Sunday, September 24, 2017

Why the Catalonia Crisis Matters

As most readers are probably aware, the Kingdom of Spain is in the midst of a crisis. The Catalans are threatening to break away and issue a unilateral declaration of independence in spite of legal rulings from Spanish courts that such a thing would be illegal and threats from the central government in Madrid to have Catalan leaders arrested if they go ahead with their promised referendum on independence. As most are also probably aware, this is not a new problem, Catalonia has been threatening to break away for some time now nor are they the only ones. This also comes at a time when the Kingdom of Spain is still dealing with an economic crisis, the migrant crisis and at a time when it seems that the Spanish have less holding them together than in ages past.

Even this, as most students of history know, is not a recent problem but one that has become, sadly, the rule rather than the exception. When the Spanish have been united and all pulling in the same direction, they have accomplished astounding things. Spain reached unprecedented levels of wealth and prosperity, social cohesion, blazed new trails in exploration, conquered empires and subdued continents under such conditions. Spain was once the backbone of western Christendom, the power which ensured the Catholics rather than the Protestants retained Belgium and France and which played no small part in the retention of Catholicism in much of central Europe during the Thirty Years War. All of that, unfortunately, seems like a very distant memory that few today feel any connection with. Since the French Revolutionary Wars, roughly, Spain has been in a period of recurrent internal unrest. The country which triumphed over enemies as diverse as the British Empire, the French Empire and the Ottoman Empire found itself unable to triumph over the enemy within which has been internal divisions.

It was the internal divisions fostered by the invasion and occupation by the Napoleonic French which first caused the Spanish empire to crack and begin breaking apart. Efforts to deal with this were, at first, successful but, alas, internal squabbling in Spain itself prevented such victories being followed up. The struggle between constitutional and absolute monarchists seemed to have been done when King Fernando VII, backed by his Bourbon cousin King Louis XVIII of France, restored himself to power but his death then set off a series of conflicts over the succession; the Carlist Wars. There were a number of these and, though the Carlists were never victorious, their persistence meant that the Spanish were mostly focused on fighting each other rather than external enemies. That, unfortunately, was only the beginning as the divisions became only worse with time.

During the reign of Queen Isabella II, despite the Carlist trouble, the Kingdom of Spain did seem to be on the cusp of a rebound. Efforts to reclaim lost territories or forge new relationships to Spain’s benefit were going well, Spain had the fourth largest navy in the world, rebels in Cuba and the Philippines were successfully subdued and one former colony, the Dominican Republic, even returned willingly to submission to the Spanish Crown. Spain seemed on course to recover its lost glory and former place of prominence as one of the great powers. However, not only did the Carlist opposition persist but their enemies, the ruling government, began to fragment and begin fighting amongst themselves. Queen Isabella II, unacceptable to the Carlists, proved too conservative to be acceptable to the liberals who had previously supported her. She was forced out and the ruling elite decided to give monarchy one more chance.

As the division over the Bourbon succession seemed hopelessly permanent, the Spanish government decided to start over from blank paper with a new dynasty, importing the Italian Duke of Aosta to be King Amadeo I of Spain. This solved nothing, another Carlist uprising flared up and the party which had brought in the new king also began fighting among themselves so that, after less than three years in Spain, King Amadeo I declared the country ungovernable, abdicated and went home to Italy, sorry that he had ever attempted such an enterprise. This resulted in the, thankfully short-lived, First Spanish Republic as the revolutionary party, which had always opposed the monarchy, was bolstered by the fact that the monarchists seemed unable to maintain a functioning monarchy anyway. The republic did not last long but it set a dangerous precedent and should have been a warning to all that if the monarchy was to only be a source of division, a republic would be given a chance.

As it was, King Alfonso XII, son of Isabella II, was put on the throne. He defeated the latest Carlist rebellion, suppressed another in Cuba and was able to get some degree of calm in the political sphere at home by allowing both liberals and conservatives to take it in turns governing the country. They were still divided of course, but seemed willing to accept the rule of the other while they waited for their turn to come again. Prosperity began to return once the Spanish stopped fighting each other and got back to the business of doing business. Unfortunately, the reign of King Alfonso XII was a short one. He died in 1885, just before his twenty-eighth birthday. The throne passed to his son, King Alfonso XIII, and soon the old divisions began to reappear. A relatively new part of this division was the emergence of the Catalan nationalist movement. Although somewhat present in the past, it began to emerge in a new way with the First Spanish Republic and received a large boost after 1898 and the defeat of Spain by the United States. The leading industrial region of Spain, Catalonia lost the markets for her manufactured goods in Cuba, Puerto Rico and The Philippines after that war.

