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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Apr 17, 2023

Last time we spoke about the beginning of the Tonkin campaign of 1883-1886. Henri Riviere picked up after Garnier and got himself killed on the Paper bridge. In the face of a unauthorized and failed Tonkin Campaign, that should have been the nail in the coffin. But a new administration took hold in France and they were certainly more gung-ho about colonizing southeast asia. General Bouet picked up after Riviere, but he was met with some failure and uninspiring victories. He quit his job and it fell to Admiral Courbet to continue France’s campaign to take all of Tonkin. However to defeat the Black Flag Army of Liu Yongfu was a tricky thing as the Qing were covertly supporting them. France had to decide if she would continue, for if she did it might mean another war against the Qing dynasty.


#44 The Sino-French War of 1884-1885 part 1: Battle of Fuzhou


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.

Admiral Courbet just received reinforcements in the form of 10,000 men, 6 gunboats and orders to attack Liu Yongfu and the Black Flag regardless of how it might drag the Qing dynasty into war. The Black Flag Army had set up camp in the fortified city of Son Tay which lay a few km’s south of the red river. The city fort was in a pentagonal formation with walls 11 feet high, surrounded by a deep moat and within the center was a citadel. The french scouts estimated the fort had well over 100 cannons, this was not going to be a walk in the park as they say. 

Liu Yongfu and the Black Flag Army knew the French would approach Son Tay from the east using their gunboats along the Red River. This was because the Black Flat had hired european engineers in advance to convert the town north of Son Tay blocking its approach into a impregnable strongpoint. Large dykes, water filled ditches, bamboo palisades and trenches surrounded it and offered the Black Flag Army extremely well positioned defensive lines. Thus to take a northern route meant the French would have to take Phu Sa. Liu Yongfu had roughly 3000 veteran Black Flag soldiers , 7000 local vietnamese troops led by Prince Hoang Ke Viem and an additional 1000 Qing troops led by Tang Zhiong. Hoang Ke Viem’s men manned the citadel, Tang Zhiong’s were inside the city and the walls and field were Black Flag Army’s responsibility. 

On the other side, Admiral Courbet deployed 9000 of his men for the campaign against Son Tay, distributed into two columns led by Colonel Belin and Bichot. Belin would lead 3300 men consisting of 2 Turco battalions, 1 marine battalion, some Cochinchinese riflemen, 1 foreign legion battalion, 3 marine artillery batteries and 800 Tonkinese rifleman. Bichot’s group consisted of 3 marine battalions, some Cochinchinese riflemen, a fusilier-marins battalion and 3 artillery batteries. Both columns departed from Hanoi on December 11th. Bichot’s group were transported up the Red River by the 6 gunboats and made it ashore on the western bank of the Day River, where they secured a pathway for Belin’s column to march. By December 13th both columns met up 5 km’s away from the forward defensive lines of Son Tay.

On December 14th the French advanced from the east towards the Phu Sa positions, beating back some Black Flag sorties against their flanks. They opened fire with their artillery for 2 hours upon the Phu Sa gun placements. Then 2 forward battalions seized the most forward defensive position at Phu Sa, but from there they found no way to keep pushing forward. During this action the French had 68 men dead and around 250 wounded. Thus in a single day Courtbet had lost more men that Bouet or Riviere in all their battles put together. 

Liu Yongfu hoped to exploit the French losses by ordering a night raid. This however turned into a disaster and not only did he loss many men to the combat, others began to abandon Phu Sa, fleeing for Son Tay. On the 16th Courbet ordered the men to try and prod Son Tay from the northwest. The French artillery softened up the defense before Coubet personally rode out to the forward position well within the Black Flag Army’s fire range. Courbet led the men to attack the western gate of Son Tay which was demolished by artillery and explosives. Li Yongfu’s men quickly withdrew into the citadel as the French stormed into the city. By this point it seems Liu Yongfu knew it was too dangerous to defend the city so he ordered his men to evacuate under the cover of darkness. The French had suffered 83 deaths and a few hundred wounded while the Black Flag were estimated to have nearly 1000 killed and another 1000 wounded if French sources are ever to be believed. The Vietnamese and Chinese troops had evacuated well in advance of the French storming the city and thus played only a minor role in the battle.

