The death of the Chinese workers in Europe

In November 1918 drafts of Chinese workers began to be repatriated, though their progress depended on availability of the means of transport. The last man finally reached home in 1920. Of the 140,000 Chinese workers who left for Europe, many did not return. Some remained to work in Europe, especially in France, where they were sometimes abandoned to their fate. However, more than 2,500 workers died while carrying out their war toil or as a result of illness. Their exact number is unknown, as are most accounts of their sad deaths.

The British Commonwealth dedicated a lot of care and attention to the tombs of the war victims, and more specifically to those of the Chinese workers. However, historical data in British Commonwealth archives is incomplete and although there are many fewer graves in French cemeteries, the latter recorded even less information about what went on in the vicinity during the war.

Many Chinese inscriptions on the gravestones contained errors that have been reproduced and thereby perpetuated. The dead were buried near to where they had perished. After the war, the remains buried in small plots were exhumed and re-interred in larger cemeteries.

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  • Plan for the Chinese cemetery at Noyelles-sur-Mer, plan on paper, with the courtesy of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

    The cemetery at Noyelles-sur-Mer in the Somme was designed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s architect, John Reginald Truelove under the supervision of the great British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens. With its 841 graves (and a further 41 names of missing labourers on a memorial stone), it is the largest Chinese First World War cemetery in Europe.

  • Photo showing the Chinese cemetery of Noyelles-sur-Mer, digital photography, © Syndicat Mixte Baie de Somme-Grand Littoral Picard

    The text at the top reads: “For all eternity”. On the doorposts you can read: “We wanted to plant many pine-trees and bean trees here, to grow for a long time and to cast their shade from home here, far from China”.

  • Photo showing the tombstones of the Chinese cemetery of Noyelles-sur-Mer, digital photography, © Syndicat Mixte Baie de Somme-Grand Littoral Picard

    Four maxims adorn the Chinese gravestones at British cemeteries: “A good reputation endures forever”, “A noble duty bravely done”, “Though dead he still liveth” and “Faithful unto death”.

plan for the Chinese cemetery at Noyelles-sur-MerGeneral view of the Chinese cemetery at Noyelles-sur-MerDetail of the Chinese cemetery at Noyelles-sur-Mer