Monday, September 18, 2017

Clash of Monarchies: The Second War of Italian Independence

The Italian peninsula, after so many centuries of division and foreign rule since the fall of the Western Roman Empire, would ultimately fight three wars for independence but of these three, none would be so consequential as the second. The first had seen the hope of the existing Italian princely states, Papal, Bourbon and even Habsburg, come together under the leadership of the House of Savoy against the Austrians with the possibility of confederation or federal unity for Italy only to be defeated by the Austrian army of the unflappable Graf von Radestky. King Carlo Alberto of Piedmont-Sardinia, after his defeat, abdicated in favor of his son King Vittorio Emanuele II a monarch who was originally interested only in the unification of northern Italy and that mostly so as to prevent it from occurring under the leadership of the radical republicans. However, with cooperation from the other Italian states now out of the question, he knew he would have to look for an ally against the Austrian Empire. Such an ally was to be found in the person of Emperor Napoleon III of the French.

Vittorio Emanuele II, Napoleon III & Franz Joseph
One benefit the Savoy monarchy had was that the radical republicans had been, in 1848 and after, thoroughly discredited among Italian nationalists. They had failed and in Austria, the Papal States and Naples, reactionary forces had revived in a harsh way. This meant that the Savoy, careful to keep on the side of the nationalist spirit, was looked to for leadership while the republican crowd of Mazzini was discredited. Aside from the King, the most important player on the Savoyard side was his prime minister Count Camillo di Cavour. For Cavour, nationalism was a means to an end rather than an end in itself. His goals were for the financial independence of Turin from British banks, the furthering of industrialization and economic expansion. Ties with British banks were cut, new ties with French banks were established, railroad construction exploded and trade increased. The army was improved as well and in 1855 the Piedmontese participated in the Crimean War as a way of gaining British and French support against Austria. The result was a Savoyard army that was better organized, more easily mobilized, with a better staff system and with greater combat experience.

Obtaining an alliance with France, however, proved rather difficult. The French were willing but Napoleon III extracted a heavy price for his support which included the Savoy ceding their own heartland, the Duchy of Savoy as well as the County of Nice to France. The King also had to give his daughter, the petite Princess Clothilde, to the hulking Prince Jerome Bonaparte, the French Emperor’s cousin. In exchange, France would support the end of Austrian rule over Lombardy and Venice and the creation of an independent Kingdom of Italy on the northern half of the peninsula. This was, however, a defensive alliance and would only take effect if Austria attacked Piedmont. In Naples, the Kingdom of the Two-Sicilies did not figure into the issue. While still possessing a powerful army, it was geared entirely toward suppressing the local population, which had proven very prone to rebellion, and not to defending against foreign invasion. An alliance was proposed between Turin and Naples but King Francesco II of the Two-Sicilies had rejected it out of hand. They would play no part in the ensuing conflict.

Austrian Imperial Army, 1859
The French, more so than the Piedmontese, also took care to ensure that there would be no unwelcome intervention on the part of the Russians. This was not a problem as the Russians were feeling in no way sympathetic to the Austrians. Perhaps even more than the powers that fought against them, the Russians blamed Austria for their defeat in the Crimean War and were particularly bitter given that they had aided the Habsburgs during their time of greatest peril in the Revolutions of 1848. They also did not tend to view Austrian rule over northern Italy as legitimate anyway, going all the way back to the French Revolutionary Wars, Russia’s Czar Paul had been very disappointed by the British and Austrians keeping territory they took from the French rather than restoring it to its previous rulers, be it Malta or Venice. The British could also be counted on to remain on the sidelines given that they had good relations with France (for a change) and had been quite offended by the harshness of Austrian rule in Lombardy-Venetia. Paris and Turin were convinced that they could handle Austria between them and all that was necessary was for Austria to fire the first shot.

The Austrian Empire had come very near to total collapse in the Revolutions of 1848 but, thanks to the leadership of their new, young Emperor Franz Joseph and the victories of Graf Radetzky, they had weathered the storm and the Austrian Imperial Army seemed all the more robust and formidable. Austria did become a constitutional monarchy but it was a constitution that the Emperor accepted on his own terms and he pursued a policy since labeled “neo-absolutism”. There were problems though due to rivalries in the military leadership and a financial crisis which greatly effected military readiness. The politicians in Vienna always seemed prepared to sacrifice spending on the army before anything else and this meant that Austria could not maintain so large an army, or armies, on the Italian peninsula and, in the event of major trouble there, would have to divert forces from elsewhere in the empire if they were to maintain an overwhelming superiority. The Austrian Empire had also simply become overstretched. Aside from their own frontiers to the south and east, garrisons to keep troublesome populations in line within the empire, the Austrians had also been called upon to safeguard the Papal States and the Spanish Bourbons in Naples as well as their own Italian possessions. It was simply too much, particularly with a less than robust economy. The desire of Emperor Franz Joseph to reassert Austrian leadership in Germany also meant that neither Berlin or Moscow were, at the time, looking too favorable toward Vienna.

Officers of the Savoyard army
The French and Piedmontese, on the other hand, were well prepared with a joint-plan for military cooperation in the event of war and the Piedmontese economy was booming. It was the perfect time for a war but it could only happen if Austria made the first aggressive move. Count Cavour, therefore, entered into a number of schemes to encourage trouble in the central duchies such as Tuscany and Modena, nominally independent but ruled by junior members of the House of Habsburg. The famous nationalist revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi was also recruited to lead volunteers in the cause of Italian independence under the Savoy banner. This caused nearly 20,000 Italians to rush to Turin to volunteer, fired by nationalist zeal, so many that Cavour had to suspend his plan before things went off prematurely. The point was for the trouble in the duchies to draw Austrian strength away from Lombardy-Venetia and the government in Turin knew perfectly well that the government in Vienna would blame them for any Italian nationalist unrest and thus the Austrians would be encouraged to attack Piedmont-Sardinia.

King Vittorio Emanuele II also ordered the mobilization of his army, at least gradually, which was sure to attract Austrian attention. The Austrians were certainly alarmed but also unsure how to respond. The Piedmontese had not actually made any aggressive move and a full mobilization of the Austrian Imperial Army was a costly exercise Vienna would wish to avoid if not strictly necessary. The Italians also had to be fully prepared before the war started given that, as per the agreement, they would be responsible for both paying for the French intervention on their behalf and keeping both armies supplied during the war, which would be no small task. The French also began moving their forces into position which alarmed the Austrians all the more. In April, 1859, however, everything almost came to ruin when the British government proposed an international congress to deal with the Italian situation. Thankfully, France and Italy were rescued by their Austrian adversary. Emperor Franz Joseph had sought out the retired elder statesman, Prince Klemens von Metternich, who immediately understood that the French and Italians were trying to provoke Austria into a war and he advised the Emperor that, whatever he did, do NOT send an ultimatum to Turin. The young Kaiser sheepishly had to admit that he had already sent one out.

Kaiser Franz Joseph of Austria
The ultimatum ordered the King to demobilize his forces or face war and this message was immediately forwarded to Paris. The French and Italians had their threat and could take action in a war of self-defense against Austrian aggression. Lest anyone think that Emperor Francis Joseph was being purely hot-headed in this blunder, he had expected such a conflict to rally the German states in support of Austria. Unfortunately for him, they did not. The Prussians were not sympathetic, seeing the Austrians as rivals with a bizarre obsession with non-Germans and the other states often did not see Austria as a “team player”, partly also because they were necessarily focused on their rebellious non-German territories. They also saw no reason for Austria not to accept the proposal for a congress rather than giving the Italians exactly what they wanted, which was a war. Emperor Francis Joseph, however, feared that any such congress just might say what many Italian nationalists had been saying for ages; leave Italy to the Italians and everyone mind their own business. Austria simply had no real friends at this point and so would have to stand alone. Emperor Francis Joseph, for good or ill, was prepared to and after the Italians did not respond to his ultimatum, issued the declaration of war on April 29, 1859.

Feldzeugmeister Franz Graf Gyulai, commander of the Austrian Second Army in Lombardy, believed that his forces would have at least two weeks to crush the Italians before the French could intervene. He had on hand some 110,235 soldiers as well as another 59,000 deployed throughout Lombardy-Venetia to suppress any popular uprisings. The Italians could field only 77,348 men to meet them, however, they were very efficient and led by men who had learned from the mistakes of 1848. The Franco-Italian leadership had also carefully worked out the train schedules and necessary stockpiles of supplies to move the French into northern Italy as quickly as possible. The Austrians had previously assumed the French were not prepared to move because they had not been stockpiling supplies. However, this was because it had been left to the Italians to handle the logistics and, in the end, the French army was transported quickly with ample stores by the very efficient Piedmontese rail network.

