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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Apr 24, 2023

Last time we spoke about the descent into full scale war between the Qing dynasty and France because of the Tonkin campaign. The French sought to annihilate the Black Flag Army, knowing full well it might entice the Qing to war and so it did. The Tonkin campaign saw the battle of Bac Ninh which led to direct confrontation with Qing forces and soon both sides hit the negotiating table. The Tientsin accord was agreed upon, but no set deadline for the Qing withdrawal led to more conflict and it seems full scale war had finally kicked off. Admiral COurbet was ordered to hit Fuzhou and there he smashed the Fujian fleet utterly embarrassing the Qing dynasty leading to panic, chaos and outrage amongst the Chinese people. How will things change going forward now that France had landed a death blow to one of the Qing dynasties fleets? Could the sabers of war be sheathed?


#45 The Sino-French War of 1884-1885 part 2: The Sino-French War at Sea


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.

The battle of Fuzhou certainly made a splash. 9 Qing warships were sunk, several others were severely damaged and possibly 2-3 thousand Qing forces were killed. Admiral Courbet then went about the Min River bombarding all the forts and batteries he could before making his exit utterly humiliating the Qing. Now until the battle of Fuzhou the Qing and French were playing footsy under the table when it came to a full scale declared war. Basically everything up until now could be seen as an undeclared war. To give a example of this, think about China and Japan from 1931-1937. They were to be blunt fully at war, but neither side wanted to officially acknowledge it to the international community for a variety of reasons, thus it could be seen as an undeclared war. Here to we see France and the Qing dynasty not wishing to make formal declarations of war, for a variety of reasons. Now while it would remain undeclared, it by no means meant they were not at war. 

News of the catastrophe and destruction of the Fujian Fleet were met with public outrage in China. Mobs began to attack foreign concessions, and in Europe the mood was sympathetic to the Chinese cause. The British, Germans and American military’s began to extend their hand to the Qing dynasty offering advisers. Perhaps it was less about the Qing plight and more so to stick the middle finger to the French, as one does, but its the thought that counts. Over in Hong Kong, still a colony of the British empire, dock workers began to refuse to repair French warships like La Galissonniere in september of 1884. La Galissonniere had received some hits in August and came in for some work, but a strike occurred in September. Now a large reason for this was Chinese workers refusing to work and by proxy it hindered the British dock workers. Things got dicey and some riots and fights broke out prompting British authorities to deploy forces to defend their dockyards and workers from continuous harassment from Chinese. This by no means was organic by the way, the Qing government were pulling strings of their citizens to cause such conflicts to hinder any aid to France. 

Now Admiral Courbet was given orders to smash Fuzhou, which he did, but if the Qing continued their “defiance” he was also ordered to go smash the port of Keelung in northern Formosa, modern day Taiwan. These actions of course were done to push the Qing to get their forces out of Tonkin as pertaining to the Tientsin Accords. Well the Qing were not budging, so Keelung was put on the menu. Admiral Courbet argued vigorously not to launch a campaign against Formosa, and instead to target major ports in the Liaodong region like Port Arthur or Weihaiwei. The French military planners thought these prospects to difficult to hit as the Far East Squadron was not large by any means and Keelung was a much easier target. In mid september the French cabinet after deliberating the issue decided to launch attacks against Keelung and Tamsui. Their rationale in the end was that the towns held nearby coal mines that could be seized to provide the Far East Squadron a wartime base.

Thus on October 1st, Lt Colonel Bertaux-Levillain, haha that last name again, landed at Keelung with 2250 men taken from the Tonkin Campaign forces. They were to be called the Formosa Expeditionary Corps. They sailed out of Saigon escorted by the Far East Squadron and came ashore as Courbet’s forces bombarded the shore batteries and Qing forces trying to mount a defense. The French casualties as usual were claimed to be small, 4 deaths and 12 wounded while the Qing casualties according to Formosans were around 100 dead and hundreds wounded. The first week of October saw French forces occupying several hills around Keelung and they sent scouts to look at the Pei-tao coal mines. 

