As the world on Sunday commemorated the 100th anniversary of the end of World War 1, or the Great War – originally known in French as Le Guerre Europeenne – back in 1914, the first dispatches to Phnom Penh from France requested 4,500 Cambodians to join the French war effort.
“That number was immediately lowered to 3,500,” said Henri Eckert, assistant professor of Indochinese history at Universite des Antilles in Martinique. “It’s impossible to tell how many Cambodians went to Europe.”
The smaller Cambodian volunteer contingent helped defend their colonial rulers under the larger banner of the Indochinese army, which also included Vietnamese and Laotians.
“It was a political project to unite French Indochina to make people believe that [France’s] control was natural and not the result of chaos and conquest. It would have been seen as rightful that Asia put aside its differences to fight alongside the French as Indochinese people.”
“Many of the volunteers were intellectuals,” Eckert said. “They thought that if Indochina showed support for France then they would gain independence more easily.
“During that time, Cambodians had to carry a passport if they travelled 19km from their homes. So going to Europe was profound in itself.”
French postal officers intercepted letters (which are now in the French national archives) depicting Cambodian soldiers’ joy in seeing Frenchman shining shoes or recounting sexual liaisons with European women.
“There are some very colourful letters, people describe seeing aeroplanes for the first time or describing tanks and submarines in very naive ways,” said Eckert.
Others were motivated by a desire to see the world and to earn money, not unlike many recruits who join the armed forces today.
A World War 1 document in The National Archives of Cambodia from 1916 outlines the benefits for soldiers: “The volunteers who enlist will [receive] a bonus of $80 [in the colonial-era “piastre” currency], with $20 paid at the time of commitment, $60 two days before their embarkation and a daily balance of 24 cents from the day of their incorporation.”
Meanwhile, workers were paid a signing-up bonus of “$10, a daily wage of 30 cents and a premium bonus which ranged from 10-30 cents every working day”.
Eckert, who specialised in Indochinese history while at the Sorbonne University, said that only about 1,000 Cambodians saw combat, while roughly 2,500 volunteers ended up as labourers.
“Workers could have earned more money each workday as a bonus, so in the end, they were better off financially in some respects.”
He noted that most of Cambodia’s World War 1 casualties occurred in armament facilities.
“The number of Cambodian workers was greater [than that of soldiers], and factory labourers didn’t have the same medical care as soldiers who fought in the field."
“Empirical evidence suggests Cambodians fought for France in the region of Champagne as well as at the battle of the Chemin des Dames and on the battlefront of Macedonia in 1917,” said Mathilde Teruya, political press counsellor for the French embassy in Cambodia.
“Every [Cambodian] soldier, nurse and worker deserve the gratitude of France for having supported it during one of the worst times of its history. Certain estimates put the number of Cambodians who lost their lives in combat to 150. This number doesn’t include those soldiers or workers who passed away due to disease.”
After 1918, roughly 5,000 Indochinese stayed in Europe, while those who returned came to changed circumstances.
“It wasn’t as dire in Cambodia after the war compared to Vietnam because there was a lot of vacant land in Cambodia, and the French said every veteran was entitled to varying hectares of land and given $50 to start farming.”
In contrast, Eckert said Vietnamese soldiers had little to return to. “There was little land and few jobs in the civil service.
“Ultimately, that fed the revolution. The French wanted to unite Indochina and to a certain extent, it worked. When Ho Chi Minh founded his communist party, it was called the Indochinese Communist Party.”