February 2022 saw the opening of a play about the Chinese Labour corps and their experience of the First World War. Based on an original script by Ian Henery adapted by Emma Cooper the production is a compelling story set during the events of the Western Front.

‘They came to help. They stayed to die.’

One of the least known stories of the First World War. The moving and surprising story of the Chinese Labour Corps, who volunteered to travel thousands of miles to help in a war they knew little about. Loyalty, colonialism and romance combine in this new play based on true events.

As the First World War pressed on, the British Government became more acutely aware of their need for manpower to maintain the logistics of such a large scale campaign. The Chinese government, wishing to establish themselves as an international power recommended ‘the labour plan’ which would alleviate the labour shortages being suffered by the allies. From 1917 onwards the British alone recruited close to 100,000 Chinese men from the northern Chinese provinces. The majority of the number travelled via Canada, finally arriving in Noyelles-sur-Mer, France.

Some of the more capable men carried out skilled labour such as engineering, riveting and working for the Tank Corps but the majority worked as unskilled labourers; digging trenches, filling sandbags and repairing roads. Whilst officially non-combatants – the labour corps were often malnourished and worked in dangerous conditions such as near shell fire. It is estimated that as many as 20,000 had died by the end of the war.

*Photos are from last year’s rehearsed reading