Daily life

Within each camp workers were allocated routine fatigues, including rubbish collection, food preparation and cooking. All workers were issued with food rations and cigarettes, which they sometimes bartered. Letters could be written but not posted until the correspondence was censored and the contents had been thoroughly vetted.

The religion of these Chinese workers was also respected. The workers were annually granted three days’ leave; one day for the Dragon Boat Festival; one day for the Mid-Autumn Feast, and a third day for the Chinese New Year.

Given that there were significant differences between the Chinese and European cultures, the men on either side were frequently confronted with verbal and non-verbal communication problems. It was up to the interpreters to bridge the gap between overseers and the workers. The fact that both the interpreters and the commanding officers sometimes came from different regions and spoke different Chinese dialects did not make matters any easier.

The Chinese workers serving under British command were subject to British military law, which sanctioned heavy punishments for misdemeanours. For example, field punishment no. 1, under which workers are literally humiliated, tied to a post or a wheel. Sometimes the punishments may have been justified because some members of the Chinese Labour Corps undoubtedly committed various crimes, especially after the war. Immediately after the end of hostilities, lawlessness was rife in the war-devastated lands. The local population sometimes blamed the ‘outsiders’ for unsolved crimes.

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  • Vonges, Chinese workers’s camp – the kitchen, first quarter of the 20th century, postcard, collection of Jean-François Thomassin, Vonges

    "Do not say anything thoughtless or tactless; do not poke fun at them; do not vent your rage on them; do not insult them; and do not use violence against them. They will not simply accept this, and will want revenge. (…)”, Commander Defontaine, in a Manual for the use of coolies in the French army, 1916.

  • Three Chinese workers and their commanding officer pose with one of the first « battlefield tourists » in front of Van der Mersch House in Ypres, 1919, photo, In Flanders Fields Museum, Ypres

    During their time on the European continent the Chinese workers regularly came into contact with Belgian and French civilians. After the war, when they were assigned to clean up the battlefields, they also regularly encountered the first tourists that came to visit the battlefields.

  • Decorated shell casings, first quarter of the 20th century, metal, In Flanders Fields Museum, Ypres

    During their free time the Chinese workers engaged in various activities, as can be evidenced from these shell casings. One bears the inscription "Cambrai", the other "Saint-Quentin". They also could take literacy classes, given by the YMCA (Young Men Christian Association), which set up canteens or rest areas for the British troops from the beginning of the war.

Vonges – Cantonnement chinois – la cuisinethree Chinese workers and their commanding officerdecorated shell casings