Fighting for colonial masters:
Khmers in the First World War
A CALL TO ARMS
The mobilization call made by the French governor
general of Indochina, March 28, 1915.
The dark rolling clouds above the village of Chong Ampil, in Prey Veng, were to be
more than an omen for rain on the afternoon of Oct 31, 1918. Chak Neang Van sat in
his home listening to the distant, gentle sounds of his wife working on one of their
three small rice paddies. The 66-year-old farmer was blind and together with his
wife they eked out a difficult and miserable existence in the Cambodian countryside.
As Chak Neang Van listened to the day pass, he heard the sounds of a small entourage
approaching and then halting unexpectedly outside his home. Someone of importance
had obviously arrived, but what could they possible want with such a poor family?
It was the French Resident of Prey Veng bearing a letter from the Resident Superior
of Cambodia, Monsieur Baudoin. For the Resident of Prey Veng to visit personally,
Chak Neang Van knew that the news could only be bad.
The French Resident of Prey Veng somberly read out the contents of the letter: "Sir,
I regret to let you know of the death of your son, volunteer infantryman Nuon, killed
on June 28th at the Alsace front, beyond the German border... the Commander General
of the 33rd Corps described infantryman Nuon with the following words: 'A courageous,
infantryman who remained bravely at his observation post under extremely heavy shelling.
Killed while carrying out his duties.'
"The Croix de Guerre was awarded to this brave soldier and will be sent to you
to be kept as a sign of honor for your family. His corpse was laid to rest in the
cemetery of the village Stossweier in Alsace. I would like to extend to you on this
occasion the gratefulness of the protectorate for the honorable sacrifice of the
life of your son, who has served France loyally and has contributed to bring the
great victories of these last months with his Cambodian comrades."
How was it to be that Nuon, the only child of a poor village family in Cambodia,
found himself alongside thousands of other Indochinese soldiers fighting a war against
an aggressor, which he had probably never heard of before, in a foreign land thousands
of miles away?
Many Khmers mobilized in World War I were put to use behind the frontlines, such as these Indochinese working in a French armament factory.
In 1915 large posters appeared in towns and villages ordering the mobilization of
the Indochinese population for war. But it was not until February 1916 that King
Sisowath, by Royal Decree, made the call for volunteers to participate in the Great
War: "It is with unspeakable pride that We authorize Our subjects to enroll
for the length of the war to serve in France, in the army, the arsenals and the factories",
the Royal order declared.
Lest he be expected to lead by example the King added, "Our old age doesn't
allow Us to respond personally to the call for the defense of right and justice.
We declare to the Royal family, Our mandarins and Our people, Our profound regret
about this fact".
Like many other volunteer soldiers from distant colonies of the French empire who
came to fight, the Cambodian volunteers were told that this war threatened to ruin
the entire world, including Cambodia. This total ruin could only be prevented by
them realizing that they had a duty to help France "defend the security of the
world against the barbarism of the Germans and to participate in Europe in the battle
against the evil which threatened the universe and all the free peoples."
Not understanding the destructive powers of modern weaponry of the period, many may
have chosen to volunteer to go to Europe for the salary and conditions rather than
the belief in a right and just cause. The conditions consisted of a lump sum of 80
piastres for soldiers or 20 for auxiliary soldiers on signing the contract, no taxes
for their families, a pension of 3 piastres per month for the family while they were
overseas, a salary in France, and promotion according to performance.
The Governor General of Indochina, in January 1916, called for 7,000 men (seven battalions)
of reserve and active soldiers from Indochina to be sent and also requested a further
12,000 volunteers, 10,000 skilled workers (trained nurses, interpreters, etc) and
20,000 unskilled workers.
Cambodia was called on to provide 1,000 volunteer infantrymen and 2,500 workers to
go to France. By April 7, 1916, the number of enlisted volunteers (workers and soldiers)
totaled 1,015. This was not up to the expectations of the French. King Sisowath was
urged to have his functionaries double their efforts to recruit the necessary numbers
by further publicizing the recruitment drive, establishing special offices with flags
and posters in every provincial salakhet, promising benefits, etc. Amongst the recruits
were five princes, three of them grandchildren of Norodom, the other two grandchildren
of Sisowath. There were to be approximately 15 Indochinese battalions, with a ratio
of one in 10 Cambodians and the majority from Annam, and Cochinchina.
Most Cambodians were enlisted into the 20th Indochinese battalion. On arrival in
France this battalion was split. One company went to Montpellier, one to Béziers,
one to Narbonne, and one to Perpignan (3rd company). But instead of going to the
front to confront the enemy, many of the troops were surprised to find themselves
being sent to help with the wine harvest, repair train lines and work in armament
Nonetheless there was high praise for the Cambodians, although it focused more on
their non-military skills than their fighting skills. In a report of Captain Gilles
of the 1st Company of the 23rd Indochinese Battalion, sent to the Minister of the
Palace on Aug 9, 1918, he boasted proudly about the Cambodians under his command.
