The British Army’s Chinese Auxiliaries in Arctic Russia

Yuexin Rachel Lin

While conducting research in the Academia Sinica digital archives in 2017, I stumbled across a remarkable document: A list of Chinese workers, part of a labour company recruited by the Slavo-British Legion in the northern Russian cities of Murmansk and Archangel. The list includes every man’s name, age, hometown, and even the names of his parents, wife and the number of siblings. Each terse entry records a life transplanted across the Eurasian continent from China to the Arctic Circle. The story of how they got there is one that takes in China’s struggle for national revival, the First World War, and the international response to the world’s first successful communist revolution.

Figure 1. Name List of Chinese Workers Returning from Russia, March 1920

Strangers on the Eastern Front

China’s role in the First World War has become better known since the centenary in 2014-2018. As Europe was set ablaze by the conflict, to many Chinese it seemed that a new world order – one led by Wilsonian ideas of freedom and national self-determination – would emerge from the ashes. Since the mid-19th Century, imperial powers such as Britain, France, Russia, Japan, and Germany had made inroads into China. They established concessions exempt from Chinese government and law, imposed heavy indemnities following colonial wars, and took charge of tax and customs administration. The post-war world seemed to offer the chance for China to regain some of its lost sovereignty, if it played its diplomatic cards right.

Nevertheless, the Beijing government was torn by its own political infighting. Until August 1917, when China finally joined the Allies, conflict between pro- and anti-war factions paralysed foreign policy. China therefore remained neutral through most of the War and could not commit troops to either side. What it could do, however, was meet the Allies’ desperate need for labour as the fighting dragged on.

Xu Guoqi’s groundbreaking research into the Chinese Labour Corps has shown how, beginning in 1915, 140,000 Chinese were recruited by Britain and France as auxiliary labour for the Western Front. Yet an equal, if not greater, number was employed by Russia on the Eastern Front. Russia’s extensive land border with China and its longstanding colonial presence in Manchuria facilitated the hiring of Chinese wartime workers, often illegally or informally.[1] The exact number of Chinese auxiliaries in the tsarist army is therefore unknown: The Beijing Foreign Ministry then estimated it at at least 100,000,[2] while other sources cite a figure as high as 500,000.

Chinese migrants in Russia had traditionally resided in the far eastern border regions, or in Moscow and St Petersburg. Wartime workers, however, were scattered across European Russia. They found themselves digging trenches near the front, mining coal in the Urals, and logging in regions close to today’s Belarus. And, in 1916, 10,000 went to construct the strategic St Petersburg-Murmansk railway,[3] a vital link between the Russian capital and an ice-free port.

Figure 2. Chinese workers drafted to construct the Murmansk railway. National Museums of the Republic of Karelia, (КГМ-2095). Original source: http://kgkm.karelia.ru/site/exhibit/27

The Bolshevik seizure of power in November 1917 was followed by the disintegration of the tsarist army. Lenin’s government, an international pariah after its exit from the First World War, was unrecognised by the Great Powers, including China. In February 1918, the Chinese ambassador was evacuated along with other Allied diplomats, and communications between European Russia and Beijing were severely disrupted. Russia’s Chinese auxiliaries therefore lacked any institutional or diplomatic support for relief and repatriation. Unlike their compatriots on the Western Front, many were simply abandoned. Between them and China lay thousands of miles of Russian landscape, now in the fratricidal throes of a civil war.

Some of the Murmansk workers made their way to St Petersburg, where remaining members of the embassy and Chinese students tried to support and repatriate them.[4] Others swelled the ranks of the Red Army, which began actively recruiting Chinese workers.[5] An unknown number perished in the surrounding taiga. A final group stayed put, where they encountered British soldiers landing in North Russia.

The Slavo-British Legion

In March 1918, shortly after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Royal Marines arrived at Murmansk to prevent the port and its stockpiles from falling into German hands. The conflict and its goals soon expanded. By May, Britain had dispatched a North Russian Expeditionary Force to Murmansk, which captured Archangel three months later. This was part of the international military intervention against the Soviet regime, ostensibly to support anti-Bolshevik governments that would bring Russia back into the First World War.

The British fielded a unit of local recruits, the Slavo-British Legion, in battles against the Bolsheviks. Its labour auxiliaries included the Chinese left behind in North Russia; between 116 and 236 were employed at its Archangel headquarters from September 1918 to January 1919.[6] In May, the British government informed charge d’affaires Luo Zhongyi that the Legion had a transport brigade of 222 Chinese workers, tasked with guarding bridges and unloading goods. They “seemed very satisfied (si shen manyi)”; could Beijing send an officer to oversee them?[7] The State Council in Beijing agreed, but the difficulty of sending a Chinese officer to North Russia scuppered the plan.[8]

