Our meeting on 8th November started with our member Peter Marshall reading some extracts from his relative’s WW1 diaries, which set the scene for our speaker, David Thorp whose subject was “Coolies on the Western Front WW1”. The use of foreign labour was probably one of the least known aspects of the First World War. To put the whole matter in perspective he gave us a potted history of China culminating in the establishment of the Republic in 1912, the relevance of which later became apparent. The scale of losses prompted the Allies to look for labour to undertake non-combatant roles and a Chinese Labour Corps was set up, used by the French from 1915 and Britain in 1916. How these illiterate peasants were transported from China was a horror story comparable to the slave trade – by ship to Vancouver then eight days by rail in cattle trucks to Halifax, Nova Scotia (only travelling at night so no-one would see them), then by ship to Southampton and Dunkirk. They were employed on contracts (which of course they could not read) for a 7 day week, 10 hours a day, trench digging, constructing railways, unloading ships, retrieving dead bodies, mine clearance etc. One of the few redeeming features was that students were employed as translators and by using a 1000 character primer devised by James Yen, a Harvard graduate from Canada, many Chinese acquired basic literacy. This was of great value in helping to build up the infant republic. When the Americans entered the war they also employed Chinese. Many thousand labourers were also employed by the French and British from their extensive colonies as well as from Portugal and Russia. We are used to hearing of the appalling conditions and slaughter of trench warfare but this talk reminded us that others from around the world suffered equally on the Western Front but their contribution has largely been ignored. We meet at 10am every Thursday at The Boathouse, Evesham Rowing Club. Full details can be found on our website www.eveshamprobus.co.uk

Alan Smith