Book Review: The Last Battle

Peter Hart’s new book, The Last Battle, is a study of the concluding months of the First World War. Beginning at the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, Hart takes readers through the dying days of the war and reveals its ferocity and brutality even with hours before armistice. I was wildly impressed with this book and enjoyed it much more than I originally thought.

Praise:

Hart’s use of quotes is fantastic and there is rarely a page without one. The large number of quotes paint a great picture of the soldiers’ experiences. Many of the quotes are from British troops, but it includes a number of Commonwealth troops. American, French, and German perspectives also add to the book. Since Hart is an oral historian, he knows how to use quotations perfectly in his books. If you have read Gallipoli, you will not be dissapointed. here are a few maps included of certain battles as well as an overview of Flanders in Sept. 1918. Hart includes the sectors of each individual army and breaks it down by division. Chapter 1 is very useful since it reviews the effects of Operation Michael (Kaiserschlacht) on the Western Front. A casualty list gives readers an idea of how costly this war has proven. A lot of people would assume this book is about the infantry. The book includes a large number of sources from artillery and air units, including vivid descriptions of dogfights and devastating air crashes. This book gives you a feeling, something not many history books do. When you know a war is drawing to an end, each lost life you read about hurts just a bit more. Men die with weeks, days, hours, even minutes before peace. It feels horrible when you know somebody is so close to being safe and returning home to their mothers, wives, and children.

Criticism:

I have little criticism about this book, but the main thing is the lack of German or French sources. There are a decent number, but a few more wouldn’t hurt at all. The maps were VERY confusing at first thanks to complex objective lines, but there’s a key so it’s not as bad as it sounds.

Rating:

5/5

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Grenada 1983: The Overlooked Invasion

Grenada- a small island nation near Venezuela which only gained her independence in 1974. In the early 1980s, the tiny country was the subject of immense controversy after a US-led invasion and disposal of the new Cuban-supported government. Grenada was headed by Prime Minister Maurice Bishop ever since he led a revolution to establish a People’s Government. Bishop was assassinated in a military coup a week before the invasion, and the nation was thrown into disarray. The US invaded to fulfill the Truman Doctrine and prevent the USSR from building airstrips on the island, but the invasion itself gained global attention since Grenada was a former British colony.

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American paratroopers leading away captured Grenadans.

President Ronald Reagan ordered a force of 2,000 troops to invade the island on October 26th in what is called Operation ‘Urgent Fury’. The USSR immediately jumped in on the situation, saying the US attack was a breach of international law and an act of terrorism. Grenada’s army was small and armed with little anti-air weaponry. They had a few BTR-60 APCs but no tanks. The 82nd Airborne landed and captured a large portion of their objectives, while the 75th Rangers captured and secured a LZ. The 8th Marines Regiment attacked and captured another airport and helped the US forces claim victory on the first day of the invasion. 2 Americans were killed and another 23 were wounded.

US troops had little intelligence and had to improvise constantly in order to secure positions against the Grenadan and Cuban forces. US Navy SEALS failed to take their objectives, attacking wrong buildings and becoming mixed up due to a lack of maps. The advancing American troops had no idea of the number of forces they were facing, and assumed they were heavily outnumbered by Cuban troops.

On the 27th, the US 2/325th attacked Cuban positions at Calliste, where they managed to capture a large number of weapons. This ended the Cuban forces’ ability to counter the American invaders since a large portion of their equipment was lost. Meanwhile, US Rangers safely transported over 200 American students offshore in fear of the citizens getting killed in the fighting. Marines continued to push inland the next morning and pushed Grenadan troops back while bombing runs from planes of the USS Independence strafed the enemy positions. Missiles from the USS Clifton Sprague and support from the destroyers USS Caron, Koontz, and Moosbrugger ended the resistance from Grenadan forces. 19 Americans were killed.

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American MPs standing over captured weapons.

