On a tour through northern France, Jay Collier discovers a slice of Chinese history near the banks of the River Somme.
During commemorations marking the centenary year of the outbreak of WW1, we came across an astonishing piece of history.
The seed of our interest had been planted on a motorhoming trip some years ago. With our four children aboard and fresh off the ferry, we climbed out of Boulogne on the present D940. Passing the communal cemetery of St Etienne-au-Mont to our right, we spotted on its summit an intriguing glimpse of what appeared to be a gleaming white Chinese temple. It was to be several trips later before we finally stopped to investigate.
It turned out that the monument is surrounded by the carefully maintained graves of Chinese victims of the First World War, comprising 160 men of the Chinese Labour corps and three Chinese merchant seamen.
We learned that from early 1917, British army manpower on the Western Front was supported by Chinese labourers. They had arrived via a long journey over the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and their number totalled almost 96,000 by the time of the 1918 Armistice.
Their ‘labour’ – arduous and extremely dangerous – was the operative word. It fell to these men to dig trenches, build dugouts and fortifications, repair railways and roads damaged by shellfire, not to mention filling sandbags by the thousand.
Workers were given no weapons and their officers and non-commissioned officers were British. Around 2,000 of the Chinese Labour Corps were killed by enemy action.
Symbols of Eternity
In 2013 we investigated the story further. Having spent a fascinating morning at Crecy – famous battlefield site of the Hundred Years’ War – we took the D111 westwards to reach the large Chinese cemetery at Nolette, a peaceful hamlet close to Noyelles-sur-Mer at the estuary of the Somme and where the Chinese Labour Corps had had a base depot, extensive camp and hospital.
Backed by open fields, the cemetery has a roomy tree-shaded parking area, easily accessed from Nolette via a lane guarded by two magnificent marble oriental-style lions – a gift from China.
An imposing entrance gateway, carved with monograms representing symbols of eternity, gives access to the last resting place of almost 900 Chinese labourers.
As ever with WW1 statistics, the numbers make sombre reading. More than 50 men from this camp died in May 1918 alone, with a further 40 during July, largely due to an epidemic that continued to rage long after the Armistice. Labourers were still dying by the day in February 1919; losses were to exceed a further 130 by December.
Even at the end of that year some 80,000 men of the Chinese Labour Corps were still at work in France and Belgium. Those who did survive death and disease were gradually repatriated.
Age shall not wither them
Noyelles cemetery is in the care of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, beautifully maintained with neatly trimmed lawns and flowerbeds. Immaculate rows of headstones are engraved with Chinese characters carved by a selected group of the comrades of those who died.
Green Adventures March 2015
A small number of epitaphs in English include ‘A noble duty bravely done’ and ‘A good reputation endures forever’.
Almost a century on across the Channel, these historic and thought-provoking memorials have barely weathered at all. With due respect we might add, ‘Age shall not wither them.’