A century ago this year, King Rama VI committed Thai troops to battle halfway around the world
There are many interesting aspects to the exhibition “Siam and the World War I Centenary”, not least the fact that the curator is a specialist in contemporary art. Chitti Kasemkitvatana brings vivid modernity to a century-old story in the show continuing at the King Vajiravudh Memorial Hall in Bangkok’s National Library until September 30.
Siam lost 19 men in the war, from an expeditionary force of 1,233 troops, though none fell in combat.
Chitti spent the past seven months working under the auspices of the King Vajiravudh Memorial Foundation under Royal Patronage, assembling photos, documents and other artefacts recalling King Vajiravudh’s declaration of war on faraway enemies 100 years ago.
The Kingdom of Siam declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary in mid-1917, three years into the European conflict. It came to be known as the Great War, and much later World War I, after the belligerents came to blows again in an even wider global struggle.
The exhibition’s centrepiece is a wax likeness of King Rama VI in ceremonial costume, his left hand on the sword of King Naresuan, his right hand holding a twig of Java cassia, symbolising victory. Nation/Tanachai Pramarnpani
The exhibition opens with a wax likeness of King Rama VI in a striking, ruby-hued ceremonial costume, his left hand on the replica sword of King Naresuan in its scabbard, his right hand holding a twig of Java cassia, symbolising victory. A sacred bael leaf can be seen behind one ear.
The costume is an exact replica of the attire he wore when committing Siamese troops to battle in Europe.
You know immediately this is going to be a visually interesting show.
Chitti and his team uncovered little-seen documentation of those times, including newspapers and silent film footage from overseas covering Siam’s surprising entry into the war.
The soldiers returned wearing Croix de Guerre medals awarded by a grateful French government and, on reaching home, received Order of Rama decorations from the King, some of which are on display.
The King decorated soldiers returning from the war, who also received the Croix de Guerre from the French government. Nation/Tanachai Pramarnpani
Much of the information presented was gleaned from Suchira Gutarak’s history textbook “King Vajiravuth and World War I”. It explains the background context of Siam’s declaration of war on July 22, 1917, aimed at upholding “impartiality and equality as well as maintaining international laws among righteous countries”.
A copy of the declaration itself is on view, along with his speeches about the crisis and photos of him in various military uniforms, including that of a British Army general, an honorary rank he held.
The King graduated from the Royal Military College at Sandhurst in 1898 and was briefly commissioned in the Durham Light Infantry.
Bangkok has a First World War Volunteers Memorial near the National Museum and it too appears in pictures in the show.
A photograph taken at the conclusion of the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, at which the so-called Versailles peace treaty was signed, features two Siamese princes: His Highness Charoon- sakdi Kritakara was there as minister plenipotentiary and His Serene Highness Traidos Prabandhu as under-secretary of state for foreign affairs.
Two Siamese princes had places of honour at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference.
“We found out online that there were archives of newspaper reports about Siam and World War I in Paris, so I asked my team member studying in Paris to scour the local antique shops,” Chitti says.
“She was able to find this very important photo from the peace conference, in which the Thai princes are sitting next to French and American officials. It shows how significantly Siam was regarded at the time.”
Chitti is now curator-in-residence for Mrigadayavan Palace Foundation, which looks after Rama VI’s residence in Petchaburi.
After the war Siam became a founding member of the League of Nations, a precursor to the United Nations. Its involvement was a key step towards overcoming unfair treaties that limited its commercial and legal autonomy.
This was perhaps its most significant reward for having entered the war, a conflict that posed no direct threat to the country. Germany’s closest colonies were still very far away, in the Pacific.
Participating in the war, though, strengthened Siam’s international position – and also the monarchy’s domestic esteem.
The Boston Journal’s headlines reads “Hundreds of lives lost on the torpedoed Lusitania”
Though it had maintained its independence from European colonial powers, Siam had been forced between 1889 and 1909 to cede territory to them in Laos and Cambodia along with its four southernmost provinces. Rama VI believed that siding with the Allies in the war would result in better treaty terms for Siam.
The war also became for him a means to promote the concept of nationhood and to confirm his supremacy as head of state, which elements of the military had challenged in the Palace Revolt of 1912.
To the commitment to war we also owe the national flag as it’s known today. Rama VI had the former ensign – white elephant on red background – replaced in 1917.
The new design, with red, blue and white stripes, was said to signify creed, crown and community, subsuming representation of the military, but at the same time it flew comfortably alongside the flags of Serbia, Russia, France, Britain and the United States.
The new flag was first raised on September 28, 1917. Initially there were two common variants. As well as the five-banded version seen everywhere today, another kept the elephant on a red disc, superimposed over the new stripes. This one – still used by the Royal Thai Navy – flew over the Siamese Expeditionary Force when it marched in the 1918 victory parade in Paris.
Among the fascinating newspaper accounts available to read, there is the Boston Journal’s evocative May 7, 1915, story about the sinking of the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania by a German U-boat. The outrageous attack on civilians convinced many countries, including Siam, to commit troops to the allied cause.
The 15-minute silent film depicting Siamese soldiers training and participating in the Paris victory parade was distilled from hours of footage acquired under licence from an archive under French Ministry of Defence.
The exhibition has an old black-and-white photograph of the 22 July Circle in Bangkok’s Yaowarat area, showing the five roads radiating outward. Each of those streets used to have the word “peace” in its name, in honour of the peace that followed World War I.
A colour shot of the same location shows how much it’s changed since. The streets have different names now. But, even 100 years later, people still remember.
HISTORY LIVES ON
- The exhibition “Siam and the World War I Centenary” continues in the King Vajiravudh Memorial Hall, part of the National Library compound on Bangkok’s Samsen Road until September 30.
- The hall is open Monday through Saturday from 9am to 4.30pm. Admission is free.
- On the final day, from 2 to 6pm, a seminar will examine how the costumed wax statue of Rama VI was preserved for posterity.