Now the terrible losses the Black Flag did incur had significant consequences going forward. Liu Yongfu felt his men had intentionally been tossed to the lions by the Chinese and Vietnamese and he determined going forward that he would not again expose his army so openly. Liu Yongfu took his army from Son Tay over to Bac Ninh. Now at this point Admiral Courbet officially handed command of the land forces over to General Charles Thoedore Millot. Millot would take command of the 10,000 man force which included 2 Brigade commanders who had recently made their marks so to say in history. General Louis Briere de L’isle, the former governor of Senegal commanded the 1st brigade and the 2nd brigade was commanded by Foreign Legion general Francois de Negrier who had quelled an Arab rebellion in Algeria. 

Now in Bac Ninh the 3000 strong Black Flag Army would have very powerful allies. The Qing governor of Guangxi province, Xu Yanxu was commanding over 20,000 Qing forces with his subordinates Zhao Wo and Huang Guilan. The soldiers were veterans of the Anhui and Xiang armies, ie; Li Hongzhang and Zeng Guofan’s old forces. Half of the Qing forces were deployed along the Mandarin Road southwest of Bac Ninh and the other half were deployed east of Bac Ninh along the Trun son and Dap Cau mountains. General Millot gave each brigade two marching regiments each containing roughly 3 infantry battalions a piece. The 4 commanders of each regiment were Colonels Defoy, Belin, Duchesne and Bertaux-Levillain, interesting last name there haha. Now despite the numerical superiority, the Chinese forces were quite demoralized and Liu Yongfu intentionally was going to keep his Black Flag units out of the real fray of danger, and these factors came out to play in the battle. 

The two brigades were to approach Bac Ninh from two different locations: the first brigade would depart from Hanoi and the 2nd brigade from Hai Duong. Millot’s primary objective was to capture Bac Ninh, but he also hoped to annihilate the Qing forces in the process. To manage this he planned to seize some river crossing around Bac Ninh so the Qing forces would be unable to escape. These crossing were found north of Bac Ninh at Dap Cau and Phu Cam which led to Lang Son and Thai Nguyen respectively. On March 6th, the 1st brigade were ferried from Hanoi up the Red River to land just due south of some Qing defensive lines along the Mandarin Road. On land the 1st brigade marched  along the northern bank to head southeast of Bac Ninh to a village called Chi. Meanwhile the 2nd brigade advanced from Hai Duong going along the southern bank to Song Cau where they attacked some Qing forward positions at Do Son and Ne Ou. While the 2nd brigade met the enemy on land, their gunboat support went around behind the Qing lines close to Phu Lang to begin bombarding them. Upon seeing the French gunboats positioning, the Qing forward units made a withdrawal to Bac Ninh. This allowed the 2nd brigade to occupy some minor forts and gradually move towards Chi to meet up with the 1st brigade.

The 2 brigades united and advanced upon Bac Ninh by March 12th. Forces of the 1st brigade pushed the Qing out of Trung Son while forces of the 2nd brigade seized the village of Xuan Hoa. The Qing made little resistance at these outpost, basically abandoning them when the French came into visual proximity. Then at 4pm the 2nd brigade alongside their gunboat support attacked Dap Cau just east of Bac Ninh. The arrival of the French at Dap Cau threatened the Qing’s left defensive lines. The Qing’s escape routes to Lang Son were being severed off by the seizure of Xuan Hoa, Lang Buoi and now Dap Cau. Thus the only concern the Qing commanders were thinking of was how to quickly withdraw their men to Lang Son before the roads were completely cut off. The Qing resistance began to collapse as a result, morale had dropped and many were routing. The French regimental commanders saw the Qing’s left flank were breaking and believed they could encircle a large part of the Qing forces. At 5pm the French commanders noticed the Qing flag still flew atop the citadel tower at Bac Ninh, but between the city, Dap Cau and Trung Son all that could be seen was fleeing Qing soldiers.

The 2nd brigade attacked Bac Ninh the next morning, capturing large sums of ammunition and curiously enough fully functioning modern Krupp artillery pieces that looked so pristine, they figured none had even fired a shot. Without waiting for the 1st brigade to come from Trung Son, the 2nd brigade forced their way into the city of Bac Ninh. In the meantime the efforts to encircle the fleeing Qing had been thwarted by tenacious rearguard actions by Qing forces fighting out of Dap Cau. Thus the majority of the Qing forces were able to escape north along the banks of the Song Cau river. While the Qing fled the French gunboats bombarded them inflicting heavy casualties. 

General Millot was nowhere near done trying to trap the escaping Qing forces and send his two brigades after them. The 1st brigade pursued the enemy as far as Thai Nguyen where they inflicted casualties upon the Qing, Vietnamese and Black Flag forces until march 19th. The 2nd brigade annihilated a Qing rearguard force at Phu Lang Thuong and chased a large portion of the Qing right flank as they went to a town called Kep. Millot then called his two brigades to return to Bac Ninh by March 24th. The French state they had 9 deaths and 39 wounded while claiming to have killed 100 enemy units and a few hundred wounded. 