Whatever relief these workers had was short-lived. The Armistice of November 1918 undermined the justification for further British military involvement in Russia and public opinion turned against the intervention. In March 1919, British troops began planning their withdrawal from North Russia by the end of October.[9] London duly informed Ambassador Alfred Sze in August that it wished to repatriate the Legion’s 250 Chinese workers, and asked if Beijing would pay for their transport to China via Britain.[10] Embassy secretary Zheng Yanxi, one of the staff remaining in Russia, also called on Beijing to either foot the bill or send a ship to Britain to take the workers home.[11]

Beijing agreed to pay for the repatriation, but could not communicate with Zheng in time. Instead, he and fellow embassy staff Li Baotang took charge of the evacuation. Their negotiations with the British command secured the passage not only of 219 Chinese workers with the Legion, who left for London on 2 September 1919, but also of other Chinese civilians in Murmansk and Archangel – more than 600 evacuees in total. Most of the auxiliaries were sent home to Qingdao via Canada in October, and it was Zheng and Li who recorded their names as they left Russia.[12]

Figure 3. Ministry of Information First World War Official Collection (Q 16451) Group of officers and men, Slavo-British Legion. Archangel. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205251248

China’s hopes for a favourable peace settlement took these workers far from home to Russia, where the rise of Bolshevik ideology and the demands of a European war buffeted them from the tsarist to the British army. Yet they were the lucky ones, being situated within reach of Allied forces and capable Chinese representatives. Thousands of their compatriots perished in the wilderness or the battlefields of the Russian Civil War. Their names have unfortunately been lost, swept away by vast national and international currents that they may have understood only dimly.

Yuexin Rachel Lin is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Exeter, where she works on the Chinese diaspora community in Russia during the 1917 Revolutions and Civil War. In particular, she focuses on emerging Chinese discourses of nationalism, humanitarianism and international law in response to revolutionary violence. She also blogs at Shots Across the Amur, a digital resource of Chinese documents on the Russian Revolution.


[1] Zhixue Li and Qingming Xie, “Shiyue geming qianhou Beiyang zhengfu dui lü E qiaomin de shiling baohu”, Nanjing zhengzhi xueyuan xuebao, no. 4 (2012), 82.

[2] “Draft from the Foreign Ministry to the President, 8 Jun 1917”, in Yujun Wang, Tingyi Guo and Qiuyuan Hu (eds.) Zhong-E guanxi shiliao: E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), Minguo liunian zhi banian (Taipei: Zhongyang yanjiuyuan jindaishi yanjiusuo, 1960), 111-112 (hereafter YBJS1).

[3] Igor Saveliev, “Chinese Migration to Russia in Space and Time”, in Pal Nyiri and Igor Saveliev (eds.), Globalizing Chinese Migration: Trends in Europe and Asia (Abingdon: Routledge, 2019), 41.

[4] “Telegram from embassy secretary Li Shizhong, 6 Mar 1918 (sent 2 Mar)”, YBJS1, 282.

[5] John Erickson, “Red Internationalists on the March: The Military Dimension, 1918-1922”, in Cathryn Brennan and Murray Frame (eds.), Russia and the Wider World: Essays for Paul Dukes (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000), 132.

[6] See, for example, WO 106/1153/797; WO 106/1155/604.

[7] “Telegram from charge d’affaires Luo Zhongyi in Britain, 4 Jun 1919 (sent 27 May)”, in Yujun Wang, Tingyi Guo and Qiuyuan Hu (eds.) Zhong-E guanxi shiliao: E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (2), Minguo liunian zhi banian (Taipei: Zhongyang yanjiuyuan jindaishi yanjiusuo, 1960), 301 (hereafter YBJS2).

[8] “Letter from the State Council, 14 Jun 1919”, “Letter from the Army Ministry, 26 Jun 1919”, YBJS2, 324, 354-355.

[9] WO 106/1177 passim; WO 106/1158/112.

[10] “Telegram from Ambassador to Britain Shi Zhaoji, 23 Aug 1919 (sent 20 Aug)”, YBJS2, 463-464.

[11] “Telegram from secretary Zheng Yanxi in Russia, 20 Aug 1919 (sent 11 Aug)”, YBJS2, 454.

[12] “Telegram from the ambassador in Britain, 26 Nov 1919”, “Telegram from the ambassador in Britain, 9 Dec 1919”, “Letter from Zheng Yanxi in Russia, 20 Dec 1919 (sent 30 Sept)”, YBJS2, 607, 632, 646-648.


Figure 1. Name List of Chinese Workers Returning from Russia, March 1920, Institute of Modern History Archives, Academia Sinica. 03-32-327-02-013-092.

Figure 2. Chinese workers drafted to construct the Murmansk railway, National Museum of the Republic of Karelia, (КГМ-2095).

Figure 3 (and banner image). Group of officers and men, Slavo-British Legion, Archangel. Ministry of Information First World War Official Collection, © IWM (Q 16451), and reproduced under a non-commercial licence.

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