Harry Livingstone’s forgotten men: the Canadians and the Chinese Labour Corps in the First World War
by Dan Black
published by James Lorimer & Co., Toronto, 2020
paperback ISBN 978 1 459 414327
503 pages including appendices, endnotes, bibliograohy and index
Illustrated (black and white, not profusely), one map.
The words “forgotten” or “neglected” or “unknown” in a title on the Great War is usually enough to put me off reading it, for in all too many cases the subject matter turns out to be anything but. Even the Chinese Labour Corps, a large but largely undiscussed element of the forces deployed by the British Army in France, is emerging from the shadows and has received an increasing amount of attention these last few years. But in the case of Harry Livingstone’s men, I think there is a case for calling them forgotten. At least in part, that is because of official attempts to hide them at the time.
Dan Black has pulled together an excellent account of the movements of some 81000 Chinese labourers from their home country and the recruitment depots at Waiheiwai and Tsingtao, via sailing to Vancouver and the long railway journey to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and then across the Atlantic to France. The most intriguing sector of the epic journey was when these men travelled through Canada, essentially in sealed trains. To a large extent, Black recreates the story through the papers of Dr. Harry Livingstone, an officer of the Canadian Army Medical Corps who was assigned with others to escort the Chinese. But it is more than that: it is a human story of hardy men, mostly illiterate or semi so, from the Shantung (Shandong) province of north China who were projected into wholly unfamiliar environments. There are insights from the memoirs, diaries and letters of other Canadians involved and from the Chinese.
Overall, I found this to be an absorbing, fascinating and new account. For anyone interested in the Chinese Labour Corps it will be simply invaluable, but it goes further than that for it helps in developing our understanding of the global conflict and of the extraordinary logistical efforts that had to be undertaken to fight it.
The book concludes with short but useful appendices on CLC burials in Canada and on the Spanish Flu pandemic. It had extensive endnotes and a good bibliography.