Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘First World War’

Commemorating the Chinese Labour Corps

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 13th September, 2016

chinese-labour-corps-1As Britons this year have been remembering the fallen of the Battle of the Somme 100 years ago, scant mention has been made of the largest group of foreign labourers who helped dig the trenches, unload ships and trains and make roads: the Chinese Labour Corps. About 96,000 predominantly rural workers from China volunteered to help the British in the war effort, enduring a grueling journey by ship from Shanghai, then six days in a sealed train across Canada before another ocean voyage, eventually reaching England and being transferred to France. Once in the war zone they worked ten hours a day, seven days a week, with only a three day annual holiday entitlement, and they were looked down on as “coolies” by many of the fighting men. But their loyalty and bravery were exemplary and many who survived stayed on until 1920, to carry out the distressing task of digging up human remains and reburying them under the neat rows of headstones in war cemeteries. across Flanders. Those cemeteries have become places of pilgrimage and remembrance, especially in this centenary year, and in Britain there are 40,000 memorials of one kind or another to the fallen of the First World War. Yet there is no memorial as yet to the Chinese Labour Corps, even though an estimated 20,000 perished. That includes over 500 who died when a German submarine sank the French ship Athos, bringing labourers to the battlegrounds, after which China declared war on Germany in August 1917. However, a project, spearheaded by Steve Lau, Chairman of the Ensuring We Remember Campaign, is now underway to ensure that the members of the Chinese Labour Corps get just recognition with a memorial to be erected somewhere in London. Last night I attended a fundraising dinner in Chinatown, along with Merlene Toh Emerson of Chinese Liberal Democrats and a number of other politicians, including DCLG Minister Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth and London Assembly member Shaun Bailey. Further details and an opportunity to donate can be found at


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Peace and War: Britain in 1914

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 10th August, 2015

imageThe avalanche of books that came out last year to mark the centenary of the beginning of the First World War concentrated mainly on the causes of that hellish conflict, which consumed millions of young lives during the more than four years that it ran. The assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo in the summer of 1914 was in many ways a pretext for bellicose action on a continent whose leaders were itching for a fight. At first their was division within Asquith’s Cabinet in London about the wisdom of Britain’s getting involved, though once the Germans entered neutral Belgium the dye was cast. Largely forgotten by many, but given rightful prominence in Nigel Jones’s lavishly illustrated volume Peace and War: Britain in 1914 (Head of Zeus, £25), troubles in Ireland were more of an immediate headache in London for much of the year. The summer started early and the weather was fine which meant that this codicil to to Edwardian era (by now presided over by King George V) was bathed in a light that afterwards would be viewed with nostalgia — at least by the leisured classes who enjoyed the full privileges of their rank and their wealth. However, even without the looming War, change was on the way. One of the strengths of Nigel Jones’s book is that he gives due attention to the Suffragettes, socialism and other novelties that had come to the fore in the previous years. He also highlights some of the young artists, writers and bohemians — some of whom would perish on the battlefields — with helpful commentary. The net result is a sweeping social history of a fundamental period of social change, rather than a mere examination of the causes of the First World War. The book will therefore retain its relevance when others have been forgotten.

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We Mustn’t Take Peace for Granted

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 12th April, 2014

Battle of the SommeIn this centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War many minds have been turning to the issues of war and peace, and when I make speeches at hustings or rallies in the current European election campaign I always make the point that the founding fathers of what is now the European Union wanted to enmesh the economies of France and Germany (in particular) so that war in western Europe would be unthinkable. And so it appears. But it is all too easy for us today to take that for granted. As a child of the 1950s, I was very much aware of the legacy of the Second World War — the bomb sites, the drab unpainted unrestored buildings, the dreary food and the tail-end of rationing — but I was too young to see National Service. So it was perhaps a little perverse of me to go off to war voluntarily at the age of 18 — as a journalist in Vietnam. What I saw there burned into my heart a hatred for war and for all the human emotions connected with it. I attended my first Quaker meeting there, and joined the Society of Friends when I went up to Oxford. And although Reuters sent me off to comfortable Brussels when I joined the news agency after university, the lure of conflict zones was too great, and relaunched as a freelance commentator and broadcaster I covered a whole range of bloody situations, from Israel/Palestine to Central America and Angola. That was not because I revelled in the suffering. Quite the contrary. But I believed passionately that it needed to be reported, so people might learn that humanity should develop ways of resolving differences and rivalries more constructively. I still feel that today, as Vladimir Putin seems intent on infiltrating deeper into eastern Ukraine, alarming not just Kiev but several other of Russia’s neighbours. In the recent Clegg versus Farage EU IN/OUT debates in Britain, Nick Clegg stressed the importance of Britain’s EU membership for jobs — and of course that is true. But I shall also carry on talking about something that is not just related to the economy or livelihoods: the EU — enlarged a decade ago to take in formerly Communist states of central and eastern Europe — is a brilliant example of how to do things differently, about how to live togeter in peace, celebrating diversity. Fall back on nationalism, as Nigel Farage and some of his more unsavoury counterparts on the Continent would like us to do, will only lead to renewed tensions between peoples and, yes, the reappearance of the spectre of war.

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