Siam in the First World War

When Woodrow Wilson, the President of the United States, declared war on Germany in April 1917, it was clear American entry would eventually turn the tide against the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria).

Watching on the sidelines, King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) considered his options. Siam had remained neutral since the outbreak of war in August 1914, and his nation enjoyed friendly relations with Germany, but Vajiravudh recognised the political value of throwing in his lot with the Allied Powers (Britain, France, Italy, and Japan).

He was convinced participation would be ‘…an excellent opportunity for us to gain equality with other nations.’ Siam had suffered from the imperial designs of the British and French, losing great swathes of territory in the 20 years or so prior to the outbreak of war in Europe.

Additionally, Siam had been coerced into signing agreements accepting the imposition of extraterritorial rights for the citizens of nations such as France, Britain, and the United States, and Vajiravudh hoped Siamese involvement in the war would lead to a revision of these unequal treaties.

rama-vi-in-wild-tiger-uniform

Vajiravudh, King Rama VI, looking martial in the uniform of the Wild Tigers Corps.

Therefore, on 22 July 1917, despite the misgivings of some members of the government, King Vajiravudh instructed Interior Minister Chao Phraya Surasi to declare war on Germany and Austria-Hungary. Among the reasons cited was a claim the Central Powers were ‘ignoring the norms of warfare and fighting in an immoral way.’ One of Siam’s first acts was to intern, and later seize as war reparations, 12 ocean-going ships of the North German Line (NGL) as well as the Bangkok docks and warehouses of the firms Windsor Rose and Markwald.

There was a certain irony in Siam allying itself with France, a nation that had bullied her way into annexing large chunks of Siamese territory over the previous 50 years. Such are the vagaries of geo-politics.

Then again, Vajiravudh had been the first monarch educated abroad, being sent to Britain. He spoke fluent English, had been at Sandhurst Military College, and commissioned an officer in the Durham Light Infantry. The Anglophile monarch was contrasted by a number of royal relatives who had spent time being educated in Germany. A coup in March 1912 by 92 low-ranking royals, many pro-German, who hoped to replace Vajiravudh, did not pre-dispose the ruler towards Germany or her allies.

Not much happened until 21 September when the king gave the order for Chao Phraya Bodin, the Minister of War, to call for volunteers to make up an expeditionary force to fight in Europe. A limit was placed on overall numbers and an expeditionary force totalling 1,284 men was raised, under the overall command of Major General Phraya Pijaijarnrit (later promoted to Lieutenant-General and known as Phraya Devahastin). Volunteers were divided into three units: motor transport, medical, and aviation.

Thai records suggest the force left Siam on 19 June 1918 and landed at Marseilles on 30 July where the three sections were separated and sent for training in different parts of France. Yet a report sent to the American Consul in Melbourne, Australia on 4 June stated, ‘A contingent of Siamese troops has also joined the Allies.’ This is a strange discrepancy of almost two months between the Siamese chronicles and a contemporary account.

The motor transport section finally moved up to the Western Front in October 1918. For five days, from 26 October, the Siamese supplied French forces in an area subjected to German artillery fire and later received the Croix de Guerre from the French government as a unit citation.

About 95 air personnel, training at French Army Flying Schools, qualified as pilots, but had not completed their courses when the war ended on 11 November. The motor transport unit went into the occupied part of the Rhineland with French forces following the signing of the armistice.

There is a suggestion the medical unit included nurses, although no concrete evidence of this has come to light, at least in English or French. It is claimed these were the only women to serve in the trenches on the Western Front, but this seems extremely unlikely.

The aviation contingent returned to Siam, arriving in Bangkok on 1 May 1919 while the remainder of the volunteer force landed on 21 September.

A now almost-forgotten war memorial was erected in honour of the troops and stands on the edge of the Sanam Luang (Pramane) ground in Bangkok. Called the Volunteer Soldiers’ Monument it has inscribed the names of the 19 soldiers claimed as casualties of the conflict, none in battle. The remains of the casualties were interred in the monument on 24 September 1919 but the memorial itself was not officially unveiled until 22 July 1921, a strange and unexplained delay.

