Dominick Dendooven, Asia in Flanders Fields (Pen & Sword, 2021)
In Asia in Flanders Fields, museum curator and historian, Dominick Dendooven analyses the Indian and Chinese contingents on the Western Front. These groups are understudied and undervalued in popular culture and remembrance of the Great War, yet they stood in the same mud and bled the same colour as their European counterparts. Their sacrifice is certainly worthy of more than a mention in the history books. Dendooven’s book may finally have changed that tide.
Dendooven begins with Indians on the Western Front: who they were and what they did. The Indian Army Corps took part in the fighting, though the infantry divisions left in 1915. The British originally did not want them there in the first place, arguing on purely racist grounds. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is a recurrent theme throughout Dendooven’s account. India also supplied a significant number of labourers. Both Indian contingents initially experienced the war as a completely alien environment with few friendly faces; the YMCA was a peculiar but perhaps exaggerated exception. The civilian population and Indians got on reasonably well given the circumstances, and sometimes too well, Dendooven notes. He devotes a chapter to Indian Prisoners of War who were fortunate when grouped together but otherwise endured in bleak isolation, though the Germans were usually decent captors. Whatever their fate, Indians learned from their WWI experience, and some returned to affect change in India.
It might come as a surprise, but 140,000 Chinese served on the Western Front, 96,000 with the British as the Chinese Labour Corps. Dendooven remarks that they are almost entirely forgotten to history. Britain did not want the Chinese in Flanders, but they needed the manpower after the Somme. China wanted a seat at the post-war table and contracted out fit Chinese men. The British knew them by the number on their brass armband and maintained strict segregation, at least on paper; language was, of course, a significant barrier. The Chinese did not fight but suffered casualties from shelling, a clear breach of their contracts, which sometimes led to strikes and violence. Dendooven contrasts British attitudes to that of the Belgians who got on better with the Chinese, though that often broke down in the post-war period. Both exhibited xenophobia and racism towards the Chinese, and sometimes that was reciprocated. Dendooven concludes with an examination of the legacy of the Chinese labourers when they returned to China. Their impact was more indirect than that of the Indians but still significant.
I should note here that this is a work of social history; World War I provides the backdrop to most of the description and analysis in Dendooven’s book. He makes excellent use of mainly western primary sources, but Dendooven also makes the most of those from India and especially China, including interpreting their message laden artefacts. The picture he draws of the Indians and Chinese is probably as good as we are going to get with the sources available, but we should thank Dendooven and other like-minded historians who have picked up the cudgel for a transnational history of World War I on the Western Front.