The Chinese contribution on the Western Front is one of the least well known aspects of that intensely studied conflict. Close to 100,000 Chinese were recruited for service as labourers behind the front lines, providing essential services to keep the front lines supplied. Maultsaid’s men largely specialised in moving supplies in and out of the massive supply depots behind the Western Front, and he pays particular attention to his ‘oil gang’, who focused on moving the vast quantities of oil cans needed by the increasingly mechanised British army.
This is the third part of the author’s First World War diaries, and covers the key battles of 1918, both the German offensives and the final Allied advance to victory. This isn’t a standard diary. Instead it is more of a scrapbook, made up of a series of illustrated stories reflecting key aspects of Maultsaid’s war experiences. We get very few fixed dates, although some of the entries are attached to datable events. The book starts with a section on a Chinese funeral, followed by the author’s experiences with the flu, then his notes on the different appearances found in his company, Chinese customs etc. Incident follows incident in the order that Maultsaid first drew them into his illustrated diaries, so we get an idea of how the flow of the battles affected him. This does chance towards the end of the war, and in November we start to get a few more firm dates, linked to some of the company’s more tiring days – once again a reminder that the final victorious campaigns were amongst the most costly and intense of the war.
For me this book stands out for two main reasons. The first is that Maultsaid was interested in finding out how the Chinese saw the world, so that he could understand any problems that arose from their point of view and try and deal with things fairly. One word of warning is needed – although the author clearly admired, respected and liked his Chinese labourers, he does use language that was acceptable at the time but wouldn’t be now.
Second are Maultaid’s illustrations, which gives the diary an intensely visual focus (and also includes some artwork produced by his Chinese workers). These cover a vast array of topics, from the various haircuts favoured by the Chinese to the layout of underground German bunker complexes. Unsurprisingly the achievements of his workers are the subject of the bulk of the drawings, but we also get quite a few on the aerial battles above them, and on the front line.
Although the Chinese were working behind the lines, that didn’t entirely protect them from German attack, and in particular air attack. We get several accounts of the impact of air raids on the rear area, and of the anti-aircraft barrage put up in response. During the German offensives of 1918 retreated British troops came past their depot, so we get an eyewitness account of the impact of the German offensive. Maultsaid also includes stories from elsewhere on the front, including several of heroic last stands during these offensives.
This is a splendid book, actually painting a vivid picture of life with the Chinese Labour Corps, an invaluable but often forgotten contribution to the Allied war effort.
Author: Jim Maultsaid
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military