Of the 19 names inscribed on the monument, two men in Bangkok before the force left for Europe, presumably during training. Nine died in France and the other eight in Germany. Of these, 10 expired in hospitals or medical stations. Britain, Europe, and much of the rest of the world was gripped by Spanish influenza from the latter months of 1918 until 1920, one of the most virulent epidemics ever known. It is highly probable some of the hospital casualties were caused by Spanish flu. The remaining deaths appear to be the result of vehicular accidents.

1917-first-world-war-memorial-sanam-luang-bangkok

The First World War memorial in Bangkok.

Siam also participated in the Versailles Peace Conference with Articles 135, 136, and 137 devoted to her in the final Treaty of Versailles. In January 1920, Siam became a founding member of the League of Nations.

1919-siamese-first-world-war-victory-medal

SIamese Victory Medal.

On 1 September 1920, King Vajiravudh’s decision to go to war was vindicated when the United States ceded her extraterritorial rights. France, after five years of extensive negotiations, relinquished her rights in February 1925 while Britain signed a treaty to the same effect in July the same year.

A Brief History of the Royal Thai Air Force

In the early years of the twentieth century Prince Chakrabongse Bhuvanart, Siam’s Army Chief of Staff, identified the need to acquire aircraft as part of the national defence program.

Of course, before any purchased aircraft could be used, pilots needed to be trained to handle the new machinery, so in January 1911 the Ministry of War sent three Army officers, Major Luang Saksalyavudh, Captain Luang Arvudhsikikom, and Lieutenant Thip Ketudat, to France to train with the Nieuport Company at Mourmelon-le-Grand.

The men were taught to fly and maintain their aircraft, returning to Siam in November 1913 where they gave a flying demonstration for King Vajiravudh from Sra Prathoom racecourse. Now the site of the Royal Bangkok Club, the racecourse served as the first base for the fledgling air wing.

The War Ministry formed the Army Aviation Unit, purchasing eight French-built aircraft: four monoplanes and four biplanes. The unit, supervised by the Army Engineering Inspector, relocated to a newly-constructed base at Don Muang, at that time well outside the Bangkok city limits, in early March 1914.

On 27 March, the Aviation Unit became the Army Air Corps. This date was recognised as the official birthday of the Royal Thai Air Force until 1997 when senior air force officials proclaimed 9 April as Royal Thai Air Force Day, relegating 27 March to Commemoration Day.

The most pressing difficulty in the early years was aircraft maintenance. Naturally, spare parts were not available locally and had to be imported, costly in terms of both time and money.

1919-1937-breguet-2-seater-bomber

A Breguet two-seater bomber, among the first made in Siam.

To reduce this reliance on foreign materiel, the air wing developed locally made products and even began building aeroplanes designed by locals. Thus, in May 1915, a Breguet biplane made from local products but with an imported engine, became the first aircraft built in Siam to take to the sky.

A contingent of the Army Air Corps was included in the Siamese expeditionary force that travelled to fight in France in the First World War, arriving in 1918 and training at French Army Flying Schools. Over 95 personnel qualified as pilots, but the war ended before they were able to utilise their newfound knowledge.

It was in 1918 that the air corps was again upgraded, becoming known as the Army Aviation Division. The unit remained under the control of the Army until December 1921 when it passed to the War Ministry and was renamed the Air Division.

In 1927, the Boripatra, the first aeroplane completely designed and constructed by the Air Division, took to the skies. Two Boripatra biplanes flew on a round trip to the Indian city of New Delhi, and later flew to Hanoi in Vietnam. That same year, the Air Division purchased two British-made fighters.

Local aircraft construction continued apace with a fighter, named the Prajadhipok, rolling off the lines in 1929 followed by a training plane in 1930.

1927-1930-boripatra

A Boripatra, the first aircraft completely constructed in Siam.

In 1935, the Air Division was renamed the Air Force Division and finally, in 1937, it became the Royal Thai Air Force and separated from the Army.

According to documents lodged with the League of Nations, in 1939 the air force consisted of 207 aircraft, divided into five air wings. Of these, only 128 were in commission in tactical units, the remaining 79 in training establishments. The latter were all First World War vintage.

