The Colour of War

Over 120,000 labourers from China joined the war in Europe in 1917. Of these, approximately 80,000 traveled from China to Europe and back again via Canada. Their treatment while in Canada – kept in quarantined camps for weeks and transported in sealed rail cars across the country – was hardly what one might have expected given their status as valuable allies in the war effort. As one historian put it, “Canadians, as a whole treated the Chinese in Canada badly and treated the Chinese labourers on their way to France even worse.”

They were part of a huge contingent of racialized troops and labour battalions that fought in various fronts of the war in Europe, Africa, or the Middle East. This included more than 200,000 African Americans; over 15,000 troops from the Caribbean; over a million from Africa; approximately 1.4 million from the Indian sub-continent; more than 90,000 from Vietnam and Cambodia; and 120,000 from China.

Of the estimated four million or more participants, racialized as non-white in a variety of ways, the vast majority were men and tens of thousands perished. Racialized women also participated in the war, some as nurses and others, particularly in Africa, as carriers or transport workers for supplies for the opposing armies. These included the imperial powers of Britain, France, Russia, Italy, and Japan, who warred against Germany, the Austro-Hungarian empire, and the Ottoman empire in 1914. The United States joined the war in the spring of 1917, while Russia withdrew after the 1917 revolution.

At least nine million people lost their lives in this war, and its ramifications were felt long after. In the end, the color of war was red – the common color of the blood shed by all men and women, including huge numbers of civilians who were sacrificed life or limb in this dreadful conflict.


The article was from the book ‘1923: Challenging Racisms Past and Present‘ designed by John Endo Greenaway. The book is collectively published by Canada-China Focus Stop AND Anti-Asian Hate Crimes Advocacy Group.

The cover photo by Road to justice: The legal struggle for equal rights of Chinese Canadians.



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