Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Chinese Cemetery of Nolettes

On June 1st, 2013, I visited the Chinese Cemetery of Nolettes on the Somme River. 849 Chinese men who died during World War I or right after it are buried in this beautiful place. 

Their simple gravestones are engraved with Chinese as well as English characters.

Most of these men who died so far from home where probably Buddhist and it is unlikely that any Buddhist words were ever spoken on their behalf
I lit some incense I had brought with me, and I sat in Zazen under the main cypress tree during the time it took for one stick to burn. 
After that I walked each row of gravestones reciting the heart sutra for them. 
Then I bowed and left. 

Here is the story of men buried there almost totally forgotten for over 80 years...

In 1916, France and Britain started to recruit Chinese labourers to fill the manpower shortage caused by World War I. Approximately 140,000 Chinese workers - about 100,000 with the Brits and 40,000 with the French - served on the Western Front during and right after the War.

At the end of the war about 5,000 to 10,000 of them stayed in France and formed the original nucleus of the Chinese community in Paris.

Mainly aged between 20 and 35, these men did not take part to actual combat. They were supporting the frontline troops, unloading ships, building dugouts, repairing roads and railways, digging trenches and filling sandbags. Some worked in armaments factories, others in shipyards. However, when the war ended some were used for mine clearance, or to recover the bodies of soldiers and fill in miles of trenches.

According to the records around 2,000 of them died during the war, most from the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu pandemic, and some as a direct result of enemy action or of wounds received in the course of their duties.

Those who died, classified as war casualties, were buried in several French and Belgian graveyards in the North of France. The largest number of graves is located at the Chinese Cemetery of Noyelles sur Mer close to the Somme river's estuary, where 849 men are buried.

The contribution of these men went forgotten for decades until military ceremonies resumed in 2002.

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