Who Were The 'Forgotten' Anzacs And Labourers Of The Great War?
In the back corner of a Commonwealth cemetery on the Western Front, some graves sit slightly separated from the Allied rest.
Prolific Australian war historian Will Davies stumbled across them during his battlefield wanderings several years ago, about four of which were inscribed with Chinese characters.
They were the graves of men of the Chinese Labour Corp -- about 150,000 Chinese men who went to the Western Front as labourers for Allied troops.
Davies has written five books on the World War I yet he had never come across them -- nor the involvement of Chinese-Australians on the frontline. “It really is an unknown chapter of our history,” Davies told 10 daily.
“I thought, why don’t I try and remember them?”
Almost 417,000 Australians enlisted to fight in the Great War, according to the Australian War Memorial. Among them were about 200 Chinese-Australians, many of whom were descendants of migrants from the gold rush era of the late 1800s.
“Their contribution simply was like any other Australian male at the time; they went and signed up,” Davies said.
But it wasn’t that easy. When the war broke out in 1914, the ‘White Australia Policy’ had been in place for 13 years. Among army requirements was that men had to be of “substantially British origin” to serve on the frontline.
“A lot of these men, if they looked to Chinese, would have been rejected and not even allowed to join,” Davies said, noting some Chinese-Australians also did not meet the physical enlistment requirements.
“But as the war went on, they were happy to take men who were five-foot-two, not five-foot-eight.”
Despite this, Davies doubts racial discrimination would have filtered down within the ranks.
“What the Anzac soldier would see is ‘these are men who signed up like me, and we’re all in this awful war together’,” he said.
At least 19 Chinese Anzacs were awarded for their bravery during World War I, including Billy Sing -- a sniper from Queensland who served at Gallipoli, and later in France.
Sing was born to an English mother and Chinese father and rushed to sign up when the war broke out, avoiding the resistance to recruiting non-white Australians. He trained with the 5th Light Horse Regiment and was reported to have shot 200 enemy soldiers.
Then there were hundreds of thousands of Chinese labourers who came from rural areas to help with the allied war effort, digging trenches, laying rail lines, caring for the wounded and burying the dead.
“When the war stated, China as a nation didn’t want to contribute providing troops — initially, they wanted to stay neutral,” Davies explained.
“The next stage was being seated at the peace table for a post-war world. That was the point of sending labourers.”
As many as 20,000 Chinese labourers died. Most others were deported in the aftermath of the war, their service overlooked.
“These men, starting with the Chinese Labour Corp, are forgotten, and we can’t forget them,” Davies said.
‘I Felt Like An Outsider'
It’s an untold part of history that also surprised Albert Wong, 60, whose chance meeting with Davies prompted him to commission the war historian to write a book.
Born in Hong Kong, Wong’s family migrated to Australia in the mid 1970s when he was 16.
“I have lived most of my life in Australia; I’m firmly entrenched here,” he told 10 daily.
“[Will’s research] struck a chord with me. I went home and asked my mother, who is 91 this year, and she knew nothing about this bit of history either."
Wong said he values embracing Australian culture while preserving his own, but has always felt like an “outsider” on Anzac Day.
“That’s not because I don’t appreciate its sacredness, but because I’ve never felt a sense of belonging or ownership towards it,” he said.
“Armed with this piece of history, I feel perfectly entitled and obliged to attend Anzac Day services now.”
This, Davies said, is in part his reasoning for the book.
“If that’s the case for him, so many other non-Celtic people would probably feel the same ... This is about recognising that Chinese-Australians were too part of the Anzac tradition,” he said.
Amid at times tense relations between the two countries, Davies said the book is attracting interest among some politicians as “extending a hand of friendship to the Chinese in a different way”.
Ultimately, ‘The Forgotten’ is aimed at young people.
“It’s now up to the younger generation to preserve this tradition, and not forget the history of what forged the Australian character on those battlefields by sharing blood and sacrifice,” Wong said.
‘The Forgotten’ is expected to be released later this year.