Under Prime Minister Field Marshal Pibul Songgram, Siam forged closer ties with Japan, eventually purchasing around 93 modern aircraft from the Japanese.

The first real test of the capabilities of the Royal Thai Air Force came in 1940 with the outbreak of the Franco-Thai War. Thai airplanes attacked places such as Battambang in Cambodia and Vientiane in Laos, the Thais officially admitting the loss of seven planes during the brief border war.

In December 1940, three planes attacked three French warships that were shelling Trat, claiming a hit on one of the vessels. The daring 10 January 1941 raid by six bombers escorted by four fighters against Hanoi proved the immense value of the air wing, the fighters shooting down one French plane in a dogfight. The success of the attack is considered one of the major reasons for Japanese mediation that led to a resolution of the conflict.

1941-28-jan-painting

A painting depicting a Royal Thai Air Force plane in action against the French.

When the Japanese invaded Thailand in December 1941, the Thai air force went into action against far superior numbers, losing six fighters shot down before a ceasefire was arranged. Thailand then joined forces with Japan and declared war on the United States, Britain and her allies.

Between March 1942 and the end of the war the Thai air force lost a total of 24 aircraft. One crashed in bad weather, 16 were destroyed on the ground by Allied attacks and another seven were shot down. Thai fighter pilots shot down one U.S. B-29 bomber and one U.S. fighter, the former on 27 November 1944 in an air raid over Bang Sue Junction in Bangkok.

After the Second World War, the air force became reliant on purchasing hardware and equipment from overseas. A number of surrendered Japanese fighters bolstered air force numbers.

Hoping to modernize the air force, the Thai Purchasing Commission acquired trainers and transports in 1948, visiting the United States, Britain and Canada.

In 1950, the Joint United States Military Advisory Group (JUSMAG) arrived in Thailand, tasked with providing equipment, training and support for the air force.

During the Korean War in 1950 the first contingent of air force personnel, a logistical support corps, left for Korea in June 1951. That same year, the U.S. sent a quantity of aircraft to bolster the ranks of the Thai air wing. After the war ended in 1953, Thailand continued sending air force teams to South Korea until 1976.

In 1957, Thailand began receiving its first jet trainers, courtesy of the United States Military Assistance Program. A year later, the first jet combat aircraft arrived.

Thailand, as an ally of the United States, sent forces to support South Vietnam. Between 1965 and 1966, air force personnel helped train South Vietnamese pilots. Airmen also flew combat airlift missions and acted as forward air controllers. They were withdrawn from Vietnam in February 1972. This was the last occasion in which Thai air forces were called on to participate in a conflict away from home soil.

1960-1973-f-86

An F-86 supplied by the United States and which saw service from 1960 to 1973.

During the Vietnam War, Thailand had its own communist insurgency and on 11 April 1970, an air force jet was shot down in the mountainous region in Petchabun province. An air force helicopter sent to rescue the pilot was itself shot down, losing three men killed and five seriously injured.

Since then, the air force has seen action in the brief 1984 and 1987-1988 Thai-Lao border wars as well as against the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, losing a Thai reconnaissance aircraft shot down by Khmer Rouge forces just over the Cambodian border in April 1984.

The Jewel Robbery that Baffled the Best

It looked the perfect crime. When a box containing a string of 252 specially-made pearls and other valuable pieces of jewellery, ordered by Queen Saovabha Phongsri (the mother of the future King Vajiravudh, Rama VI), from a reputable agent in Britain and insured for £10,000, arrived in Bangkok in the middle of 1909, it was found to be empty. For almost three years the whereabouts of the pearls remained a mystery while police and diamond merchants followed a trail leading from Bangkok to Singapore, Penang, Australia, Batavia (now Jakarta), Colombo, Paris, and London.

When King Chulalongkorn made his second visit to Europe in 1907, among those accompanying him was Queen Saovabha Phongsri. In April 1909, Queen Saovabha arranged for a rope of pearls and other pieces of expensive jewellery to be been made up by the Association of Diamond Merchants, Jewellers, and Silversmiths Limited of Trafalgar Square in London.

queen-sri-bajarindra-with-her-sons

Queen Saovabha Phongsri, later known as Queen Sri Bajarindra, with her sons.

