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March 10, 2017

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Betrayed ally: revisiting a Chinese tragedy from the First World War

JUST a hundred years ago last month, the French ship Athos was torpedoed off Malta on its way to France from the Far East. It was a victim of Germany’s new policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. The main aim was to starve Britain into submission in the First World War; instead, it brought America into the war and, thus, ensured Germany’s defeat.

The Ministère de la Marine in Paris, as reported by The Times, announced that 1,450 people had been saved and that the Athos was carrying the Chinese mail. The fact that 543 Chinese laborers (and many sailors) lost their lives was not considered newsworthy. Mail was more important than people.

By the start of the First World War, China had been subjected to 70 years of ever increasing intrusion from Europe, America and Japan. Since the early nineteenth century, the economy had made no progress; China’s per capita income had fallen by 8 percent, while that of Japan (China’s biggest threat), Europe and the USA had risen two, three and four times, respectively.

Economic failure

Economic failure was accompanied by a profound sense of humiliation felt by many Chinese. Their homeland was exploited and pillaged by foreigners, hundreds of thousands were exported as “coolies” and millions died or were displaced by natural disasters and periodic rebellions.

Although the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) gave way to a republican parliament in 1912, it was soon subverted by the dictatorship of Yuan Shikai, which left the country divided.

The war, in fact, was seen by some Chinese elites as a major opportunity, even if it was difficult to arrive at an agreed strategy.

With the European nations involved in a death struggle at the other side of the world, the foreign intrusion could be reversed, if not totally removed.

Within days of the outbreak of war in August 1914, Yuan Shikai offered Britain 50,000 troops to help recover the German colony in Shandong. Humiliatingly, he received no answer; instead, Britain supplied a small contingent to help Japan seize the Chinese soil. It became a key war aim for China to recover all of Shandong, the birth place of Confucius.

By the end of 1916, the huge British and French losses on the Somme and at Verdun led to a desperate shortage of men to throw into the battle. China provided part of the solution by sending laborers, eventually some 340,000 altogether, to Britain, France and Russia, thus releasing an equivalent amount of men for the front line. Their work was incredibly important for the war effort, covering the maintenance of roads, railways, machinery and many sorts of hard labor.

‘Beyond all praise’

Their digging of trenches was measured as 43 percent more efficient than that of British workers. Their highly skilled work on Britain’s secret new weapon, the tank, was “beyond all praise” according to an official report.

The Chinese who went down with the Athos were among the first wave of these laborers; tens of thousands more were to lose their lives, mainly in France and Russia.

To ensure representation at the peace conference, China declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary in August 1917. It did not help China, because, at Versailles, despite President Wilson’s vision of self-determination of peoples, the continued occupation of Shandong by Japan was confirmed.

It had been secretly agreed by the major powers then.

Most Chinese saw the Versailles decision as a betrayal; hence the title of our book, “Betrayed Ally: China in the Great War” (Pen & Sword Books). The betrayal sparked the May Fourth Movement, a nationwide eruption of rage and protest, which transformed Chinese history and resonates in Chinese hearts to this day.

Rising again

After decades of civil strife, Japanese invasion, world war and the growing pains in the early years of the People’s Republic, China is once again a leading nation and recognized as such.

Its industries lead the world, including shipbuilding. It was a happy gesture, in 2012, when the Fuzhou South Eastern Shipyard resuscitated the unusual name of Athos as a reminder of the many Chinese who had perished in an earlier ship of the same name.

Frances Wood is a sinologist who has written more than 12 books on Chinese themes. She was born in London in 1948. After art school in Liverpool, she studied Chinese at Newnham College, Cambridge and the universities of Peking and London, where she got a DPhil in Chinese. In 1977, she joined the British Library and became curator of the Chinese collections.


Christopher Arnander was born in Rome in 1932. He was educated at Harrow School and Oriel College, Oxford, where he studied classics. He taught classics at a school in Scarborough and the University of Minnesota, USA. From 1957, he pursued a banking career. After retirement in 1991, he begun editing, proof reading and writing books.


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