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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Apr 10, 2023

Last time we spoke about Francis Garnier and his wild expedition in Vietnam. Yes against all his superiors orders, Garnier decided to grab a few of the boys and sail up river to threaten and steal territories for France. He first struck at the grand city of Hanoi, taking it much to the shock of the Nguyen officials. But he did not stop there oh no, he then set his eyes upon the provinces of Hung Yen and Phu Ly. Both were taken with shockingly small forces, but Garnier strived for even more and dispatched a force to take Hai Duong. Then he found out the Vietnamese at Ninh Binh were forming an army to fight him so he attacked it. This greatly pissed off the Vietnamese and their Black Flag Army allies who attacked Hanoi and in the process Garnier died charging into the enemy like a madman. Today we continue the story of how France colonized Indochina.


#43 The Tonkin Campaign


Welcome to the Fall and Rise of China Podcast, I am your dutiful host Craig Watson. But, before we start I want to also remind you this podcast is only made possible through the efforts of Kings and Generals over at Youtube. Perhaps you want to learn more about the history of Asia? Kings and Generals have an assortment of episodes on history of asia and much more  so go give them a look over on Youtube. So please subscribe to Kings and Generals over at Youtube and to continue helping us produce this content please check out If you are still hungry for some more history related content, over on my channel, the Pacific War Channel where I cover the history of China and Japan from the 19th century until the end of the Pacific War.

Now last we spoke, Henri Riviere basically took up the mantle of Francis Garnier and began to seize territory in Tonkin against his nation's wishes. That was of course until the government changed and the new administration led by Jules Ferry were very pro colonization and immediately supported Riviere. 

Now Rivieres actions had caused a real maestrum for the Nguyen empire. Liu Yongfu went to Hanoi and slapped a note against the citadel on March 26th of 1883 threatening to kill Henri Riviere, taunting the french into battle. This scared the hell out of the Nguyen court who expected Riviere to unleash hell so they ordered prince Hoang Ke Viem to go seek out the Black Flag Army to see what could be done. Hoang Ke Viem was sent under the guise he was trying to move the Black Flag forces away from Hanoi, but Riviere did not buy it at all. Riviere sent a letter to Hanoi’s military commander Hoang Dieu, demanding he submit or get rid of the Black Flags, otherwise he would yet again attack Hanoi. Hoang Dieu simply stated it was impossible for him to do so. Thus Riviere and his forces occupied Hanoi by April 26th, further stressing out the Nguyen court who desperately sent envoys to negotiate with France. Meanwhile Hoang Ke Viem saw the paint on the wall and began to mobilize forces in the northern provinces for war.

During the negotiations with the French, Riviere demanded the French be allowed to garrison at Son Tay, but the Nguyen court said they could not, it was in fact because the Black Flags were there. Rivier took this as an act of hostility and began to suspect Hoang Ke Viem was working directly with the Black Flags. Things were however not looking good for Riviere, he had very limited forces and was forced to go on the defensive. The Nguyen court then ordered Hoang Ke Viem to write a letter to the French in Hanoi to officially explain the role of the Black Flags, in the vain hope of regaining Hanoi free of conflict. Despite all of this Hoang Ke Viem and the Black Flags mobilized for battle.

On March 28th, in response to Liu Yongfu’s taunting, Riviere elected to go out and fight the enemy. Why would he do this with basically under 500 men against thousands? According to the French, Riviere was forced to do so to protect the prestige of France, so he led a column of 450 troops out of Hanoi’s citadel to face the Black Flag Army who had taken a position in Phy Hoai, just a few miles away. His force was soon discovered by Liu Yongfu’s scouts who set up an ambush at a village called Cau Giay. Within this village was a bridge, known to the french as Pont de Papier “Paper bridge”. The Black Flag forces hid themselves west of the bridge in the village of Trung Thong, Thien Thong and Ha Yen Ke. These 3 smaller villages were covered in thick bamboo groves and trees making them excellent spots to perform an ambush.