General Alfonso La Marmora
Unfortunately for the Austrians, Gyulai was no Graf Radetzky and no one knew this better than Gyulai himself who was more of a desk general. He had asked to be reassigned but this was refused. With the outbreak of war, his plan was to crush the Italians with his superior numbers and by then be able to take up a good position from which to deal with the French. He would march directly on the Piedmontese capital at Turin. Of course, this is exactly what the Italians expected him to do and the Piedmontese army was deployed to block any such advance and hold up the Austrians until the French arrived at which point they would work together to drive the enemy from Italian soil. The Italian commander, General Alfonso La Marmora was under no apprehension that this would be easy but he was aided by the extensive spy network set up by Lt. Colonel Giuseppe Govone, his chief of military intelligence, who had a constant flow of information on the movements of the Austrian army. La Marmora deployed his five infantry and one cavalry divisions to be in a position to block the advance on Turin and to be able to link up with the five French Corps at their places of deployment which, when they arrived, would be set up to pin down the Austrians at the Dora Baltea line and then, with three of the French Corps coming from Genoa to Alessandria, to threaten the Austrian flank.

Austrian naval strength was negligible, being about as large as the Piedmontese navy, far outmatched by the French fleet which was the second-largest in the world. In any event, the commander of the Austrian navy, Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, had prepared only for the defense of the Adriatic and had no plans for offensive operations (and keeping in mind most of the sailors in the Austrian navy were Italians). As such, by rail and by sea the French were able to move their forces into Italy rapidly and freely. The Austrian army, likewise, inexplicably remained in place for days while their enemies massed against them. Gyulai claimed that Vienna had ordered him to wait while in Vienna they blamed Gyulai for not seizing the initiative. It is difficult to know who was in the right but it does seem that, having blundered into giving the Italians the war they wanted, Emperor Franz Joseph hoped, at the last minute, to be able to negotiate a solution or for the German states to rally in support of Austria. Of course, neither would be the case nor were such hopes frankly realistic. By May 1, with French deployments proceeding as scheduled, General La Marmora remarked to the commander of the Third Division at Novi, General Giovanni Durando (commander of the Papal Army in the First War) that the Austrian advance was “molto lentamente” (very slow).

Feldzeugmeister Gyulai
The Austrians had their spies too and they reported to Gyulai on the movements of the French army which seems to have intimidated him as they tended to exaggerate French strength. He was unsure of how to deploy his own forces for fear of where they would be when the French reached their own destinations. As it turned out, it was ten days from the time of the ultimatum until Gyulai moved, very slowly, toward Vercelli. King Vittorio Emanuele II, who was in his element on such occasions, wanted to stick to the original plan but the French convinced him to redeploy Franco-Italian forces away from Turin. He did so and, as it happened, a determined Austrian advance would have found little more than one Piedmontese cavalry division blocking their way if they had driven on for the capital but the Austrians were convinced that the French were planning to flank them from the south and so began to pull back. The danger to Turin dissolved faster than it had appeared.

By May 12 the Emperor Napoleon III had arrived in Genoa. Armed with some thoughtful advice from retired General Baron Antoine-Henri Jomini (a veteran of his famous uncle’s army), Napoleon met with King Vittorio Emanuele II at Alessandria to work out their offensive against the Austrians. It would be too much to say the Franco-Italian forces took the initiative from the Austrians as the Austrians never seemed to have held it in the first place but Napoleon III and Vittorio Emanuele II were certainly willing to seize it where it lay. They did, however, pass up an opportunity to strike the Austrians while Gyulai was redeploying his forces but an overall strategy was still being well executed. The famous Giuseppe Garibaldi, given rank as a Lt. General in the Piedmontese army after pledging allegiance to “Vittorio Emanuele and Italy”, was to harass the Austrian right, brushing the Alps. He had originally intended to lead the effort to foment unrest in the central duchies but this job was instead given to Prince Jerome Bonaparte and his French troops, which was deemed preferable to the authorities in Turin as Garibaldi, a lifelong republican and former Mazzinian, was still not regarded as being sufficiently loyal to the Savoy monarchy to be absolutely trusted. Garibaldi in the north and Prince Jerome in the south would threaten the Austrian position from the left and right, they would be intimidating but not part of the major action.

French line infantry
As the French First Corps moved on Voghera, the Austrians thought this the first move in an effort to get around behind them and the Austrian IX Corps under Field Marshal Lieutenant Karl Urban was deployed to stop them. The result was the first engagement of the war that was more than a skirmish, the Battle of Montebello on May 20 between the lead French division of General Elie Frédéric Forey and elements of the Austrian V Corps under General Philipp Graf von Stadion which had been sent in to support Urban. Three Italian cavalry regiments, the Aosta, Novara and Montferrato, also participated. Despite being considerably outnumbered (3 to 1), Forey fought an aggressive action that made Graf Stadion believe that the French had more support behind them, prompting him to retreat and give the victory to the Franco-Italian forces under Forey. This sharp rebuke made Gyulai all the more reluctant to take risks but as he had initiated the action, it also made Napoleon III nervous that the Austrians might be trying to take back the initiative. As it was, Gyulai had been concerned about a move south and his forces had met the enemy so he continued to believe he was on the right track and all forces were shifted toward the south.

When an armed reconnaissance by General Enrico Cialdini, commander of the Piedmontese fourth division, found minimal Austrian resistance at Vercelli the following day, the French Emperor and Italian King could see that Gyulai was shifting away from the north, giving them an opportunity to come at the Austrians from that direction. Garibaldi was also proving effective at keeping the Austrians off-balance. On May 26 at the Battle of Varese, his Cacciatori delle Alpi routed the Austrians, forcing them to keep more troops deployed in the north as the aggression of the Italians again caused the Austrians to overestimate their strength. The next day Garibaldi and his men defeated another Austrian contingent at the Battle of San Fermo, forcing the Austrians to withdraw from Como.

King Vittorio Emanuele rallies the Zouaves at Palestro
At the same time, while the largely French force was engaged at Montebello, King Vittorio Emanuele II led Cialdini’s division with the addition of some French Zouaves against a smaller contingent of Austrians under General Friedrich Zobel at the Battle of Palestro. The Austrians rushed in reinforcements so that, in the aftermath, they held the numerical advantage yet the threat of French troops on the Sesia caused him to retreat for fear of being cut off. By May 30 the Franco-Italian forces had secured a bridgehead across the Sesia. With efforts to retake Palestro having failed and with Garibaldi keeping control of the northern front in spite of being outnumbered nearly 4 to 1, Gyulai decided that the threat to Milan was too great and he ordered a retreat across the Ticino to concentrate his forces at Mortara. However, the rapid movements of the Franco-Italian armies forced him to abandon that plan. He was correct that they were moving against Milan, the capital of Lombardy, but he did not know what approach they would take. He was coming under intense pressure and no small amount of criticism, particularly after the arrival of Field Marshal Heinrich von Hess with stern orders from the Emperor (who had reached Verona) to defend the frontier and not retreat to the Quadrilateral fortress complex.

The Battle of Magenta
More Austrian reinforcements arrived and Gyulai was finally convinced that the enemy was not trying to maneuver around behind him after all. There was also confusion as Hess outranked Gyulai, yet seemed to be leaving things to him. All of this caused a degree of stagnation on the Austrian side as one commander would fail to do something because he assumed the other commander would do it. Nonetheless, the Austrians did hold a strong defensive position around Magenta after destroying the bridges over the Ticino. Gyulai had about 68,000 men in the area when the Battle of Magenta commenced on June 4. With a little over 50,000 French troops plus 12,000 Italians under General Manfredo Fanti, Napoleon III planned an assault on the front and flank of the Austrian army. The two sides were thus evenly matched as long as the Austrians concentrated on the points of attack and did not remain spread out. Both sides made mistakes and many units blundered into each other, nonetheless, the Austrians took far heavier losses and finally retreated, giving the victory to the French. Napoleon III congratulated Marshal MacMahon with a peerage as Duke of Magenta for this success.