The imperial commissioner responsible for the defense of Formosa was Liu Mingchuan who could only watch helplessly as the French bombarded 3 shore batteries in the port of Keelung and began to prod the Pei-tao coal mines as his 2000 or so Qing troops were overwhelmed. Now knowing the French would likely hit Tamsui as well he tried to establish better defenses there by planting torpedo mines in the river approach and creating boat and stone barricades. He also armed locals to try and augment his Qing forces. These locals were known as Hakka hillmen and they were armed with primitive matchlock rifles, but despite being undergunned were deemed very brave warriors. Tamsui was protected by two forts west of the city, the White fort and a still under construction Fort neuf. The French were unable to enter the Tamsui River due to the barricade and mines and thus began bombarding the two forts on October 2nd. The forts and warships exchanged fire, but as usual the outdated cannons in the forts were no match and were silenced quickly. Testimony from a Canadian Presbyterian missionary named George Mackey, had to add this one being Canadian myself, who was housed in Tamsui said this of the bombardment.

When the bombarding began we put our little children under the floor of the house, that they might not be alarmed. My wife went out and in during these trying hours. I paced the front of the house with A Hoa, while shot and shell whizzed and burst all around us. One shell struck a part of Oxford College, another a corner of the Girls’ School, and still another a stone in front of us, and sent it into mid-air in a thousand atoms. A little to the west of us another went into the ground, gouging a great hole and sending up a cloud of dust and stones. The suction of one, as it passed, was like a sudden gust of wind. Amid the smoke from forts and ships, and the roar and thunder of shot and shell, we walked to and fro, feeling that our God was round about us.

The French bombardment was not very precise and while the two forts had been neutralized, countless shells hit the town and surrounding area endangering civilians. The French followed up the bombardment by landing ashore forces to seize the forts from which they then could begin operations to blow up the mines and barricades in the riverway. Now the Qing defense of the city was led by General Sun Kaihua and General Zhang Gaoyuan. They expected the French to come from the direction of the seized forts and began to set up defensive lines and trenches to meet this. The Far East squadron anchored near the harbour entrance to support the men as they marched. However disaster struck. The men marched and many landed ashore at some beaches, but the sand dunes further inland made it impossible for the ships to see over them to support the mens offensive. As the French marched over the dunes, expected to see large rice paddy field terrain, it was actually thick woods and ditches everywhere. General Sun Kaihua was making great use of the terrain concealing his men everywhere he could and they ambushed the French as they made their way through the brush.

The forward French units were thrown into chaos, quickly screaming for backup as General Zhang Gaoyuan sent his forces to smash their left flank. Zhang’s men were able to push the French left flank into the main bodies position leading to the firefight extending to the entire French formation. The Qing and French forces were separated by a distance of around 100 meters. While most of the French forces kept the volley system accordingly, many sailor forces too excited by the mayhem began mindlessly firing into the brush wasting ammunition. French officers screamed to stop. General Zhang kept up the momentum by ordering his forces to push the French left flank even further into the main body. Meanwhile General Kaihua motioned forces to hit the French right flank. The entire French frontlines were engulfed in a battle between them and unseen enemies in the brush. After an hour of engagement, 2/3rd of the French ammunition had been used and casualties were mounting. The French commanders ordered the men to make a fighting withdrawal as General Zhang and Sun ordered their men to try and cut off the left and right flanks escape. By midday, the French were in full retreat back to the warships, nearly 1/10 were wounded, many dead. It was estimated the French had 17 deaths and 49 wounded. Captain Garnot of the formosa expeditionary corps had this to say about the failed attack,

There is no doubt that the main reason for the repulse was that the landing force was too small, but poor tactics also played their part. There was no vanguard to cover the advance of the line of battle. The firing line advanced without a preliminary reconnaissance into difficult terrain, under fire from Chinese snipers who were well dug-in and protected. Confusion and lack of direction was evident in the conduct of the battle. The courage and dash shown by our officers and sailors, who had not been trained for a land battle, cannot conceal the fact that we opened fire in a disorderly manner; that the reserves came up to join the line of battle prematurely, without orders; and that our troops lost our heads, firing wildly at the enemy and using up their ammunition in a few minutes. Infantry tactics cannot simply be improvised, as our landing companies learned by bitter experience.