The United Kingdon, headed by Margaret Thatcher, was furious that Reagan had attacked a member of the Commonwealth without consent. Democrat members of the US Congress disagreed with Reagan. Sen. Lawton Chiles asked if the US was “looking for a war to win?” While Democrats primarily disagreed with the invasion, Republicans supported it. Senator John Tower said “the island is strategically located and a Marxist presence there is not in our national interest.” Conflict in Congress and pressure from the UK for an explanation prompted Reagan to apologize to Thatcher later as a result of miscommunication on his part. Grenada still celebrates the invasion to this day, even though most Americans don’t remember nor learn about it.

This is a list of the American servicemen who died in Grenada:

Kenneth J. Butcher                                     Mark A. Rademacher

Randy Cline                                                 Michael F. Ritz

Gary L. Epps                                                Russell L. Robinson

John P. Giguere                                           Robert R. Schamberger

Philip S. Grenier                                         Jeb F. Seagle

Kevin J. Lannon                                          J.R. Sharver

Keith J. Lucas                                              Stephen E. Slater

Keven E. Lundberg                                    Stephen L. Morris

Marlin R. Maynard

HMS Macedonian vs USS United States

Painters have a fascination with the ocean. Monet’s “La Terasse de St.-Adresse”, Gericault’s “Raft of the Medusa”, and Turner’s “The Fighting Temerarie” all illustrate the sea’s crashing waves, ships tossing about, and the serenity of the water. Some paintings are of war, and the combination of these two themes create masterpieces. This painting, by Thomas Chambers, is “Capture of H.B.M Frigate Macedonian by U.S. Firgate United States, October 25, 1812.” It is time to explore both the art and the history behind Chambers’ piece.

Capture of H.B.M. Frigate Macedonian by U.S. Frigate United States, October 25, 1812

The painting is in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C. on a wall in the second floor corridor. Painted in 1852, the image shows a duel between HMS Macedonian and the USS United States, early in the War of 1812. First we must understand the background to the piece. The War of 1812 began on the seas as the US and Britain became involved in a series of disputes over impressment. The United States’ claims to parts of Canada and the Franco-American sympathies helped turn the tide and war was declared in 1812. The USS United States was the first American frigate ever built, ordered in March of 1794. The ship’s captain, Stephen Decatur, allegedly made a bet with the commander of the Macedonian, John Carden, in Norfolk, Virginia. If the two were to meet in battle, Carden owed Decatur his beaver-felt hat. The United States was sent to patrol North Africa where it came into contact with the Macedonian off the Azores.

USS United States had a strong advantage over HMSMacedonian in its firepower. Most of the United States’ guns were 24-pounders, while HMS Macedonian was equipped with primarily 18-pounders. The United States also had six more guns and was a larger, more-powerful ship. The United States‘ broadsides riddled the British frigate at a long range and demasted the ship. Carden surrendered his ship after suffering some 100 casualties. The Macedonian was the first British ship to be bested by an American ship and the first to be returned to an American port (Newport, Rhode Island). HMS Macedonian was recommissioned as USS Macedonian and served until 1824.

Carden and the Macedonian

The close-up above shows Capt. John Carden of HMS Macedonian announcing his surrender to the United States with a loudhailer as the American ship fires a broadside into the Macedonian‘s hull. The sails next to him are covered in holes from the shot. It is important to note the damages around the ship as the USS United States fired about seventy broadsides. Chambers’ painting shows the ship in a much better state than it would have been. Many of the crew on both side are on deck, but on the United States, they would have been below decks firing the broadside illustrated.

USS United States

The whisps of smoke are my favourite part of this painting. Think how difficult it is to paint smoke and even show the wooden hull behind it. The American crew cheers from the deck and further to the right stands Decatur, responding to Carden over the roar of the cannon. Notice how the American ship is in the light of victory. Chambers was born in England, but moved to the United States where he would paint this in 1852. It is interesting to see where his loyalties lie.

While this painting is not as famous as “The Coronation of Napoleon” which I previously reviewed , it is still a very intriguing painting as it shows the different aspects of naval combat and the differences between each nation’s ships in one of the first naval engagements of the War of 1812.