Flag of the Kingdom of Aragon
In the old days, Catalan nationalism had been tied to maintaining or regaining their privileges from the time of the Kingdom of Aragon. The unity of Spain had always been a fragile thing. Even when most of the country was under Moorish rule, the Christian kingdoms still fought among themselves and when unity was finally achieved it was only by marriage, only a personal union and the relationship between the people and the king was a contractual one. The people submitted to the Crown but only conditionally. Later, Catalan nationalist became more liberal. General Juan Prim, leader of the Revolution of 1868, which brought down Isabella II and ultimately replaced her with Amadeo I, was a Catalan. The First Republic was their great hope but, after its failure, they focused mostly on pushing for as much autonomy as possible and were not necessarily opposed to the monarchy. However, the increased divisions and unrest in Spain during the era of King Alfonso XIII, led to the dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera who cracked down on any hints of separatism. Catalan nationalists then began to go solidly republican.

Catalan separatist flag
When King Alfonso XIII was overthrown and the Second Spanish Republic was declared, the Catalan nationalists went along in the hope of establishing Catalonia as a subsidiary republic. Needless to say, when the Spanish Civil War ended in victory for Generalissimo Francisco Franco, all of that was suppressed. Franco wanted an end to all of the bickering, infighting, regional unrest and political divisions that had been plaguing Spain for so long. Immediately before the victory of Franco and his Spanish nationalists, the leader of the Catalan nationalists declared the independence of the Republic of Catalonia before leaving the country and claiming to lead a government-in-exile. All hints of Catalan separatism were firmly suppressed by Franco and, though Franco was a monarchist, it is likely that his reluctance to not bring back an actual monarch until after his death was due to how divisive rather than unifying the Spanish monarchy had become.

Once Franco was dead and gone, however, the Catalan separatists came back in a big way. In 1979 Catalonia gained a degree of autonomy from the Spanish government and, after another vote in 2006, this autonomy was expanded. However, there has been no shortage of problems in Spain and there have been no shortage of Catalan separatists, on both the left and the right (or “right” as we are basically talking about socialists and liberals here) who are quick to offer Catalan independence as the answer. This is an old problem and one that has been building in its current form for decades at least. Why should any of this matter, particularly to anyone who is not Spanish? It matters because the Kingdom of Spain matters. Spain is never going to rise above its current lower-tier status if these internal divisions persist and if the Catalan nationalists are successful, the results could have far-reaching consequences well become the present day boundaries of the Kingdom of Spain.

The most unthinkable possibility would be if the vote results in a declaration of independence which the Catalans inflexibly stand by and which Madrid inflexibly opposes which would result in another Spanish Civil War. If, however, it goes forward and the government does not use force to suppress it, we are then presented with the very real possibility that other regions start to abandon the sinking ship that is Spain, no one wishing to be the last one left holding the bill for Spain’s massive debt. What happens when the Basques or the Galicians decide to follow the example of the Catalans? Then you have the cascade effect this could cause across Europe, starting with areas already known for their separatist tendencies such as Scotland in the UK, Flanders in Belgium, Venice or Sardinia in Italy, similar Basque and Catalan separatists in France, their example to be followed by the Corsican, Breton, Savoyard and other separatists. Will the Frisians of the Netherlands or the Bavarians of Germany be far behind? Where does it all end?

Many of these, most of them in all probability, have also stated their desire to carry on within the European Union, which means not so much true independence but more a desire to have the benefits of autonomy with none of the responsibilities. We would be left with a collection of tiny, powerless statelets which are, far from independent, all the more dependent on larger powers for their defense and access to profitable markets. Secessionists in places such as the American states of California or Texas could be (and in the case of Texas have) successful independent entities if their adopt the correct policies. Both have large markets, considerable farm land, their own energy sources and access to the oceans, the ‘highway of the nations’. The same could not be said for these tiny regions of Europe. In many of these places, the separatists do have some legitimate points on their lists of grievances in my view. However, the breakup of once major powers into powerless micro-states will not solve them or, at best, simply replace them with other, usually larger, problems.