The French column reached the Paper bridge around 7:30am led at the ron by the Chef de Bataillon Berthe de Villers. As they crossed the bridge, the French vanguard was suddenly fired upon by Black Flag troops prompting Berthe de Villers to deploy his men into a line formation and push forward towards the 3 villages. Liu Yongfu waited for the enemy line to fully commit, then tossed in his reserves, launching a sudden flank attack to the French’s right. The Black Flag flank’s volleys caused tremendous casualties upon the french, mortally wounding Berthe de Villers, forcing Riviere to assume direct command of the column. To avoid encirclement, Riviere ordered his men to pull back and regroup on the other side of Paper bridge. The retreat was conducted initially in good order, being covered by artillery support, but then disaster struck. Suddenly their artillery cannons overturned by the force of their recoil fire, prompting Riviere and some officers to rush forward to help the gunners allowing the Black Flag to unleash some deadly volleys. The volley’s killed some French officers and wounded Riviere, and upon seeing this the Black Flag Soldiers surged forward to attack the French rearguard. During the mayhem Riviere was killed, and almost complete catastrophe occurred for the French forces, until Lt De Vaisseau Pissere took command and pulled the men to the eastern side of the bridge. The Black Flag were finally pushed back and the French column was forced to limp back to Hanoi. The French had lost 5 officers, 30 men and had 55 wounded. The Black Army were estimated to have lost 50 dead and perhaps 50 wounded out of a total of 1500 men.

In the greater scheme of things, it was a small battle, but it had a significant effect. Aside from the loss of face for France and death of Riviere, it prompted action from the new government of France. Jules Ferry’s administration received word of the loss and Rivieres death on May 26th and it was met with outrage. French Naval minister Admiral Peyron declared “'France will avenge her glorious children!' His words would be echoed in the Chamber of Deputies for they immediately tossed 3.5 million france to finance a punitive expedition to Tonkin. The Tonkin Expeditionary corps were established in June of 1883 sent primarily to pacify Tonkin. They were led by General de Brigade Alexandre-Eugene Bouet, the most senior marine infantry officer close on hand, that being in Cochinchina. Bouet began his new mission by changing the attire of his forces, introduced lightweight black pyjama style summer uniforms, with some added black cloth to cover their white pith helmets. The idea behind this was simple, try not to stand out like a sore thumb so much in the jungle. Bouet arrived to Tonkin to find their position pretty precarious. The French only had small garrisons in Hanoi, Nam Dinh, Haiphong and very isolated small outposts in Hon Gai and Qui Nhon. Thus for the month of June he had the men dig in and perform defensive actions, sporadically being harassed by Vietnamese and Black Flag forces. Bouet needed to wait for reinforcements and decided to hire some local Yellow Flags. I have not mentioned them, but the Yellow Flag’s were basically the same type of force as the Black FLag’s, Chinese bandits who crossed over the border after the Taiping Rebellion. The Vietnamese government initially began to support the Yellow Flags to fight off the Black Flags, but as time went on the Black Flag’s pretty much beat the shit out of the Yellow flags, excuse my French. Bouet would allegedly hire 800 Yellow Flag members to augment his forces. 

In late july Bouet received reinforcements when Admiral Amedee Courtbet arrived to Ha Long Bay giving the French around 2500 infantry, 6 gunboats and some artillery pieces to work with. Bouet knew with these forces he could perform some offensive campaigns against the Black Flag Army, but he also was under orders to push for a political settlement with the Nguyen empire to recognize the French protectorate in Tonkin. Bouet and Courtbet met with Jules Harmand the new civil commissioner general for Tonkin to discuss war plans. The 3 men agreed that Bouet should launch an offensive against the Black Flag Army in Phu Hoai as a first action. They also noted that Rivieres suspicions about the Nguyen working with the Black Flags covertly was most likely true, therefore they decided to also strike against the Vietnamese forces as well. This was a significant escalation as attacking the Nguyen army forces could provoke the Qing dynasty. 

