How “Coolies” and missionaries helped win the First World War

Harry Livingstone’s Forgotten Men: Canadians and the Chinese Labour Corps in the First World War, by Dan Black
(Toronto, Lorimer, 2019)
456 pages, $27.95

Reviewed by Roger Smith

My grandfather, Napier Smith, went to China as a missionary in 1916 and ended up in the First World War as part of a little-known operation to send more than 80,000 Chinese labourers across Canada in sealed trains on their way to help the war effort in Europe.

Smith is among the missionaries, soldiers and Chinese featured in a new book, Harry Livingstone’s Forgotten Men: Canadians and the Chinese Labour Corps in the First World War, by Dan Black. The Merrickville writer says the mission was kept quiet at the time and has faded so deep into obscurity that even the most well-versed veterans he talked to didn’t know about it.

“All of them wanted to know why they had not heard or read anything on this before,” writes Black. “This book was written to shed light on the largely forgotten Canadian part of this fascinating story.”

As the war dragged on and casualties mounted, able-bodied men were rushed into battle and the Allies were running short of labour to support the front lines. To fill the gap and free more men to fight, they turned to China. About 200,000 “coolies,” as they were pejoratively called at the time, were recruited by Russia. France took 40,000. Another 100,000 joined the Chinese Labour Corps set up by Britain.

Some travelled by ship via the Indian Ocean and around the Cape of Good Hope or through the Suez Canal, but German U-boats and submarines made those routes dangerous. In 1917, a French transport was torpedoed south of Malta; 543 Chinese labourers were among the dead. The British decided to send the majority of their recruits from ports in northeast China across the Pacific to Canada. First stop was a quarantine centre on Vancouver Island to check for smallpox and other contagious diseases. In Vancouver, they were packed aboard sealed trains with armed guards that took them to eastern ports for the final leg across the U-boat-infested North Atlantic.

The mission was treated as top secret. Anti-Chinese sentiment and fear of the “yellow peril” were rampant in Canada; Ottawa was determined to prevent escapes and to stop the media from reporting on the mission. In official correspondence, the rail convoys were referred to as “silk trains.” Also aboard were missionaries recruited to act as intermediaries between the labourers and British officers. After just 18 months in China, my grandfather traded clerical collar for a uniform and headed off to war.

Young Lawrence Smith in Beijing with his Chinese ayi after his family returned to China in 1920. Note the ayi’s tiny feet, evidence of the old custom of binding girls’ feet.
Napier Smith and his growing family in Kaifeng after returning to China to continue his missionary work, March, 1921

Harry Livingstone, named in the title, was involved almost from the start. A captain in the Canadian Army Medical Corps, the 29-year-old doctor was sent to the British recruitment depot in China in 1917 to examine and inoculate labourers, then accompany a contingent to France. He kept three detailed field journals and took dozens of photographs; they were given to Black by Livingstone’s 90-year-old son, providing rich material to flesh out an engaging central character.

Black, a military historian, journalist and former editor of Legion Magazine, has co-authored several books and written hundreds of articles on military issues. He scoured archives, consulted experts and got access to personal papers (including my grandfather’s) to produce this 456-page account. His meticulous detail may appeal more to academics, but Black also weaves personal stories into a compelling narrative for any reader.

While focusing on the Canadian angle, Black pays due respect to the Chinese whose stories are harder to tell because they left fewer records. With China ravaged by poverty and drought, men were willing to risk their lives for the seemingly meagre reward that helped provide for their families – the British paid them one franc a day and gave their families $10 Mexican a month.

Once in Europe, they dug trenches, unloaded ships, stacked ammunition, and repaired railways and roads. More skilled workers repaired machines, tanks, even aircraft. When the war ended, they helped clean up battlefields by removing unexploded munitions, rusted barbed wire and, most ghastly of all, maggot-covered bodies.

Thousands died along the way from disease on ships and trains, in accidents and bombing raids in France, even by execution – 10 Chinese were shot by the British for murdering civilians or fellow labourers. Among the last Chinese to be repatriated, by retracing their journey in ships and sealed Canadian trains, were 60 stonecutters who carved the names of fallen colleagues on headstones in French cemeteries. In an appendix, Black lists the names and burial places of 51 Chinese known to have died while passing through Canada.

As my grandfather’s contingent travelled across Canada, he arranged a two-week furlough to reunite with my grandmother in Montreal. During that rendezvous, my father was conceived. Smith continued to France and returned safely 14 months later to meet his new son for the first time. Not long after, my grandparents and their baby returned to China for another four years of missionary work.

Roger Smith is a former journalist who spent time in China, and is a long-time Glebe resident and the Glebe Report’s copy editor.

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