Southeast Asia’s role in World War I is all but lost to history. There was no major invasion of the region by a hostile power, like Japan in World War II. None of the Central Powers – an alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire – had colonial territory in the region, except on the periphery. German New Guinea quickly fell to the Allies after the outbreak of war in July 1914.
Yet the First World War, which ended 100 years ago this month, proved a decisive event for Southeast Asia. For the first time, it severely tested the relationship between the colonial authorities of Britain, France and the Netherlands (neutral in the war) and their colonial subjects in Southeast Asia, for whom sacrifice in the conflict was to be a rallying cry for more civil rights. The burgeoning nationalist movements throughout the region swelled with veterans returning home from democratic and industrial nations, while others, with considerable consequences in later decades, brought home interests in the radical politics at the time, not least communism.
Arguably, the most interesting response to the declaration of war was made by Siam, as Thailand was then known. As the only Southeast Asian nation not colonised by a European power, Siam, under the absolute monarch King Vajiravudh, decided to go to war against the Central Powers in 1917, sending its own troops to fight in Europe. The Siamese Expeditionary Force of more than 1,000 troops arrived in the French port of Marseilles in July 1918. It was led by Major-General Phraya Phya Bhijai Janriddhi, who had received military training in France before the war. At first, the Thai troops were employed by the Allies as rear-guard labour detachments, taking part in the Second Battle of the Marne in August that year. The following month, they saw their first frontline action. They took part in several offences, including the occupation of the German Rhineland. In the end, 19 Thais had lost their lives – none from battle.
King Vajiravudh’s decision to go to war was calculated. Gambling on Allied victory, he believed Siam’s participation would earn it the respect of Britain and France. He was correct. Although it was independent, neighbouring colonisers (the British in Burma and the French in Cambodia) had slowly whittled away Siam’s territory in the preceding decades, with large tracts of land returned to Cambodia in the late 19th century. After WWI, though, Siam’s territory didn’t budge. Equally important, Siam took part in the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference and was a founding member of the League of Nations, a clear indication that Western powers now saw it as a legitimate force on the international stage and in Southeast Asia.
Many did not want to be thrust unquestionably into the greatest fratricide the world had yet seen
The rulers of independent Siam might have wanted respect and power, but the thoughts of ordinary people from the rest of colonised Southeast Asia are little known. Few first-hand accounts exist for historians. Quite probably, however, many did not want to be thrust unquestionably into the greatest fratricide the world had yet seen, and some no doubt hoped the colonial empires would be destroyed by the whole endeavour. Yet some nationalists, especially those of higher rank who weren’t expected to fight, saw the war effort as a means of gaining more political rights for themselves under the colonial system.
The war, for example, provided the Vietnamese with “an unexpected opportunity to test France’s ability to live up to vaunted self-representations of invincibility”, as Philippe Peycam wrote in 2012’s The Birth of Vietnamese Political Journalism: Saigon, 1916-1930. The prominent Vietnamese nationalist Phan Chu Trinh, who had spent years in jail before the war for his activism and was imprisoned for six months in 1914 on wrongful charges of colluding with the Germans, played a considerable role in recruiting Vietnamese men for the war. Another noted nationalist, Duong Van Giao, published a history of the Vietnamese war effort, 1925’s L’Indochine pendant la guerre de 1914–1918. Because of Vietnam’s sacrifice, he called on the French colonials to adopt a “native policy”: not quite outright independence but radical reform of civil rights for the Vietnamese. It was a similar sentiment as expressed in Claims of the Annamite People, an influential tract cowritten in France in 1919 by a young activist who later became known as Ho Chi Minh, who had spent most of the war working in a London hotel under the famous chef Auguste Escoffier.
As a French colony, Vietnam was expected to provide troops for the war effort, but there were differing views among colonial officers as to what role they should play. Lieutenant-Colonel Théophile Pennequin was a hardliner but also a keen reformer. Before the outbreak of war, Pennequin requested that he be allowed to form a competent military unit that was termed by some as an armée jaune (yellow army), similar to the force noire (black force) popularised by General Charles Mangin in France’s West African colonies. For Pennequin, a national native army would allow Vietnamese to gain “positions of command and provide the French with loyal partners with whom they could build a new and, eventually, independent Indochinese state,” wrote historian Christopher Goscha in 2017’s The Penguin History of Modern Vietnam.