The first thing to be done was sail up the Hue river, but in order to do so the French would need to seize the Thuan An forts guarding its entrance. Admiral Courtbet took his flagship Bayard out on august 16th to scout the forts while his flotilla assembled. Courtbet would have the ironclad Bayard and Atalante, the cruiser Chateaurenault and gunboats Vipere, Lynx and armed transport Drac and Annamite. On August the 18th the flotilla got into position at the entrance of the Hue river. A delegation was sent in advance to the Nguyen officials to demand the surrender of the forts, but the fort commander declined to respond. At 5:40pm the French ships began to open fire, met by return fire from the forts. The bombardment lasted only an hour, until it got dark and the ships had to turn on their electric searchlights to illuminate the forts. Dawn the next day the ships recommenced bombardment devastating the forts, though the Nguyen return fire did manage to strike their ships a few times. On August the 20th, 2 marine companies were landed near the northern fort led by Captain Parrayon of the ship Bayard. The Vietnamese trench line troops fired upon the invaders. After and hour of fighting, Parrayon seized the northern fort and raised the French flag. 

After taking this fort the French turned their attention to the southern fort and began to bombard it and prepared marines to land. It was all for nothing however as the defenders had abandoned the fort and nearby village while the northern fort was under attack. The casualties for the Nguyen forces were heavy, with some outrageous estimates ranging up to 2000. Enseigne de vaisseau Louis-Marie-Julian Viaud served under Admiral Courbet aboard the Atalante and he wrote extensively of the Tonkin campaign under the pen name Pierre Loti. He wrote about the battle of Thuan An, giving accounts of atrocities committed by the French forces. He would later be recalled by the French navy and suspended from duty for publishing such works, here is a passage about the aftermath of the battle

The great slaughter now began. Our men fired double volleys, and it was a pleasure to see their streams of well-aimed bullets shredding the enemy ranks, surely and methodically, twice a minute, on the word of command... We could see some men, quite out of their senses, standing up, seized with a dizzy desire to run... They zigzagged, swerving this way and that way as they tried to outrun death, clutching their garments around their waists in a comical way... Afterwards, we amused ourselves by counting the dead…

Pierre Loti spoke of how the French marines took pleasure bayoneting wounded Vietnamese troops, slaughtering the clearly outgunned men.

The seizure of the forts shocked the Nguyen court and an 48 hour armistice was quickly agreed upon. The Nguyen court agreed immediately to evacuate 12 inland forts defending the Hue river, destroyed their ammunition and removed barrages. Jules Harmand sailed up the Hue river to meet directly with the Nguyen court where he threatened them with complete annihilation unless they accepted a French protectorate over both Tonkin and Annam. This is what he said to them

If we wanted to, we could destroy your dynasty root and branch and seize for ourselves the entire kingdom, as we have done in Cochinchina. You know very well that this would present no difficulty to our armies. For a moment, you hoped to find help from a great empire on your borders, which has on several occasions posed as your suzerain. But even if such a suzerainty ever existed, and whatever the consequences that might once have resulted from it, it is now nothing but a historical curiosity. Now here is a fact which is quite certain. You are completely at our mercy. We have the power to seize and destroy your capital and to starve you all to death. It is up to you to choose between war and peace. We do not wish to conquer you, but you must accept our protectorate. For your people, it is a guarantee of peace and prosperity. For your government and your court, it is the only chance of survival. We give you forty-eight hours to accept or reject, in their entirety and without discussion, the terms which we are magnanimously offering you. We believe that there is nothing in them dishonourable to you, and if they are carried out with sincerity on both sides they will bring happiness to the people of Annam. But if you reject them, you can expect to suffer the most terrible of misfortunes. The worst catastrophe you are capable of imagining will fall far short of what will actually befall you. The empire of Annam, its royal dynasty and its princes and court will have voted for their own extinction. The very name of Vietnam will be erased from history.”