Later on 6 French soldiers had their heads placed in the Tamsui markets, allegedly done by the Hakka hillsmen. The French commanders sent word to General Sun demanding they be buried. The French defeat at Tamsui heavily bolstered the hardliners back in the Qing court. The court convened in late october and Empress Dowager Cixi decided the undeclared war against France would continue until France agreed to withdraw their indemnity demands for the Bac Le ambush. The Qing relayed peace terms on November 5th, but they included some major demands such as outright canceling the Tientsin Accord; having France abandon their protectorateship over Annam and Tonkin and allowing the Qing to continue to occupy Lang Son, Lao Cai an Cao Bang. The mediator between the Qing and France, British foreign secretary Lord Granville said of the terms “the Chinese terms are those from a victor to the vanquished” and he promptly refused to even transmit them to France.

Because of the setback the French were only able to enforce a limited blockade of the northern portion of Formosa as the Formosa expeditionary corps awaited further reinforcements. In January of 1885 command over the corps was handed over to Colonel Jacques Duchesne who augmented them with two additional battalions bringing a total strength of around 4000 men. However also because of the Qing victory, Liu Mingchuan was augmented by over 25,000 reinforcements taken from the Xiang and Anhui armies, the veteran troops of Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang. 

As grand as the ground forces boost was to Formosa, on the naval front things were entirely different. The Nanyang Fleet asked for some warships of the Beiyang Fleet to augment their strength to fight the French, but the commander of the Beiyang Fleet, Li Hongzhang himself denied the request. Again, none of the fleet commanders wished to risk any of their advanced ships to face the French and the commanders adamantly did not want other commanders to use their ships for that matter. This created a major divide in the fleet. The northern fleets and southern fleets refused to cooperate and in fact did a lot to oppose another. For example, the French Navy would obviously be operating more so in the southern sea, thus one would imagine the Qing would focus their overwhelming naval strength there. However the northern fleets would hinder this greatly by draining southern China of resources, warships and of course sailors who they began to enlist en masse. This all led to the benefit of the French Navy. Meanwhile the Far East squadron was receiving reinforcements beginning in 1884 and by february of 1885 was a lot stronger.

Now in mid January of 1885, the Nanyang Fleet was ordered to try and relieve the French naval blockade of Formosa. On January 18th, the cruisers Nanchen, Kaiji, Nanrui, frigate Yuyuan and sloop Chengqing departed Shanghai for Formosa. The commanding admiral was Wu Ankang and he was supposed to receive additional aid in the form of the Chaoyong, Yangwei of the Nanyang fleet and two cruisers from the Beiyang fleet, but like I said, Li Hongzhang refused to release them and instead diverted them to Korea where Yuan Shikai was busy quelling the Gapsin coup. Admiral Wu’s group sailed south hesitantly, fearing an actual engagement. In fact Admiral Wu had hoped by just publicizing the fact his force was enroute to Formosa would lead the French to pull out. When this failed to occur, Wu literally turned his ships around high, tailing it for the port of Ningbo. However the French had received word of the sortie and literally leapt at the chance of engaging such an enemy. Admiral Courbet sailed out of Keelung’s water with the ironclads Bayard, Triumphant, cruisers Duguay-Trouin, Eclairuer, Nielly, gunboat Aspic and the troopship Saone.

The French were not exactly certain where to find the enemy and first looked into the mouth of the Min River in early February. Not finding the enemy, the French then sailed north along the Chinese coast. On February 8th, Courbet's force were running low on coal so he was forced to dispatch the Duguay-Trouin back to Keelung. On the 10th the French squadron reached Chusen island and by the 11th they entered the Yangtze river scaring the batteries at Wusong, but still no sight of the enemy fleet. The French then received word from Qing newspapers that they had actually passed the Qing fleet on their way north and that they were near Sanmen Bay. Courbet immediately set sail south and by the 13th entered Shipu Bay where they caught sight of the Qing fleet. The French immediately bore down upon their enemy as the Qing took up a V formation led by Admiral Wu’s flagship Kaiji. The French were exhilarated upon seeing the Qing formation coming right at them primed for a battle and then as the Qing closed in they suddenly broke formation and scattered. 3 Qing cruisers fled south, with Courbet offering pursuit while the Yuyuan and Chengqing fled further into Shipu bay. According to American naval officer L. C Arlington who was aiding the Nanyang Fleet he said “Admiral Wu had a personal grudge against the captains of the Yuyuan and Chengqing and deliberately tried to sacrifice them to save the rest of his flotilla”. The Qing cruisers were faster and thus outran their French counterpart, leading Courbet to turn right back around to hunt the Yuyuan and Chengqing.