I deplore the state that the Kingdom of Spain is in presently. However, I do not want to see Spain disappear from the map. With real unity and the correct policies, Spain could rise again to be a major power in Europe. I would like to see that. Further, I think it would be to the benefit of everyone if a revived Kingdom of Spain then went on to strengthen ties and form a stronger coalition of all the Spanish-speaking countries. If that could be accomplished, if all of the Hispanic lands could be united and all pull in the same direction, you are not just talking about a major power but a potential super-power. That is something I would like to see and I would love to see the cascade effect from that possibility, with other European countries doing the same.

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Crimes of King George III

It was on this day in 1761 that Their Majesties King George III and Queen Charlotte of the United Kingdom of Great Britain had their formal coronation. A long-reigning and much beloved monarch who saw his kingdoms through many perils, one would expect King George III to be remembered as one of the greatest of British or English monarchs. He was not severe or lavish, was hard working, prudent and conservative of public funds. He was a devoted father and husband who, unlike his predecessors, never took a mistress. He was a God-fearing man devoted to his duty and who took his obligations to his people seriously.

However, as we know, King George III is not remembered for any of that but rather as the man who "lost" America for the British Empire. If he is ever remembered for anything else it is most likely for being replaced by a regent at the end of his life on grounds of insanity. However, King George III is most remembered as the horrible "tyrant" whose alleged villainy was so great as to force otherwise peaceful and loyal colonists to take up arms against him and ultimately overthrow his authority in the thirteen colonies to establish the United States of America. As part of the propaganda war that ensured this would be the lasting impression of the conflict, the American Declaration of Independence, mostly remembered for a single silly and disingenuous line, included a long list of the "crimes" and examples of the terrible tyranny of King George III which justified the American War for Independence.

Most people, in either America or Britain, do not remember this part of the Declaration or think much on it and that is certainly all to the benefit of the American 'revolutionaries' as their laundry list of the King's misdeeds would certainly not stand up to scrutiny, certainly today. Of course, that is reason enough for us to do exactly that right here and now.

"Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world."
Start by casting yourself as the poor, unjustly maligned victim and the King as a horrible tyrant, no one can say that Mr. Jefferson was overly subtle in his style. Upon reflection, one might ask that if the King was so persistent in his crimes, his "repeated injuries and usurpations", why no one in any other part of the empire or his three kingdoms had risen in rebellion before? Needless to say, the word "Facts" should be taken with more than a grain of salt.

"He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only."
That certainly sounds bad but I cannot be the only one to also find it so vague as to be meaningless. What is being said here basically amounts to, 'he refused to allow good laws to pass and made life inconvenient for legislators'. Care to give any specific examples Tom? No?

"He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures."
This, again, I can only find humorous. It really makes the legislators seem a bit on the lazy side doesn't it?

"He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness of his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within."
I must confess, I love the description of opposing the King, "with manly firmness". Jefferson, however, is probably offending a great many homosexuals, feminists and trans-gender people with lines like that. Tsk, tsk, tsk Tom...

"He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands."
Aha! Here we come to some real tyranny; the King was trying to cut back on immigration! The horror! The horror! Of course, as soon as the U.S.A. was established, one of the first laws passed was the Immigration and Naturalization Act but no one likes to talk about that nowadays as it restricted citizenship to 'free White persons of good character'. Very problematic these days obviously.

"He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance."
Doesn't the second complaint rather contradict the first here? And as for the third, before you feel too sorry for the colonists remember that most of these "swarms of Officers" were assaulted, had their homes destroyed and were driven out of town by the patient and long-suffering colonists when they tried to to their jobs.

"He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power."
Yeah, who does he think he is, commander-in-chief of the military or something?!

"He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:"
Yes, he sent troops in to Boston after an armed mob destroyed a huge amount of private property and then allowed a quite fair trial for the soldiers who killed some civilians who were attacking them as part of another angry mob. Far from being a "mock Trial" Tom, one of your own cohorts acted as their lawyer because he believed they were in the right! And he did not cut off trade with all parts of the world unless you mean his closing of the port of Boston which, again, was done in retaliation to mob violence which the local authorities refused to prosecute or even apologize for.

"For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies"
Yes, this is true. It refers to Canada in which, via the Quebec Act, the King allowed the French Canadians to keep their own legal system and allowed them to freely practice their own religion. So what Jefferson is complaining about here is that the King was allowing French Catholics in Canada to administer their province as they wished and to have freedom of religion. What a creep, huh?