After completing their commission, the jewellers carefully packed the items in a strong wooden box secured with four big red seals. According to some accounts, this box was placed aboard a German steamer bound for Bangkok and deposited in its strongroom. In other accounts the box was placed in the strongroom of a steamer bound for Hong Kong. When it arrived at that British colony the box was then taken to Bangkok. Either way, when the Court Chamberlain in Bangkok opened the box it was found to be empty, even though none of the four seals did not appear to have been broken. It was as if the jewels had simply vanished.

 

Although the pearls were insured, the insurance company refused to pay out until strenuous efforts had been made to recover the jewellery. Representatives of the Association of Diamond Merchants would spend literally thousands of pounds following up leads in the search for the pearls over the next year and a half before finally reaching a definite suspect. Their only hope at recovering the pearls and tracking the thief, or thieves, lay with the chance someone would eventually try and sell some of the distinctive pearls.

For almost 18 months the trail was cold and the jewellers association investigators completely baffled by the seemingly perfect crime. There were early suggestions that close inspection by experts revealed the seals on the strongbox were very cleverly executed copies of the originals. This meant the theft may well have occurred before the pearls even left Britain, but this idea was soon discarded when a second and more plausible explanation came to light.

The thief, or thieves, worked out it was not necessary to disturb the seals in order to get at the jewels. The lid of the strongbox was made in two pieces, tongued and grooved. One piece was 22.5 centimetres (nine inches) wide; the other was 15 centimetres (six inches) wide. By taking out the screws securing the 15cm piece, it was possible to slip it out of the larger piece. After cutting through the zinc lining on the box it was then a simple matter to remove the pearls and other items. After replacing the 22.5cm lid and refastening the screws there was no evidence of tampering. This knowledge simply expanded the number of possible scenarios for the theft: from inside Britain, on the steamer, or at its final destination in Bangkok and anywhere in-between.

The first clue came late in 1910 when it was learned that 33 pearls suspected as having belonged to the original rope had been sold to a dealer in Singapore. This dealer, a man of doubtful character, was traced to Paris in early 1911. When the investigators found him to ask questions, they made sure to keep their pistols within easy reach.

The dealer claimed he had already sold the pearls, but gave investigators the name of the man who had sold the dealer the pearls. He was Paul de Boseck, a former wharfinger (owner), who had been working in Bangkok at the time the box containing the jewellery arrived. The box was in his possession for about five hours before being delivered to the Grand Palace.

Investigators soon learned de Boseck had sold a pair of the distinctive pearls to a bookmaker in Singapore. They travelled to Singapore and interviewed the bookmaker who told them he had already sold the two pearls to another bookmaker, who took them to Australia. This second bookmaker was found and the pearls brought back to Singapore where a director of the Association then purchased the pearls and positively identified them as having belonged to the original rope. He secured an arrest warrant for Paul de Boseck and the hunt was on.

The Association investigators traced de Boseck first to Batavia in the Dutch East Indies and then Ceylon, but lost his trail. That was in June 1911. In December a contact in the Straits Settlement (Singapore) government told investigators de Boseck was in England.

He was traced to an address in London and on 4 January 1912 Paul de Boseck was arrested by London police led by Detective Chief Inspector Bower.

Formally identified as Jules Paul de Boseck, alias Paul de Boseck (but also spelled Bosach and Debusick in some accounts), the alleged thief was a tall, slim 31-year-old (although other accounts stated he was 32) journalist. He had lived and worked in Bangkok as well as Singapore, but it would later be revealed he had led a something of a double life.

De Boseck was remanded under the Fugitive Offenders Act and charged with receiving jewellery which had been stolen at Bangkok. He submitted a written statement to the court noting he was known in Bangkok as lending money on goods and jewellery.

At his first hearing before a magistrate at the Bow Street courts in London, de Boseck was not represented by legal counsel. Inspector Bower, in the witness box, was asked by de Boseck, “Are you speaking of the two pearls I gave a bookmaker named Cohan or Cowan at Singapore in settlement of a debt?”

The police officer replied that he was, at which point de Boseck claimed he didn’t know the pearls were stolen.

