Siam on the world stage

Friday marks the 100th anniversary of the Treaty of Versailles

Siamese Troops marching through the Arc de Triomphe at the Victory Parade in Paris on July 14, 1919.

One hundred years ago, on June 28, 1919, the eyes of the world were on the Palace of Versailles outside Paris. There, in the grand Hall of Mirrors, representatives of 31 victorious countries signed the treaty that ended the most gruesome war mankind had ever experienced and dictated the terms of surrender to the defeated Imperial Germany.

Friday marks the 100th anniversary of The Treaty of Versailles, one of the key documents of the 20th century, not only for signifying the end of the them Great War, but also because it contained the bold vision of US President Woodrow Wilson to create the League of Nations, predecessor of today's United Nations, to maintain peace in the world.

Among the signatories were two Thai princes, in what marked the biggest success of Thai foreign policy during the age of imperialism. In fact, while Prince Charoonsakdi Kritakara and Prince Traidos Prabhandh Devakula put their signatures under the treaty, Siamese soldiers were still standing on German soil. Friday's centenary of the Treaty of Versailles provides an opportunity to look back at these momentous events in Thai history.

When World War I broke out as a distant European conflict in mid-1914, Siam was not seriously affected and maintained a position of neutrality between the main belligerents: Germany, France and the United Kingdom. But as the scope of the conflict expanded across the globe in the following years, pressure on Siam to take a stand with either side mounted. For reasons of political strategy as well as personal sympathy, King Rama VI and his senior advisers decided to declare war on Germany in July 1917 and join the Allies (the alliance of France, Great Britain, Japan and others), whose cause had recently been strengthened by the entry of the United States into the conflict.

Upon entering into the war, Siam imprisoned all 300 German and Austro-Hungarian citizens in the Kingdom, confiscated their businesses and a fleet of German merchant ships, and, in a bold decision, soon began to assemble an expeditionary force to join the fighting in Europe. The 1,300-strong contingent arrived in France in the summer of 1918 and provided logistical support behind the front lines in the final stages of the war. Siam's troops operated under their own flag and their own command, making them the only independent Southeast Asian combatants on the battlefields of Europe. These events provided Siam with the much-anticipated entry ticket to the Paris peace conference, where its delegates sat eye-to-eye with the great powers.

Signature Page of the Treaty of Versailles with the signatures of Prince Charoonsakdi Kritakara and Prince Traidos Prabhandh Devakula.

Siam's objectives at Versailles were the same as those that had led it to join the war: to shake off the unequal treaties through which colonial powers were securing commercial benefits in the Kingdom and to gain full sovereignty by being part of the new postwar international order. As the Bangkok Times commented on the eve of the conference, "a great door [was] now opened to this country. And we of the West must not forget that we equally are on our trial".

Princes Charoon and Traidos were well suited to represent Siam in the negotiations. Experienced diplomats, they were cosmopolitan, multilingual and well versed in diplomatic protocol and international law.

Other prominent members of the Siamese delegation included the well-known businessman and diplomat Phraya Bibadh Koshsa (Celestino Xavier), as well as a young prince who had recently graduated from France's elite university Sciences Po named Wan Waithayakorn, who would go on to succeed Prince Charoon as the leading Thai diplomat through much of the 20th century.

At a time when Siam's sovereignty and territorial integrity were not uncontested, the Kingdom's elite had been modernising the country along Western lines to demonstrate Siam's degree of civilisation to the imperial powers. By actively joining the war, Siam further strengthened its case to be treated as an equal by the West. When the peace negotiations in Paris commenced in January 1919, Siam's delegation pursued a low-key and effective strategy, but was ultimately only partially successful. Germany was forced to relinquish all unequal treaty rights in Siam, but Britain and France remained unwilling to do likewise; too entrenched were colonialist attitudes in London and Paris, and it would take several more years of bilateral negotiations to shake off the treaties.

On the other hand, Siam was admitted as a founding member to the world's first standing international organisation with global authority, the League of Nations. In the words of King Rama VI: "That we should be a member of the League whose duty is to regulate world affairs according to the principles of right and justice, must … be a matter of satisfaction and pride to us."

Over the following 20 years, Siam generally shunned involvement in the political-security issues that would eventually lead to the League's downfall, but it was active in the League's technical work on opium control, human trafficking, public health, and others. It was in these sectors that League membership had a marked impact on social development and public policies in Siam in the interwar years. Siam would later build on its multilateral credentials when it joined the League's successor, the United Nations, after World War II.

The Treaty of Versailles marked the formal end of the catastrophic war and a deep humiliation for Germany, a trauma that would come to haunt Europe two decades later when a bellicose Germany dragged the continent and ultimately the world into conflict once more. But on June 28, 1919, the atmosphere was joyous and optimistic, as the Treaty of Versailles was signed in a festive celebration in the very Hall of Mirrors, where the German Empire had been proclaimed in 1871 and where King Louis XIV had received the Siamese embassy of 1686.

The day also highlighted the success of Siam's strategy to go to war on the side of the Allies. While Siam remained surrounded by European colonial possessions, and Western powers continued to exert influence on politics and the economy in Bangkok, the country had taken a significant step towards bolstering its independence. This success was on public display two weeks later during the spectacular victory parade in the centre of Paris, in which Siamese soldiers marched behind their flag. That victory parade on France's national day, July 14, 1919, held such significance that it has become a tradition ever since. And Siam had, as we would say nowadays, successfully put itself "on the map".

The Treaty of Versailles was a landmark achievement in international law and the decisive step towards a multilateral system of states. It brought two decades of peace in Europe but failed to avert future wars like the one it had ended.

For some people the treaty perpetuated the colonial order, for others, like Siam, it constituted a step towards greater sovereignty. The legacy of Siam's participation in these events that shaped our modern world is symbolised by the memorial for the fallen Siamese soldiers during World War I that stands at its original site on Sanam Luang to this day.

Stefan Hell is a historian and the author of Siam And The League Of Nations – Modernisation, Sovereignty And Multilateral Diplomacy, 1920-1940 and Siam And World War I – An International History, both published by River Books in Bangkok. The latter book is also available in a Thai language version.

 

The Great War magazine cover depicting King Rama VI. Photo: Paisarn Piemmettawat

Charoonsakdi Kritakara. Photo courtesy of League of Nations Archives

Traidos Prabhandh Devakula. Photo: Paisarn Piemmettawat