The defeat of the Qing forces was an enormous embarrassment for the Qing dynasty and thus for its true leader, Empress Dowager Cixi. The Qing court and people of China met the news with shock, mostly because they had heard that for a few months the Black Flag Army had managed to inflict heavy casualties upon the French, but their professional forces had utterly failed. Empress Dowager Cixi in her rage punished several Qing officials, such as the governors of Guangxi and Yunnan, Xu Yanxu and Tang Qiong. Both men were dismissed from their posts, meanwhile the field commanders at the battle of Bac Ninh, General Huang Guilan and Zhao Wu were disgraced. Huang Guilan committed suicide at Lang Son on March 14th as a result of his shame while some of his chief of staff, Chen Degui and Dang Minxuan were beheaded in front of their troops at Lang Son on May 26th. 

Now before the major losses, the Qing court had been debating the issue of whether or not they should wage a undeclared or declared war against France or keep out of Vietnam completely. The leader of the moderates was Li Hongzhang who sought diplomacy while the leader of the hardliners was Zhang Zhidong who continuously called for full-scale war. After losing Son Tay and now Bac Ninh, Empress Dowager Cixi began to see no other way to solve the situation than diplomacy and thus Zhang Zhidong lost favor and Li Hongzhang won it. Cixi ordered Li Hongzhang to begin talks, which would occur at Tianjin with Captain Francois-Ernest Fournier. The French demanded China withdraw her forces from Vietnam and respect Frances protectorate over Annam and Tonkin. This would mean China was officially relinquishing its suzerainty over Vietnam, which they capitulated. The result was the Tientsin accord of May 11th 1884. 

To follow this up, 3 weeks later the new French Minister to China Jules Patenotre negotiated a revised treaty of Saigon. It was called the Treaty of Hua, done between France and the Nguyen dynasty which officiated the protecorateship of Annam and Tonkin. In essence it was the stepping stone to simply making Vietnam a colonial possession of France. The treaty was signed on June 6th of 1884 and followed up by a symbolic show where the French melted down a seal that was given to the previous Nguyen Emperor Gia Long by the Qing emperor. Now while the treaty of Hue and the Tientsin Accord should have ended all the conflict, well it did not.

No it seems, Mr. Fournier was a bit of a moron when it came to diplomacy and he royally messed up with the Tientsin Accord. The crucial mess up was, while the accord stated the Qing had to withdraw their forces from Vietnam, it never stated a deadline. The French began to demand the Qing withdraw immediately, while the Qing argued they could not withdraw until all minor articles of the said Tientsin Accord were not concluded. Long story short it was a paradox of a situation and the Qing were simply using the accord’s other minor issues to maintain their forces where they were. The entire situation was met with uproar from the Chinese public, and this bolstered Zhang Zhidong and the hardliners against Li Hongzhang who began calling for his impeachment. Now as much as I love Li Hongzhang, he sort of messed up during the Tientsin Accord agreement. He hinted to the French the Qing withdrawal would occur, but that it might see a few snags, this was verbally done of course. Thus the French assumed and it was a he said she said type of situation that the Qing forces would immediately withdraw and of course they didn't. 

Thus on the ground, in early June a French force led by Lt Colonel Alphonse Dugene advanced to seize the cities of Cao Bang, That Khe and Lang Son. His forces formed a long column starting at Phu Lang Thuong as they advanced along the Mandarin Road heading to Lang Son, Phu Xuyen, Kep and Cau Son by June 15th. The march was grueling, it was extremely hot and some flooding made their way difficult as they had to continuously build bridges. They were forced to set up camp around Cau Son and a smaller town called Bac Le for a few days and when they continued their march they began to realize they were being watched by scouts. They sent out advance patrol parties and some of these were fired upon, but they had no way of knowing who was attacking them. It could be Nguyen forces, Qing forces, Black Flags or simple bandits for all they knew. Dugenne intended to continue nonetheless and by June 22nd they were on their way to Lang Son. At this point Dugennes men came up to a river and on the other side were Qing troops. Neither side fired upon another, and Dugenne figured they were stragglers from the Qing forces that fought at Bac Ninh. Thinking they would not oppose him he gave orders to cross the river, but little did he know, on the other side were 4600 Qing soldiers armed with modern arms like rapid-firing Remington rifles. Now both sides were well aware of the Tientsin Accord, but back in China, all the bickering against Li Hongzhang led to no official orders for the men to withdraw from Tonkin. In fact their regimental commander, Wang Debang’s last orders were to hold their positions.