Bower replied, “It is alleged you gave a bookmaker at Singapore one or more of those stolen pearls. One of those pearls has been identified as a portion of some valuable jewellery which was handed to you when you were at Windsor’s Wharf, at Bangkok, to forward to the Queen of Siam.”

De Boseck countered by saying a large number of cases of jewellery went through his hands while he was in Bangkok. Bower then asked, “…do you wish to tell me whom you got them from?” The defendant said he needed to talk with his solicitor first.

De Boseck then attempted to regain the initiative by adding that when he lived at one of his three known addresses in England he went by the name of Charles Chilsworth. He claimed he adopted this name “when making enquiries respecting a political offence in Java [then part of the Dutch East Indies] and I retained it in all correspondence in connection with that case. I placed the result of my enquiries before the Chinese Minister at The Hague, and corresponded with him always in that name.” The use of a pseudonym and reference to a clandestine inquiry reaching to the highest levels seemed intended to cast de Boseck in a Sherlock Holmes-style light.

He ended his defence by saying, “I parted with the pearls quite openly at Singapore, and had a receipt for them, but I think I destroyed it when I left Singapore with all other papers relating to my racing there. The receipt contained the weight and description of the pearls.”

Despite his defence, de Boseck was committed to be extradited to the Straits Settlement for trial and left Britain in April 1912. Arriving in Singapore he duly went to court.

Between that first hearing in February 1912 in London and his trial in Singapore, de Boseck refined his story. He claimed a steamer’s clerk who had lost heavily at gambling applied for a loan of 2,000 ticals, using a small box of pearls as security. De Boseck claimed he loaned the Chinese man just 920 ticals and received a receipt for 1,000 ticals. The following day the Chinese man told de Boseck he had lost all this money and asked him if he would buy the pearls. De Boseck claimed he asked the Chinese man where the pearls had come from, and he admitted they had been stolen, but did not say who the rightful owner was.

In his statement to the court de Boseck wrote, ‘I understood [the pearls were] part of a cargo. I gave him another 500 ticals, and the pearls became mine by purchase. My object in not informing the police of the occurrence was threefold – (1) I feared the worry and annoyance the matter would cause me, as I was in a very bad state of health. I was suffering from facial paralysis and brain trouble, due to the climate, opium, and other causes; (2) it was only a little while back that I had made a continued attack in the press on the police and the rottenness of the system. This caused a radical change to be made, one of the Royal princes who was then in charge being transferred to another department; (3) it was a notorious matter that stolen property was dealt with with immunity, the native police usually retaining it, when seized, for their own private benefit, and rarely restoring it to the rightful owners.’

With what was essentially a very weak defence, it was no surprise de Boseck was found guilty at the end of May 1912 and sentenced to two years in prison for possession of stolen property. It was only with the conviction of de Boseck that the £10,000 insurance money was paid to the Association of Diamond Merchants, almost three years following the theft.

In the end, only the two pearls sold by de Boseck in Singapore were ever recovered from the original necklace of 252. The remaining 250 are now scattered all over the world.

The Paknam Incident and its ramifications, 1893

auguste-pavie

Auguste Pavie, looking more like an Impressionist painter than a scheming diplomat.

Auguste Pavie, the French Charge d’Affaires in Bangkok, was a man with a mission. As he saw it, France’s growing empire in Indochina, currently centred on Vietnam, would be greatly enhanced if Siam were somehow incorporated.

As those charged with administering the Indochinese empire looked westward they saw an opportunity to take Laos out from under Siamese overlordship and, at the same time, precipitate a confrontation which might allow Siam itself to fall into French hands. Their only concern was the stance which might be taken by Britain.

The pretext for the ensuing crisis came when France claimed the eastern boundary of their occupied state of Annam (Vietnam) was marked by the Mekong River. Siam countered and said their eastern border was a ‘chain of mountains parallel to the seaboard.’

On 14 March, Auguste Pavie was instructed to demand Siam’s immediate withdrawal from the left bank of the Mekong and seek compensation for French subjects whom France claimed had suffered damages. At the time, the French gunboat Le Lutin was anchored in Bangkok, as a visible threat.