The Nguyen court, cowed to this on August 25th by signing the Treaty of Hue. The treaty forced the Nguyen empire to recognize the French protector for both Tonkin and Annam. The Nguyen court would survive, but now had to take direction from  French advisors. The Nguyen Emperor would be required to take personal audience with the French commissioner general in Tonkin, a unprecedented thing for them. And in return for all of this, the French would drive out the Black Flags, something they were already doing. 

Now while Admiral Courbet slammed the Nguyen forces at Thuan An, General Bouet led the offensive against Liu Yongfu’s Black Flag army. He led 2500 French and Vietnamese troops augmented by a further 450 Yellow Flag members. His force was divided into 3 columns, the left led by Lt Colonel Revillon consisting of marines, Cochinchinese riflement, 2 artillery sections and the Yellow Flag battalion. The central column led by Chef de bataillon Paul Coronnat consisted of a marine battalion, a marine artillery battery and some Cochinchinese riflemen. Finally the right column was led by Colonel Bichot consisting of a marine infantry battalion, a artillery battery and more Cochinchinese riflement. 

Bichot took his column along the Red river where 6 French gunboats could support his movements. Bouet took a reserve force and marched behind Revillons column as they went to Phu Hoai. Liu Yongfu’s Black Flag army consisted of around 3000 men who he had position 2 lines of field fortifications blocking the roads going to Son Tay. The first line was near the village of Cau Giay where Riviere had died on paper bridge and the second was close behind it defending the approach to the villages of Phu Noai, Noi and Hong.

As Revillon’s left column tried to attack the right side of the Black Flag first line they were quickly counterattacked by Liu Yongfu and the bulk of his forces. Revillons men began to run low on ammunition and performed a fighting withdrawal towards the Paper bridge. As they did so their Vietnamese coolies began to panic, nearly causing a rout. However a marine infantry battalion took up a position in the village of Vong and provided cover fire for the withdrawing forces inflicting heavy casualties upon the Black Flag army units who had left their defensive line to pursue them out in the open field. As night was approaching, Bouet tossed his reserves in enabling Revillon to stabilize a line. During the evening, Bouet had not received word from the other 2 columns thus he ordered Revillons column to pull back to Hanoi.

It turned out the other 2 columns had failed to apply enough pressure on the Black Flag line of defenses allowing Liu Yongfu to toss nearly the kitchen sink at Revillons force who were simply more isolated. Coronet’s center column had no even made contact with the enemy at all while Bichots column captured the village of Trem but then became stuck when they ran into the 2nd black flag defensive line. On the night of the 16th of august, Bichots men advanced on the defensive line only to find out the Black Flag units abandoned it during the night, because while all of this was going on, the Red River had begun flooding on august the 15th. The Black Flag army knew more so about the flooding situation in the area and had slowly pulled out. Bichot meanwhile was simply content with occupying their abandoned line and decided not to pursue the enemy which was a huge mistake as the black flag army was actually in quite a disarray from the flooding. The battle of Phu Hoai as it became known resulted in 17 deaths and 62 wounded for the French and perhaps a few hundred deaths and many hundred wounded black flag units. Though the Black Flag army took very heavy casualties, the fact was they had stopped the french advance and thus won a victory. This led to local Tonkinese officials to be quite wary over who was going to win the conflict. 

