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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Raising the Standard: Thailand’s national flags

thai-flag-1855-1916In 1916, King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) introduced a new ensign for Siam. According to some sources, the king was on a boat trip up the Chao Phraya River when he noticed the national flag, at the time a white elephant on a red background, being flown upside down over a hut. It wasn’t a good look.

Back in his Bangkok palace, the monarch designed a simpler and more modern-looking ensign, replacing the one which had been Siam’s national symbol for the previous 61 years.

Considering the flags of most European powers were based on stripes, representing their national colours, Vajiravudh came up with a new emblem consisting of five horizontal stripes of red, white, red, white, and red. It flew for about one year before the centre red stripe was changed to blue.

thai-flag-1916That three-coloured version has been the official national flag since 28 September 1917 and is known as the ‘Trairanga’ or ‘Trairong’, meaning tricolour. The prevailing- although unofficial- view of the meaning of the five stripes is: red represents the land and the people; white for Theravada Buddhism, the state religion; and the central blue stripe symbolises the monarchy. It has also been stated that blue was the official colour of King Vajiravudh.

Yet another account claims the blue was inserted as a show of solidarity following Thailand’s entry into the First World War (in July 1917) as an ally of Britain and France. You would think it couldn’t be that hard to work out why the blue stripe replaced the red, but maybe no one bothered writing down the precise reason, thus allowing some variation and confusion to reign. It wouldn’t be the first time something of this nature was allowed to create confusion.

Vexillologists are not in complete agreement with regard to the various flags of Thailand and their dates of introduction, although most sources seem to agree the first national ensign was a plain red colour with no other markings or features.

Just when the first Thai flag flew from a flagpole has never been established.

The first account to mention any sort of national flag symbol occurred during the reign of King Narai (1656-1688). According to some sources, a plain red banner was displayed by Ayutthayan merchant ships trading with foreign countries.

It is generally believed the first official Thai national flag was unfurled in 1680 when a French warship arrived at the mouth of the Chao Phraya River on a goodwill visit. The local governor was asked by the French commander if it would be allowed to fire a salute as it entered the mouth of the river. Permission was given and the Siamese manning the fort at the entrance returned the salute.

As it was customary to raise the national flag before a gun salute was fired, the governor found a suitable piece of red cloth, attached it to a rope and raised it to accept the French salute. Thai practicality at its best.

Research by Prince Damrong, a brother of King Chulalongkorn, showed the use of the red ensign could certainly be traced to the reign of King Borommakot (1733-1758) and a mission by 18 Buddhist monks who travelled to Sri Lanka in 1752 in an attempt to restore Sinhalese Buddhism. A journal, written at the time, mentions only red flags were used on the Thai sailing vessels.

Some time between 1752 and 1800, the Thai flag may have had a white chakra -a Buddhist wheel, shaped like a fan- added to the plain red.

Then, in 1817, during the reign of King Rama II, a white elephant was added to the centre of the chakra. This was apparently done because the King had taken delivery of a very rare white elephant, the third of his reign.

thai-flag-1817-1855It is also suggested that the British-run port authority in Singapore claimed they couldn’t differentiate between private and government Thai merchant vessels and asked if it was possible for the Thais to issue an official flag.

This could only have happened some time after 1819, as Singapore was a virtually uninhabited island until that time. It was a different story by the early 1820s.

An American publication entitled The Flags of the Principal Nations of the World (published in 1837) shows the flag of Thailand as red with a white disk in the centre. On the white disk is a drawing of a sun with a face on it. This same drawing appears in renditions of the flags of both Uruguay and Peru.

The flag of Burma (only a part of which was under British control) is rendered as a red field with a white elephant facing the flagpole. This would seem to be more representative of Siam than Burma and almost certainly indicates a mistake made by the editors of the publication.

In 1855, during the reign of King Mongkut (Rama IV), the white chakra was dropped and the vexillum was a red field with a white elephant in the centre. This remained the national symbol for the next 61 years, until that fateful day in 1916 when Vajiravudh saw it being flown upside down.