1893-the-french-gunboat-frigate-la-lutin-in-bangkok

French gunboat Le Lutin, anchored in Bangkok.

To reach the Bangkok roadstead it is necessary for vessels to sail into the mouth of the Chao Phraya River, and as early as the reign of King Rama II (1809-1824) strategists were aware of the importance of the seaport of Samut Prakan, situated at the entrance to the river on the Gulf of Thailand.

In 1819, the king, in conflict with Vietnam and worried about a possible seaborne attack, ordered the construction of six forts in the area around Paknam. Three of the forts were completed over the next three years; the remainder were finished during the reign of King Rama III.

To further strengthen the seaward defences, the Phra Chulachomklao Fort was constructed on the west side of the Chao Phraya River at the entrance to the estuary, and designed to command the river mouth and for a distance of two kilometres upriver. Commanded by a Danish captain, the Phra Chulachomklao Fort was only completed in April 1893.

On 3 April a French military column reached Stung Treng, on the Cambodian side of the Mekong. The 14-man Siamese post at Stung Treng retreated without firing a shot. Two days later the French took possession of nearby Kong island.

At the same time, King Chulalongkorn made a decision to fight rather than meekly submit to the French and issued orders for three new forts to be built on the Chao Phraya. He also hoped to purchase three warships and expand the army, sending forces to bolster the garrison at the gulf port of Chantaburi (Chantaboon).

Pavie, alarmed by these preparations, advised an immediate resolution of the crisis by way of military action. The French Foreign Minister, Jules Develle, ordered Admiral Edgar Humann, the commander of the French Far Eastern Naval Division, to concentrate his nine warships off Saigon. Pavie considered this presented the ideal moment to turn Siam into a French protectorate. As he noted, if Siam resisted, ‘A protectorate over Siam will be our compensation. If we neglect such an opportunity now, will we ever be offered another to round off our Indochinese empire?’

The stakes increased when the Thais regained Kong island, capturing a French captain. Then, the French Inspector of the Civil Guard was ambushed and killed. France claimed he had been murdered.

In June, the French sent a special envoy to Bangkok with instructions to withdraw their entire diplomatic mission and, with the help of the governor-general of Indochina, send warships to blockade the mouth of the Chao Phraya if Siam refused to recognise the French claim to the left bank of the Mekong and pay compensation for a series of incidents stretching back to 1891.

At the same time, British Prime Minister Lord Rosebery sent two gunboats to Bangkok, ostensibly to provide protection to British citizens. In reality, as Lord Kimberley, the Secretary of State for India, wrote privately to Rosebery, sending gunboats was ‘the natural mode of demonstrating…’

On 10 July, France informed the Siamese Foreign Minister, Prince Devawongse, the French gunboats Inconstant and Comete would, in accordance with Article 15 of the Franco-Thai Treaty of 1856, cross the bar and anchor at Paknam before proceeding to Bangkok. Prince Devawongse issued a protest at this and asked that further negotiations take place.

Although Pavie ostensibly agreed he sent Admiral Humann orders for the warships to proceed to Bangkok. The gunboats, with the Jean Baptiste Say, a small French merchant ship as a pilot, sailed towards the entrance of the Chao Phraya on 13 July.

Over the preceding years King Chulalongkorn had spent some time strengthening his navy, bringing in foreign expertise. At least 25 Danish officers were then serving in the Siamese navy and the commander at Paknam was Vice Admiral Andreas du Plessis de Richelieu. He later became the commander-in-chief of the Royal Siamese Navy.

rama-v

Chulalongkorn, King Rama V

Siam’s not-so-secret weapon were seven British-made Armstrong six-inch ‘disappearing’ guns at the Chulachomklao Fort. These were state-of-the-art cannons loaded while hidden behind bunkers but popped up hydraulically to fire. The guns in both Phra Chulachomklao Fort and Phissuasamut Fort opened fire on the French. Siamese gunboats also joined the assault.

The Jean Baptiste Say was run aground and her crew made prisoner while the Siamese steel cruiser Makut Rajah Kumar suffered damage.

The Inconstant and Comete made it through the gauntlet, suffering some damage and casualties, with three sailors killed.