But Pennequin’s designs were rejected by Paris and, instead, most Vietnamese recruits were sent to Europe to work in factories or as supply hands. Yet some did fight. One estimate contends that out of 100,000 Vietnamese conscripts sent to the war in Europe, roughly 12,000 lost their lives. A battalion of Tonkinese Rifles, an elite corps formed in the 1880s, saw action on the Western Front near Verdun. Do Huu Vi, a celebrated pilot from an elite family, became a national hero after his plane was shot down over France.
Despite overt racism by some French nationals and trade unions’ concerns that they were bringing down wages, many of the Vietnamese put to work in munitions factories found it a revelatory experience. Some started relationships with Frenchwomen, unsurprising since other workers in wartime factories were mostly women. Others joined social clubs and reading groups. After the war, wrote Goscha, “a hundred thousand Vietnamese veterans returned to Indochina hoping to start a new life. Some wanted French citizenship; most expected good jobs and upward social mobility. Several hoped to modernise Vietnam along Western lines, despite the barbarity they had just witnessed in Europe.”
It was a similar story for the Philippines, then a United States colony. It declared war on Germany in April 1917, the same time Washington did. At first, the colonial government requested the drafting of 15,000 Filipinos for service, but more than 25,000 enlisted. These troops formed the Philippine National Guard, a militia that was later absorbed into the American military. Most of the recruits, though, would not leave the Philippines during the war. Those who did travelled as part of the American Expeditionary Forces. In June 1918, the first Filipino died in action at the Battle of Château-Thierry, in France: Tomas Mateo Claudio, a former contract labourer on a sugar plantation in Hawaii who had enlisted in the US.
It is not known exactly how many Southeast Asians died during the First World War. Of those active in the European theatre, the number is estimated to be more than 20,000, mostly conscripts from the French colonies. It was a small figure compared to the number of Southeast Asians who perished during the Second World War. And, unlike in that war, there wasn’t a great arena of warfare in Southeast Asia during the First since none of the Central Powers nations had any imperial control in the region.
But Germany did have influence in China and possessed leased territory in Kiautschou Bay, near present-day Jiaozhou. It was invaded by Japanese forces after 1915, and China would later declare war on Germany in August 1917. But in October 1914, the German East Asia Squadron still had its base in the concession – it was from there that a lone light cruiser, the SMS Emden, slipped into Penang Harbour, part of what was then British Malaya. Disguised as a British vessel, the German cruiser launched a surprise attack on a Russian ship and then sank a French destroyer that had given chase. The sole attack on Malaya during the war killed 100 and wounded thousands more.
“In the battle against England… Islam will become one of our most important weapons.”Max von Oppenheim
After the attack, the Emden is thought to have docked in a port in the Dutch East Indies, present-day Indonesia, raising British suspicions that the Dutch weren’t as neutral as they had claimed. Neutrality, moreover, didn’t mean the colony went unscathed. The Dutch East Indies was home to a sizeable German population that worked to “coordinate and finance covert operations designed to undermine British colonial rule and economic interests in Southeast Asia,” as historian Heather Streets-Salter wrote in 2017’s World War One in Southeast Asia: Colonialism and Anticolonialism in an Era of Global Conflict.
The Emden was finally stopped by an Australian cruiser that ran it ashore in Singapore. The surviving crew of the German vessel were interned there, then a part of British Malaya. Also stationed in Singapore was the Indian Army’s Fifth Light Infantry, which unsuccessfully mutinied in January 1915 after they learned they might be sent to fight in Turkey against fellow Muslims (though they were eventually sent to Hong Kong instead). The 309 interned Germans from the Emden joined in the mutiny, which left dead eight British and three Malay soldiers, as well as a dozen Singapore civilians.