The US in World War I

This was a paper that I wrote last year for school but I have edited it to suit the blog better. I hope you enjoy it because I spent around two months researching:

The great European powers had fought a bloody struggle for three years prior to the United States joined the First World War. When the US declared war in 1917, their military was in a shambles and was completely unprepared for a modern war. In 1916, their army numbered around 100,000 men, an insignificant number compared to the European nations. However, the US’ involvement in the First World War allowed them to complete a necessary transition to modern war by learning lessons they would implement in later conflicts.

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Americans on the march

The last major war the United States had been involved in before 1914 was the Civil War, which cost the country around 600,000 lives. The tactics of that time were up-to-date for the Crimean War (1853-56) and were of ‘Napoleonic’ style. meaning troops would march in long lines towards one another and pour volleys into each other. These battles were preferably fought on open ground and discipline of formation was crucial. These tactics were severely outdated by World War 1.

By 1914, the US had been involved in two small wars: the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection. The Spanish-American War ended quickly, as the US defeated both the Spanish Army and Navy in Cuba and the Philippines. However, most fighting was conducted by the US Navy, so the infantry gained little experience. On the battlefields of France in 1917, an experienced navy would provide no advantage. A Filipino named Emilio Aguinaldo led a rebellion in the US-occupied Philippines, and the war lasted from 1899 to 1902. The US Army finally had its chance, but was shockingly defeated in the jungles in one of the most brutal wars in American history.

In 1914, Gavrilo Princip, a young Serbian student, assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Hercegovina, sparking a conflict that would span the globe. The US tried her best to avoid war, but John Keegan describes what forced a break in their neutrality:

“Two events changed America’s outlook. The first was a German clumsy approach to Mexico, proposing an alliance, baited with the offer to return Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, if America went to war against Germany; this [was the] ‘Zimmerman Telegram’ […] The second was Germany’s decision to resume the unrestricted U-Boat campaign: sinking merchant shipping without warning in international waters.”

On April 6th, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany; the US had officially entered World War I. Wilson was reluctant to join the Entente after the American debacle in the Philippines, but he was eventually forced into doing so as a way to ‘preserve democracy.’ Yet Germany had little reason to be afraid of the US since the American forces were lacking drastically in quality compared to the German war machine.

German suspicions were right; the US Army was in no position to fight a European war. The German Naval Minister, Eduard von Capelle, derided the US by saying, “They will not even come because our submarines will sink them. Thus from a military point of view means nothing, and again nothing, and for a third time nothing.” The Americans mustered in just 107,641 men in 1917, surmounting to the 17th smallest army in the world. Their army was less in number than Belgium, who had been wiped aside by the Schlieffen Plan in 1914. The Germans had twenty times that number on the Western Front alone, with more arriving in late 1917 thanks to the Russian Civil War and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. The only American troops of quality were the Marine Corps, spread thinly across Central America, Cuba, the Phillippines, and Guam. They only numbered 15,000 men.

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John J. Pershing

Wilson appointed John J. Pershing as commander of the new American Expeditionary Force (AEF), but even Pershing’s tactics were outdated, as he had graduated from West Point in 1886. The tactics he had learned were of the Civil War, and would be of no use in Europe. If American troops had gone into the First World War like this, they would have suffered tremendously. In 1914, French troops tried this tactic at Mulhouse, suffering horrifying casualties and in just two months, had lost 200,000 men. Pershing’s needs for the AEF were simple: he wanted 3 million men in France, to fight on the offensive, and absolutely no Anglo-French intervention.

When the first American troops arrived in France in June 1917, the Entente forces had varying opinions of the men who had come to their aid. Lieutenant R.G. Dixon of the British Army first spotted the American troops and recalled them as being “infantry, all wearing very broad-brimmed hats, and marching in a very sloppy manner from Poperinghe. We sat up and gawped at them.” Dixon’s first encounter with an American officer did not impress either, as the attitude of the Americans was far from what they expected. The American is quoted as scoffing “Say Buddy, how far is it to this lil’ old shootin’ gallery of yours?”  The French, on the other hand, were more welcoming to the AEF. Lieutenant Charles Chenu lauded “we fought alongside them, admired them, loved them.”

