The confrontation with death

The Chinese who came to Europe were assured by their written terms of service that they would not suffer war-related injuries. But during the outward journey it became evident that they were to be exposed to greater risks than had been anticipated. Indeed, it was clear that civilian ships were attacked by the enemy. This was the case of the Athos: on February 17th, 1917, the French ship Athos was sunk in the Mediterranean by a German submarine. Some 900 Chinese were on board of which it is estimated that 543 perished.

Once in Europe the workers did not engage in combat but they were deployed in the danger zone. The camps in which they lived were often located immediately behind the front lines, where aerial bombing and shellfire was commonly experienced. Moreover, the Chinese were often given hazardous work, including the handling and transport of ammunition.

After the war the Chinese were assigned to gather and bury corpses remaining on the battlefield and salvage live ammunition. In addition to war-related hazards, the Chinese workers came face to face with death in other ways. For example, the ‘Spanish’ Flu pandemic in 1918-1919 claimed the lives of many Chinese.

Loading, please wait...
  • Article from the newspaper Ons Vaderland " The French ship Athos sunk by a submarine", February 1917, newspaper, In Flanders Fields Museum, Ypres

    The tragic fate of the Athos became a turning point for China both because of the huge number of victims and the absence of a list recording their names. After the tragedy it was virtually impossible to identify the dead. In future everyone would have to be registered, no Chinese citizen was to remain unknown to his government.

  • Exhumation of the body of Louis de Mahieu, July 1919, photo, In Flanders Fields Museum, Ypres

    In July 1919 in the vicinity of Ypres the field grave of the young Belgian officer Louis de Mahieu (+ 31 August 1918) was opened to exhume his mortal remains and transfer them to his final resting place in Oost-Vleteren. Chinese labourers were called upon amongst others to perform this grim task, here extreme left in the picture.

  • A Chinese worker sitting among the devastated tombs in Dikkebus cemetery, 1919, photo, In Flanders Fields Museum, Ypres

    Unburied bodies are a part of the daily life of the Chinese labourers in 1919. In the first year after the Armistice it was impossible to escape from the confrontation with death in the Devastated Area.

article of the newspaper “Ons Vaderland”exhumation of the body of Louis Mahieua Chinese worker sitting among the devastated tombs