They sailed up to anchor opposite the French Legation where they allegedly trained their guns on the Royal Palace. The Siamese lost between 15 and 25 dead in the battle.

The delightfully-named Walter Christmas, who held the rank of captain, later described the action, saying it was ‘just a hodgepodge of hopeless ships, useless guns, and incompetent crews, commanded by men who, however stout and resourceful in other fields, for the most part were without knowledge in military skills.’ Christmas claimed he fired his cannon four times, but when he tried to fire a fifth time, ‘it collapsed’.

On 20 July, France issued an ultimatum – with a 48-hour deadline – demanding Siam formally recognise the rights of Annam and Cambodia over the left bank of the Mekong and the islands in the Mekong; withdraw Siamese troops from the left bank within one month; pay compensation for damage inflicted on French troops and warships; punish Siamese offenders and pay compensation to the families of French subjects adversely affected; pay an indemnity of two million francs to French subjects for various claims and deposit the sum of three million francs as a guarantee Siam would abide by these demands.

The French had also occupied Koh Si Chang, opposite Sri Racha, and on 22 July Admiral Humann arrived to oversee future operations.

Siam was forced to accept the French ultimatum but asked that the rights of Annam and Cambodia over the left bank of the Mekong be limited to the 18th Parallel. Siam also sought the joint use of the islands in the Mekong. The French rejected the Siamese proposals, withdrew their consular officers from Bangkok, and blockaded the Gulf of Thailand, using Koh Si Chang as their headquarters.

The incident caused relations between France and Britain to grow tense, although the British were unwilling to risk a war over the independence of Siam, despite the tacit support of Germany. Instead, the British advised Siam to accede to French demands to avoid an all-out conflict. Siam conceded and on 3 August the French lifted their blockade.

Siam subsequently signed a treaty with France on 3 October 1893. Siam renounced her claim to the left bank of the Mekong as well as the islands in the river; agreed not to construct any fortifications or military establishment within a 40-kilometre radius of the right bank of the Mekong and gave the French the right to establish consulates wherever it deemed appropriate, (such as Khorat and Nan). The French also demanded the right to occupy Chantaburi until Siam complied with all the terms of the treaty.

The compensation demanded by France amounted to three million francs and paid for out of Siam’s foreign reserves as well as a contribution by King Chulalongkorn and some of his relatives. The silver was delivered to the Le Lutin.

On 4 December, an Anglo-French agreement was signed which ostensibly guaranteed Siamese independence. France and Britain agreed to maintain the region as a neutral zone using the Mekong as a boundary line. In a subsequent declaration, the British and French agreed not to send troops to the region between the Mekong and the Tenasserim Mountains without the prior consent of the other party and stated French and British nationals residing in the region would not receive special privileges or benefits which nationals of the other party did not receive.

The agreement, reached without the involvement of Siam, basically meant neither Britain nor France would impinge upon Siamese sovereignty without the prior consent of the other party. It in no way guaranteed Siamese independence, merely indicating the British and French were not prepared to go to war over Siam.

In January 1896, a second Anglo-French agreement regarding Siam was signed. The British abandoned their claims to any territory east of the Mekong, thereby making the river the official border between Laos and Burma. In return, the French agreed to accept the independence of Siam.

Cementing relations further with the British, Siam signed a secret agreement with Britain in April 1897 whereby Siam agreed not to cede any territory or rights south of the 11th Parallel on the Malay Peninsula without prior British consent. In return, Britain promised to support Siam against any attempts by a third power to assume control in the Malay Peninsula.

The French continued to occupy Chantaburi until 7 October 1902 when an agreement was signed with Siam ceding two southern Lao provinces. The agreement was not ratified by the French parliament and French troops occupied Trat.

The seven Armstrong guns that participated in the action against the French in 1893 were still in working order 105 years later when they fired a seven-gun salute to celebrate the fort’s anniversary. Since the Paknam Incident, they have never fired a shot in anger.

The truth about Siam’s offer of elephants to fight for Abraham Lincoln in the American Civil War

Siamese troops in the 1890s, with war elephants behind them.

Siamese troops in the 1890s, with war elephants behind them.