"For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people."
Again, yes, when you started behaving like criminals instead of loyal subjects, he started treating you as such. Yes, he started waging war on you *after* you killed his soldiers, assaulted his administrators and ransacked the property of those who were loyal to him.

"He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands."
Yes, he is fighting a war, a war which the colonists started by, I repeat myself, firing on government troops. As for the part about mercenaries, virtually every army in Europe employed mercenary regiments just as the United States itself would and still does.

"He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions."
Here Jefferson is referring to the offer of freedom to any African slaves who escaped their bondage and fought for the King, so Jefferson is blaming the King for any potential slave rebellion. I doubt many would sympathize these days. He also will not win many admirers by referring to the Native Americans as "the merciless Indian Savages". But, it is true, most Indians fought for the British as the King had recognized their right to all the land west of the Appalachians to the Mississippi River, lands which the Americans wanted to colonize. So, again, Jefferson is not entirely wrong here. Those merciless Indian savages did indeed fight for their land not to be taken from them.

"In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people."
Not true actually, the colonial petitions for redress, of which there were few, basically amounted to, 'give us what we want or we will break the law and do it anyway and it will be your fault if we do'. It should be clear though why Jefferson was so vague in most of his accusations as, on the rare occasion in which he does give a specific policy or at least be clear enough for the reader to divine what he is referring to, the colonists come off looking more like petulant jerks that "a free people". The King wanted British subjects to buy British goods, to support the British rather than the Dutch economy. He allowed French Catholics to worship as they pleased and he gave Indians the lands they occupied to avoid future trouble with them. When the colonists destroyed property or killed soldiers, the King responded to uphold law and order. That is basically what all of this comes down to but, when all of the Jeffersonian 'spin' is removed, the King doesn't look like such a tyrant, does he?

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

MM Movie Review: 1898, Los últimos de Filipinas

Given recent events, it is clear that the Kingdom of Spain, like most every other West European country, is suffering from a severe lack of confidence and self-esteem. If this film, titled in English as “1898, Our Last Men in the Philippines”, is any indication of the popular culture it is certainly no surprise. It is the story of the last die-hard holdouts of the Spanish empire who, barricaded in a small church in the village of Baler, held out against a far larger force of besieging Filipino rebels from July 1, 1898 to June 2, 1899. I cannot say how the film did with its intended audience but of the Spanish reviews I read, most were positive though, thankfully, almost as many were quite negative. What we have with “1898, Los últimos de Filipinas” is a gorgeous film that throws historical accuracy out the window in an effort to tow the politically correct line and make the Spanish soldiers look as horrible and nasty as all “evil, European imperialists” are supposed to look today. Yet, do not think that the Filipinos escape unscathed either.

The Spanish return
In many ways, perhaps because the siege of Baler has sometimes been referred to as ‘the Spanish Alamo’ (which is a bit ironic considering the actual Alamo is a Spanish mission) it reminded me of the most recent film version of Texas’ most famous siege in that, in an effort to be liberal and avoid taking your own side in a dispute, the filmmakers went out of their way to portray the defenders in a negative light, yet, in so doing, could not help but portray the besieging force in a negative light as well, in fact making them look worse than the supposedly more patriotic pieces of decades past. Despite portraying the Spanish as the villains of this story, I would think it completely justifiable if The Philippines were to ban this movie as an insult to their people. They still, for most of the movie going masses, come across better than the Spanish but that is only because the public has been taught to accept what is spoon-fed to them and it is clear that the Spanish are the “bad guys”, carrying on the ‘evil European imperialist’ stereotype. However, if you actually think about it for a minute, you will see how the Filipinos should actually find this film even more insulting than a proud, God-fearing Spaniard would.

Teresa, a local 'working girl'
The film begins with a crowd of Filipino rebels making a surprise, nighttime attack on a small Spanish detachment at Baler, massacring all but one of the soldiers. We then take up with the unit that is coming to retake Baler and hold it for the King of Spain. I have heard some talk about the uniforms of the Spanish soldiers being wrong for a start. I am no expert on the subject, but I did think they were slightly off. In the end, it was more noticeable to me how the Spanish soldiers all had disappearing hats. By the end of the film, the two remaining officers still have their caps, but the straw hats of every one of the soldiers have totally vanished. I am sure this was done for the sake of the ‘look’ of the film, but as someone very familiar with exceedingly hot climates, a hat is essential. Anyway, the Spanish soldiers arrive, raise the flag and make contact with the sole survivor of the previous garrison, a bloodthirsty and brutish sergeant named Jimeno (played by Javier Gutierrez) as well as the local Filipino whore named Teresa (played by the very fetching Alexandra Masangkay). She is the only Filipina with a speaking part in the film and she is a whore which, sadly, sets the stage for how the Filipinos will be portrayed in this movie.