This latest defeat was the last straw for Emperor Franz Joseph who had seen his forces do nothing but retreat, be outmaneuvered and defeated often by forces inferior to their own. He dismissed Gyulai and took command of the Austrian Imperial Army himself. With the Quadrilateral fortress cities secure but the enemy in command of the surrounding countryside, his position was similar to that of Graf Radetzky in 1848. However, “Papa Radetzky” was a veteran, unflappable commander and Emperor Franz Joseph was not. Determined to take the offensive and crush the enemy, he abandoned his strong position and moved out on June 23 to take on the Franco-Italian armies. The result was the bloody Battle of Solferino the following day. Once again both sides were about evenly matched with roughly 130,000 soldiers each.

Emperor Napoleon III at the Battle of Solferino
Each army was basically trying to attack the other and so units ran headlong into combat, often not as they intended. It was a huge brawl that involved a number of separate actions and coordination was difficult. The Austrian position was also undermined on distant fronts by uprisings breaking out in conjunction with Prince Jerome’s arrival in central Italy. Earlier, toward the end of May, his forces entered Florence and soon dispatched units to Parma and Modena. At Solferino, most of the fighting centered around two engagements, one around Solferino itself where the French under Forey pushed the Austrians back into the town itself at which point house-to-house fighting ensued. Despite Austrian reinforcements arriving, French attacks soon succeeded in nearly surrounding the town. Fighting south of town was disconnected from the main engagement and involved a number of cavalry units. There, the French attacks were repulsed by the Austrians but this had no effect on the imperiled Austrian position in town. The fighting was fierce and casualties were heavy, particularly for the Austrians.

Battle of San Martino
The other major action was the battles at San Martino and Madonna della Scoperta which largely involved the Italian forces. The Austrians had a fairly good defensive position and the Italians attacked immediately, hoping to dislodge them before they could strengthen their lines. However, this meant that the Italians attacked piecemeal as they came up rather than being able to throw their entire force at the Austrian position. Field Marshal Lieutenant Ludwig Benedek, considered the best Austrian corps commander by many, had been ordered to attack the French flank and had not been expecting to run into the Italians. However, he was a veteran of this region and kept his cool, responding rapidly to the changing situation. Repeatedly, Italian discipline and determination carried them forward to the cusp of success only to have Benedek adeptly move his men and guns to the imperiled area and throw the Italians back with devastating barrages. However, when word came that the main Austrian army had been beaten at Solferino, he had no choice but to conduct a fighting withdrawal as the Italian attacks continued. With the French having taken Solferino, the Italian seizure of San Martino marked the end of the massive and bloody battle.

French & Austrian Emperors meet at Villafranca
Stunned by the ferocity and chaos of the engagement, Emperor Franz Joseph ordered his forces to fall back to the security of the Quadrilateral fortresses. Losses had been heavy for both sides. The Italians had lost about 5,000 men, the French more than 10,000 and the Austrians about 22,000 in the vicious struggle. Both the French and Austrian emperors were shaken by the extreme loss of life. The carnage would later lead one Swiss observer of the engagement to found the International Red Cross in 1863. Operations continued for a time but Napoleon III and Franz Joseph both agreed that the war should come to an end. Franz Joseph feared that a continuation of the so far disastrous conflict could pose an existential threat to the Austrian Empire itself if other areas rose in rebellion. Napoleon also feared that if Austria seemed near to collapse the other German states might get involved and threaten France itself. Disregarding his earlier promises to the Italians, Napoleon III agreed to make peace with Emperor Franz Joseph at Villafranca on July 8.

The result of this was that Austria gave up Lombardy to the House of Savoy but retained control of Venetia. It was not the total victory that Italian nationalists had wanted and many were bitter about the result. The French had gained Savoy and Nice but had backed out before the total liberation of northern Italy had been achieved. Many, given how close Austria had come to collapse in 1848, thought they would not put up so strong a fight. However, despite being weakened by budget cuts, the Austrian military was much more effective than Austrian diplomacy had been. Things would have gone very differently if the Austrians had not managed to offend the Russians, Prussians, the minor German states and the French all at the same time. Not only did this isolate Austria but it also gave the Prussians room to further gain prestige among the German states, standing as the defenders of German rights while Austria was focused on keeping control of Italians, Slavs and Magyars.

King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia
A particular example of this was in 1857 when royalists in the Principality of Neuchâtel had risen in revolt. They favored the King of Prussia for their prince rather than being a part of Switzerland and the German states saw this as an opportunity to strengthen the German Confederation. Emperor Franz Joseph, president of the Confederation as the Head of the House of Habsburg, had, however, refused to give their cause imperial support. Prussia was ultimately forced to back down and many in the German Confederation wondered why they should take any risk to support the Austrian rule over unwilling Italians two years later when the Austrians had been unwilling to support pro-German royalists who wanted to be ruled by a German monarch. It was illustrative of how Austrian interests diverged from those of the rest of the German-speaking people. There were also those in Berlin who realized the implications that Italian independence would have better than the French did. Napoleon expected to gain a subservient northern Italian buffer state but, as Modena, Tuscany, Parma and after Garibaldi’s shockingly successful invasion of the south, all came to be part of the Kingdom of Italy, France instead helped create a rival in the Mediterranean.

The result of all of this was that Austria lost Lombardy, which joined with Piedmont-Sardinia, Tuscany, Parma and Modena to form the Kingdom of Italy, soon joined by the south and the Papal States outside of Rome. Austria remained friendless and increasingly overshadowed by Prussia and the French were not seen by the Italians as stalwart allies but as rather fair-weather friends who likewise kept troops in Rome. The French had gained battlefield laurels but would also find themselves without friends going forward just as the Austrians had because of their determination to maintain some level of control over Italy, continuing a cycle which had been going on for many, many centuries and which would continue until the fall of Napoleon himself in 1870. Italy had gained much from the Second War for Independence but not so much as to not require a third war. The Austrian loss did not seem too significant but it actually was. In trying to maintain control of Italy, Austria would ultimately lose their place in Italy and their place at the had of Germany to the Kingdom of Prussia. It would be no coincidence then that the Third War of Italian Independence would see Italy and Prussia on the same side.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Siamese in the Great War

Most people, outside of the country itself, probably have no idea that the Kingdom of Siam (Thailand) was a participant in the First World War. This is not too surprising given that the Siamese contribution was necessarily limited but the southeast Asian kingdom was a member of the Allied nations and, unlike some who declared war simply as a symbolic gesture, Siam actually participated militarily. World War One brings to mind the trenches and cratered landscape of Belgium and France but it was a global affair and Southeast Asia was actually fairly well represented in the conflict. Forces from French Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia & Laos) participated on the Salonika and Western Fronts for example, the British had a potentially dangerous mutiny by Muslim forces on their hands in Singapore (dealt with by the Japanese) and so on. The Kingdom of Siam, like many others frankly, had no real reason to get involved given that Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria or Turkey had done them no harm but it was considered that participation would bring real benefits to Siam both domestically and on the world stage.

King Vajiravudh
The driving force behind the Siamese intervention was King Vajiravudh (Rama VI). This was when Siam was still an absolute monarchy but the King was not as all-powerful as he seemed from the outside. It was a time of great energy, hopes and aspirations for Siam and the King who was British-educated and who, after graduating from Sandhurst, was briefly an officer of the Durham Light Infantry in the British army. He thus had personal ties which made a totally dispassionate view of the First World War impossible. Which is not to say that he allowed personal attachments to cloud his judgment; far from it. He was very displeased with a recent treaty signed with the British which had seen Siam cede territory in the south to the British in what is now Malaysia. He valued his education and wished to see the same sort of education made available to his people but he was still annoyed at the unequal treaties Siam had made with numerous powers and the special privileges these allowed them, particularly France and, yes, Great Britain. He also faced internal threats to his authority and perhaps even the monarchy itself.

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 First World War was seized upon as an opportunity to do all of these things. The war itself was, of course, an absurdity that never should have happened and many still fail to grasp this, insisting that the problem was the wrong side won when the problem was that the war happened at all. However, the hopes of King Vajiravudh are at least understandable. By intervening in the war, he hoped to have a cause to rally his people around the monarchy and the First World War was the biggest cause going at the time. It would mean that the Kingdom of Siam was participating in the pivotal event in world affairs at the time and would give Siam leverage against its neighbors, the British and French colonial empires, to redress grievances in the future Siam had with both. Many in Siam were still annoyed, for example, that France had taken into its empire Laos and Cambodia which Siam regarded as vassal states of their kingdom. By intervening in a conflict which was an existential threat to Britain and France, particularly with no vital need to do so, Siam expected to gain greater moral authority in dealing with these two powers. Likewise, as the King issued the declaration of war in the summer of 1917, it could be expected that the war would not last for much longer anyway.

