Northern Lights: Heroic ancestors from Sheffield and China together in Flanders Field

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As I bought my poppy last weekend I was wondering what I would say to welcome the delegation of Chinese businessmen and investors who were visiting us this week for the Horasis conference.

The Chinese have a remarkably deep interest, and affection, for all things British. It isn’t just Downton Abbey and Sherlock that intrigue them. I wondered, should I explain why we were wearing poppies? Would they find it strange?

So I welcome our Chinese visitors in a spirit of peace and hope, determined to work together for the good of all of our children

But then I thought they might know, or like to know, that the Sheffield Pals Battalion fought in France with their Chinese forefathers. The connection between Sheffield and the people of China goes far deeper than trade. Did you know that 50,000 Chinese went to the trenches in that ‘War to end Wars’? The South China Morning Post recently told how Chinese workers dug trenches. They repaired tanks in Normandy. They assembled shells for artillery. They transported munitions in Dannes. They unloaded supplies and war material in the port of Dunkirk.

In the Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, alongside stories of our own Sheffield soldiers, you will find the badges of the Chinese Labour Corps. Chinese workers ventured farther afield, too.

Graves in Basra contain remains of hundreds of Chinese workers who died carrying water for British troops in an offensive against the Ottoman Empire. Families in China have as their only tributes to lost grandfathers British Medals of Merit.

So as business people from China pass Sheffield’s war memorial, that monument is more relevant to their own country than many locals imagine. And when I lay a wreath with the President of our Students’ Union at the university memorial to the hundreds of students of our University who volunteered to be part of the Sheffield battalion and who 100 years ago lost their lives in a terrible battle, I will do so knowing that it was not just the young men of South Yorkshire who made the ultimate sacrifice.

The Great Wars continue to shape the way nations see themselves and their futures. Many say that the settlement after WWI laid the economic conditions which were a fertile soil for the rise of fascism in the defeated Germany.

But the implications of that peace agreement had ramifications far beyond Europe. In the aftermath of the First World War, disappointment at the shabby treatment of China in the Versailles negotiations led in 1919 to the May 4th movement of the Chinese students in Beijing. This was part of a long winding path to the foundation of the People’s Republic of China.

Now, thank God, we meet under very different circumstances, still seeking the best for our peoples but with those far better tools of education and trade. Today one in ten of Sheffield University’s students is from China and the hard work of their parents and grandparents invested in our university has allowed us to build facilities which train our own engineers, scientists and doctors as well as theirs. We owe these families huge thanks.

But will our Chinese visitors and do our students know their own stories? Because we know remembrance is not only s ceremonial act, it requires education and reflection. If we are to remember, we must hear the stories of those who went before and learn the lessons of their lives for our own times.

I hope the people of Sheffield who greet our guests will know that without the enormous sacrifice of the Chinese, tens of millions of lives lost, in fighting the Japanese, the war in the Pacific might have gone on much longer. My own father-in- law, who served in the RAF from 39 to 45, was damn glad that the war came to an end when it did! So we, the British and Chinese, together in two World Wars, can honour our fallen together. The poppies are there for all the dead.

But as I lay a wreath, I will not do so mindlessly. That memorial is a reminder not just of valour but of loss. Of the awful pain mothers felt at the loss of dear sons. When our university book of remembrance was placed in the heart of our community, it was a stark list of familiar names.

I am deeply proud that this great city has not only traded with the world over many decades but that it has welcomed young people from around the world to make this place their home as they pursue their education. I hope in the process we have learned what Edith Cavell told us: “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone.”

Our Chinese visitors are welcome. Our ability to trade, to teach and to learn from one another will be crucial to all of our futures.