"I have bought, with my own money, three footballs: I now have an excellent
soccer team and they have accepted and won several games against their French colleagues.
I have recently, on their request and with the help of donations, formed a music
group which offers the highest hopes."
A second letter, sent boldly by the captain to King Sisowath (he was to be chastised
for sending such a letter directly to the King), continued in the same vein: "I
am happy to be able to tell you that compliments and congratulations (regarding the
performance of the Cambodians) are given to us every day. Dedicated, disciplined,
clean, intelligent, such are your subjects. Courageous and persistent, in the evening
after a terrible day, they study French, music or soccer. Several matches have been
accepted, and we were not always beaten... They play 13 Cambodian tunes and two French
ones, and we continue to rehearse everyday..."
The letter included a request for a favor from King Sisowath to send them the music
for the National Anthem of Cambodia "in order to study it for the day, when,
covered with glory, they will go back to Phnom Penh to pay their respects to you".
He also requested Sisowath to ask "the ladies of Phnom Penh" to send him
a national flag, that could be carried by the homecoming forces.
Generally the Cambodians were noted for their good behavior. They left an "excellent
impression and will leave an excellent memory everywhere they traveled through",
one report noted. They were especially praised for their "fierce soldierly looks,
their beautiful attitude and their correct handling of weapons".
Back in Cambodia the drive to recruit more volunteers had not been very successful.
The French administration was frantically dealing with a peasant rebellion growing
throughout the country, provoked by substantial increases in taxes on the local population
to sustain the French war effort. Furthermore, rumors had been spreading wildly that
all the Cambodian volunteers sent to France had been killed.
In a November 1916 circular to the French residents, Baudoin writes: "I have
been informed by various sources that certain correspondence sent to Cambodia by
the indigenous volunteers serving in France are containing remarks that might cause
discouragement in their families or create an adverse public spirit among the indigenous
readers. It is unimportant if these reflections were inspired by a feeling of disgruntlement
or by real demoralization, they in any case represent an element of the local public
opinion that needs to be surveyed closely in the future."
He asked the residents to investigate the nature of these remarks and their exact
content and to confiscate such letters because of their "subversive nature"
and send them to him.
To help lift the morale of the volunteers abroad the postal service allowed families
to send their loved ones parcels of up to 1kg in weight to France for free.
Such a benevolent gesture had interesting consequences, as a telegram from Paris
to the Resident Superior attests, "Indochinese workers have received parcels
containing opium which they sell - please inform the population that the import of
opium to France is forbidden, close surveillance is being put in place and delinquents
are liable to heavy penalties."
Following the end of the war all the discipline that the Cambodians were previously
praised for completely abandoned them.
There was concern shown by the French regarding the lack of discipline displayed
by the homecoming soldiers, who simply deserted their units after arrival in Saigon
to go home to their villages, instead of going home in orderly groups under the supervision
of their officers.
The problem seems to have been that once they received all their money they didn't
give a damn about their superior's orders anymore.
To reward those who returned from the Great War and help them resettle, land concessions
were made available in Banam (Prey Veng), Popokvil and Kandal. The Resident Superior
put aside 20,000 piastres from the 1920 budget to facilitate their resettlement.
For those who never returned a memorial was to be built.
In 1919 the mayor of Phnom Penh announced a contest for the erection of a commemorative
monument called "To those who died for France" to be dedicated to the French,
Cambodians and Asian residents of Cambodia who died for the French cause.
Strangely enough, only French nationals were invited to offer submissions.
Seven years after the end of the war, on Feb 14, 1925, the monument was finally inaugurated,
and the memory of those who died could live on - but unfortunately not for eternity.
And what remains of this monument that was located on the large traffic island in
front of the current French Embassy? Apparently it was torn down during the Khmer
Rouge period and the large bronze elephants that flanked either side of the monument
can now be found at the entrance of the National Museum.
Nothing else remains in Cambodia to remind us of infantryman Nuon and his fellow
countrymen who died in Europe's trenches in support of their colonial masters.
Information for this article was taken from the Fonds of the Resident Superior,
file numbers 4246, 4594, 4605, 7727, 7745, 7753, 10378, 10421, 15345 and Revue Indochinoise,
1917. The National Archives is open Monday - Friday, 8.00 - 11.00 and 2.00 - 4.30.
It is located behind the National Library. All are welcome to consult its holdings.
The re-establishment of the catalogue of its holdings is in progress, a process which
is being facilitated by the generous support of the Embassies of Australia, France,
Email address: [email protected]