Now the flooding forced the Black Flag to pull back behind the Day River. They took up new positions around the villages of Phong which lay on the road going to Son Tay and the village of Palan which lay at the junction of the Red and Day rivers. Bouet resolved to attack the black flags again, so now he took his French, Cochinchinese and Yellow flag forces alongside 6 gunboats to hit the village of Palan. On August the 31st he began his offensive by using his gunboats to bombard the village and sent a French battalion to storm Palan. The village was taken with ease as the Black Flag units fled along the dykes away. Then the next day Bouet’s column marched towards Phong along the 2 meter wide dykes running along the bank of the Day River. The column made it 3 kms from Palan where they ran into 1200 or so Black Flag units supported by over 3000 Vietnamese. The Black Flag units were armed with many modern Winchester rifles fighting tenacious giving little ground. The Vietnamese forces meanwhile were not making much of an active resistance and instead beat gongs, drums and made war chants, perhaps sitting on the fence so to say. As the French column pressed forward the Black flags began to pull back to a central defensive line behind earthen works and dykes. Li Yongfu had his HQ in a small pagoda and around his central command were hidden artillery positions well camouflaged. As the French approached the earthen works and dykes the artillery began to fire off causing heavy casualties amongst the French. The French were unable to locate where all the fire was coming from, prompting Bouet to order his gunboats to come closer to bombard the area. However the gunboat shells were soaked by rain and many were failing to explode causing little damage. Eventually Bouet ordered an assault upon the enemy's center. The column marched into a flooded rice paddy wading up to their breast in water and holding their rifles above their heads. The Black Flags from their concealed positions rained hell upon them. Despite the carnage the French pressed forward forcing the defenders to give way from intense fire and soon the Black Flag right wing collapsed towards the center. The French forces took advantage and began charging upon the enemy causing a rout as the Black Flag army fled. The french had roughly 16 dead with almost 50 wounded while the Black flags left 60 dead on the battlefield and probably had several hundred more dead and wounded carried off. 

Bouets men tried to keep orderly conduct, but apparently the Yellow Flag units went around cutting off heads from the corpses and plundering peaceful nearby Vietnamese villages, so Bouet disbanded them. Liu Yongfu retained his army despite the tactical victory for the French, thus from the point of view of his superiors, Bouet had failed. Bouet resigned in early september as a result and would be replaced by Lt Colonel Anicet-Edmon-Justin Bichot, the next high ranking officer in Tonkin. His tenure would be short lived however and consisted of little more than reconnaissance actions, though during these his men did find the remains of Henri Riviere, whose mutilated body had been buried near the village of Kien Mai. From that point on France decided to give Admiral Courbet command over the expeditionary forces.

Courbet would receive significant reinforcements in the form of over 10,000 men led by General Charles Theodore Millot. Courbet was instructed to uphold the primary mission, to annihilate the Black Flag army of Liu Yongfu. However things were about to get a whole lot messier. The Black Flag army had fled to the fortified city of Son Tay and the French had gradually figured out they were being supported by the Qing dynasty. The French had discovered the Qing had sent a large amount of troops over the border pretending to be Black Flag army units.

French foreign minister Paul-Armand Challemel-Lacour had met with the Qing minister Zeng Jize in Paris multiple times in 1883. He attempted to get the Qing to withdraw their covert forces who were garrisoning cities like Bac Ninh, Lang Son and Son Tay. The Qing refused and continuously made excuses. The French tried to speak to the German government to delay their recent sale of the battleships Dingyuan and Zhenyuan to the Qing to pressure them, only to be met with anti-french protests within China. Riots and minor attacks began against French held concessions in Guangzhou.

The French knew, to attack the Black Flag Army further would most likely see a war break out with the Qing. France’s military planners decided if they could launch a lightning storm campaign against the rest of Tonkin and seize it quickly enough, the Qing would likely back down. Thus in december of 1883 Admiral Courbet received authorization to launch a campaign against Liu Yongfu and the Black Flag Army, knowing full well it would probably result in an undeclared war against the Qing dynasty.

I would like to take this time to remind you all that this podcast is only made possible through the efforts of Kings and Generals over at Youtube. Please go subscribe to Kings and Generals over at Youtube and to continue helping us produce this content please check out If you are still hungry after that, give my personal channel a look over at The Pacific War Channel at Youtube, it would mean a lot to me.

The French kept allowing officers to stir up trouble in Vietnam leading to the Tonkin Campaign. Now France was stuck in a war against the Nguyen Empire, the Black Flag Army of Liu Yongfu and soon the Qing dynasty would join in the fun.