Tuesday, 1 August 2017

A Letter to the Director General of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission re The Chinese Labour Corps (CLC)


1. Ms Victoria Wallace, Director General, Commonwealth War Graves Commission
2. Mr Steve Lau, Chairman, Ensuring We Remember
3. Ms Anna Chen (Madam Miaow), Author and Broadcaster


Dear Ms Wallace, cc Mr Lau and Ms Chen

The Chinese Labour Corps

I hope my blog post finds you well. I am writing to share six facts from my GCSEs with you to ask you, in your capacity as the Director General of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and the Commission, to consider remembering, on the Commission’s website, the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC), even if they were a ragtag motley crew who were not soldiers or fighters of any sort, and non-Caucasian foreigners from a non-Commonwealth country.

At school, GCSE History was effective in helping us to delve into the terrible conditions at Ypres, Passchendaele and the Somme, and learning about the sheer madness and awfulness of it all made Wilfred Owen’s words, which we had to learn in GCSE English, clear, even if he was writing from a place and time that we, who were all around his age then, were all fortunate enough never to have been in:

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
-          Owen, Dulce et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori

Then there was GCSE Chemistry, where we learnt about pleasanter things like the Haber Method, which is a method for obtaining synthetic fertilizer named after Fritz Haber.

And thanks to the National Curriculum, I learned these things.

All my GCSE classes omitted that it was Fritz Haber who ultimately developed chlorine gas as a weapon against British soldiers like Wilfred Owen.

It is only now as an adult that I learned that chlorine was discovered in the 1800s, and I can extrapolate one thing: I am sure Haber knew the damage chlorine gas could do, because otherwise, he would not have worked on it. He knew what his priorities were.

I first became aware of the relationship between the Commission’s website and the CLC from a Twitter exchange involving Ms Anna Chen and Mr Steve Lau. I do not know you, Mr Lau or Ms Chen in a personal or professional capacity; all I am is a follower of Ms Chen’s Twitter account.

Nevertheless, the exchange made me go back to my schooldays, and in doing so, I must ask you these questions.

Why, Ms Wallace, are all British schoolchildren obligated to remember Fritz Haber as a saviour? Why, Ms Wallace, are British schoolchildren venerating someone so amoral? Why should we remember his name when he developed poisons, and he knew and fully weaponised them so that they would kill British soldiers? Why is history being kind to him?

Why, Ms Wallace, are British schoolchildren not told about what really went on in the Great War? Why should decent men who were as naïve about war as Wilfred Owen, who were allies and comrades of British soldiers, who dug their trenches and fixed their tanks, who carried things for them, and who gave them proper burials, and who carefully and painstakingly built such beautiful garden-like cemeteries for them (all right, the cemeteries were designed by other people, but the CLC did the grunt work), despite English not being a language they knew, why were such men not mentioned in any GCSE textbook in this country when I was at school?

Lest we forget, even the Animals of the Great War have a permanent memorial built in their honour and memory in Central London.

I am not asking for answers, nor for a memorial to be built to the CLC; it is unfair for me to ask that of you.

But we can make a start in what we teach our future generations. For example, I am sure there are other ways to make fertilizer!

Last but not least, I am writing this letter for Jim Maultsaid and his granddaughter Barbara McClune (@starshell208). I don't know them at all, but I think they deserve a holla for their sterling work.

With kind regards

Yours sincerely
Beanie Lei



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