The Brother, Captain Morenas & Lt. Cerezo
The Spanish soldiers are led by Captain Enrique de las Morenas (played by Eduard Fernandez) who, in what I have heard is actually a rare bit of accuracy, brought his little dog along with him. Other than that, I doubt there is any similarity at all to the actual historical figure as this character is portrayed as fairly competent but still a rather out-of-his-depth fop. The primary leadership role, however, is that of his second-in-command Lieutenant Martin Cerezo (played by Luis Tosar). He is portrayed as an upright man with something of a death wish. His wife died in Spain, he has nothing to live for and, over the course of the film, seemed to me to be cast in a very fanatical light as someone willing to needlessly sacrifice the lives of his men simply because he feels he has no home to go back to and would prefer to die for his country. The main character, however, is an artistic soldier named Carlos (played by Alvaro Cervantes) who has ‘main character’ magical powers, by which I mean he somehow always manages to just happen to be nearby when important things happen, is talked to by everyone, picked for every important mission and so on. Frankly, it becomes annoying very fast.

I should also add that that the only other officer besides the captain and the lieutenant is the doctor, which is not historically accurate at all and should have been obvious given that the Spanish army was rather notoriously top-heavy with an overabundance of officers compared to the number of enlisted men. In any event, the Spanish take possession of Baler and in quick order are attacked by a large force of Filipino rebels, forcing them back into the church which they had prepared to endure a long siege. Here, again, the historical inaccuracies return as they imply many more Spaniards being killed in battle than was reality. Only a handful of Spanish soldiers (literally 3-5) were killed by the Filipino rebels, the vast majority of casualties coming from disease over the many months in a confined, sweltering space with an insufficiently balanced food supply. The Captain soon falls ill and upon his death is succeeded by Lt. Cerezo who refuses to surrender. They endure the occasional attack as well as one foray outside the church to eliminate a rebel artillery piece but for the most part it is a standoff.

Defending the church
No one comes away from this film looking very good. The Spanish soldiers are shown to be suspicious, discontented and disdainful of their government. They highlight, for example, the stupidity of putting untested, inexperienced troops who have never even fired a weapon into such a position and that the government was incapable of even providing them with shoes that fit. The first is another outright fabrication. Most of the soldiers at Baler were experienced veterans of colonial service and the second is simply silly. Shoes and uniforms that do not fit is a common complaint of armies all over the world. As to the attitude of the soldiers, it is impossible to believe that discipline and a determined defense over such a long period under such grueling conditions could have been maintained if the soldiers were so lacking in patriotic devotion as they are portrayed here. Given their behavior, one constantly expects them to simply shoot the lieutenant, surrender and go home. In fact, the Spanish soldiers were remarkably disciplined and only two men deserted (one of these being portrayed in the film, fairly accurately from what I can recall). However, overall, the portrayal is one of sullen, bickering soldiers who care nothing for the cause they are defending and who have only contempt for their country.

The Roman Catholic Church fares no better. The only religious figure shown (there were actually several) is the missionary Brother Carmelo (played by Karra Elejalde). Here is a man who has devoted his life to the service of God in the most distant and alien lands from his own home. However, in this film he is portrayed as a drug addict who retreats to the cellar to smoke opium from his hidden stash and lament that the Christian Heaven is, I will clean it up a bit and say “crap”, and far inferior to the Muslim Heaven. His only real praise for the Christian religion is that it is preferable to the Buddhist belief in reincarnation since you only have to suffer through one life. He also, before succumbing to disease, allows Carlos to share in his hidden store of opium and so turns him into a drug addict as well which eventually leads to a great deal of agony for Carlos when the supply runs out. The whole sub-plot is insulting and ridiculous as well, as if someone thought that an historical epic about heroism and determination needed to take time out to rip off the plot from “Trainspotting”.

