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. Not all returned to China safely.

Chinese New Year, Noyelles, 1918 (Imperial War Museum/2nd Lt David McLellan)
I have known about this episode 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. It 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 message, albeit unintentional, 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)