Siam in World War I
The Kingdom of Siam, now known as Thailand, is possibly one of the least well-known participants in World War I. Siam fought against the Central Powers by an active contribution, whatever the actual military value, to one of the most gruelling and critical campaigns of the war. It sent an Expeditionary Force dispatched to France, to serve on the Western Front.
Siam entered the war in July 1917 by declaring war on Germany and Austria-Hungary. Following acclimatisation, both military and meteorological, and specialist training, the Siamese contingent began operations on the Western Front in the middle of September 1918. The war ended soon afterwards, but following the Armistice of 11 November 1918, Siamese troops also contributed to the initial occupation of Rhineland, when they took over the town of Neustadt an der Haardt.
The First World War had no direct impact on Siam because of the great distance not only from Europe but also from Germany's colonial territories in the Pacific and on the China Coast. However, the war did provide an opportunity for King Rama VI to strengthen his country's position in the international arena and to strengthen the position of the monarchy within the Siamese state.
Though it had been successful in maintaining its independence from the European colonial powers, Siam had been forced to cede Laos, Cambodia and its own four southernmost provinces, at the height of imperialism between 1889 and 1909, and it had also had to grant extraterritorial rights to foreign citizens. Rama VI hoped to revise the unequal treaties by taking the side of the Allied Powers.
He also used the war as a means to promote the concept of a Siamese nation and to confirm his supremacy as the head of the nation, a status that had been challenged by elements of the military in the Palace Revolt of 1912.
On 22 July 1917, Siam declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary. Twelve German vessels docked in Siamese ports were immediately seized. The crews and other Central Power nationals were detained and sent to India to join their fellow citizens in British India's existing civilian internment camps.
Siam was the sole country in Southeast Asia to maintain full independence from the great empires during the colonial era. It was the only state in the region to enter the conflict entirely of its own free will, as an equal of the European powers rather than as part of their imperial contingents.
|King Rama VI by royal command changed the national flag of Siam in 1917. From the white elephant on a red background to a design with colours inspired by those of the Allies.|
As a clear symbol of the new two-track strategy of active association with the world powers and of renewal and restructuring within the nation, the King authorised a re-design of the national flag. The new flag had an extra colour, blue, and was arranged in stripes. It was said to represent the three elements of the nation: creed, crown and community. Noticeably, representation of the military was subsumed between him and the people. The new colours of blue, white and red, also sat comfortably, almost certainly deliberately, along the flags of Serbia, Russia, France, Great Britain and the United States. The new flag appeared on the 28 September 1917. Initially, two variants were common: the current minimalist five horizontal bands and a variant maintaining the continuity and prestige of the old flag, with the traditional white elephant symbol on a red disc, from the old flag, superimposed over the new stripes, a variant still the flag of the Royal Thai Navy. When the Siamese Expeditionary Force marched in the 1919 victory parade, it was behind the hybrid flag.
In September 1917, a volunteer expeditionary force was assembled, consisting of medical, motor transport and aviation detachments. By early 1918, 1,284 men were selected from thousands of volunteers. The force, commanded by Major-General Phraya Bhijai Janriddhi, was destined to be sent to France. On 30 July 1918, the Siamese landed in Marseilles. Some 370 pilots and groundcrew were sent to air schools in Istres, Le Crotoy, La Chapelle-la-Reine, Biscarosse and Piox for retraining, as the pilots were deemed incapable of withstanding high altitude air combat.
On 1 August, with French and British divisions advancing to the German positions on the Marne, the French selected some men from the Siamese detachment to form the first Siamese labour volunteer detachment. They received brief training and arrived at the front on 4 August 1918 during the Second Battle of the Marne. Phya Bhijai Janriddhi served as observer during the battle. This was the first Siamese contingent to see the frontline trenches. This was followed by the ground forces actively proceeding to the fighting front in mid September.
In the same month the medical and motor transport detachments were sent to the front lines and took part in the 1918 Champagne and Meuse-Argonne Offensives. Siamese airmen had not finished training when the time the Armistice of 11 November 1918 was signed. The ground forces, on the other hand, had distinguished themselves under fire and were awarded the Croix de Guerre and Order of Rama decorations. The ground forces participated in the occupation of Neustadt an der Haardt in the Rhineland region of Germany and also took part in the 1919 Paris Victory Parade.
At the end of the war, Siam participated in the Versailles Peace Conference and became a founding member of the League of Nations. By 1925, the United States, the United Kingdom and France had abandoned their extraterritorial rights. Siam was also rewarded with confiscated German merchant ships.
Siamese casualties during the war amounted to 19 dead. Two soldiers died before their departure to France, and the remainder perished from accidents or disease. The World War Volunteers Memorial honoring the Siamese soldiers who died in the conflict opened on 22 July 1921, in Sanam Luang, central Bangkok. The last surviving member of the Siamese Expeditionary Forces, Yod Sangrungruang, died on 9 October 2003.
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