” reports Klein. “The supply of canes ran short in Tsingtau some time ago.” He quotes a brother-officer as saying that “nothing... knocks anything into a coolie so well as a nose-bleed.” The officer concerned is, says Klein, “well practised at drawing a coolie's blood at first slap,” and assures everyone that "they soon get over it and bear you no malice, either.”

Klein recalls an officer called Harris, who has an excellent digestion and the temperament of a lamb,” admitting that he was “growing astonishingly callous in his treatment of the coolies.”  He tells Klein and the others that “’the smallest breach of discipline drives me into a fury ... I don't know what has come over me. Time was ...I could initiate a coolie into the knowledge of left and right without loss of temper. To-day I cane him into this knowledge ...’ In Harris' heart is a great fear of becoming like a Prussian officer.  ‘What if I should become like that which we are seeking to destroy?’”  

Herein lies what for me is the key takeaway of With the Chinks: that the power of one group over another is as bad for the first as it is for the second. As the distinguished playwright and MP Benn Levy said in a 1946 Commons debate on the occupation of Germany (which was not going well): “It is not good for a nation to be conquered. But it is also not good for people to be conquerors.” I may remember Daryl Klein the next time I hear someone praising the achievements of colonialism.

For further reading on the Chinese Labour Corps, Mark O’Neill quotes Brian Fawcett’s Chinese Labour Corps in France 1917–1921 and Xu Guoqi’s Strangers on the Western Front. The Imperial War Museum’s  excellent collection of photographs of the CLC can be found here.

was published in December 2016 and is available from Amazon and other online retailers, or through bookshops
(ISBN  978-0-9978815-0-9, ebook; ISBN 978-0-9978815-1-6, paperback)