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
By September, the Siamese forces started to be actively employed at the front with combat units being filtered into the line and the medical and transport personnel being engaged in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. None of the air personnel finished their training in time to participate before the November armistice but those units on the ground who did see action acquitted themselves quite well. Their involvement was not extensive but they had been involved and earned their place in the victory parade in Paris when the war was over and a detachment participated in the Allied occupation of the Rhineland. Losses had been extremely light with only 19 casualties. The Kingdom of Siam was present for the Versailles peace negotiations, not that it mattered much, and was one of the founding members of the League of Nations (again, not that the League ultimately mattered much). The Siamese contribution to the war had been limited and only for the closing months of the conflict, was inexpensive in terms of lives lost and had earned Siam a place among the victors when it was over.

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.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

How New York Got Its Name

Previously, more than once, I have bemoaned the lack of familiarity most Americans have with colonial history. Sadly, I do not see that as likely to change in the foreseeable future given how the population is increasingly becoming less connected to the people who established the colonies which eventually came together into the country that exists today. This is unfortunate as, without the participating European colonial empires there would be no United States (nor any other country as exists today in the Americas) but even among those who are at least vaguely aware of the state of affairs prior to the independence of the “Thirteen Original Colonies”, fewer still are aware of just how many European colonial empires were involved in the settlement of North America. The Spanish, French, English and Russians all played a part as did still less remembered powers such as the Kingdom of Sweden (at the time Sweden and Finland) which established a North American colony in the reign of Queen Christina and, likewise, so did the Seven United Provinces of The Netherlands.

Dutch West Indies Company
Although mostly centered on what is today New York, the Dutch colony covered parts of what is today New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Connecticut and even small areas of Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. The Dutch got their start with the employment of Henry Hudson, an Englishman, by the Dutch East India Company to try to find the elusive northwest passage to Asia. In his famous ship the Half Moon, he explored much of the coast of northeast America, giving his name to a river and a large bay in Canada. He did not make it to Asia but he returned to Holland with glowing reports of land ripe for colonization. More expeditions followed to survey and chart the area in greater detail and to trade with the native population all of which were funded by the New Netherland Company. In 1621 the Dutch West India Company was granted a charter to gain for The Netherlands a piece of the lucrative fur trade in North America. It is also noteworthy (though often forgotten) that their charter forbid them to take possession of any land that was not legally purchased from the native inhabitants.

Peter Minuit
Today, this presents a problem to the egalitarian crowd as even many who know practically nothing about this period will remember that the Director of New Netherland colony, Peter Minuit, purchased Manhattan Island from the natives for 25 Dutch guilders worth of trade goods. Many, keeping in mind that today Manhattan is home to some of the most highly valued property on the planet, portray this as Minuit cheating the Indians out of a fortune in real estate with a chest full of trinkets. This, however, runs counter to the argument for egalitarianism since, if this was such a huge swindle and if all people are equal, the Indians should have known they were being cheated. One cannot, on the one hand, demand that everyone be treated equally and then, at the same time, demand that special allowance be given to the ignorant. The truth, however, is that the Indians were not so ignorant and the Dutch did not swindle them. Yes, the land is worth a huge fortune today but, at the time, it was empty wilderness, no different than the other vast tracts of empty wilderness that covered the continent. Land was something that seemed endlessly plentiful whereas the manufactured goods offered by the Dutch were items which the Indians did not have and could not make for themselves, thus each gave up something they had in abundance for something the other could not obtain on their own, the very definition of a successful business transaction.

New Amsterdam, capital of New Netherland, soon became a busy hub of trade, settlement and privateering. The Dutch brought in colonists from Europe and, in an act for which they have been condemned since, also brought in the first African slaves to North America. However, operations were still more expensive than the Dutch West India Company liked and they tried various methods to cut costs. In an act that should be considered an educational moment, the very business-minded and technically republican Dutch authorities found it beneficial to revert to a sort of feudalism. This became known as the patroon system by which a major investor would be given the title of patroon, a large tract of land and extensive control over it with powers quite similar to those held by feudal lords in the monarchies of the Old World. The patroon was, for his part, expected to bring in at least 50 families of colonists within four years of receiving his title. This did result in growth for the colony, though still not as much profit as was hoped for.

Peter Stuyvesant
There were also conflicts to deal with as well as commerce such as the two-year long war fought with surrounding native tribes by Director Willem Kieft as well as, in 1655, the conquest of New Sweden by a Dutch force of about 700 led by the feisty, one-legged Director Peter Stuyvesant. He was a more hard-line figure than New Netherland was used to, cutting back on religious freedom in favor of adherence to the Dutch Reformed Church, trying to limit Jewish immigration, encouraging Jewish settlers to leave and becoming increasingly anxious about the rapid growth of the neighboring English colonies and their competition with the Netherlands. Stuyvesant was accused of being rather on the tyrannical side and opposition to him sprang up in the colony. Unfortunately, it was at precisely this same time that New Netherland faced its greatest crisis. That crisis arose when King Charles II of Great Britain, recently restored to his throne, determined to conquer the Dutch colony. Although Charles II had been sheltered in The Netherlands during the Interregnum, his preferred foreign policy was one of friendship with France and hostility toward the Dutch.

James, Duke of York
An expedition of four ships and 450 men, led by royalist civil war veteran Richard Nicholls, set out from Plymouth and arrived to besiege New Netherland on August 27, 1664. As was his character, Stuyvesant wanted to put up as much of a fight as possible but, by this time, he lacked the support of many of his own colonists, some of whom were angry about his policies and others who simply wished for nothing to interfere with their business. They preferred trading their Dutch flag for an English one rather than have a destructive battle that would disrupt commerce. This lack of cohesion meant that there was no chance of the Dutch, under Stuyvesant, standing a chance against the English forces and so, on September 8, 1664 Stuyvesant formally surrender the colony to the King of England and New Netherland was no more. The royal connection in all of this was that King Charles II had promised this area of North America to his brother the Duke of York (later King James II) and Richard Nicholls was Groom of the Chamber to the Duke of York and it was the Duke who had chosen him to command the expedition. It seemed only natural then that New Netherland should be renamed New York in the Duke’s honor.

Even though this episode of American colonial history is not well remembered, the evidence of it still exists in New York City today if you know where to look. Perhaps the most famous landmark is St Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery which was built by Stuyvesant and is where he is buried. His family later sold the property to the Church of England (under conditions) and it is the oldest church in continuous use in New York City. It also features a bust of Stuyvesant which was sent over by Queen Wilhelmina of The Netherlands in 1915. The flag of New York City is based on the orange-white-blue tricolor of the Netherlands, “the Prince’s Flag” and even the famous financial center of Wall Street, has its name because that site was formerly where a road was along the palisade surrounding New Netherland and thus came to be referred to as Wall Street. The Dutch population and language persisted in parts of New York longer than most probably realize. President Martin Van Buren, for example, grew up speaking Dutch as his first language and many Dutch words, names and even some traditions still survive in parts of New York to this day.

In any event, that is how New York went from being a Dutch colony to being named after the heir to the English throne and Britain’s last Catholic monarch.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Italian Submarine Campaign of World War II

As detailed previously on these pages (see here), none of the military forces of the major participant powers in World War II have been as unjustly maligned as those of the Kingdom of Italy. Italian defeats have been exaggerated and Italian successes often downplayed or ignored entirely. Because of this, the details of the Italian submarine campaign will no doubt come as a surprise to a great many people. However, the Regia Marina (Italian Royal Navy) entered the war with the largest submarine fleet in the world by tonnage and while most tend to think of the “Battle of the Atlantic” as solely a fight between German U-boat “wolf packs” and Allied convoys, the Italians participated as well, in fact, at one point there were more Italian submarines operating in the Atlantic than German ones. Italian boats also saw extensive service in the Mediterranean (naturally) and the Indian Ocean as well as undertaking operations to East Asian waters and the South Atlantic; areas beyond the range of the smaller, typical Type-VIIC German U-boats. Finally, Italian submarines did a great deal of damage, despite facing many difficulties, against the Allies.