On the night of the 14th, the French sent torpedo launches under the cover of darkness which got with 100 meters to the two ships before they were spotted. The Qing began to use rifle fire against the small boats as the French crews frantically tried to spar torpedo the Yuyuans hull successfully crippling her. One French sailor died to rifle fire as they made their escape. Arlington was actually aboard the Yuyuan that night and had this to say about the event as he witnessed the spar torpedo hit and a shell lobbed at the nearby Chengqing.

The scene that now occurred almost beggars description. Some tried to lower the boats, some rushed between decks to try and save their possessions, many jumped overboard into the sea. It was, in fact, everyone for himself, and the devil take the hindmost. When I had time to realise what had really happened, a strange scene was unrolled before me. Just ahead of us lay the little Ching-ching slowly settling down beneath the waters; she had been attacked by the same torpedo boat that had sunk us. Our own ship was gradually sinking, her guns just level with the water's edge. Along the shore and in the water about us were seamen, soldiers, chickens, ducks, geese and baggage of every description. The fault rested entirely with the Chinese—even at the last moment, had they made any attempt to repel the torpedo boat they might have warded off the catastrophe, and possibly sunk the enemy instead. No such attempt was made, and the French escaped scot-free

The next morning the French scouted the bay finding the two Qing warships had sunk. Admiral Courbet continued to hunt for the wandering Nanyang fleet and on February 25th received orders to implement a “rice blockade”. This was to be a naval blockade against the sea transport of rice to Shanghai. By the 28th, Courbets squadron made it to Zhenhai bay enroute to Shanghai where he received reports  the Nanyang fleet was hiding in the bay. He hunted until march 1st until at long last he found some Qing warships and low and behold it was the 3 cruisers of Admiral Wu Ankang. Alongside the 3 cruisers were 4 other ships, the sloop Chaowu, wooden transport Yuankai and 2 gunboats. The entrance to the bay was likewise filled with sunken chinese junks blocking it. Courbet performed a reconnaissance with one of his ships, the Nielly which was met with Chinese shore battery fire and a few of the Chinese warships. The Nielly was nearly hit a few times, but managed to perform the survey and return to her squadron. 

Courtbet met with his fellow officers and came to the conclusion attacking the Nanyang fleet within range of their harbor defenses was too large a risk to take. Instead he elected to perform a naval blockade of Zhenhai Bay. For over a month, a few ships of the Far East Squadron at any given time held the blockade, thus forcing over 7 Nanyang fleet warships to be stuck in the bay and useless to the war. The French claim this was a strategic victory, but the Qing saw it as a defensive victory for themselves, because of the thwarting of the Nielly from their point of view. Our American friend Arlington gives a colorful account of what occurred. According to Arlington, when Admiral Wu Ankang’s 3 warships showed up to Zhenhai Bay, the authorities there begged him to leave so the French would not attack them all. Instead Wu threatened to take his ships up the Ningbo river to leave them high and dry to fight the French off by themselves. When the French appeared in front of Zhenhai bay the authorities demanded Wu sail out to attack the French using the 7 warships available, but he refused to do so. Arlington states that was a wise decision, because they would have been annihilated. While the blockade was going on, Britain officially closed off Hong Kong and other held concessions from the Far East Squadron to hinder them. The French in return upheld their rice blockade strategy against the Yangtze River, hoping to start out northern China. As far as the great battles of the sea were concerned that would actually be the end of it for the most part. 

Now taking a look back to the land campaigns, after the naval battle of Fuzhou, Empress Dowager Cixi had given the greenlight for the undeclared war to kick off. This resulted in Qing forces from Guangxi and Yunnan provinces to advance into Tonkin to give battle with the French. General Millot’s health took a turn for the worse and he submitted his resignation back in September of 1884, his last order of the day had describing himself as quote “a sick and disappointed man”. He was relieved by General Louis Briere de L’isle which greatly annoys me as I now will have to narrate that entire name each time haha. Little known fact I am married to a Quebecois woman who is throwing up hearing my anglo ass narrate so many french terms and names.

