Chinese Labour Corps during WWI

Nolette Chinese Cemetery contains the graves of 841 Chinese men employed as labour force by the British authorities during WWI.

Nolette Chinese Cemetery - cedar

Two years into the Great War, the need for labour was urgent.

Indeed, French women were no longer able to replace the thousands of men sent to the front (many of whom never returned).

On May 14, 1916 the French government signed an agreement with China in order to obtain labour.

The British government signed a similar agreement on December 30 of the same year.

By the end of 1917, 54,000 Chinese labourers worked nearby the battlefields of Northern France and Belgium.

The Chinese Labour Corps consisted of civilian workers placed under the authority of the British authorities.

Indeed, they were not involved in military operations.

They only worked in the factories and on the farms.

They first arrived in the British military camp in Noyelles-sur-Mer, the largest camp, which become their base depot.

Nolette Chinese Cemetery - 1 of the 841 graves
1 of the 841 graves

From there they were dispatched to the various camps.

Noyelles labour force consisted of 3000 Chinese men.

They were in charge of unloading ammunition.

They also worked in the neighbouring farms and on the railway line Paris – Calais.

They were under a 3 to 5 years contract and received 5 Francs per day, the then legal wage for a worker.

Their work however became increasingly dangerous as the war progressed.

Indeed, they started to clear the mines and collect the dead and wounded from the battlefields.

They also had to dig up the soldiers hastily buried in field cemeteries to identify them and give them a proper burial.

By the end of the war, nearly 96,000 Chinese labourers worked in France.

By May 1919, 80,000 were still in France to help rebuild the country.

Sadly, 2000 died during the war and then the Spanish flu epidemic of 1920.

They were buried in Nolette.

Nolette Chinese Cemetery

The prefect of the Somme department inaugurated Nolette Chinese Cemetery in 1921.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission maintains the cemetery.

Sir Edwin Lutyens and Captain Truelove designed this cemetery, which is very different from the ‘standard’ CWGC cemeteries.

Firstly, there is no Cross of Sacrifice or Stone of Remembrance.

Nolette Chinese Cemetery - Engraving on monumental entrance porch
Engraving on monumental entrance porch

Secondly, the monumental entrance porch is shaped in the manner of a Chinese pagoda.

The Chinese Ambassador to Great Britain of the time, Shi Zhaoji, chose the dedicate that is engraved in Chinese into the porch and reads:

‘This site commemorates the sacrifice paid by 1900 Chinese workers who lost their lives during the 1914-1918 war, these are my friends and colleagues whose merits are incomparable.’

Thirdly, the tombstones are engraved in English and Chinese characters.

Finally, the cemetery is planted with tree species found in China in order to recreate some of their distant country.

The porch and entrance wall serve as Memorial for the 41 Chinese workers who died on land or at sea and whose graves are unknown.

China gave two Imperial Guardian Lions statues to the municipality of Noyelles.

These Lions now guard the entrance of the road leading to the cemetery.

Every year a Chinese delegation comes to Nolette in order to celebrate Qingming, the Chinese Feast of the Dead, which also heralds spring.

Department of Somme – Nolette in Noyelles-sur-Mer – Picardie
Coordinates: Lat 50.186382 – Long 1.723020

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Hauts de France – Latest content