Khmers constituted a portion of the units Vichy fielded in its defence of Cambodia, with one assessment of the campaign against the Thais singling them and the Montagnards of central Vietnam out for being the most reliable of Indochina’s native troops.
Whilst in reality these regulars would have been attired no differently from the rest of their French and Vietnamese brethrens, I wanted to infuse some of the exoticness most people associate with all things colonial into my Vichy battlegroup, so began hunting for pictures of what their parade ground look was.
Sadly, googling “tirailleurs cambodgiens” only brings up the same pre-WWI, fin-de-siecle photographs of barefooted men. Clearly I needed a different search term.
Now, anyone who knows their Southeast Asian history will know that the birth roots of modern Cambodia are to be found in the immediate aftermath of the Franco-Thai War, when the Vichyite governor-general in Hanoi handpicked the teenage Prince Norodom Sihanouk to succeed his grandfather Sisowath Monivong – who, interestingly enough, was so miffed at the ceding of his realm’s most prosperous and productive provinces to the Thais that he thereafter refused meeting anyone French – over the heir presumptive, who the French thought a much less pliable character (oh how wrong they were!).
Which meant that a search for images of the two Cambodian royal ceremonies of 1941 was in order. And boy, was my hunch right.
Google’s limited results pointed in the lone direction of Kampot la prospère, a wonderful repository of Cambodia’s pre-revolutionary past. In the entry on Sihanouk’s coronation we get this excellent view of the troops lining the procession path:
The men pictured are in ceremonial whites with puttees, sash, and beret of matching colour (possibly yellow, judging from the two extraordinary colour photographs of the ‘garde royale‘ featured in a 1931 issue of National Geographic magazine). With the exception of the shoes, they look identical to those who had participated in the previous coronation parade some 13 years prior, as pictured below in a 1928 photograph belonging to the École française d’Extrême-Orient:
The blog entry on the cremation of King Monivong is even more useful, as it features soldiers in uniforms the Thais were more likely to have encountered on the battlefield:
The eagle-eyed will no doubt notice that whilst all are decked out in khaki drill, those furthest from the camera appear to be wearing berets of a different, much lighter hue than those in the foreground. Presumably they are yellow, the colour of the Royal Guard, as seen here in this National Geographic photograph from 1931:
And the rest? Wishful thinking suggests they are army regulars from the Régiment de Tirailleurs Cambodgiens. And while it would not be unreasonable to assume that the berets these men sport are dark blue like those worn by Vietnamese tirailleurs serving in China and the mountainous regions of Annam, I couldn’t quite swat away the image of these Lucotte toy soldiers my original googling for Cambodian tirailleurs had thrown up:
A toy manufacturer’s flight of fancy, perhaps? Perhaps. But Peter Abbott’s incredibly useful Rivals of the Raj has this description (itself derived from Maurice Rives and Eric Deroo’s Les Lính tâp: Histoire des militaires indochinois au service de la France, 1859-1960) of Cambodians in French service at the turn of the century:
“The Tirailleurs Cambodgiens were given a remarkably western uniform reminiscent of the Chasseurs Alpins… [consisting of] a red beret… loose trousers by culottes cyclistes or wide, loose breeches coming down to just below the knee. These were worn with red puttees and bare feet. The beret bore no device.”
Thinking it not outside the realm of possibility that the red would be retained three decades on, I engaged in yet another wild goose chase, during the course of which I chanced upon pictures of an exhibition on Indochina which the Musée de l’Armée in Paris had held between 2013 and 2014. Among the exhibits was a 1931 painting by Marie Antoinette Boullard-Devé, an École des Beaux-Arts graduate who had travelled extensively across interwar Indochina:
Having found a perfectly good excuse to field some red berets for the Franco-Thai War, it was time to look for figures. I very quickly honed in on Minairons Miniatures’ Spanish Civil War offerings, whose wares were not only sculpted by “Xan” Bautista of Fantassin fame, but also have the extra benefit of having the look I needed – the webbing, for example, is of a pattern very similar to the French, being composed of a Y-strap and a back cartridge pouch of the right shape, while the machine guns are Hotchkisses. And as if that wasn’t enough, Minairons also does separate heads, including berets pulled to the left in the French manner. So here you have them:
As you can see, the sculpting is nothing short of exquisite, making them a complete pain to paint. Flash was minimal, though rifle barrels and bayonet tips were unexpectedly brittle, something I found out the hard way.
These follow my standard recipe for Vichy colonials, with a basecoat of VGC Beasty Brown and a highlight of VMC Cork Brown being used for the flesh. Not as successful a sunburnt Asian skintone as I had hoped, but I’ll be sticking to it for the rest of the battalion.
The berets were each given a healthy dollop of Tamiya Quick Dry epoxy putty for that extra bit of floppiness, followed by a triad of VGC Black + VGC Scarlet Red – VGC Scarlet Red – VGC Bloody Red. The same colours were also used for the waist sashes.
As you can see, my go-to varnish (Daler Rowney) has acted up, despite numerous attempts at shaking the bottle. Shall need to do something about the satin finish soon-ish…