When President James Buchanan of the United States penned a letter to King Mongkut (Rama IV) in May 1859 and included 192 books of US government publications in the accompanying package, the resultant reply from the Siamese monarch has led to some misconceptions which continue to this day.

The May 1856 Harris Treaty was ratified by the United States Senate and as a way of further cementing their relations, President Buchanan sent King Mongkut a gift comprising 192 books of US government publications. These arrived in 1860, a presidential election year.

Mongkut responded by sending a sword in a gold scabbard inlaid with silver, a daguerreotype portrait of himself with the future King Chulalongkorn, and a pair of elephant tusks as presents for the American president.

Included in this selection of gifts was a letter, dated 14 February 1861. Mongkut realised the length of time taken by a voyage between Bangkok and Washington DC, and was aware presidential elections had taken place the previous November, so his letter, while addressed to James Buchanan, took account of the fact the latter may no longer have been in office.

Mongkut notes his receipt of an official letter from President Buchanan and goes on to make the point the reply is made to Buchanan ‘or to whomsoever the people have elected anew as Chief ruler in [his] place …’

The letter and the gifts were entrusted to Captain Berrien of the USS John Adams, which had paid a courtesy call on Bangkok on behalf of the US government.

Mongkut notes, ‘During the interview in reply from Captain Berrien to our enquiries of various particulars relating to America, he stated that on that continent there are no elephants. Elephants are regarded as the most remarkable of the large quadrupeds…so that if any one has an elephants’ tusk of large size, and will deposit it in any public place, people come by thousands crowding to see it…

‘Having heard this it has occurred to us that, if on the continent of America there should be several pairs of young male and female elephants turned loose in forests where there was abundance of water and grass in any region under the Sun’s declinations both North and South called by the English the Torrid Zone- and all were forbidden to molest them; to attempt to raise them would be well and if the climate there should prove favourable to elephants, we are of opinion that after a while they will increase till there be large herds as there are on the Continent of Asia until the inhabitants of America will be able to catch them and tame and use them as beasts of burden making them benefit to the country.’

King Mongkut (Rama IV), with his favourite wife.

King Mongkut (Rama IV), with his favourite wife.

The letter extolled the benefits of elephants to the construction of roads and stated Mongkut would be happy to send the animals to the United States if they so desired, but Siam did not have the means to be able to convey the beasts. He therefore asked that if ‘the President… and Congress who conjointly with him rule the country see fit to approve let them provide a large vessel loaded with hay and other food suitable for elephants on the voyage, with tanks holding a sufficiency of fresh water, and arranged with stalls so that the elephants can both stand & lie down in the ship- and send it to receive them. We on our part will procure young male and female elephants and forward them one or two pairs at a time.’

By the time the gifts and letter arrived in the United States, Abraham Lincoln was president. His reply to King Mongkut was a masterpiece of diplomatic tact and courtesy. ‘Your majesty’s letters show an understanding that our laws forbid the President from receiving these rich presents as personal treasures. They are therefore accepted in accordance with Your Majesty’s desire as tokens of your good will and friendship for the American People…’

Lincoln addressed the offer of elephants, diplomatically stating, ‘I appreciate most highly Your Majesty’s tender of…a stock from which a supply of elephants might be raised on our own soil. This Government would not hesitate to avail itself of so generous an offer if the object were one which could be made practically useful in the present condition of the United States.

‘Our political jurisdiction, however, does not reach a latitude so low as to favour the multiplication of the elephant, and steam…has been our best and most efficient agent of transportation in internal commerce.’ Basically, thanks, but no thanks.

For some reason, the contents of the original letter have been distorted to the extent there has arisen a belief King Mongkut did indeed send a herd of elephants which were received and kept by James Buchanan as pets, while others are under the impression Mongkut’s offer was made direct to Abraham Lincoln, suggesting elephants could be used to help the Union in its struggle with the Confederacy following the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861.

In fact, no elephants ever left the shores of Siam for a life of free ranging in the forests of the United States, and most assuredly the offer was initially made to President Buchanan with the reply coming from his successor President Lincoln. King Mongkut’s offer was made prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War and the letter therefore contains no suggestion of any elephants being used for the purposes of war. An intriguing story, but a myth nonetheless.