The Smeraldo
When the Kingdom of Italy entered World War II with the declarations of war against Britain and France in June of 1940 the Regia Marina possessed 84 operational submarines under the overall command of Admiral Mario Falangola, succeeded at the end of the following year by Admiral Antonio Legnani. At the outset, their failures outnumbered their successes, which is not too surprising as, aside from some secretive operations in support of Franco in the Spanish Civil War, they had never been tested and both men and boats had bugs that needed working out. However, they had a spirit and determination that would prove formidable. The Smeraldo, for example, a Sirena-class boat of the short to medium range 600 series made the first torpedo attack on British shipping by an Italian submarine but the heavy seas caused the torpedo to miss. However, this same boat later endured the most intense anti-submarine warfare attack of any boat in history with British ships dropping 200 depth charges on her, and she still survived (ultimately this boat was sunk by running into a British mine some time later).

Capt. Enzo Grossi decorated by Adm. Doenitz
After the conquest of France and the establishment of German naval bases on the French west coast, Italian submarines were invited to participate in the campaign to strangle the British Isles. This, of course, meant a dangerous passage through the Straits of Gibraltar under the very noses of the British Royal Navy. Many German U-boats were lost in the straits but, though few are aware of it, no Italian submarine was ever sunk slipping through these dangerous waters. The Italians established themselves at Bordeaux under the name BETASOM (Beta [Bordeaux] Som [Sommergibili]) with 27 submarines in early 1941. Originally, the idea was the German and Italian submarines would work together in coordinated attacks against Allied shipping, however, this soon proved to be more troublesome than effective and few seem to understand why. Ultimately the cause was a difference in training and how German and Italian boats operated as well as the Germans not being what we would call “team players”.

Fairly quickly in the war, German submarines developed a preferred tactic of attacking on the surface at night, submerging to escape counterattack. Italian submarines, however, usually made underwater attacks during the daytime. This was one of the differences that made cooperation difficult. Probably the most significant, however, was the unwillingness of the Germans to place a German communications officer on Italian submarines, though they held overall command of joint-operations. The result of this was that an Italian submarine making contact with the enemy would have to signal Bordeaux which would then have to send the message to Paris to the German naval command which would then relay the message out to the German submarines in the area. Needless to say, this meant that by the time the Germans were told of an enemy convoy, it was too late for them to do anything about it.

Capt. Primo Longobardo
There was also an unwillingness on the part of the Germans to train the Italians to fit in with their preferred way of doing things and what training they did provide was inadequate, expecting the Italians to learn in only two months what it had taken the Germans years to develop and become proficient at. There is evidence that when Italian submarine captains were allowed to train with the Germans, the results were obvious. One such officer was Commander Primo Longobardo, one of the few to train with the Germans, and he proved one of the most successful Italian submarine commanders of the war. As captain of the submarine Torelli he once sank four Allied ships on a single patrol and ultimately accounted for 42,000 tons of Allied shipping sunk. In any event, when coordinated training was finally agreed to, joint operations had already been canceled and each submarine force operated on their own with the Italians mostly hunting in waters around the Azores and some boats dispatched for the South Atlantic, such as in the Brazilian shipping lanes, which they were able to reach more easily because of their greater range.

A lack of cooperation was also evident in the reluctance of the Germans to share their torpedo technology with the Italians. The Germans tried many innovations with their torpedoes, causing some problems as certain designs didn’t work but ultimately resulting in a more effective weapon. The Italians, on the other hand, simply stuck to their older but more reliable model which was not as effective and the Germans would not share their magnetic trigger technology with Italy until it was too late to be of best use. It is for this reason that Italian submarines frequently engaged in surface action as quite often they would make a successful underwater attack using their torpedoes but the target would be badly damaged but not sunk at which point the Italian submarine would surface and finish off the enemy with their deck gun. Italian sub crews also became, out of necessity, quite adept anti-aircraft gunners and this came about due to the nature of their boats.

A submarine on the surface is vulnerable and aircraft are a particularly dangerous enemy. They can be upon you very quickly and do immense damage, making it a life or death matter for a submarine to be able to submerge as fast as possible. As Italian submarines tended to be larger than their average German counterpart, this meant that they were slower to dive. A typical German submarine could submerge in about 20 seconds, whereas the average Italian submarine took between 60 and 120 seconds to get below the waves. One result of this was that, by the time an enemy aircraft was spotted, it was often better to take your chances shooting it out on the surface than be shot full of holes while trying to dive. It was not an enviable situation but it did make Italian AA fire more effective than in other navies. In fact, it was an Italian submarine, which had been shifted to the Germans after 1943 and then to the Japanese after the German surrender, which fired the last shots of World War II, using her AA battery against American bombers while in port in Japan.

Victory for the Leonardo DaVinci
In spite of their boats having their limitations, torpedoes that were not the best and a less than fully cooperative ally, Italian submarines still did a great deal of damage thanks to having some extremely skilled commanders. None was more famous than Gianfranco Gazzana-Priaroggia, captain of the Leonardo DaVinci, the most successful Italian submarine of the war. Nicknamed “Ursus atlanticus”, Gazzana-Priaroggia would ultimately sink over 90,000 tons of Allied shipping, his biggest score being the massive British troopship the Empress of Canada. He was even set to lead a special forces submarine attack on New York harbor but this was postponed and ultimately never carried out due to the 1943 armistice. Earlier that year, Gazzana-Priaroggia was sadly killed in action but was posthumously awarded both the Gold Medal for Military Valor by the King of Italy and the Knights Iron Cross by the Germans for his achievements. By most accounts (there is some dispute as the U.S. ‘updated’ their stats several times after the war) Gazzana-Priaroggia was the most successful non-German submarine commander of all time.

Todaro, the humane hunter
It is also worth noting, given that the Allies later justified their use of unrestricted submarine warfare by retroactively pointing to its use by Italian subs in the Spanish Civil War, that Italian submarines also had a reputation for gallantry and compassion. Every major participant of the war that made extensive use of submarines; the Germans, Americans, Japanese and British, were guilty of sometimes committing atrocities, invariably killing survivors of sunken ships. Japan had by far the most, the British and Americans extremely few and the Germans, well, given the details of the “Laconia Incident”, it is hard for anyone to blame them. However, the Italians were never accused of such cruelty and, indeed, came away from the war with a reputation for actually showing some basic humanity when it was not required. The most famous example of this was Captain Salvatore Bruno Todaro of the Commandante Cappellini which went above and beyond to rescue survivors of sunken ships and put them safely ashore on the Azores. At the same time, Todaro and his boat had multiple victories to their credit and were among the most successful of the Italian submarine fleet. When all was said and done, the Italian submarines sank over a hundred Allied ships in the Atlantic.

However, the Mediterranean Sea was, of course, always supposed to be the primary area of operations for all units of the Regia Marina and it was an enclosed sea of hazards with major British naval installations at Gibraltar, Malta, Alexandria and Cyprus. Italian submarine commanders pulled off some extremely daring victories against the British in these waters and aside from merchant shipping also took a heavy toll on Royal Navy warships. Notable successes include the cruisers HMS Bonaventure, HMS Calypso and HMS Coventry which were all sunk by Italian submarines in 1940-41. However, Italian industry could not produce new boats fast enough and the Allied breaking of Axis codes was also a huge blow to the submarine campaign. Nonetheless, Italian submarines in the Mediterranean would open up a new type of undersea warfare which had dramatic results, producing a new type of warrior who could be seen as the precursor of America’s feared SEAL teams.

X-MAS infiltrating the enemy harbor
A special unit, composed of both fast-attack surface craft and undersea weapons known as “human torpedoes” was formed known as the Decima Flottiglia MAS (for Mezzi d’Assalto) or X-MAS (in English, ‘Tenth Assault Vehicle Flotilla’). One man very much associated with this new unit was Prince Junio Valerio Borghese, captain of the submarine Sciré. The “human torpedoes”, as they are often called, were actually nothing of the sort as no torpedoes were involved and, while highly dangerous, were not suicide weapons. The Italians referred to them as ‘maiale’ or ‘pigs’ because these were basically miniature submarines that Italian sailors would ride ‘piggy-back’ into an enemy harbor after being brought into the vicinity by a submarine making a submerged approach. They would cut through any anti-submarine nets, approach the underside of major ships in the harbor and attach mines to the hull. Once they were safely away the mines would detonate and the ships would be crippled or sunk. The sailors would have no hope of returning to their submarine and so could either try to make it to neutral territory or simply surrender after accomplishing their mission.

