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Remembering ‘The Unremembered’: The Forgotten Workers of the First World War

Virginia Crompton
Commentary, 2 November 2017
The Great War, History
Wars cannot be executed without labourers. During the First World War – and in particular following the terrible losses of the Somme in 1916 – Britain’s War Office assembled an army of workers. Yet today, they are almost uniformly forgotten. At an event at RUSI next week, we bring ‘The Unremembered’ out of the shadows acknowledging their extraordinary courage and sacrifices.

Poet-teacher Sun Gan volunteered for the Chinese Labour Corps in 1917. Sun Gan was one of 96,000 Chinese men who served the British Army on the Western Front in the Chinese Labour Corps, a contribution which is only now beginning to gain recognition. Sun Gan’s poetry – brought to light by Dominiek Dendooven of Belgium’s Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres – exquisitely captures the awful violence of war:

One day we are moved forward, the next day we have to retreat
Everywhere rumble of thunder and lightning.
Giant dragonflies screen the sun’s light
Their tails spitting blue smoke, faster than a shuttle
Criss-cross through the air, as ant larvae
Sometimes catching fire, ending up in flames in the sky

The story of the labour corps is a global story. Alongside the Chinese, British, South African, Caribbean, Canadian, Fijian, Maltese, Indian, Egyptian, Kenyan and many more volunteers – acting in Sun Gan’s words of their ‘free will’ – supported the war effort by joining the labour corps and other non-combatant roles. They often faced discrimination and in many cases were denied the right to bear arms. It set them aside at the time and, indeed, since then they have been sidelined.

The South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC) was recruited on the explicit condition that its members were kept separate from all other nationalities whether soldiers or civilians. They were visited in their compound by King George V on 10 July 1917. He inspected and addressed them saying: ‘You are also part of my great armies fighting for the freedom and liberty of my subjects of all races and creeds throughout the empire’.

Two days later, M L Posholi – one member of the SANLC present – wrote: ‘We saw him, George V, our king, with our own eyes … To us it is a dream, something to wonder at. We are indeed in the midst of great wonders because we personally heard that we blacks too are British subjects, children of the father of the great Nation, trusted ones and helpers, and that we are cared for and loved’.

Members of the SANLC. Courtesy of John Warrick Brooke/National Library of Scotland

Posholi’s response reflects a complex political context. In 1913 the devastating Natives Land Act had dispossessed the majority of South Africans. The African Native National Congress – forerunner to the African National Congress – debated the SANLC recruitment policy fiercely, eventually deciding that Africans should serve, in order to promote their claim to be treated with equality. Albert Grundlingh estimated that 25 per cent of South African labourers were educated elite – teachers, church ministers, chiefs and their sons. But in the end the SANLC was disbanded and returned from France with little recognition. SANLC volunteer A K Xabanisa said on returning home, ‘I am just like a stone which after killing a bird nobody bothers about, no one cares to see where it falls’.

Under the pressure of so many deaths and such extraordinary expense, Britain and the other imperial powers were forced to draw on their colonial resources. In the words of SANLC volunteer, Chief Stimela Jason Jingoes: ‘The present war is a world war. Every nation must take part in it. Even we Bantu ought to play our part in this war’. As a result, groups previously active only ‘in the wings’ found themselves playing supporting roles on the global stage.  

Many of those who served in the labour corps understood that the opportunity to act in the war had the potential to effect political change. Chinese, South African, Indian and Caribbean labourers anticipated greater political freedoms. Yet after the war, imperial governments sought to revert to the pre-war power structure. They conveniently sidelined the enormous contribution the labour corps had made.

Thus, the marginalisation of The Unremembered in history and in commemoration can be seen as part of a post-war social reconstruction movement: the reconstruction of a social hierarchy that had been pulled down by the war, resurrected and rebuilt as surely as Europe’s towns were rebuilt from the rubble.

That task was made easier by the fact that men who were not allowed to take up arms and did not fight were afforded few opportunities to commit acts of great battlefield courage and were rarely awarded military medals. Their contribution – filling sand bags, carrying fuel, digging latrines, clearing the horrific debris of battle – was seen as less attractive and less important, somehow unworthy of history’s commentary. How ironic it is, then, that the Great War cemeteries – today the emblem of remembrance – were created by men whose contribution is forgotten.

This year, The Unremembered project, funded by the Department for Communities and Local Government, is raising awareness of this story as part of the First World War Centenary. The project is focusing on four strands: the courage and contribution of Chinese, South African, Caribbean and Indian volunteers. The numbers are big. As well as 96,000 Chinese Labour Corps, more than half a million men in the Indian Army served in non-combatant roles, 21,000 South Africans in the SANLC and 7,000 served in the Cape Coloured Corps. Fifteen thousand joined the British West Indies Regiment.

One hundred years later, it is not too late to acknowledge the contribution of the workers of the First World War. They served, they suffered and many died. They are The Unremembered.

Dr Virginia Crompton is the CEO of Big Ideas.

The project thanks the historians of the labour corps, among many Radhika Singha, Rana Chhina and the team at USI of India, Dominiek Dendooven from In Flanders Fields Museum in Belgium and Albert Grundlingh of Stellenbosch University, South Africa.

Email to join the project. For more information on the RUSI event, click here.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.

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