On June 23rd, an advance guard led by Captain Lecomte crossed the river as some Qing infantry began to take up defensive positions on a hill 250 meters behind the river. The French went over the river unmolested, but as soon as they landed on the other side all hell broke loose. The Qing fired intentionally over their heads to scare them off, but Lecomte reacted by ordering his men to begin flanking the Qing. The French troops charged up the hill as the Qing pulled back, allowing the rest of the French forces to cross the river by 11am. Meanwhile a few hours prior, around 9am, three Qing envoys showed up to Dugenne with letters. The letters were from the Qing commanders in the field explaining to Dugenne, while they understood the Tientsin Accord articles, their officials' last orders were to hold their position so they were in quite a pickle. They requested Dugenne send a message back to Hanoi to seek further instructions. 

Now Dugenne should have complied with this, but instead he sent word back to the Qing commanders at 3pm stating he would continue his march up the Mandarin road. Allegedly Dugenne did this because he assumed the Qing would just pull to the side and allow his force to pass. Dugenne gave orders to his men not to open fire explicitly unless he ordered them to do so and they marched. For quite some time the march went unmolested until the French were going around the Nui Dong Nai cliffs. Suddenly the Qing forces who had been shadowing the French column open fire upon both their flanks. The French vanguard deployed as best as they could as Dugenne tried to order a bugler to sound a ceasefire call, but it was to no avail. The Qing sounded their own bugles ordered more men to join the battle forcing Dugenne to plan a defense. Now Dugenne was leading 450 French troops and 350 Tonkinese auxiliaries, and to add insult to injury many of his forces were not veteran troops. His men formed a square formation, digging trenches and by the late afternoon had repelled multiple attacks and led some minor counter attacks. During the night the Qing brought forward more forces occupying the heights surrounding the French and in the morning attacked all sides of the French square. Dugenne made several counterattacks, but without significant numbers nor artillery support he knew they would soon be encircled and annihilated. By 11am he ordered a withdrawal to Song Thuong, abandoning the baggage trains and fighting each step they took. Despite the intense situation, the officers managed to keep the men orderly, and the withdrawal was done effectively.

General Millot received word of Dugennes plight on June 23rd and immediately dispatched the 2nd brigade to save them. The 2nd brigade reached Dugenne’s column near Bac Le on the 27th and set to make a counterattack to repel the Qing forces back to Song Thuong. However just as General Negrier was about to issue orders he received word from Millot ordering him to get everyone back to Hanoi at once. The French had suffered 22 deaths and 70 wounded during the ambush and allege they inflicted 300 casualties upon the Qing. News of what was called the Bac Le Ambush reached France prompting Jules Ferry’s government to demand a apology in the form of indemnity payments and immediate implementation of the Tientsin accord from China. The Qing sought to further negotiate, but refused to apologize or pay an indemnity. Negotiations began again, but the mood in both France and China was pure outrage and the sabers of war were rattling. While negotiations were still going on the French government sent orders to Admiral Courbet to take his recently established Far East Squadron to give battle to the Qing navy at Fuzhou. 

Admiral Courbet’s Far East Squadron during late August consisted of 13 ships only a fraction of what it would be a bit later on; He had 5 ironclads on hand though they were all over the place performing missions, there was Bayard his flagship, Sharp, Atalante, Trimphanate and La Galissonniere. He also had cruisers Duguay-Trouin, Villars, D’Estaing, Volta, gunboats Lynx, Aspic, Vipere and two torpedo boats. The Qing Fujian Fleet had 11 western style ships and 11 chinese war junks in the region. The Qing flagship was the wooden corvette Yangwu, followed by scourt-transports: Fupo, Ji’an, Yongbao, Chenhang, Yixin, wooden gunboats: Zhenwei, Fuxiang, Jianshen and Fusheng and 12 Chinese war junks. In terms of crews the French would have 1780 vs 1040 for the Qing. In terms of firepower the French were overwhelming better armed with the Qing having only a few ships that were capable of return fire. Overall command for the Qing was led by imperial commissioner Zhang Peilun.

