Group of nine men. One smoking a pipe.
First World War

Forgotten Heroes of the First World War

This is the story of the Labour Corps, comprised mostly of a multi-ethnic army of workers, without whom the war would have ground to a halt.

The Labour Corps of the First World War comprised mostly of a now largely forgotten multi-ethnic army of tens of thousands of workers (along with British servicemen unfit to fight), without whose manpower the war would have ground to a halt.

These unarmed non-combatants, working under military control, carried out crucial tasks behind the lines on the Western Front and in other theatres of war – building and repairing docks, roads, railways and airfields, manning ports, stores and ammunition depots, unloading ships and trains, digging trenches and constructing camps.

SANLC men round a brazier at their camp
SANLC men round a brazier at their camp, Dannes, France, March 1917. © IWM Q4880.

After the Armistice, the Corps undertook the dangerous and difficult work on former battlefields clearing live ordnance and exhuming bodies – reburying them in the great military cemeteries of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC).

Despite their vital contribution (including the Chinese, Indians and South Africans, many of whom were injured or died) they often suffered from the then racist attitudes of the British Empire – segregation and discrimination.  After the war, their dead received no recognition from Britain in the form of war memorials.

This is their story

Thiepval Memorial
The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, Thiepval, France, commemorates more than 72,000 British and South African soldiers who have no known grave.  The majority died during the Battle of the Somme (1 July – 17 November 1916).  Image courtesy of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Britain sustained such appalling losses during the Battle of the Somme that virtually every fit serviceman was now needed for fighting. The demand for labour to carry out key logistical work was becoming critical. The government had to look to the Empire and beyond to bolster the existing Labour Corps (formed in 1915) in order to meet the escalating need for workers to support the army.

Chinese Labour Corps

Chinese Labour Corps
Chinese Labour corps stacking sacks corn sacks, Boulogne 12 August 1917. © IWM Q2701.

In China, which had been neutral but who entered the war on the Allied side in August 1917, the call for volunteers for the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC) was spread by public proclamation and by British missionaries.

chinese labour corps cap badge
Chinese Labour Corps cap badge.

The reward of a higher rate of pay than the men were used to, food, housing, medical services and financial support for their families back home was offered. Around 95,000 mostly poor peasants from remote villages in the Northern provinces volunteered for service in France and Belgium.

A similar number served with the French. Their gruelling journey from China to the Western Front by ships and trains took three months and cost many lives.

Men of the Chinese Labour Corps © IWM Q23575

The CLC was formed into companies of up to 500 men each under the charge of a British officer. They worked 10-hour days, seven days a week and gained a reputation for hard work and ingenuity. They were allowed three days off a year.

Chinese stilt walkers
Chinese stilt walkers entertaining soldiers and a local audience at their camp, Sarner, France, 26 May 1918.

South African Native Labour Corps

The South African government agreed to provide men for the South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC) provided they did not mix with white communities as this would break the colour bar between races.

Royal Visit to the Western Front, 1914-1918
King George inspecting NCO’s of the South African Native Labour Corps, 10 July 1917, Abbeville, France © IWM Q5624
SANLC men salvage truck parts for renovation, Rouen, France, 31 May 1918 © IWM Q8834
Members of the SANLC preparing for a Zulu war dance
Members of the SANLC preparing for a Zulu war dance during a sports day, Dannes, France, 24 June 1917 © IWM Q2393

A significant number of the men were educated and included respected warriors and tribal leaders, yet all were kept segregated in heavily guarded camps to prevent the men being influenced by new ideas of equality.

Around 20,000 men had signed up because they believed that, despite being oppressed by the white South African government, if they demonstrated loyalty to the British Empire, it would gain them a voice in their deeply divided land. This hope was never realised.

Indian Labour Corps

The Indian Labour Corps (ILC), numbering more than half a million men, served across the globe during the First World War. Such support workers had traditionally been integrated into the Indian military and were known as ‘Followers.’

ILC men from Manipur, India
ILC men from Manipur, India photographed near Arras, France, 20 October 1917 © IWM Q6119
ILC men working in a forestry camp
ILC men working in a forestry camp, Foret de Lyons, France, 23 January 1918 © IWM Q8498
ILC members preparing meat near Arras, France, 20 October 1917 © IWM Q6118

Around 50,000 were sent to France and Belgium, many from north-east India. They arrived in Marseilles, France, June 1917 after a long arduous journey in which many died. The ILC were often used close to the front line, carrying ammunition and building fortifications. They also worked as drivers and cooks, repairing tanks, carrying the wounded and nursing the sick. Despite the hardships of the Western Front, for some, the experience was an improvement on the extreme poverty at home.


A ward at the South African Native Labour Corps General Hospital
A ward at the South African Native Labour Corps General Hospital, Pont des Briques, near Boulogne, 30 June 1917 © IWM Q5638

Though concentrated behind the front line, the work of the Labour Corps had its dangers.  Depots and sea ports were targets for air raids, and there were many accidents associated with the handling of unstable shells and explosives. It is estimated that 2,000 men from the Chinese Labour Corps (there are claims the figure is much higher) and 1,500 of the Indian Labour Corps died while serving on the Western Front, some as a result of enemy action, or of wounds received in the course of their duties, but many more in the flu pandemic that swept Europe in 1918 -19.