A much forgotten history of World War I was a Turco-German plot to promote jihad (holy war) in parts of the Muslim world colonised by the Allies, including Malaya. Using the Dutch East Indies as a base, supporters of the Central Powers produced “pan-Islamic, anti-British propaganda” that was sent to Muslim-majority British Malaya, and also to India. One of the architects of this plan, Max von Oppenheim, wrote in a position paper in 1914: “In the battle against England… Islam will become one of our most important weapons.” The Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed V, issued a fatwa against the Allies in November of that year. In British Malaya, the authorities doubled down on censorship by closing many Malay-language newspapers, some of which were considered supportive of the Ottoman Empire.
Pan-Islamic propaganda agitating for independence of Malaya was just as attractive to the Muslim-majority subjects of the Dutch East Indies where it was produced. In the preceding decades, these subjects had been demanding more freedoms, even independence, for themselves. This was a serious cause of concern for the Dutch colonialists, but ultimately the real impact of the war on the Dutch East Indies was economic. The Allies’ blockade of European waters, as well as control of Asian waters, made it difficult for Dutch ships to reach the colony for trade purposes.
“The Netherlands Indies was effectively cordoned off by the British Navy,” wrote Kees Van Dijk in 2008’s The Netherlands Indies and the Great War, 1914-1918. As a result, the war caused price increases and severe food shortages in the Dutch East Indies. By the end of 1916, the export industry was practically destroyed. Around that time, social unrest had gained momentum. Rural protesters burned reserve crops, eventually leading to famine in some parts of the colony. Nationalists and a small contingent of socialists began advocating for revolution. By 1918, unrest was so dire that the governor general called a meeting of the nationalist leaders where he made the so-called “November promises” of more political representation and freedom, but these were empty promises.
Economic problems were a constant throughout the region. To help pay for the war effort, the French and British were reduced to raising taxes in their Southeast Asian colonies. The burden fell mainly on the poor. Small wonder it resulted in unprecedented protests. A failed uprising took place in Kelantan, British Malaya, in April 1915. In Cambodia, the so-called 1916 Affair saw tens of thousands of peasants march into Phnom Penh demanding the king reduce taxes. None of these were exact appeals of “no taxation without representation”, but rather the germinal expressions of self-independence that were to become more forceful across the region in the 1930s, and decisive after World War II. Brian Farrell, a professor of military history at the National University of Singapore, has described the impact of the First World War on Southeast Asia as significant yet delayed.
By the close of the war, many of the colonies returned to some form of pre-war normalcy. Yet the colonial governments, indebted and weakened from the conflict, knew that reforms had to be made in Southeast Asia. In Laos, the French-run administration thought the county “secure enough” in October 1920 to introduce the first of a series of political reforms aimed at decentralising power through local appointees, wrote Martin Stuart-Fox in A History of Laos. The British authorities in Malaya also experimented with decentralisation in the 1920s, which involved placing more power in the hands of the provincial sultans. In 1916, the Jones Act was passed in Washington to begin the process of granting the Philippines a “more autonomous government”, including a parliament, which was built upon until full independence in 1946.
War also transformed the role of local elites, who took on more autonomy and power. In Vietnam, the years after 1919 saw the creation of reformist newspapers, written in the increasingly popular Vietnamese script instead of the Roman alphabet, which the French had imposed. In Cambodia and Laos, such forceful nationalism did not arise until the 1930s. Other reformists in the region grew interested in ideologies brought back from the West. The South Seas Communist Party, a pan-Southeast Asian party, was formed in Burma in 1925 before splitting along national lines in 1930. Ho Chi Minh, who spent the war in London, helped create the Communist Party of Indochina that year. Tan Malaka, who had actually tried enlisting to fight with the German army – without success – became an integral part of the communist movement in the Dutch East Indies, later becoming known as something of a father of the independent Republic of Indonesia .
World War I laid bare the unequal “social contract” that colonial authorities had forced their colonial subjects in Southeast Asia to sign. The contract would only become more obviously threadbare by the 1920s, yet it took the next global conflict, which had a far greater impact on the region than the first, for these anti-colonial movements to grab real political power.