Last week, I discussed the origins of the French presence in Southeast Asia and how their imperial attitude led them to wars with Chinese and Vietnamese troops throughout the 19th century. After the heavy losses, France was determined to hold onto their newly-captured land. With Chinese influence gone, the Vietnamese were on their own in achieving autonomy from their French rulers. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s recent miniseries on the Vietnam War explores the US in its longest war overseas, but the French presence is still very important to understand.
After the so-called “Pacification of Tonkin,” the French officially established the colony of Indochina on October 17th, 1887. The colony encompassed all of modern-day Vietnam and Cambodia which had already been a French protectorate. By 1893, the French were at war again with Indochina’s neighbours, Siam. Siam, modern day Thailand, had been provoked by the French who had demanded control of Laos. When Frenchmen were thrown out of Siam, the French sent troops into Laos. A Frenchman in charge of a Vietnamese expedition into Laos was killed, and the French became outraged, sending in more troops to the area. The French navy bombarded the Siamese fort at Paknam, opening a route straight to Bangkok. Siam gave Laos to France to avoid destruction and the war quickly finished.
The French managed to capture more regions of Siam in 1904, but were forced to return them in 1907 due to pressure from the British in nearby Burma. As years dragged on, more anti-French sentiment grew in the area, especially in Indochina itself. On February 10, 1930, members of the Vietnamese Workers Party and rebellious members of the tirailleurs indochinois attacked French officers at Yen Bai. Troops quickly repelled the rebels and ended the uprising, but the effects of Vietnamese freedom movements were being felt. The Second World War erupted in 1939 and dragged France into a major conflict in Europe against Germany, one which quickly turned into a nightmare for them.
With pressure on France at home, Indochina was vulnerable. The first attack came from Ho Chi Minh, a Communist born in Vietnam who had recently spent time in China and the USSR. Minh created the Viet Minh, a Vietnamese independence group hich would fight any foreigners that were in Vietnam. Secondly, Laos was attacked by Thailand (Siam had changed its name in 1939) in 1940. Thirdly, Japan began to sweep through Asia claiming more and more land for its empire. France’s government fell and the establishment of Vichy France occurred. France allowed for Japanese access to Tonkin so they could better access China, but threats from the US convinced the Japanese to move to Malaya and leave Indochina relatively alone.
Thailand’s army outnumbered and outgunned the French who had most of their troops back home to hold against Germany. Constant attacks by the Thai Air Force put the French under pressure to react. Laos fell with one massive Thai assault but a rally in Cambodia helped the French establish a counterattack. Though unsuccessful, the counterattack shocked the Thais and eventually the Japanese arrived to bail out the French. When France was later liberated, Japan decided to control all of Indochina until their surrender in 1945. Japan gave all their military supplies to the Viet Minh in hopes they would eventually remove the French from the region.
The First Indochina War began in 1946 at Haiphong when Viet Minh members clashed with French troops. The troops had landed as a part of the campaign to make Indochina part of France officially. The French navy opened fire on the port of Haiphong and many civilians were killed. The two sides declared a cease-fire but war again flared up in Hanoi as French troops captured the city and forced Ho Chi Minh to flee.
The Viet Minh’s General, Vo Nguyen Giap, was originally a history teacher but was appointed their commander. Avoiding a head-on attack on the French, Giap favoured guerilla tactics to outwit and outmanouvre French troops. The war continued this way for years as the French desperately tried to make some kind of breakthrough politically or militarily. In 1950, Ho Chi Minh’s government was recognized by China and the USSR and they pledged their support. The Korean War broke out the same year, pulling the US into the region as they quickly stated their anger with a new communist threat in the area. Dong Khe fell in September, prompting the French to send massive amounts of Foreign Legionnaires to the area. At Vinh Yen, the French got their wish as they massacred the attacking Viet Minh troops in a head on assault- precisely what Giap was trying to avoid. Mao Khe and Day River also ended in disaster for Giap as his troops suffered around 24,000 casualties in 1951.
The French built up small areas where they could lure Viet Minh troops into attacking them in hopes they could cause havoc akin to that in 1951. The “hedgehog” tactics did not help them much, as Giap captured French positions north of Hanoi. Operation Lorraine was executed in 1952 to recapture these positions but it proved ineffective. The hopes of the French were waning as Laos began to quickly fall into Viet Minh hands. French troops were moved to Dien Bien Phu and by 1954, Giap saw his opportunity to strike.
Dien Bien Phu is very mountainous and slopes down into a fertile valley. Vo Nguyen Giap surrounded the base with his army and on March 13, the battle began with a bombardment of outpost “Beatrice.” The French commander, Christian de Castries, named the posts after various lovers. His 14,000 French soldiers were outnumbered by Giap’s 65,000 Vietnamese troops. “Beatrice” was captured and French attacks were repulsed. “Gabrielle” was taken the next day as did “Anne-Marie.” The French were pushed closer and closer together, relying on troop reinforcements and supplies from air. “Elaine” and “Dominique” were captured on March 30th after bloody assaults from both sides. A French attack at “Elaine” did not surmount to anything, nor did breakout attempts at “Huguette.” With the situation dire, the French chose to fight to the last instead of surrender, but many, including Castries, chose to flee to Laos. Over 11,000 French troops were captured.
The war finished with the 1954 Geneva Conference, separating Vietnam into the Communist North and Republican South. To learn more on Vietnam, feel free to watch Burns’ excellent series on PBS.