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Franco-Siamese War 1893

For centuries Siam had been distracted by wars with Cambodians, Peguans and Burmans, but the incorporation of Lower Cochin China, Annam and Tongking by the French, and the annexation of Lower and Upper Burma successively by the British, freed her from all further danger on the part of her old rivals. To the west, Britain completed its conquest of Burma in 1885 with the annexation of Upper Burma and the involuntary abdication of Burma's last king, Thibaw. To the south, the British were firmly established in the major Muslim states of the Malay Peninsula.

Even more than Britain, France posed a serious danger to Siamese independence. The French occupied Cochinchina (southern Vietnam, around the Mekong Delta) in 1863. From there they extended their influence into Cambodia, over which Vietnam and Siam had long been struggling for control. Assuming Vietnam's traditional interests, France obliged the Cambodian king, Norodom, to accept a French protectorate. Siam formally relinquished its claim to Cambodia four years later, in return for French recognition of Siamese sovereignty over the Cambodian provinces of Siem Reap and Battambang.

The French dreamed of outflanking their British rivals by developing a trade route to the supposed riches of southwestern China through the Mekong Valley. This seemed possible once France had assumed complete control over Vietnam in the 1880s. The small Laotian kingdoms, under Siamese suzerainty, were the keys to this dream. The French claimed these territories, arguing that areas previously under Vietnamese control should now come under the French, the new rulers of Vietnam.

The frontiers of Siam, both to the east and the west, had always been vague and ill-defined, as was natural in wild and unexplored regions inhabited by more or less barbarous tribes. The frontier between Siam and the new British possessions in Burma was settled amicably and without difficulty, but the boundary question on the east was a much more intricate one and was still outstanding. Disputes with frontier tribes led to complications with France, who asserted that the Siamese were occupying territory that rightfully belonged to Annam, which was now under French protection. France, while assuring the British Government that she laid no claim to the province of Luang Prabang, which was situated on both banks of the upper Mekong, roughly between the 18th and 20th parallels, claimed that farther south the Mekong formed the true boundary between Siam and Annam, and demanded the evacuation of certain Siamese posts east of the river.

During the reign of King Rama V (Chulalongkorn, r 1868-1910), Westerners began to exert their influence on Asian countries with the main objective of gaining colonies and precious resources. King Rama V resorted to the same strategy as his father, King Mongkut, who embraced the fact that it was time to build friendship with the West. Several visits to foreign countries introduced the King to new innovations leading to modernization of the country in order that Siam could be accepted by the West to prevent colonisation.

Even with his open door policy, King Rama V was unable to prevent intrusion and intervention by western powers, especially France and England. During his reign, Siam had to cede land to these countries five times in order to preserve national integrity. Thus the Thai Kingdom became the only country in Southest Asia to avoid colonisation. The naval battle that ensued at the mouth of the Chao Phraya River with the French was one incident when Siam was forced to give up a large amount of its territory.

Auguste Pavie, French vice consul in Luang Prabang in 1886, was the chief agent in furthering French interests in Laos. His intrigues, which took advantage of Siamese weakness in the region and periodic invasions by Chinese rebels from Yunnan Province, increased tensions between Bangkok and Paris. The French complained of Siamese aggression on French territory in Anam, the Siamese having established military posts in Cochin China, not far from Hue, the capital of Anam, and threatened to cut off Tonquin from Cochin China.

Laos and Cambodia had been Siamese vassal states since Ayudhya times right through the Rattanakosin period. At times when Siamese power became weak, Burma and Vietnam, neighbouring countries, would alternately assume control of Laos. During such times, Cambodia would secretly move its army against Siam, often with Vietnamese support. This was the case until France started to exert its power over Vietnam and Cambodia in February of 1893. Mr. De l'oncle, a member of French parliament proposed to the French senate to use force to settle land dispute over areas owned by Vietnam and Cambodia.

In early 1893, the French moved their army to the right bank of the Mekong River and sent the Lutin up the river to Bangkok, citing the need to protect French interests in Siam. The government had to accept the situation.

The French governor of Nedo, China, in April, 1893, sent troops to take possession of Stung Treng, on the left bank of the river, some miles north of the Cambodia line, and of the island of Khong, still higher up the stream, asserting that the French had established posts there nine years before. The garrison at Khong was invested by some Laotians, who, in turn, were driven away by fresh detachments of the French. The French drove back the Siamese invaders and recovered three hundred miles of territory. The Siamese evacuated the island of Khong, but tried to recapture it and seized Captain Thoreux and his men. At the demand of France Captain Thoreux and his men were released, and Siam gave the most pacific assurances.

M. Grosgurin, a French inspector, was assassinated in his tent by order of a Siamese mandarin, whom he was under orders to conduct back so as to protect him against the population, the victims of his exactions. The Siamese government asked for time to make an inquiry and gave assurances of its readiness to grant France full reparation after having ascertained the facts.