In December of 1941 such an attack was launched on the British naval base at Alexandria, Egypt with the battleships HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Valiant being crippled, a Norwegian tanker sunk and a destroyer, HMS Jervis, being badly damaged. Men of the X-MAS, brought in by the submarine Sciré, launched a similar attack on Gibraltar in September, sinking three enemy ships. Later, operating out of an old tanker in the Spanish port of Algeciras more attacks on Gibraltar were made in December of 1942, sinking two ships and damaging two more. Two more British freighters and an American Liberty Ship were sunk in 1943 prior to the armistice. These attacks, which were almost impossible to guard against, caused considerable panic in the Allied naval forces operating in the Mediterranean. Even after the war, exploits of the Italian undersea warriors were featured in British films such as “The Silent Enemy” of 1958 and the 1962 Anglo-Italian film “The Valiant”. The X-MAS also continued its service with the Italian Social Republic after Mussolini was restored to power by the Germans and would go on to have a reputation as fiercely loyal Fascists. Their commander, Prince Borghese, would ultimately become a pariah among his fellow members of the Roman nobility for attempting a neo-Fascist coup against the post-war Italian Republic.

Capt. Carlo Fecia di Cossato
Ultimately, the armistice, division of Italy and finally the end of the war all caused confusion among the Italian submariners. Most remained loyal to the King and followed orders, turning their boats over to their former enemies, some were seized and forced into the German and later Japanese navies and some, like Prince Borghese, cast their lots with Mussolini and the Germans, to carry on to the bitter end. A most tragic case was that of Captain Carlo Fecia di Cossato, the man who sank more ships than any other Italian submarine commander at the helm of the Tazzoli. Loyal to his King above all, when the armistice came, he followed orders and even sunk seven more ships, German this time, in his new command. However, the abrupt change troubled him, becoming worse as it became clear that the Allies still considered Italy a defeated enemy and would strip Italy of her empire, even territory gained well before the Fascist Era. He was torn apart by conflicting feelings of loyalty and dishonor until he committed suicide in Naples in 1944.

When the war was finally over, with all of the confusion, bitterness and divisions which that caused, the feats of the Italian submarine campaign stand out as further proof of how wrong the popular misconception is of the Royal Italian military in World War II. Italian submarines sank about a million tons of Allied shipping from mid-1940 to 1943. This was almost as much, indeed somewhat more according to some statistics as the ultimately far larger submarine force the Imperial Japanese Navy sunk from the end of 1941 to 1945, the disparity in numbers all the more significant given that over-worked Italian industrial capacity meant that Italy could only commission 30 new boats during the war years whereas Japan commissioned 126 additional subs (not counting midget boats) during the conflict. Italy was also not very far behind the tonnage sunk by the British Royal Navy during the entire course of the war from 1939 to 1945. They played a significant part, did considerable damage to the Allied fleets and did so with skill, heroism and gallantry in the face of immense odds.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

What Countries Are Made Of

Many people in the west today seem to be in total ignorance of what makes a country. No one else in the world, be it South Africa, Israel, India or China is as ignorant on this subject as the west. For some, no doubt, it is not ignorance but for others I can find no other rational explanation. Certainly, on the part of the far-left, I do not believe ignorance is the issue as they despise western civilization and have convinced themselves that the world will be a better place once it disappears entirely. However, those who are dragged along by them are no doubt simply ignorant and the other group which I must believe is ignorant on this subject are the libertarians. It certainly makes no sense for the people who claim to be the most suspect of government and the ones who most glorify the individual to also believe that countries are made by governments rather than by their population. If they truly believe the things they claim to, ignorance is the only possible explanation for this bizarre belief.

In demonstrating how peoples make countries, one will also see quite clearly how, even in our very republican-dominant age, monarchies loom very large given the fact that throughout most of human history, in every part of the world, monarchy has been the dominant form of government, growing naturally from the expansion of families into clans, clans into tribes and tribes into nations. I shall use, for example, the United States and Mexico to demonstrate this and the underlying fact is that, as my old university history professor said, history is the most important subject there is. People make countries and people are the product of their histories. Everything that has happened in the past accumulates to create the people of the present and everything about them, some of it good, some of it bad but all essential to the finished product. This relates to something else I pointed out recently with the controversy over Christopher Columbus. Whether you like Columbus or not, it was his discovery which prompted the colonization of the Americas by the European powers and whether you like European imperialism or not, none of the countries in the Americas today would exist without it.

The United States of America and the United Mexican States, though neighboring countries, are extremely different. One is a global superpower, the other is a country most of its people would like nothing better than to flee from and regard being sent back to as a most cruel and inhumane punishment. Why are they so different? They are different because of their peoples and the vastly different histories of their peoples. The American and Mexican populations have been formed by vastly different historical experiences which have all come together to make for very different peoples with very different attitudes, customs, values and overall worldviews. These two peoples are not the same and they are not interchangeable. If the United States, for example, came to have a majority Mexican population, it would not be like the USA of the present but would be more like Mexico. Similarly, if the last Mexican Emperor and Empress had had their way, at least according to the letters of Empress Carlota, Mexico would have invited in large numbers of Europeans, changing the population and making Mexico a country more like central Europe than it is today.

The United States as it exists today is the product of a long succession of accumulated history. To pick out a few examples, modern America has been formed most of all by the history of the Kingdom of England. Things such as the Magna Carta, the English Reformation, the English Civil Wars, the Westminster Parliament, Common Law, the “Glorious” Revolution of 1688 all had an impact. The men of the English colonies who formed the United States were themselves formed by these historical events, and others. Modern America is further the product of the War for Independence (obviously), the “frontier mentality” of the westward settlements, the War Between the States, Reconstruction, the world wars and so on, all merging together to create the people and thus the country as it exists today. The United States is the way that it is because of the American people, what decisions they make and what decisions their ancestors have made all the way back through history. Were you to take an American and plant him or her in Thailand, he or she is not going to be interchangeable with the native population, even if they master the language and take up Buddhism. It simply is not possible and if Thailand was suddenly inundated with American immigrants, it would quickly cease to resemble Thailand and resemble the United States.

Mexico, likewise, is the product of a totally different people with a totally different history from any other. In the first place, the vast majority of the Mexican population has not only European roots but American Indian roots. The history, habits and thinking of the Aztec, Zapotec, Mayan and others are all part of what makes the majority of the Mexican population what it is today. On the side of their European ancestry, events which have formed Mexico today include things such as the ‘Reconquista’, the “fueros de los Españoles” and the Inquisition. America had the Pilgrims, Mexico had the Conquistadors, America came from a constitutional monarchy, Mexico from an absolute monarchy. The Bourbon centralization of power, the uprising of Father Hidalgo, the way Mexican independence was achieved, the long hold on power of General Santa Anna, the civil wars, Benito Juarez, the dictatorship of Diaz, the Mexican Revolution and the decades long rule of the PRI and so on, are all part of what has shaped modern Mexico by shaping the Mexican population and, taken altogether, make Mexico what it is today. As with the United States, some of these events were good, some were bad but the opinion of anyone about them is irrelevant, all that matters is that, right or wrong, they happened and they have shaped the Mexican public of the present time.

This explains why people are different and why certain people can adapt to or “assimilate” into certain countries better than others. The more similar the background which has formed a people, the more easily they can assimilate. It is easy to see this at work if one imagines alternate histories. If, for example, the Spanish had never liberated their homeland from the Moors and it was, instead, these Arab-Moorish people who crossed the ocean and conquered Mexico, obviously, the modern Mexican people would be totally different than what they are now. On the other hand, the United States would perhaps not be as different from what it is now if the Norman conquest of England had never taken place since the differences between the Normans (essentially Vikings who had adopted French culture) and the Saxons were not so great, both being north European, Germanic peoples of the same religion and basic values. Things would certainly be different, but not as different because a Saxon descendant of Vikings and a Norman descendant of Vikings are obviously not as dissimilar as a Spaniard and an Arab or a Moor.

