The collapse of the imperial system in China and the abdication of the Qing Dynasty in 1912 was a momentous event in world history that is generally not treated as such. However, it was positively earth-shattering and sent tremors all throughout east and southeast Asia, including Siam. A group of dissident army officers conspired to launch a military coup and abolish the monarchy, pledging to make Siam a constitutional democracy. Thankfully, word of the plan leaked to the authorities and they were arrested, tried and sentenced to death or life in prison. King Vajiravudh, however, wishing to appear strong and magnanimous, released all of them on the grounds that their intentions had been good in that they believed they were acting in the best interests of the country. Given what these men had said about the King personally, this had to be very difficult but for the King it underscored the need for greater national unity and to strengthen the monarchy. Many in Siam still had the mentality of the past when most of Siamese history was dominated by palace intrigue, family feuds and wars between rival city-states. King Vajiravudh wanted to usher in a new era of Siamese nationalism, place the kingdom on an equal footing with the other countries of the world and to bolster the power and prestige of the monarchy in the process.
|French general inspects Siamese troops|
The King called upon all of his people to unite behind this cause, to take their place as a participant in world affairs and even adopted a new national flag using the red, white and blue colors of the major Allied nations. The three colors, as announced in Siam, were to represent a new national unity of 1 people, 1 faith and 1 king. As the Siamese Expeditionary Force was assembled, more people actually volunteered than could be accepted. As it was, Siam could, of course, only afford a relatively minor force of mostly support personnel with medical and transportation contingents as well as air forces though these would have to be trained by the French. The SEF, under the command of Major General Phraya Bhijai Janriddhi, landed at the port of Marseilles on July 30, 1918 about 1,300 strong. While the pilots and air crew were set off for their new training, the general observed the operations of the other Allies to gain some experience in how things worked and, not too surprisingly given the times, the first use of the Siamese was when a contingent was organized into a labor detachment.
|SEF Battle flag was a hybrid of the old & new designs|
However, the overall results of Siamese participation in the Great War were somewhat mixed. At the outset, it seemed to have achieved all that the King had hoped. They had been a part of the great event of the time, were on the winning side, the prestige of the monarchy had gone up and there were some benefits to found. Siam got to keep the German ships they confiscated at the outset and within seven years the British, French and Americans had all given up their extraterritorial rights in Siam. However, in the long-term, these benefits could be seen as inconsequential or of limited duration. The ensuing economic collapse hit Siam hard and internal divisions, which the King had hoped to eliminate for good, soon reappeared and, to some extent, have become a mainstay of Thai politics. The financial crisis caused Siam to go into debt to the British which, in a way, could be seen as offsetting the new equality gained by Britain giving up her extraterritorial rights. All of this stress also benefited the dissident crowd and soon those advocating for a constitutional monarchy were back. King Vajiravudh would not live to see it but his successor, his younger brother King Prajadhipok, would go down in history as the last absolute monarch of Siam, the result of the Revolution of 1932 and the only king of Chakri dynasty to date to abdicate the throne.