Admiral Courbet arrived at the Fuzhou anchored near the port of Fuzhou on August 22nd, observing the Qing fleet deployed with a northern group of 8 ships and a southern group of 3 ships. Courtbet placed his squadron between these clusters and observed his enemy. The Qing ships were seen to swing with the tides, prompting Courbet to plan for his attack to commence at the top of the tide roughly around 2pm the next day. He deduced the Qing ships would swing away from his fleet presenting their vulnerable sterns. The Qing northern group seemed to be protecting her dockyards while the southern group seemed to be protecting a customs building. Assuming the Qing would not change their formations, Courbet hoped to begin battle at 2pm with his torpedo boats first then cannon fire by the rest.

The next day, neither side made any attempt to redeploy or mess with the other and by 1:30pm the French crews were preparing for battle. The Qing seemingly did nothing upon witnessing the French clearly preparing their ships for a fight by 1:45pm, but at 1:55pm Qing mineboats began advancing towards the French ships. Courbet immediately raised flags for attack commencement, 5 minutes before the expected timetable. Torpedo boat no.46 surged forward hitting the Yangwu with a Spar Torpedo. For those of you who don’t know what this is, picture a extremely long pole poking infront of your ship with a bomb on its end. The idea is quite simple you rush head first towards an enemy ship jab the pointed pole at the hull of a ship and detonate the bomb on the end using a fuse. Takes a lot of balls to pull this off to be sure. The bomb damaged Torpedo # 46’s boiler and ruptured the hull of Yangwu. Meanwhile Torpedo boat #45 tried to do the same action to Fupo which was less successful in her venture. 

As the two torpedo boats made their daring escapes under fire the French cruisers and ironclad Triomphante began opening fire. The Yongbao, Feiyun, Fushen, Jiansheng, Ji’an and Chenhang were lit ablaze or sunk from shellfire. Only the Fupo and Yixin survived the onslaught, forced to flee upriver as they were chased by the gunboats, Lynx, Vipere and Aspic. The Zhenwei received a shell hit from Triomphante causing a large explosion. Before the carnage had unfolded, the Qing had concentrated their fire upon the Volta, which Courtbet was forced to use as his Flagship as the Bayard did not make it in time for battle. The Qing clearly did this in order to kill Courtbet hoping it would be a decisive victory. Several crew aboard the Volta were killed or wounded, a roundshot smashed through her bridge nearly killing the captain Gigon. By 5pm the fighting had died down, but during the night the Qing made several unsuccessful fireship attacks.

The next day Courbet ordered his ships to land some companies ashore to set up explosives to destroy the Fuzhou dockyards, but upon seeing the Qing left infantry to defend them was forced to cancel the plans. Instead he had his fleet begin bombarding the dockyards and outer buildings, but was unable to completely destroy the yards. The ships stayed at anchor another day as the Qing attempted a night torpedo attack as the gunboat Vipere who was anchored on the outside of the formation. Searchlights picked up the torpedo attempts and they were fired upon until they gave up. On August the 25th, Courbet took his forces down the Min River with Triomphante and Duguay-Trouin leading the way. For two days he had his forces bombard some Qing shore batteries defending the approach to Fuzhou followed by forts at the Jinpai pass. In the end the French had 10 deaths, 48 wounded due mostly to sniper fire with two ships receiving light damage. The Qing lost 9 ships completely with the others running aground, severely burnt or damaged in various other ways. The estimated death toll was estimated to be between 2000-3000. The Qing put up a memorial shortly after the war commemorating a list of 831 sailors and soldiers killed on the 23rd, but the list does not include deaths incurred during the Min River voyage. The captain of the flagship Yangwu, had abandoned his ship prematurely and was beheaded later for cowardice. Countless men lost their jobs, like the governor-general of Fujian and Zhejiang He Jing, the governor of Fujian Zhang Zhaotong and the director general of the Fuzhou dock yard He Ruzhang. Zhang Peilun who made no significant effort to direct the Fujian Fleet was degraded and replaced by our old friend General Zuo Zongtang. 

The battle of Fuzhou, put simply was a shitshow for the Qing. There were numerous factors that led to the humiliating defeat. A major factor was Germany making excuses not to send the new Dingyuan and Zhenyuan over in time. Also the Fujian Fleet received absolutely zero help from the other fleets despite Zhang Peilun pleading for help from the Beiyang Fleet, Nanyang Fleet and Guangdong fleet, even with direct orders from Empress Dowager Cixi in hand. These fleets all had respective commanders who were loathe to see any of their assets damaged and thus held back.

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Incompetency and corruption led to a huge loss at the battle of Fuzhou. Now the Qing dynasty had really gotten herself into a mess and a full scale war with France was only beginning and about to get a whole lot worse.