Ken Burns and and Lynn Novick’s “The Vietnam War” is a new 10 part miniseries on the conflicts between France, the US, South Vietnam, North Vietnam, the Viet Minh, and the Viet Cong over a period of about twenty years. The French presence in their colony of Indochine, or Indochina, was regarded as the instigation for the Vietnam War in which the US was flung into a massive conflict across the Pacific. It is important to understand the background of Vietnam’s relationship with the Western Nations before looking at the US involvement.
The first Franco-Vietnamese relations were based on Catholicism in the 17th century as missionaries arrived to spread their religion across the world. The French East India Company set up trading posts in 1680 as their presence in the region grew stronger. The French were in India, Siam, and now Vietnam in the 17th century. Things soon turned sour as local Vietnamese people resisted the French missionaries. 200 years later, French ships arrived to rescue some captured missionaries and sunk Vietnamese vessels on their way.
Napoleon III ordered the end of persecution in Vietnam of French Catholics, and sent Admiral Charles Rigault de Genouilly and Spanish allies on a Punitive Expedition called the Cochinchina Campaign in 1858. They captured Tourane (Modern-day Da Nang) but were eventually besieged themselves. Franco-Spanish troops in Saigon were also under siege and French troops tied up in Italy and China could not help. Francois Page replaced de Grenouilly s commander of the French forces, and reinforcements arrived in 1860 from China. Tourane was given up in favour of keeping Saigon, so the city was reclaimed by Vietnamese troops. At Ky Hoa, the Vietnamese army of 35,000 were pushed back, allowing French and Spanish troops room in Saigon. The French repeatedly offered peace but each time it was refused. With the fall of Vinh Long, the Vietnamese were in no place to win and peace was organized in June 1862. The Treaty of Saigon gave three provinces to the French and three more were added in 1867.
French expeditions into Tonkin soon exploded as resistance from Vietnamese members of the Chinese Black Flag Army and in 1873, French officer Francis Garnier was killed. The Tonkin Campaign began in 1883 as Henri Riviere brought French troops into Hanoi in an attempt to capture the region. The Black Flag Army were victorious at Paper Bridge, and Riviere was killed. The Tonkin Expeditionary Corps was sent to reinforce the French troops already there and was led by General Alexandre-Eugene Bouet. A victory at Nam Dinh pushed Vietnamese forces to the edge and the French troops had an opportunity to achieve a quick victory. French forces captured the Hue River at the Battle of Thuan An and forced four more provinces to be under French ownership.
At Phu Hoai and Palan, the French were pushed back by the Black Flag Army and the French outpost at Hai Douong fell to Vietnamese troops. The French were in trouble and had wasted their opportunity to end the campaign swiftly. In December, the Tonkin Expeditionary Corps met the Black Flag Army at Son Tay and the battle raged from the 11th until the 17th as the French bombarded their enemies and repeatedly attacked a set of redoubts. After a disastrous counterattack by the Black Flag Army, French Foreign Legionnaires and fusiliers-marins stormed Son Tay and claimed victory for the French.
In 1884, Chinese support of the Guangxi Army at Bac Ninh failed as 11,000 French troops crushed them under leadership of Charles-Theodore Millot. The sheer numbers of French troops was the most in the entire Tonkin campaign, managing to field two brigades including artillery. The force was made up of line infantry, Algerian tirailleurs, Foreign Legionnaires, marines, and Turcos. A Chinese ambush at Bac Le in 1884 sparked the Sino-French War over Tonkin. The French navy secured a massive victory at Fuzhou and allowed the French to create a blockade of Chinese ports. The French followed and crushed the Guangxi Army at the Battle of Kep and in retaliation to their high casualties, they massacred droves of Chinese wounded and prisoners to the dismay of the Western Powers. By 1885, the French were on the doorstep of Lang Son which was the main supply line for Chinese troops in Vietnam. After a series of engagements, the French managed to claim victory and the Guangxi were forced to retreat yet again. At Hoa Moc, the French were checked hard suffering some 300 casualties but opened the way to relieving a French outpost nearby. The Guangxi were thrown out of Tonkin the Battle of Dong Dang on Feburary 23rd. The French entered Southern China and were repulsed suffering heavy casualties yet again. The French finally were victorious at the Battle of Phu Lam Tao on March 25th 1885.
The French finally had Tonkin and Annam in June 1885 after years of bloody war. However, the locals still were against the French and constant attacks on supply routes along the Red River angered the French. Though Tonkin was French, it was still very much Vietnamese.
Part Two will discuss Indochina, French influences in the area, and how war broke out yet again in the Indochina War including the legendary of Dien Bien Phu.