Rendez-vous at St. Etienne-au-Mont Communal Cemetery
At first glance, the headstones of these war graves may look like those of all the Commonwealth Cemeteries; however they do in fact mark the resting place of civilian labourers. As the war developed, the Allied Armed Forces required more and more soldiers to deal with logistical problems.
In order to free up its fighting force from non-military tasks, the British Army recruited civilian volunteers from the Commonwealth countries to take their place. In all, 100,000 Egyptians, 21,000 Indians and 20,000 native South Africans were organized into Labour Corps and placed under military command. By the end of hostilities, the Chinese Labour Corps of the British Army comprised 96,000 men.
The Labour Corps mainly carried out manual tasks in general stores and ammunition depots; they also unloaded cargo ships and trains, felled timber for the war effort, and maintained docks, roads, railways and airfields. Living conditions were hard and they worked ten hours a day, six days a week. However, they were paid a daily wage which would have been higher than what they were used to in their home countries. With little or no knowledge of European languages, the Chinese found it difficult to interact with their commanding officers and the local population. They were billeted in special camps, of which the largest was in Noyelles-sur-Mer in the Somme. If they fell ill, they were treated in hospitals reserved exclusively for the Labour Corps. The 160 Chinese who died in No.2 General Labour Hospital in Saint-Étienne-au-Mont near Boulogne were laid to rest in the cemetery alongside ten members of the South African Native Labour Corps.
In the village of Ayette, to the south of Arras, the Commonwealth Cemetery is the final resting place for 80 Indian and Chinese labourers who were employed in maintaining trenches and supplying units close to the Front.
In May 1919, 80,000 Chinese were still at work in France, clearing up the battlefields.