Comment: Heroic ancestors from Sheffield and China together in Flanders Field

After the city welcomed Chinese business leaders for the Horasis China Meeting, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield Professor Sir Keith Burnett explains why the links between the people of Sheffield and China go far deeper than trade and finances.

Heroic ancestors from Sheffield and China together in Flanders Field

by Professor Sir Keith Burnett, 9.11.17, published in the Sheffield Telegraph

As I bought my poppy in Sheffield last weekend I was wondering what I would say to welcome to the delegation of Chinese businessmen and investors that were visiting us this week for the Horasis conference. What would they find interesting?

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

But then I thought they might know, or would like to know, that the Sheffield Pals Battalion fought in France with their Chinese Forefathers. Because the connection between Sheffield and the people of China goes far deeper than trade.

This may come as a surprise but did you know that fifty thousand Chinese went to the trenches in that “War to end Wars”. The story is beginning to be told in China. 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, in southern Iraq, 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 stamped with the image of King George.

So as business people from China pass the city war memorial on the way up the steps to the City Hall, that monument is more relevant to their own country than many locals imagine. And when on Friday 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 - and it was hard - 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 a huge thank you.

But will our Chinese visitors and do our students know their own stories. Because we know that 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.

Perhaps our guests will know better the stories of fighting with our Allies, the Yanks, against the Japanese with the Flying Tiger Squadrons of South West China? Will they make a link between their ancestors and our poppies?

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 much longer. My own father-in-law, who served in the RAF from 39 to 45, Flying with Bomber command out of Yorkshire from 43 to 45, was damn glad that the War came to and 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 with a representative of today's student body, I will not do so mindlessly. That memorial is a reminder not just of valour but of loss. Of the awful pain the 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 of friends and colleagues.

If you want to imagine how it might have felt to see those names, listen to the voices in the latest BBC documentary describe the painful importance of visiting the Vietnam memorial in Washington. And that feeling is universal. I have stood by the memorial at Tyne Cot, visited Civil War battlefields and paid tribute to the 13,300 servicemen whose names are listed on India Gate in Delhi. At every place I hope that we can leave lessons which will mean my own students from around the world may be spared conflict, may learn together how to solve our disputes in better ways.

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. True in other times and wars we have fought on opposite sides and seem the awful damage of battle. But now, as President Obama said of the people of USA and Vietnam: "Now we can say something that was once unimaginable: Today, Vietnam and the United States are partners."

Today China is a great power and a peacetime partner of the UK in what we hope will be a new era of working together. Together we face numerous challenges from climate change and sustainable energy to secure food supplies, caring for an ageing population and economic stability. For Sheffield to be home to students from this great nation of over 1.3 billion people and to work with its people for a better future is a tremendous opportunity.

We will only make the most of this though if we see past the stereotypes and superficial differences to what we share in common - the hope for a better, safe and prosperous life for our children. And the knowledge that all of those children are precious.

I am deeply proud that this great city of Sheffield 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 for a period as they pursue their education. I hope that in the process we have learned what Edith Cavell told us: “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred of 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.