The French, however, did not stop their demands. In July 1893, the French government requested that two warships enter Thai waters - Inconstant and Comete to join the Lutin already stationed in Bangkok. The French fleet under Admiral Humann sailed toward Bangkok. The French gunboats Comite and Inconstante, although refused permission by Siam to ascend the Menam river, went up the river toward Bangkok. The Thai government, however, felt that having three foreign warships in Thai waters was too much of a threat and thus refused the request. At the same time, to prepare for the French anger at Thai refusal, King Rama V ordered the navy to prepare for national defence.

Commodore Phraya Cholyuth Yothin was tasked with the mission of protecting the mouth of the Chao Phraya River from the French. The Chulachomklao and Pheesua-samut Forts equipped with modern 6 inch Armstrong guns were ordered for battle-readiness to prevent possible incursion of French ships. Nine warships were ordered to standby to the north of Chulachomklao Fort. Many of these ships were older models or river steam-engine boats. Only two ships were recently constructed: Makut Rajakumarn and Murathawasitsawat. Obstructions were laid at the mouth of Chao Phraya River such as nets, minefields and a torpedo firing field, for example.

On 13 July 1893, the two French gunboats Inconstant and Comete entered the sand bars of the Chao Phraya River, heading for Bangkok. The Jean Baptist Say, a commercial ship, was acting as pilot The guns at Chulachomklao Fort then fired blank warning shots. However, the French boats did not heed the warning and soon both started to exchange cannon shots. The Thai ships to the north of the Fort also fired at the French ships. As soon as night fell, however, the battle ended. The Inconstant and the Comete were able to continue on to Bangkok and docked in front of the French Embassy. The pilot ship, however, was grounded on the bank of the Chao Phraya.

When the French were fired upon by the Siamese forts, they had a loss of three killed and two wounded on the part of the crews, while twenty Siamese were killed in the forts. One Siamese gunboat was hulled, and the French steamer Say was sunk. The French gunboat Forfait came two days later. The French Minister at Bangkok, M. Pavie, apologized to the Siamese government, saying that the French gunboats ascended the river in defiance of his orders. The French government forwarded an energetic protest to the Siamese government against the attack on the French sailors.

On 18 July 1893, the French government sent an ultimatum to Siam, demanding the cession of the territory on the east side of the Mekong river to the French possessions in Anam; the evacuation of the forts held there by the Siamese within a month; full satisfaction for various aggressions on French ships and sailors on the Menam river; the punishment of the culprits and provision for the pecuniary indemnity of the victims; an indemnity of three million francs for various damages sustained by French subjects; and the immediate deposit of three million francs to guarantee the payment of the indemnity and the punishment of the culprits, or the assignment of taxes in certain districts in lieu of the deposit of three million francs. Siam was given forty-eight hours in which to answer the French ultimatum, and in case the terms of the ultimatum were rejected France was to declare a blockade.

The Franco-Siamese quarrel threatened to involve England and China in the dispute as allies of Siam. China, as the nominal suzerain of Siam, threatened to send a military force to the aid of the Siamese; while Great Britain, alarmed for the safety of the eastern frontier of British India and for her commercial interests in Siam, sent several warships to Siamese waters; and German warships were also sent to act in conjunction with the British and for the protection of German commercial interests.

The Chinese Ambassador in London was in close consultation with Lord Rosebery, British Minister of Foreign Affairs, the result of which was that England and China were negotiating a defensive alliance against France. England urged Li Hung Chang, the Chinese Viceroy, to send a fleet to Bangkok. Lord Dufferin, the British Ambassador at Paris, had many conferences with M. Develle, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs; while M. Develle was in constant telegraphic communication with M. Pa vie, the French Minister Resident at Bangkok.

The diplomatic relations between England and France were fast approaching a rupture, and war was threatened between the two nations. The British press assumed a firm tone in support of Lord Rosebery's attitude for the protection of British interests; while the French press and people clamored loudly for war with England, and resented all foreign interference with plans for bringing Siam to terms. England was warmly supported in her course by Germany, and the Berlin press heartily commended Lord Rosebery's action. The approach of the French fleet under Admiral Humann caused great excitement and alarm at Bangkok, and the Siamese king and his court were on the point of fleeing from their capital. The land telegraph wires between Bangkok and Saigon were cut by the Siamese, thus necessitating some delay in the transmission of dispatches to the French warships at Bangkok.

The French fleet under Admiral Humann began a blockade of Bangkok, July 28, 1893, having given notice to foreign vessels the preceding day. Out-going vessels were warned that they must clear from Bangkok the next day or submit to detention. The blockade was to extend along the entire north coast of the Gulf of Siam. The Siamese feared that France was aiming to make their whole country a French province. The Siamese government in a note to M. Pavie expressed its ardent'desire lor the maintenance of peace, and accepted the full terms of the French ultimatum, July 29, 1893; and the French blockade was raised in a few days and amicable relations were restored.