The Entente powers influenced America to adopt new uniforms. The US Army in the Spanish-American War wore a blue tunic with khaki or light-blue pants, a wide-brimmed hat, and leather boots. By WW1, the uniform had changed drastically to conform to modern styles. They wore an olive-drab tunic and pants, puttees, a steel helmet, and leather boots. The new uniform provided better camouflage than the blue Americans had worn since the Continental Army of 1776, and the helmet protected the wearer from shrapnel. The US also changed their weaponry and technology prior to the war. The M1903 Springfield was sent into action, replacing the complex breech-loaders that preceded them. Machine guns were also produced. They used the French Chauchat, the US-made Hotchkiss, and sometimes Lewis guns. Artillery also underwent drastic changed, as the French 75mm field gun replaced muzzle-loading cannon. Tanks and airplanes came into production as well, and some American pilots, like Eddie Rickenbacker, made their names as aces on the Western Front.

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‘The First Muster’ by Don Troiani

The Americans began fighting in Eastern France in 1918 at the Battle of Belleau Wood, with the USMC leading the attack. On September 10, the US fought independently against German forces at St. Mihiel. Their combined army assault on Pannes ant Bois de Thiacourt ended superbly with the Renault tanks and American infantry capturing their objectives with ease. Their final major test was the Battle of Meuse-Argonne which lasted from September 26, to November 11 , 1918. The battle began with a 3,980-gun barrage, inspired by the British. The terrain was horrific and a nightmare for organisation, as some pockets of American troops (ex. ‘The Lost Battalion’) became cut off in the brush. The flexibility of US troops in the Argonne was key, and if they had not been able to adapt, it is certainly possible they would have suffered a defeat. Hunter Liggett’s I Corps pushed German forces across the Meuse River, allowing the troops time to lick their wounds. 50,300 men lost their lives and 65,000 died of disease in the campaign. The First World War had given America a costly, yet necessary, experience of modern war.

Thanks to the technology and tactics that had been developed in WW1, the US had a much better grasp of the realities of modern war. In 1926, the US invaded Nicaragua and had a chance to flaunt their new strategies in the field. The USMC was used to begin an attack, just like in Belleau Wood. The key to success in Nicaragua was flexibility, which had been developed in the Argonne forest. One US company managed to march around 30 miles in one day. The fighting in the jungles of Nicaragua was a direct result of the style of warfare that developed in the Battle of Meuse-Argonne, and it would be implemented again in Melanesia, Guadalcanal, and Vietnam.

In 1939, World War II broke out, but this time, America was prepared to be involved. President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed the Selective Service Act in 1940 in an attempt to gather more forces in case of involvement. In 1940, the army numbered 269,000 men, and the next year, the ranks swelled to 1.4 million. US troops engaged enemy forces in small squads, utilizing machine guns to increase firepower. Combined arms attacks in Italy and France proved to be very successful, as were the USMC in the Pacific. WWII also saw a great increase in tanks and aircraft in lieu of their resounding success in the First World War.

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Meuse-Argonne Cemetery 

The US involvement in the First World War allowed them to undergo a major transition from the old 19th century style of warfare to the style of modern war. The uniforms of American troops changed drastically from a traditional blue to a practical drab. Helmets and new weapons were introduced as well altered tactics with more stringent rules on formations which maximized the soldier’s effectiveness. The involvement also was important in saving the lives of millions of young American men. The truth is that the Americans would have been butchered in France if they had not adapted to modern war. Though thousands gave their lives for their country, the involvement in the First World War changed warfare for the United States and later led to the saving of millions of lives.

Sources:

Bonk, David. St. Mihiel 1918. Long Island, NY: Osprey Publishing. 2011.

Boot, Max. The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power. New York. Basic Books, 2002.

Farwell, Byron. Over There: The United States in the Great War, 1917-18. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000.

Keegan, John. The First World War. New York: Vintage Books, 1998.

Lloyd, Nick. Hundred Days: The Campaign that Ended World War I. New York: Basic Books, 2014.

Neidell, Indiana. “The USA Before Joining World War 1: The Great War Special.” Youtube. Nov. 9 206. Web. Jan. 26, 2017.

Osburn, Patrick and Marc Romanych. The Hindenburg LineNew York: Osprey Pulishing, 2016

Yockelson, Mitchell. Forty-Seven Days. New York: New American Library, 2016.

