The colony of Hong Kong was made up of the island of Hong Kong, which had been ceded to Britain from China in 1841, and the much larger New Territories on the Kowloon peninsula on the Chinese mainland. The New Territories had been leased from China for 99 years in 1898. The total population of the territory was approximately 500,000, including 10,000 of European origin. The colony was the focal point of the British Empire in the Far East, and provided a base for both trade and military forces. The limited German activity in East Asia meant that Hong Kong was isolated from the worst effects of the conflict.

The colony of Wei-Hai-Wei (now Weihai) was one of Britain’s newest imperial possessions, as it was leased from China in 1898. Situated in northern China at the end of the Shantung peninsula (now Shandong), it offered a secure harbour for the Royal Navy to protect British interests in the region. It served as a base for the Anglo-Japanese operation to capture the nearby German colony of Tsingtao.

Later in the war, Wei-Hai-Wei became the recruiting and administrative centre of the Chinese Labour Corps, which provided logistical support for the British war effort in France.

Outbreak of War

CO 129/412

Hong Kong Waters East, 1915. CO 129/412

As tensions rose in early August 1914, the colonial government in Hong Kong started to take defensive measures. On 2 August the harbour examination system was established and the naval reserve was mobilised. The following day censorship restrictions were placed on communications, particularly by telegraph and wireless. On 5 August the Governor Sir Henry May read out the declaration of war and the Hong Kong Volunteer Corp and the Hong Kong Volunteer Reserve were mobilised (CO 129/412, CO 132/55, WO 95/5444).

By the middle of August, the full defensive scheme for the colony was in place. This included an examination service, submarine and destroyer patrols, mine sweeping and the manning of artillery batteries. The officer commanding the Hong Kong garrison reported that ‘cases of ships not complying with rules have been numerous and it has been necessary to fire many times across their bows’. One Japanese ship continued to ignore the warning and was fired upon, resulting in the loss of one sailor (WO 32/5345, WO 95/5441).

The declaration of war caused widespread panic, particularly among the Chinese community, which was fanned by what the Governor described as ‘wild rumours’. There was a run on the local banks, and in the first week of the war between 40,000 and 50,000 people were believed to have fled the colony for the Chinese mainland. Fears of a German attack quickly decreased, but the disruption of trade meant that war continued to have an impact on the economic life of the colony (CO 129/412, WO 32/5345).


ADM 137/35 f328

Anglo Japanese Naval Operations against Tsing-Tau 1914. ADM 137/35 f328

The major German colonial possession in East Asia was Kiaochow (Jiaozhou), which was focused around the port of Tsingtao (Qingdao) on the Shantung peninsula. The operations to capture the colony were mainly carried by Japanese forces, but they were assisted by British military and naval units.

Tsingtao was blockaded at the end of August 1914. The main force of almost 30,000 Japanese troops, supported by 900 men of the 2nd battalion South Wales Borderers, landed the following month. The British contingent was later enlarged by 450 men from the 36th Sikh Regiment.

Tsingtao was heavily fortified by the Germans and the British forces were engaged throughout the siege, which lasted six weeks. In the end, the overwhelming Allied strength in men and equipment led to the Germans surrendering on 7 November 1914 (WO 32/4996B, ADM 137/11).

Chinese Labour Corps

WO 106/33

Chinese Labour Corps, 1916-1920. WO 106/33

From 1916 a global shortage of manpower meant that the British and French began to look for new opportunities to expand their labour force. The huge Chinese population and the relative weakness of their government meant the country was a perfect recruiting ground.

The British established a Chinese Labour Corp and quickly set up its administration in Wei-Hai-Wei. The colony was used to collect the volunteers, who were then shipped out to Europe, via Canada.

Most of the men recruited came from the area around Wei-Hai-Wei in the Shantung peninsula. Over the course of 1917 almost 100,000 men were recruited in China and shipped to Europe for labour service. They served in a variety of roles including dock work, loading and unloading trains, building and repairing railways, filling sandbags and digging trenches.

Although the Chinese Labour Corp was deployed behind the front line, a small number of men were killed by enemy action. Larger numbers of casualties were caused by disease, particularly influenza (WO 106/33, FO 228/2892). Five members of the Chinese Labour Corp,  Liu Dien Chen, Chao Wen Te, T’Eng Yen Feng, Wang Yu Bhan and Wang Chen Ching were awarded the Meritorious Service Medal for ‘gallantry in performance of military duty otherwise than in action’ (WO 372/24/109855, WO 372/24/85371, WO 372/24/109710, WO 372/24/109904, WO 372/24/109903).

Key figures

Major General Francis Henry Kelly

Major General Francis Henry Kelly

Commander, British Troops in South China 1913-1915

Brigadier-General Nathaniel Walter Barnardiston

Brigadier-General Nathaniel Walter Barnardiston

Officer Commanding Tsingtao Expeditionary Force 1914

Sir (Francis) Henry May

Sir (Francis) Henry May

Governor of Hong Kong (1912-1919)

Detail of NPG x66425 , Sir Francis Henry May, © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Key documents

ADM 137/35

Tsing Sau, Base camp with British and Japanese flags, 1914. ADM 137/35

  • Hong Kong despatches, 13 July 1914-15 August 1914 CO 129/412
  • Southern China Command: Hong Kong WO 95/5444
  • Tsingtao Expedition: Reports of operations WO 32/4996B
  • The Chinese Labour Corps: Recruitment and organization WO 106/33

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