SS Mendi
SS Mendi courtesy the John Gribble Collection

Around 1,300 of the South African Native Labour Corps also died, including 618 men who were bound for the Western Front on the SS Mendi, 21 February 1917. In thick fog near the Isle of Wight another British merchant ship collided with the Mendi, which sank immediately. There was no attempt at rescue. Their names are inscribed on the Hollybrook Memorial, Southampton. During the years of apartheid, the ship became a symbol of the injustice faced by Black South Africans.


CLC graves, Shorncliffe Military Cemetery, Kent
CLC graves, Shorncliffe Military Cemetery, Kent. Military cemeteries in the UK, established before the First World War, used headstone designs of their own to mark war casualties’ graves. After the war, the CWGC only replaced such graves with their standard white headstones if they had deteriorated.  Image © Peter Kendall

In England, there are Labour Corps graves all over the country, including Shorncliffe (Kent), Plymouth, Birmingham and Manchester.  Many of the men died as a result of illness before they could reach the Western Front, or from the flu pandemic. The CWGC has identified 105 Labour Corps members buried in the UK. Labourers were classified as war casualties and great pains were taken to mark their graves in an appropriate way.

SANLC busalk mvinjelwa grave shorncliffe c paa anderson
The grave of South African Native Labour Corps member Busalk Mvinjelwa, Shorncliffe Military Cemetery, Kent. The grave shows a springbok – a South African national symbol ©  P.A.A Anderson
Commonwealth War Graves Commission graves of members of the Chinese Labour Corps, Efford Cemetery, Plymouth
Commonwealth War Graves Commission graves of members of the Chinese Labour Corps, Efford Cemetery, Plymouth. Here the inscriptions are in Chinese and English © Jerry Young
Western Morning News, 6 July 1917
A news item from the Western Morning News, 6 July 1917 honouring CLC members who died locally of disease. Part reads: ‘…(they) were buried with full military honours…then conveyed… to the cemetery passing between the lines of Chinese (and British) patients…it is customary for only one Chinaman to accompany a corpse…three volleys were fired over the graves…’Image courtesy of Peter Kendall.
Ayette Indian and Chinese Cemetery, France
The Labour Corps dead are buried and remembered in numerous cemeteries in France, including the Ayette Indian and Chinese Cemetery, established by British troops September 1917. Image courtesy of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Written by Nicky Hughes.

Further Reading


14 comments on “Forgotten Heroes of the First World War

  1. Diana Evans

    Thank you for this respectful attention to the contribution and sacrifices of Labour Corps members.

  2. Are you sure picture 8 is not of George V

  3. Reblogged this on Tish Farrell and commented:
    The service of thousands of non-white personnel who provided essential labour and more during World War 1 more often than not went unregarded and unrewarded. In East Africa alone 50,000 conscripted African porters of the Carrier Corps lost their lives. Many families who had waved goodbye to their sons never heard of them again, or received their pay, or compensation, or even a thank you from the British Army. That is one story. Here are many others – of the Chinese Labour Corps in particular:

  4. Reblogged this. Such an important story. Thank you.

  5. For someone in our modern society, where racial discrimination has clearly been identified as a social evil, your account of the WWI labour camps reads like a horror story.

  6. A very timely reminder of these brave men’s sacrifices, Tish. The photos are quite heart-rending.

  7. Very interesting and informative, but no mention of the Egyptian Labour Corps? Any reason?

  8. I had no idea. Thanks for the educational poke via your blog.

  9. A wonderful post. 🙂

  10. There’s so little awareness of the huge contribution and sacrifice made by these men and they were treated terribly, thank you for this post..

  11. Christine Andrews

    My uncle who was unfit for service was with the Chinese labour core and brought back some Chinese words which intrigued us as children. Sorry I never really talked to him about his experience

  12. S. McDonald

    This is really wonderful! But injustice and discrimination is still ingrained in the so called elite. We (the British} can have no bigger debt of gratitude to any people than we owe to the Ghurkas of Nepal. Even now these fantastic soldiers are discriminated against with derisively or non existent pensions or access to help. They have only recently been given the right to live here, while every Tom, Dick or Harry, seem able to just walk in the door. Many of these brave men still live unsupported by Britain, in remote Corners of Nepal. Fortunately, the The Ghurka Welfare Trust, is there to help. They provide access to medical aid, build small community clinics, and are now even beginning to build care homes for the elderly, infirm, and widowed. It is a wonderful charity which attempts to redress the wrongs imposed on these loyal people by Governments of every colour for too long. We owe a debt of gratitude, and thankfully there are still some people who chip in to repay some of that debt. They need more funds as do all charities. In keeping with tradition of proud people they do not beg, but if you can help please look them up, and see the marvellous hands on work that is being done!

  13. Thank you for raising awareness of this, I was completely unaware of these Labour Corps. A fitting tribute should be constructed at the National Memorial Arboretum in my opinion. It’s the least we could do.

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