Votaw, John. The American Expeditionary Forces in World War I. Long Island, NY: Osprey Publshing, 2005.

Historical Field Trip: The First Day at Gettysburg

The Battle of Gettysburg was the largest battle fought on American soil and the turning point of the American Civil War. The small farm town in Pennsylvania erupted into a clash between hundreds of thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers. Many people simply known of the famed “Pickett’s Charge” on July 3rd or the fighting at Little Round Top on July 2nd. The day before was even more vital to the battle than the others, organizing positions, creating command problems, and yielded a massive amount of casualties.

1. Buford’s Cavalry

Brigadier General John Buford, commanding the Union’s 1st Cavalry Division ran into Henry Heth’s division early on July 1st and began to delay their advance while awaiting reinforcements. Gamble, Devin, and Merritt held off attacks by Archer’s brigade while Buford surveyed the land. Holding their position on McPherson’s ridge, the Union cavalry desperately put up a fight against the Confederate infantry streaming down the Chambersburg Pike. Look at Buford’s statue along the road as he looks up the road with his field glasses. One of the four cannon barrels at his feet has a small plaque showing that it fired the first shot of the battle.

2. “For God’s Sake Forward!”

Finally at about 9:30 in the morning, Buford’s weary cavalry saw the flags of James Wadsworth’s division of John Reynolds’ 1st Corps from the South. The cavalry dropped back as the infantry sped into the gap to repel the Confederates. Davis’ brigade arrived and placed even more pressure on the Union. General Reynolds ordered forward the legendary Iron Brigade, an elite unit of troops from Michigan and Wisconsin. The brigade hurled themselves against Archer’s brigade in Herbst Woods. Reynolds was struck by a Confederate bullet and fell off his horse. Abner Doubleday replaced the dead general. Trek up Reynolds Avenue and find his marker on the edge of the woods. The Pennsylvania native lends his name to the woods now, as many refer to it as Reynolds’ Woods. The Iron Brigade’s memorials are on the other side of the woods.

Monument on the spot where Reynolds fell. He is buried in Lancaster, PA.

3. The Railroad Cut

While the battle for Herbst Woods raged, three Union regiments rushed to cover their flank on the other side of the Chambersburg Pike. As Mississippians and North Carolinians under Davis slid down into an unfinished railroad bed, the Union troops charged their positions. Suffering one casualty for every foot they advanced, the troops were presented with a murderous Confederate fire. The 6th Wisconsin of the Iron Brigade, which had separated from the rest of its brigade, jumped into the cut and a fierce hand-to-hand battle ensued until the Confederates fell back. The railroad is now complete and operational, but is hardly ever used. You can go into the cut from the side. Feel free to charge down like the Union troops and when you’re in there, look at how exposed the Union troops were to volleys from the defenders.

The Railroad Cut

4. Oak Ridge

Continue north towards the metal observation tower. This is Oak Ridge where Union forces were pushed back by Gen. Richard S. Ewell’s Corps. Edward O’Neal and Alfred Iverson’s brigades attacked Doubleday’s Corps along the hill on what is now Doubleday Avenue. Robert Rhodes’ Confederate division continued to pound Union forces here until about 5 PM when the Union centre collapsed under constant attacks from Brockenborough, Pettigrew, and Scales. Doubleday gave up the defense of the ridge and rushed back towards Cemetery Ridge. Climb the tower to get a view of the Union positions on the hill and back towards the center of their lines.

View towards the town from Oak Ridge. This is the Confederate point of view as they marched to the town of Gettysburg.

5. Barlow’s Knoll

A young Union division commander, Francis Barlow, placed his troops along a small hill jutting out from their lines. These were the lead elements of Oliver Howard’s XI Corps made up of mostly Polish and German immigrants from Ohio and Pennsylvania. Rhodes sent Doles’ brigade north to fight them, as Barlow’s division was too far forward to be supported. Hays and Gordon’s brigades slammed into Barlow’s position and the Union brigades routed under pressure from the attack. Francis Barlow was wounded and paralysed from the legs down as his troops streamed through the town of Gettysburg. Left on the battlefield, Barlow needed help until Gen. John Gordon spotted him. Gordon got Barlow a litter and helped tend to him and the two would become great friends after the war finished.