Briere de L’isle’s first task was to thwart the Qing forces invading the Red River Delta system. By late september a large Guangxi Army were advancing from LangSon into the Luc Nam Valley and managed to ambush two grinch gunboats, the Massue and Hache on October 2nd. They managed to kill one officer and injured 32 men, but the ambush did give up the element of surprise. French scouts reported 3 large groups of Qing forces: one around the village of Kep along the Mandarin road; one at Bao Loc; and one at Chu in the upper valley of the Luc Nam River. Briere de L’ilse deployed General Oscar de Negrier with 3000 troops to hit the Luc Nam Valley before the Qing could concentrate their forces.

The Guangxi force was led by Generals Wang Debang and Pan Dingxin, two officers who were part of the Bac le ambush. The forces at Kep were led by Fang Yusheng and Zhou Shouchang while the forces at Chu were led by Su Yuanchun and Chen Jia. General Oscar transported his forces using gunboats to quickly hit the separate forces before they could consolidate. Oscar would lead men to his Kep with the bulk of his troops while his subordinate Lt Colonel Donnier took a column to hit Chu. Once Oscar had won at Kep he would then either help at Chu or move on to hit Bao Loc. On October 8th, Oscar’s men smashed the forces at Kep sending them fleeing, and quickly got back to his gunboats to join Donnier at Chu. The battle of Kep saw the French losing 32 killed and 61 wounded and claiming to have inflicted 1600 casualties upon the Qing. This meant Donnier could be patient and await the reinforcements before seriously engaging the enemy at Chu, but on October the 10th his men were drawn into a bloody two day battle at Chu. Donnier was victorious, though it was a costly one, he had 21 deaths and 92 wounded while claiming to have killed 100 Qing and wounded a few hundred. 

After these two victories, the Qing fell back to Bac le and Dong Song while the French consolidated their positions at Kep and Chu by reinforcing them with a total of 7200 soldiers and 4500 coolies. While Briere de l’ilse was consolidated and supplying his forces at Chu and Kep he also began ordering resupply missions to the outposts of Tuyen Quang, Thai Nguyen and Hung Hoa. The outposts were being continuously harassed by Liu Yongu’s Black Flags and the invading Yunnan forces. These more isolated outposts began seeing attacks from the Yunnan army beginning on october 12th and by the end of the month the garrison at Tuyen Quang saw 170 of its 550 men unfit for duty. 

Throughout october the French gunboats were trying their best to resupply the outposts, but the Black Flag Army occupied Yu Oc, which was between Tuyen Quang and Hung Hoa, thus cutting it off. By early november the French knew the lack of supplies getting through was becoming dangerous. The gunboat crews were continuously sniped at causing many fatalities. This led Briere de L’isle to launch at attack to dislodge the Black Flags at Yu Oc, while simultaneously making a resupply run for Tuyen Quang. Lt Colonel Jacques Duchesne was sent with roughly 700 men to take a small flotilla of junks escorted by 4 gunboats to land 7 kms above Yu Oc. The troops landed on november 18th and spent the day marching to Yu Oc, never seeing the enemy. At dawn on the 19th, the vanguard of the French column began to come under fire, but they could not pinpoint the enemy’s location as a result of the deep bush. Duchesne ordered the front units to fan out a bit and they quickly found a Qing forward line of defense. For two hours a firefight ensued as the Qing gradually prodded different parts of the French column.

At 10am a forward French legionnaire companies found a Qing fort that was firing down upon the French vanguard force. The legionnaires fixed bayonets and charge the fort coming out of a ravine. The Qing defenders fled their defenses before the French could surround them disappearing into the bush. The fighting continued on with the French gradually pushing forward until they found a citadel. The French quickly neutralized the citadel and thus the way to Tuyen Quang was opened again for resupply. The fighting cost the French 10 dead with 37 wounded, for the Black Flags and Yunnan forces the losses were estimated to be much higher.

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 had basically won the war at sea, but the land forces had to fight bitterly against the Black Flag, Vietnamese and Qing forces in Tonkin. Would the French be able to push the Qing and Black Flags out of Tonkin to claim it for themselves?