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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
Written by Nicky Hughes.