Union guns had a stellar position on top of Cemetery Ridge

6.Cemetery Hill

Union troops fell back through Gettysburg as the Confederates chased them. Howard’s XI Corps found a position on Cemetery Hill by the Evergreen Cemetery but still struggled to organize a solid resistance to Ewell’s Corps. The timely arrival of Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps provided much needed assistance for Howard and the Union managed to form a solid defensive line. Hancock took position on the hill while Howard drifted towards Culp’s Hill. Cemetery Ridge would mark the center of the Union line for the rest of the battle.

“Seemed to arrest fortune with one glance”: The Battle of Monmouth

October 13th marks the birthday of one of America’s most famous folk heroes- Molly Pitcher. Mary Ludwig Hays, as she was really named, is remembered for her alleged actions at the Battle of Monmouth Court House in New Jersey during the American Revolution. How did Hays get her nickname, and why is Monmouth one of the war’s most important battles?

In June 1778, the British army under General Sir Henry Clinton had been ordered to move its troops to New York after spending the winter camped in Philadelphia. After the defeat at Saratoga, the British wanted to secure a position in the north again. Seeing their opportunity, Generals George Washington and Harry Lee launched an attack on the rear of Clinton’s force in Monmouth, New Jersey, on June 28th. The blazing sun beat down on the Continental troops who had been training at Valley Forge to compete as an army on the open field thanks to assistance from Baron von Steuben, a former Prussian officer. Heat was estimated at 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37 Celsius) with high humidity, no weather to fight a battle in.

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Washington ahead of the Continental Line

Lee was ordered to lay in wait along the Middletown Road for the British column to pass by. This would have allowed Washington to assault Clinton’s main force while the reserves were preoccupied. However, Lee’s attack was poorly coordinated and the Americans were smashed back by British forces, outraging Washington. The rest of the Continental troops arrived to support Lee’s broken forces, rallying on the high ridge next to Monmouth Court House. Washington placed Lee’s troops in command of the Marquis de Lafayette. Generals Greene, Wayne, and Sirling’s divisions held the heights while the British forces prepared to attack.

The American artillery stunned the British troops advancing to attack Stirling’s division and they were soon beaten back in a counterattack. An assault on Greene’s troops failed, but Wayne’s division broke. The heat quickly winded many soldiers on both sides as artillery and musketry whizzed back and forth.

As the story goes, William Hays, a member of the 4th Continental Artillery, collapsed of heat exhaustion. His wife, Mary, stepped up and immediately filled his position at the gun, continuing to fire the cannon in his place. Mary was nicknamed “Molly Pitcher” as she and the Continentals kept the battle raging on. A British musket ball zipped through her skirt, missing her body, and she resumed firing. Joseph Plumb Martin, whose diaries survived and recounted the events of an average soldier in the continental army, confirmed the incident. Molly Pitcher went down in history as one of America’s most important and recognizable women.

Molly Pitcher
Mary Ludwig Hays fighting against the British

By 6PM, the British decided to end the day and fall back. Though a few generals wanted to chase them, George Washington refused and held the heights in case of British attack the next day. The Americans had suffered about 700 casualties and the British, the same number. Washington’s trust in Lee severely deteriorated after the battle, and many called for his sacking. Cries of treason tainted Lee’s reputation.

The question arises who actually won the Battle of Monmouth. While the Americans drove the British from the field, they suffered heavy casualties and their line broke in the centre. The early morning failure of Lee did drag in Washington to fight a different battle that intended, and tainted one of the more important generals in the Continental Army. The British suffered as many casualties, and were forced to march off the field. However, they still made their way towards New York and and also managed to defeat Lee’s initial attack. The battle is certainly up for debate, but most credit the victory to the Americans, as this was their first open battle against the British.

Indochine: The Kindling for Vietnam (Part 1)

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.

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Battle of Kep, 1884

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.

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French Admiral de Genouilly

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.

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The Battle of Bac Ninh

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.

French troops during the Sino-French War

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.