Betrayed Ally: China in the Great War by Frances Wood and Christopher Arnander

Reviewed by Phil Curme.

Although Chinese labourers were active on the Western Front throughout WW1 - and afterwards - many will be unaware of the full breadth that nation’s involvement. Betrayed Ally is an ambitious attempt to tell the history of foreign intervention in Chinese affairs, military actions in the Great War against German interests in the Far East, China’s contribution to the Allied war effort in Western Europe and the nation’s post-war geo-political legacy.

The authors judge China’s contribution to the Allied war effort to have been understated, and that the nation was severely disadvantaged - ‘betrayed’ - by duplicitous Allied Powers in the Versailles Treaty. Whilst this reviewer regards the first judgement as sound, the second is argued less convincing.

The contribution of the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC) to the Allied war effort is covered in twenty-five totally absorbing pages.  They show that the nation’s role extended far beyond the provision of logistical support in the lines of communication on the Western Front. Chinese labourers performed a critical role in French industry, dug trenches and dug-outs within enemy artillery range and manned the workshops of the Tank Corps. When the conflict ended the CLC interred the dead and disposed of battlefield munitions. 

The machinations of local European diplomats and business leaders in Shanghai and Tianjin make for fascinating reading, but it is the prevailing international political context that dominates the narrative. The first three chapters demonstrate the authors’ heavy investment in the Chinese narrative of national humiliation - seeing European activity in pre-Great War China as predominantly exploitative and in variance to Chinese national interest. They also offer a convincing overview of Japan’s ambition to subjugate vast areas of China.

Whilst British troops served under Japanese command briefly in the successful assault on the German concession of Tsingtao in November 1914, the authors judge Japanese retention of Tsingtao after the war an example of national betrayal. In the early years of the war the British Government gave repeated indications that it would support the return of Tsingtao to the Chinese. President Wilson reinforced this impression in 1918 when he set out his Fourteen Points.

Central to this idealistic view of the post war settlement was that nations should have autonomy and colonial claims settled. The authors’ argument is that the decision of the allied powers to renege on this undertaking fatally wounded Chinese political stability and national cohesion. The result, they state, was catastrophic for China in the 1930s and 40s. 

The text is supplemented by informative appendices. The first offers a chronology of Chinese history from the start of the Manchu dynasty (1644) to the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The second provides brief biographies key personalities. Betrayed Ally is a thoroughly researched and provocative introductory study of China in the Great War. 

Betrayed Ally: China in the Great War by Frances Wood and Christopher Arnander

£25:00, Pen and Sword, Barnsley,182pp,108 ills,10 b/w maps & tables, index, notes and refs. ISBN 978-1-47387-501-2