Literally every Filipina in this movie is portrayed as a whore
The Filipinos are also horribly insulted, though safe to say it is rather by accident. The filmmakers obviously intended to show the Filipinos as everything the Spaniards (i.e. “evil European imperialists”) are not. They are free, in touch with nature, simple and sexually liberated. Their commander lounges around with his shirt open and Teresa sings in the rain with one breast exposed. They mock the Spaniards for fighting a war they know is already over, laugh at their sacrifice for a government that has “sold them out” to the villainous United States and they take all of this way too far. In what has to be the most insulting scene of all for Filipinos, the rebels shout to the Spanish in the church that they have local women available for them to enjoy and demonstrate this by having a rebel soldier and a local woman start fornicating in broad daylight right in front of the church so the Spanish inside can watch. The point was, again, to show the Filipinos as liberated natives living in a ‘state of nature’. The effect was to make all the Filipino men and women look like pimps and whores. Again, I am not the absolute expert on the subject but I am pretty damn sure that the Filipinos never used the tactic of, “surrender and you can have sex with our women”. It is hard to imagine anything more degrading than that.

If you look close, they did actually get the flag right.
I should also add that the United States does take a few hits in this movie too, being viewed as the enemy for both sides (the Spanish-America War was fought and ended during the course of the siege). This, however, is something the filmmaker clearly threw in to be politically correct as sticking to the actual facts would have been detrimental to the narrative he was trying to sell. The Americans actually tried to rescue the Spanish soldiers besieged at Baler but did not have much luck. A scouting party they sent in was attacked an massacred by the Filipinos who were, keep in mind, supposed to be allied with the Americans at this time. If, as the film claims, the Filipinos did not hate the Spanish at all (as they constantly claim) but simply wanted them to surrender and go home because the war was over, surely allowing the U.S. military forces to make contact with them would have been an easy way to do it. But, no, though the film does show Carlos, in an effort to go to Manila and report back on the situation, seeing a bunch of dead American soldiers in the jungle. Contrary to popular belief, many Americans wanted nothing to do with The Philippines and the decision to keep the islands and suppress the pro-independence forces happened when Filipino rebels attacked American soldiers before the government had decided what to do. I think I can safely say that no American wishes The Philippines had remained an American Territory. If that had happened, they could be a state by now and the expense of that would be outrageous.

Marching out after finally giving up
Eventually, and in fairness it must be said that the reason shown was historically accurate, the Spanish lieutenant does decide to surrender his post. The Filipino rebels, showing great chivalry and a total lack of animosity, allows the soldiers to depart with their colors and their arms to return to Spain. The problem is, what should be a moment to stir the pride of any patriotic Spaniards, actually amounts to nothing of the sort given the way the film has portrayed everyone. If one accepts the narrative of this movie, one would probably feel nothing but pity at best and contempt at worst for the Spanish soldiers who, led by an unreasonable fanatic, fought, suffered and died for a government that had abandoned them and against people who had no ill-will toward them at all. And imperialism/colonialism, at least when done by western countries, is always bad anyway so defending it is nothing to be proud of. The actors all did their jobs well enough and the movie looks absolutely spectacular, shot on the island of Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa and Equatorial Guinea, the scenery is truly breathtaking. Other than that, the whole thing was downright insulting to the memory of everyone involved, certainly for the tremendously heroic Spanish who endured so much to defend that last patch of ground over which their flag flew, to the Filipinos as well, albeit inadvertently.

Wasted potential
In the end, the audience is also made to think that Lt. Cerezo will be in for big trouble when he gets home for his actions at Baler. Once again, even this final note is a totally false one. The Spanish defenders will all hailed as heroes when they returned to Spain and Lt. Cerezo was decorated with the Cross of St Ferdinand by King Alfonso XIII and died in 1945 having achieved the rank of general. Ultimately, the only positive thing I can say about the message of this film is that it did make me see the parallels between the defenders of Baler and modern-day monarchists. Anything and everything will be said to try to convince you to abandon support for your monarch. You will be told it is a bad cause you are supporting, then that it is a futile cause, that the republic is inevitable, finally you will also be told that your monarch is not worthy of your loyalty, that a “real” monarchist would not support such a monarch anyway, whatever it takes so long as the end result is you abandoning your loyalty and accepting the end of the monarchy. Don’t do it. Be the hold out that never surrenders. This film is disgraceful, I am told there was one made in the 1940’s that may be better but I have not seen it. Instead, stick to the actual history and you will find a story of courage and determination that will inspire you rather than a film like this that can only demoralize.

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.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...