People make countries just as people make cultures and when people move from one country to another they take their culture and all that has formed them to their new home. When the English moved to America, they established New England, built English homes, operated according to English law and so on. They did not start living as the Mohawk or Iroquois or Huron lived simply because they were in North America. Similarly, when the Spanish came to Mexico, they did not start wearing Quetzal-feather headdresses, building pyramids and taking up human sacrifice. They brought Spanish culture with them, though there was a greater blending of people in Mexico because the Spanish did not bring any women with them, only soldiers and priests. Hence why the majority of the population in Mexico is mixed-race and the population of the United States has been predominately European. All the actions and inactions of all who have gone before them have made each population what it is today. Even when people try to imitate others, they are still bound by their own accumulative history. The first German Reich, for example, called itself the “Holy Roman Empire” but it was still quite different in a number of ways from the original Roman Empire because the German and Italian people were different and had vastly different histories.

Another pair of examples, which might prove illustrative is South Africa and Liberia. One country, South Africa, was established by European colonists while the other, Liberia, was established by African-American colonists. Each established societies very different from those of the natives who surrounded them and each were also extremely dissimilar from each other and have had very different histories. This should be obvious considering that the life experiences and accumulated history of emancipated slaves from America and Dutch and later British colonists were radically different and would invariably cause each to build very different societies. Likewise, if people are interchangeable, regardless of their origins, South Africa would still be functioning the same today, under Black African rule, as it previously functioned under British or Afrikaner rule which it clearly is not.

That is the bottom line; that peoples are not interchangeable. Mexico, The Philippines, the Republic of China and numerous Latin American and African countries have, to varying degrees and at various times in their past, for example, emulated the U.S. Constitution. None of them, however, have functioned in the same way that the United States has functioned because what has formed them is nothing like what has formed the United States and certainly not those “Founding Fathers” who established the United States. Peoples make countries, governments do not and if the population of Japan were to become predominately Indonesian, it would no longer resemble Japan as it is now or has ever been, even if all of the government framework remained in place. The character, experiences and accumulated history of a nation matters, no two are exactly alike and no two are interchangeable nor can that accumulated history ever be totally wiped away.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

When the Soaring Dragon Fell from the Sky

The year 1945 was an eventful one for the lands of French Indochina part of which was previously known as Vietnam. Within a matter of only a few months, Vietnam would experience a shift from French colony to nominally independent empire to a revolutionary republic and the end of an imperial dynasty which had ruled over all of Vietnam since 1802 and over the southern half of the country for far longer still. 1945 was the year that everything changed for Vietnam and then changed again, to the point that once these changes began, they seemed unable to stop. The unprecedented became standard procedure in a country which had, even in the colonial era, had much the same form of government for almost countless centuries.

French Indochina
At the beginning of the year, the three regions of Vietnam were still under effective French colonial rule but with the additional presence of the occupying forces of the Empire of Japan and under the direction of the French regime in Vichy. The system had not changed but changes there were nonetheless. The Japanese, for example, took great pleasure in emphasizing that, while the French colonial authorities remained, it was only because Japan allowed them to. They gave subtle encouragement to anti-French and generally anti-western sentiment and the Vietnamese began to pepper their speech with Japanese words and phrases rather than French ones and those who were already disposed to be anti-French took great pleasure in seeing the European population humiliated in numerous minor ways by the Japanese. For the Vietnamese monarchists who remained friendly with France, they were much happier with the state of affairs which prevailed after the establishment of the “State of France” based out of Vichy.

The values of the French Republic had always been at odds with those of traditional Vietnam and its Confucian monarchy. Vichy France, however, was much more compatible and the French royalist author Charles Maurras became a popular figure in colonial Vietnam during this period. They emphasized the shared values of folk nationalism, sacred kingship and the centrality of the family which they both shared. The Vietnamese monarchists also hoped that, with this new French regime, the treaties which established the Franco-Vietnamese relationship, which were not that bad or unfair as written, would be more scrupulously adhered to by Vichy than they had previously been by Paris. It had always, previously, been a poisonous double-standard for the French in Vietnam who taught the Vietnamese in their schools about democracy, egalitarianism and brotherhood only to then expect these students to bow to their traditional monarch, respect their mandarins and accept a second-class status to the French themselves. Now, for a change, it seemed possible for the French and Vietnamese establishments to be more perfectly aligned in their outlook.

Unfortunately, this was an all-too fleeting state of affairs as the 1944 Allied invasion of France quickly resulted in the downfall of the Vichy regime and the Japanese no longer had any reason to tolerate the French presence in Indochina. Likewise, with the war situation going so bad for Japan, Tokyo was desperate to enlist more pan-Asian support for their war effort and the standard strategy for this was portraying the war not as “Axis vs. Allies” but as a racial war of Asians vs. Caucasians, an anti-colonial struggle to eradicate the forces of western civilization in East Asia. In 1945 Japan was well into their existing plan to supplant the French in Indochina and encourage the nations under French rule to rise up and fight alongside Japan or, as was more actually the case, to support and sacrifice for the Japanese war effort against the western powers. The Japanese had a pretender to the Vietnamese throne, an anti-French prince who had long resided in Japan, ready to go if he was needed but they preferred to work with the existing authorities if that was possible so as to avoid unnecessary infighting.

Imperial Japanese Army in Saigon
A key, though often overlooked figure in this transition, was Jean-Marie Yokoyama. A Japanese subject whose mother was French and who had himself married a French woman and who was Catholic. He worked in the Japanese consulate in Hanoi before being moved to Hue to coordinate with the Nguyen imperial court, a task to which he was well suited thanks to his French wife, giving him connections in Saigon as well. Still, the Vietnamese Emperor, Bao Dai, was unaware that anything momentous was on the horizon and, indeed, was away on a hunting trip when the Japanese launched their anti-French coup on March 9, 1945. Being already effectively in control of the country, most French forces surrendered without a struggle but those who tried to or who refused to surrender were massacred, some in very brutal ways. Nonetheless, when Emperor Bao Dai returned to the Forbidden City he learned that the French were gone and that Japan was now in control of the situation. On March 10, Ambassador Jean-Marie Yokoyama went to the Kien Trung Palace to advise the Emperor to declare Vietnamese independence and work in collaboration with Japan as a part of the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”. Given the situation, there was practically no other option for the Emperor but to comply, nor, frankly, was there any good reason for him to refuse.

Flag of the Empire of Vietnam
The following day, at an official ceremony, Emperor Bao Dai declared all the treaties with France to be nullified and proclaimed the independence of the Empire of Vietnam (Ðe quôc Viêt Nam) as well as pledging his support for the Empire of Japan and the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”. After failing to make contact with a royalist and nationalist mandarin named Ngo Dinh Diem (future first President of South Vietnam), the Japanese settled on Tran Trong Kim as prime minister. There was a flurry of excitement and activity, at least on a bureaucratic level, as the newly reunited Empire of Vietnam began to take shape on paper. French street names were replaced with those of Vietnamese heroes, a new government framework was drawn up and a new national flag was designed; yellow with three red stripes. The Japanese, on the grounds that they were fighting for the Vietnamese, stripped the country for the sake of their war effort, contributing to a devastating famine which greatly diminished the popularity of the new imperial government and helped boost the reputation of the communist-led Vietminh resistance movement as it broke into storehouses to distribute rice to the starving peasants.

This was the guerilla movement led by the shadowy, Marxist, revolutionary Ho Chi Minh, at the time still better known by his previous alias Nguyen Ai Quoc (‘Nguyen the Patriot’) and, because they promised to rescue downed Allied pilots and opposition to Japan, which also enjoyed the support of the American OSS, forerunner of the modern CIA. This cost them very little as there were few American pilots that needed rescuing and the Japanese were clearly about to lose the war anyway. They denounced the new regime as stooges pandering to an Asian master in place of a European one and, given that Japan had dismantled the French colonial military establishment, they had no reason to fear it. Their reach and influence spread rapidly throughout the few months that the Empire of Vietnam existed. Each passing week brought Japan closer to defeat and the nominally independent Vietnamese empire closer to total isolation and inevitable collapse.

Emperor Bao Dai
That collapse seemed imminent by July when the Allies issued their demand for the unconditional surrender of the Japanese, something no one expected to have happened if there was any doubt about an Allied victory. As such, the disintegration of the Empire of Vietnam began with many officials abandoning their posts and with the Kim government becoming increasingly unable to find anyone willing to accept any position within the regime. The Vietminh became increasingly brazen with mass public gatherings often punctuated by the raising of the Vietminh flag, red with a single yellow star in the center. By the first week of August, revolution was breaking out in the north and the empire was rapidly coming apart. Tran Trong Kim was no longer able to lead an effective government and Emperor Bao Dai found no one willing to serve in a new one. That was August 7 and on August 8 the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and invaded Manchuria, ending the last, and extremely naïve, Japanese hope for a Soviet-mediated negotiated peace. When, on August 9, a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, it became clear to all that Japan was finished and the Empire of Vietnam was doomed.

