Monday, 26 September 2016

Book Review: “Betrayed Ally – China in the Great War” by Frances Wood and Christopher Arnander

I first found out about the Chinese Labour Corps when researching Canadian Artist Mary Riter Hamilton for the Inspirational Women section of my commemorative WW1 exhibition project.  Mary was commissioned by the Canadian Amputees Association to travel to France in May 1919 to paint the aftermath.  She lived for three years in a tin hut among the Chinese workers who cleared away the mess left at the end of the First World War.   I was therefore very interested in finding out more about China during the conflict and pleased to find a book on the subject.

As the writers say in the Introduction: “Few in the English-speaking world have any idea of China’s participation in the First World War”.  This books puts that right.

Initially neutral, in October 1915, China presented a military aircraft to the British government;

300,000 Chinese workers served during WW1;

140,000 Chinese workers served in France;

200,000 Chinese workers served in Russia; they were caught up in the Revolution and ‘disappeared’;

One of the first battles of the First World War was on Chinese soil;

10,000 or more Chinese workers died or were killed – some at sea during the perilous journey by sea to France - due to the intense German submarine campaign against Allied shipping;

China officially joined the Entente Allies in 1917 and declared war on Germany;

China attended the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919 but felt belittled and betrayed and did not sign the Peace Treaty.

Reading this book, which, the writers explain, is aimed at ‘the general reader’ (that is most definitely me) helps us to understand the current situation in the world.   The writers explain in detail the recent history of China which became a Republic in 1912.   They tell us about the political intrigues, secret dealings and complex diplomatic negotiations that went on behind the scenes during the war years in the Far East.   What happened during the Versailles Peace Treaty is also explained and this undoubtedly led to the conflicts of the 1930s and beyond.

I particularly liked the notes on transliteration which explain the complexities of the Chinese language, for instance, the word ‘coolie’ means hard labour.  I knew there was a Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery for Chinese Labour Corps members who died or were killed in France but I did not know about the Chinese Hospital at Noyelles-sur-Mer in France which was run by Douglas Gray, the former Medical Officer at the British Legation in China.

And interestingly, we learn that young British diplomats who worked for the British Civil Service and who wanted to volunteer for military service were discouraged from doing so because it was thought a waste of their long years of training in diplomacy, though young men in the Consular Service were eventually allowed to join up (p. 58).

Illustrated throughout with maps, cartoons, photographs, charts and diagrams and including appendices detailing recent Chinese history and prominent personalities of WW1 and with copious explanatory notes and a comprehensive index, this book is required reading for anyone interested in the First World War.

“Betrayed Ally – China in the Great War” by Frances Wood and Christopher Arnander, published by Pen & Sword, Barnsley in 2016. ISBN 978-1-47387–501-2.

“With the Chinks” by Daryl Klein is available as a free download on Archive:

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

The Knuts in WW1

The Knuts came to fame in the review “The Passing Show” which starred Basil Hallam as “Gilbert the Filbert”.  Knuts were Edwardian men-about-town, usually the younger sons of wealthy families.   In his Jeeves and Wooster novel “Joy in the Morning”, P.G. Wodehouse described the typical Knut as “humble, kindly, and lovable”. 
"The Passing Show" introduced the American actress Elsie Janis to British audiences and opened in London at the Palace Theatre in April 1914.   At around that time, Elsie and Basil became secretly engaged and set up home in Liverpool.   When war broke out, Basil joined the army and was killed in the first months of WW1 on the Western Front when he jumped from his Observation Balloon and his parachute failed to open.   Elsie never got over his death.
Jack Buchanan the actor (1890 – 1957) was not passed as fit to join the armed forces during WW1 and continued with his acting, singing and dancing career.  He became known as ‘the last of the Knuts’.  
Elsie went on to entertain the troops on the Western Front during WW1 and then had a career as an actress and writer. 
Jack Buchanan made his name as a film actor as well as a musical comedy star.

Photo:  Basil Hallam as Gilbert the Filbert.
Here is a cartoon relevant to the Knuts drawn by Martin Anderson (1854 - 1932), better known by his alias Cynicus – Scottish artist, political cartoonist, postcard illustrator and publisher.

Postcard - The Kernel of the Knuts  



Monday, 5 September 2016

Ruhleben WW1 Internment Camp, Germany

A report in “The Times” newspaper of 9th January 1916 gives us a good deal of information about those civilians who were interned in the camp at the outbreak of WW1.  Ruhleben Internment Camp was situated on a race track about six miles west of Berlin.

A party of released internees travelled through Holland on their way to Britain.  Those released were men from many different countries “Aden, Burma, Jamaica, and from other parts of the Empire”.  In the main they had been crew members on board merchant ships but others had been working in hotels and restaurants as waiters and so on.  

Interviewed by newspaper reporters eager for news, the released prisoners said they were very grateful indeed for the parcels that were regularly received at the camp containing butter, bacon, milk and white bread.   They were also very grateful for the hospitality they received from the Society of Friends as they travelled to freedom through neutral Holland.

On New Year’s Day 1916, internees performed a pantomime – Cinderella – in front of an audience that included the American Ambassador in Berlin, some of the female employees of the American Embassy and German Army officers on duty at the camp with their wives.

By January 1916, detainees had organised themselves to make internment as bearable as possible and the camp was set up with a wide variety of facilities for prisoners, including the possibility of studying for exams – lessons were held in Greek and Latin as well as modern languages such as Russian, French and German.   Golf, hockey, lacrosse, Rugby and Association football were played and matches were held.  There was even a magazine.  A jockey – Mr H.W. Dye – told reporters there were a dozen or so jockeys in the Camp.   One of the released mentioned that those German officers who spoke English were almost always more considerate than officers who did not speak English. 

Source:  "The Times" 9th January 2016 and various Internet sites.

Picture - from the camp magazine Ruhleben in Winter.