The crisis which had threatened to involve not only France and Siam, but also England and China, and probably Germany, was adjusted. Hard as were the conditions which powerful France imposed upon weak Siam, those terms would have been still severer had not England and China interfered in Siam's behalf.

Siam was stripped of a third of her territory. On 02 October 1893 a treaty was signed by plenipotentiaries, under which Siam surrendered all pretensions to the territory east of the Mekong and theNam On rivers, agreed to build no forts within a strip 25 kilometers wide on the west bank of the Mekong, gave France the right of establishing stations on that bank, conceded especial privileges of travel and of creating new consulates, and consented to pay a heavy indemnity for alleged previous aggressions.

Siam had to give up large areas to France in order to save national integrity and sovereignty. As an important lesson from the skirmish, King Chulalongkorn realized that hiring foreigners as ship commanding officers and fort commanders was inadequate. The King decided that Thais must replace all foreigners to ensure that the navy's mission to protect the country is complete. Such a task would be possible only with good training, thus he decided to send several of his children out to study various subjects: administration, army, navy and other related fields in Europe.

The annexation by France of the eastern third of the Siamese dominions in 1893, was the most important step France had yet taken in the foundation of a great Eastern empire, for it nearly doubled her possessions in Indo-China. For the past thirty years and more the design of the French Colonial officials to construct a great French empire in the East had been openly admitted, and step by step, as occasion and the humour of the French nation allowed, that empire has been built up. This empire, according to the French Colonial party, which was having its own way with the French Government, and had the French public in leading-strings, was to include all non-British Indo-China and the whole of Southern China. The idea was to effect a rapprochement with Russia in Asia, the whole of the Chinese dominions, which contained about one-fourth of the inhabitants of the world, being divided between the two Powers. China would thus become a close preserve for French and Russian trade, and France and Russia, who were already acting together in the Far East, would be in a position to do battle with Britain for her empire in India. Such a change in the political geography of Asia would entail loss of prestige and loss of trade to the British Empire, and to India not only the loss of prestige and trade, but an enormously increased expenditure on military works.

In 1895 lengthy negotiations took place between France and England concerning their respective eastern and western frontiers in Farther India. These negotiations bore important fruit in the Anglo-French convention of 1896, the chief provision of which was the neutralization by the contracting parties of the central portion of Siam, consisting of the basin of the river Menam, with its rich and fertile land, which contains most of the population and the wealth of the country. Britain's acquiescence in French expansionism was evident in this treaty recognizing a border between French territory in Laos and British territory in Upper Burma. Neither eastern nor southern Siam was included in this agreement, but nothing was said to impair or lessen in any way the full sovereign rights of the king of Siam over those parts of the country. Siam thus has its independence guaranteed by the two European powers who alone have interests in Indo-China, England on the west and France on the east, and had therefore a considerable political interest similar to that of Afghanistan, which formed a buffer state between the Russian and British possessions on the north of India.

Encouraged by the assurance of the Anglo-French convention, Siam now turned her whole attention to internal reform, and to such good purpose that, in a few years, improved government and expansion of trade aroused a general interest in her welfare, and gave her a stability which had before been lacking. With the growth of confidence negotiations with France were reopened, and, after long discussion, the treaty of 1893 was set aside and Chantabun evacuated in return for the cession of the provinces of Bassac, Melupr, and the remainder of Luang Prabang, all on the right bank of the Mekong, and of the maritime district of Krat. These results were embodied in a new treaty signed and ratified in 1904.

French pressure on Siam continued, however, and in 1907 Chulalongkorn was forced to surrender Battambang and Siem Reap to French-occupied Cambodia. Two years later, Siam relinquished its claims to the northern Malay states of Kelantan, Trengganu, Kedah, and Perlis to the British in exchange for legal jurisdiction over British subjects on its soil and a large loan for railroad construction. In terms of territory under its control, Siam was now much diminished. Its independence, however, had been preserved as a useful and generally stable buffer state between French and British territories.

By a law passed in 1903, the ancient system of recruiting the army and navy from the descendants of former prisoners of war was abolished in favor of compulsory service by all able-bodied men. The new arrangement, which was strictly territorial, was enforced in eight monlons by the year 1909, resulting in a standing peace army of 20,000 of all ranks, in a marine service of about 10,000, and in the beginnings of first and second reserves. The navy, many of the officers of which were Danes and Norwegians, comprised four steel gunboats of between 500 and 700 tons all armed with modern quick-firing guns, two torpedo-boat destroyers and three torpedo boats, with other craft for river and coast work. A steel twin-screw cruiser of 2500 tons served as the royal yacht.



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