“Betrayed Ally: China in the Great War” by Frances Wood and Christopher Arnander

A century ago China was at the height of its warlord period. The nascent Republic of China had 26 prime ministers in 12 years as one warlord after another gained ascendency in their internecine struggles.

Little wonder, then, that China remained neutral as the First World War raged, signing up with the Allies only in the last year of the conflict. The Japanese too, though formally allied with the Entente powers, provided little practical assistance. Japan invaded Tsingtao and defeated the German garrison in one of the war’s first battles, but after that Japan declined to provide much support when importuned by its hard-pressed allies. Late in the war, once the defeat of the Central Powers seemed likely, Japan supplied some war materiel under the terms of secret treaties assuring British and French support for its colonial ambitions after the war. Its aim was to be anointed Germany’s successor in control of its Pacific colonies, including continued occupation of Tsingtao.

China’s main foreign policy objective, to the extent that the warlords had time to think about such matters, was to rid itself of the many foreign concessions which encumbered much of its territory, not least the new Japanese foothold in Tsingtao.


Betrayed Ally: China in the Great War, Frances Wood, Christopher Arnander (Pen and Sword, September 2016)
Betrayed Ally: China in the Great War, Frances Wood, Christopher Arnander (Pen and Sword, September 2016)

Betrayed Ally tells this story in some detail. Wood and Arnander describe their work as “an accessible history of China and the Great War, with plenty of illustrations, aimed at the general reader”, and that describes it well. They begin with the xinhai revolution of 1911 and work through the history of Chinese international diplomacy until the May 4th movement of 1919 in reaction to the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles.

The material on international relations in that brief period is in fact rather thin. The United States was pursuing an isolationist policy; the European powers were entirely occupied with the Great War; only Japan showed much interest in China, and that interest was excessive and entirely malign. China’s preoccupation was the crippling indemnity payments it owed as a result of the Boxer Rebellion—money it didn’t have but which the European powers badly needed to finance their war efforts.

Despite the book’s title, Wood and Arnander make it clear that China remained neutral until the last 13 months of the war. Businesses and businessmen from both sides continued to operate in China almost as normal. The warlords pursued their wars. In the concessions, the Western lifestyle was only somewhat disrupted.

Wood and Arnander provide some interesting detail. China did, however, provide about 350,000 laborers, mostly to Russia, but also to France and Britain to help alleviate the labor shortages engendered by mass mobilization. But that assistance was unofficial. The laborers were hired by private contractors, transported in Allied vessels and paid individually in foreign currency. Some in Russia were recruited into the Red or the White army, but most had support roles. The new Bolshevik government repatriated about 40,000, but in 1926 about half of the original contingent were still in the Soviet Union. The Chinese on the western front did no fighting, but a few apparently became quite skilled at maintaining the new tanks which came into service late in the war. An interesting chapter is devoted to describing this unofficial contribution to the war effort.

The betrayal of the title was perceived in terms of China’s rather unrealistic expectations of the Versailles peace conference. Point 5 of Wilson’s 14 points called for settling colonial claims such that


…the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined.


China’s intellectuals and political classes interpreted this as covering their claim to Tsingtao and perhaps even the other treaty ports. Britain and France, though, fully intended to preserve their colonial empires, and even expand them with the addition of Germany’s African colonies. They were not much concerned about Japan’s taking over Germany’s colonies in the Pacific. And they had in any case signed secret treaties with Japan during the war agreeing to Japan’s continued presence in Tsingtao in exchange for war materiel (a sort of early lend-lease).

Point 1 insisted clearly on “no private international understandings of any kind”, but Wilson agreed to set that aside in the case of Japan’s wartime agreements. Wood and Arnander explain all this complicated maneuvering clearly, including a chapter of actual transcripts of the negotiations in Versailles among Wilson, Balfour, Clemenceau, the Japanese and the Chinese. Their description makes it clear that Japan and China, nominally allies, were in fact treated almost as observers at the conference. China’s hopes were disappointed.

This was a complicated time in Chinese history, and these international intrigues were in fact one of its least complicated aspects. They did, nevertheless, trigger the May 4th movement of 1919 with its far-reaching effects on China’s later development. Wood and Arnander offer an interesting and useful account of the complications.

Bill Purves is a Hong Kong-based writer. He is the author of several books, including A Sea of Green: A Voyage Around the World of Ocean Shipping and China on the Lam: On Foot Across the People’s Republic.