by John Starling and Ivor Lee
Stroud, Eng.: History Press–Spellmount / Chicago: Independent Publishers Group, 2014. Pp. 388.
Illus., tables, notes, biblio., index. $39.95 paper. ISBN: 0750956666
The Untold Story of British Labour Troops in the Great War
In this work British authors Lee and Starling give us the first comprehensive account of a forgotten service, the British “Labour Corps.” This organization was composed troops and civilians who performed a remarkable variety of non-combat missions such as hewing timber, digging and filing in trenches, bringing in the harvest, working on transport and supply, performing security duty in rear areas, and more.
The Labour Corps was recruited from men unfit for combat duty, whether by preexisting conditions or due to wounds. Although most of these men – ultimately numbering some 400,000 – were British or from the Dominions, there were also Indians, Fijians, West Indians, and many others from the colonies, as well as a surprising number of many “foreigners” such as Serbs, Russians, Chinese, Macedonians, and so forth, and even some German prisoners-of-war. These troops usually served away from the front, but some of these men came under fire and even engaged in combat, taking casualties.
The authors give us a look at the politics of the Labour Corps, for example were “natives” or “foreigners” to be paid the same as white Britons, and were colonial treasuries or the British treasury responsible for pensions to men recruited in the colonies. We get a look at recruitment, training, and organization of the men. The authors give us a look at the different types of Labour Corps units, from mining to graves registration, and their service in various theatres (France and Belgium, Salonika, East Africa, and more). Some of these troops were not demobilized until 1919, helping to clean up old battlefields. And there’s a section on how one can search for someone’s service records.
In looking at the army behind the army, the authors have made a valuable contribution to the literature of Britain in the Great War.