Japanese surrender in Saigon
Ton Quang Phiet, a prominent official of the Vietminh, immediately began pressing the Emperor’s secretary, Pham Khac Hoe, to advise Bao Dai to abdicate in favor of Ho Chi Minh, someone the Emperor had never heard of though they did ultimately determine that this was the same man who had previously been known as Nguyen Ai Quoc. By the following week, the Emperor’s newly appointed representative to the south, Nguyen Van Sam, was delayed in taking up his post in Saigon as the Vietminh launched a general uprising throughout the country upon word that the Empire of Japan had surrendered. This caused another division in the country which was already being partitioned, in a way, by the Allied plan to have the Chinese take the surrender of Japanese forces in the north and British imperial troops to take those in the south. The Japanese were split over what to do in the meantime and the division was based on the conflicting political narratives of what Japan had been fighting for. Some, who held to traditional authority, opposed communism and wished to remain loyal to the regime they had previously supported, wanted to shore up the Empire of Vietnam as best they could, some making a token effort to free imperial officials who had been arrested by the Vietminh. Others, however, who saw the war as a racial struggle, liberated Vietminh sympathizers, turned their weapons over to them and even joined their ranks. Most did not find any welcome but, all the same, several hundred Japanese stayed behind to fight alongside the Vietminh in the upcoming war to expel the French.

The King's Knight
On August 17 it became clear who held control of the situation when a political demonstration of Empire of Vietnam bureaucrats, celebrating the unity and independence of Vietnam, was co-opted by the Vietminh. In Hue, even within the Holy Citadel and Forbidden City, people started to abandon their posts. Soldiers of the Imperial Guard looked on while young revolutionaries pulled the imperial standard down from the “King’s Knight”, the large flag pole across from the Ngo Mon Gate, replacing it with the red flag. The tutor to the little Prince Imperiale Bao Long suggested to Emperor Bao Dai that he go to the imperial tombs and rally loyalists there but, remembering his history as a schoolboy in France, Bao Dai refused, recalling what fate had befallen the French Royal Family after they tried to flee from the Revolution. On August 22, the Japanese colonel commanding the (now surrendered) garrison offered to deploy his forces to defend the Holy Citadel but, again, Emperor Bao Dai refused, knowing what fate would surely befall him if the Japanese began shooting down Vietnamese people on his behalf.

More demands came in from various revolutionary groups and committees demanding the Emperor’s abdication and on August 23, at the last cabinet meeting the Emperor would preside over, it was decided that Bao Dai would abdicate, handing power over to the Vietminh in exchange for a guarantee that the lives and property of the Nguyen Dynasty would be respected. The Emperor also wanted an orderly transfer of power with a formal ceremony to mark the occasion and for the imperial flag to fly one last time. When Phan Khac Hoe returned with word that the Vietminh accepted this arrangement, he found the palace resembling an odd sort of temple, echoing with the Buddhist prayers of the Dowager Empress-Mother and her attendants and the Catholic prayers of the Empress Nam Phuong and her attendants. The same day the end of the imperial system was announced at a huge gathering in the local sports stadium. By the following day, perhaps because there was no longer an immediate threat of violent mobs storming the “Great Within”, Emperor Bao Dai began to have second thoughts and many members of his family urged him to cancel the agreement but, neither the Emperor nor any of those who objected, could come up with a viable alternate plan.

A Vietminh demonstration in 1945
Emperor Bao Dai wrote out his formal edict of abdication in which he criticized his own shortcomings, urged unity and support for the new regime, asking only in return that the new government care for the tombs and temples of the Nguyen Dynasty. The edict was posted and many people were moved by it, so much so in fact that the Vietminh authorities warned the court against any further utterances which might arouse loyalist sympathy among the people. This was important as many of the leaders of the Vietminh, all of whom were members of the Indochinese Communist Party, had been just as displeased by the imperial edict. They wanted Bao Dai to denounce his imperial ancestors and the monarchy in general while also wanting to ignore him completely on the grounds that they recognized him as nothing more than a front-man for first the French and then the Japanese, possessing no real power to hand over to them. The public reaction, particularly in the area around Hue and central Vietnam, showed the communists that many remained loyal to the dynasty and the traditional beliefs it embodied which persuaded them that it was better to go along with the imperial court so long as they were surrendering and not risk causing unnecessary problems.

Tran Huy Lieu, Deputy Chairman of the National Liberation Committee, was sent down from Hanoi to Hue to accept the abdication of the Emperor in a formal ceremony. He left early on August 27 but did not arrive in Hue until August 29, stopping frequently along the way to give speeches to assembled crowds of locals, though some clearly did not understand the scale of the changes taking place, speaking of a “new dynasty” or asking who exactly was going to be the new emperor. When he did arrive, Lieu informed the court that the government intended to care for the dynastic tombs and temples but that the Imperial Family would have to vacate the palace, keeping only their personal effects, as all property would be confiscated by the revolutionary government. He did agree to raise the imperial flag one last time prior to lowering it forever and the imperial court allowed their cortege to pass through the central gate to the Holy Citadel, an honor traditionally reserved only for the Emperor, the French Governor-General and the representative of the Emperor of China previously.

Bao Dai in traditional regalia
On August 30, 1945 crowds gathered before the Holy Citadel, the “Yellow Imperial City” to watch the historical hand-over. Lieu and his party arrived, drove just inside and were greeted by Prince Nguyen Vinh Can, the Emperor’s cousin, and Phan Khac Hoe. They climbed the steps to the top of the Ngo Mon Gate where Emperor Bao Dai waited for them, wearing his traditional robes for the last time. Tran Huy Lieu, using loud speakers, addressed the crowd first, informing them that Ho Chi Minh would be reading out their declaration of independence in Hanoi in three days (a declaration which was almost a verbatim copy of the American declaration of independence). At that, Emperor Bao Dai, in his most solemn and ceremonial tone, read out his message of abdication. The crowd was uproarious but even many of those who cheered admitted to mixed feelings at the scene. For the ordinary Vietnamese people, it was the first time they had ever heard the Emperor speak and it was to bring thousands of years of imperial tradition to an end. The imperial dragon flag was lowered from the “King’s Knight” and once again replaced by the red flag of the Vietminh. The Emperor then handed over the imperial sword and seal, emblems of the authority of the Nguyen Dynasty, which Lieu held up to be seen by the crowd in a rather triumphal display.

That simple ceremony marked the end of the traditional monarchy in Vietnam. In the aftermath, Emperor Bao Dai, from that point known as “Citizen Vinh Thuy” received a message inviting him to Hanoi to serve as “Supreme Councilor” to the new government, an offer he was advised not to refuse, particularly considering the uncertainty that still remained regarding the dynasty. He and his family would be leaving but what would become of the Dowager Empress and the other wives of the previous monarch, Emperor Khai Dinh, who wished to remain in the “Great Within” which was their only home? There was even a wife of the Emperor’s grandfather, Emperor Dong Khanh, still living there. Their fate was still uncertain and they were entirely at the mercy of the new regime. Emperor Bao Dai, for his part, would go to Hanoi and take up his post with the new government but learned very quickly that it was an empty position and that the supposedly nationalist coalition of the Vietminh was nothing more than a front for the Communist Party. At the first available opportunity, a diplomatic mission to China, he would abandon the regime and take up residence in Hong Kong where he would remain until being restored as “Chief of State” by the French.

Communist display of the event
That restoration was not, however, a restoration of what had previously been the “Great South”. While it was effectively a monarchy in all but name, the “State of Vietnam” was certainly not the traditional monarchy which had always existed previously. That had ended in 1945 and it was to the detriment of Vietnam as well as countries far across the world that the Empire of Vietnam had not been maintained and supported. Not only was an ancient cultural, political and spiritual tradition lost but it would lead to partition, ideological conflict, republican infighting and horrific wars which would engulf Indochina for decades to come. Truly, everything had changed in Vietnam during 1945 and, ultimately, none of these changes were for the better.
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