May 1, 2023
Last time we spoke about the Sino-French War at Sea. Admiral Courbet’s Far East Squadron dealt a decisive crushing blow to the Fujian Fleet at the battle of Fuzhou. 9 ships were sunk with another 12 severely damaged, forcing the Qing to toss the Nanyang fleet to meet the French menace. However the corrupt nature of the Qing fleets led to a disastrous situation and Admiral Wu of the Nanyang fleet would be quite a victim to it. He attempted to scare the French away, only to be attacked, then hunted down until his forces fled to Zhenhai Bay. The French erected a rice blockade trying to starve out their enemy and it seemed the Qing navy had nothing left to fight them off with. Meanwhile the Tonkin campaign was still a blood bath as the French forces tried to dislodge the Qing and Black Flags from the region.
#46 The Sino-French War of 1884-1885 part 3: The Great Push out of Tonkin
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 www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. 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.
General Oscar de Negrier spent considerable time thwart guerilla efforts against French outposts such as the ones at Thai Nguyen, Hung Hoa and Tuyen Quang. He dispatched Colonel Jacques Duchesne to neutralize Yu Oc to relieve the trapped garrison at Tuyen Quang. Duchesne managed to dislodge the black flag units there, but raids made by Qing, Vietnamese and Black flag units remained a constant nuisance. Tonkin was turning into a nightmare, the French needed quick victories before the Qing Yunnan and Guangxi armies coming over the border into Vietnam could consolidate control over northern Tonkin. The French military high command began to debate the issue and this led to the Army Minister General Jules Louis Lewal to order Oscar to launch a campaign against Lang Son. Lang Son was where the Guangxi army had established its main hq. From Lang Son the Guangxi forces ambushed some French Foreign legion forces east of Chu village at a place called Ha Ho. The legionnaires were able to fight their way out from a Chinese encirclement, but the casualties suffered were high. General Oscar tried to pursue the enemy, but they retreated to Dong Song with ease. At this point the Guangxi army knew their HQ at Lang Son was to be the next major target for a French offensive so the Qing tried to gain a toehold in the Luc Nam valley by sending 12,000 troops over a hill called Nui Bop.
Atop the Nui Bop hill, the forces led by General Wang Debang, a victor of the Bac le ambush event created a fortified camp. To support the men Wang Debang had his forces fan out, plundering all the nearby villages for food supplies, thus earning the hatred of them. This led some farmers and villages to come to the French on December 23rd, alerting them of the Guangxi army’s presence atop Nui Bop. The news of 12,000 enemy units so close to their forward position at Chu threatened the French campaign soon about to launch against Lang Son in January, thus Oscar knew he had to neutralize them. Oscar took a force of 2000 men, drawn from the 1st and 2nd brigades of the Tonkinese expeditionary corps and began a offensive. Instead of directly marching east from Chu, Oscar decided to sweep to the southern bank of the Luc Nam river to try and outflank the enemy’s left flank. To make sure the Qing did not see this coming he diverted a smaller force led by Chef de Bataillon Diguet to approach directly from Chu.
The main body departed Chu at 6am on January 3rd, making a arduous trek, until they came across the northern bank of the Luc Nam river, but it unfortunately was higher in tide than expected. The crossing took the French nearly 3 hours, and in that time Qing scouts saw them and reported the incoming attack thus the element of surprise was all but lost. Nonetheless, the French main body broke into 3 lines advancing towards the Qing left flank which was within the Phong Cot valley and ready for the fight. The French skirmished with the Qing within some heavy bush and had little trouble pushing them further back up the hill area. Soon the hills around Phong Cot were cleared. Oscar believed the Qing forces were greatly demoralized and decided to seize Phong Cot’s town before midnight. They found the town abandoned, but the next morning came under heavy counter attacks, supported by artillery from a western fort. The Qing counterattacks were repelled, though at great cost and now Oscar pressed towards the village of Tay Toun which held a hill with a fort. The Qing seemed to be in disarray, allowing for a French bayonet charge across their trench defenses there. By 11:15am the French had taken the camp and found Krupp field artillery pieces, large quantities of modern rifles and war materials abandoned.
What became known as the battle of Nui Bop amounted to 19 dead and 65 wounded for the French while they claimed to have found 600 dead Qing bodies and caused significantly higher casualties alongside it. The French soldiers scoured the battlefield for hours, using pistols to finish off wounded Qing soldiers, killing at least a dozen in this fashion. Oscars victory was outstanding, given he was greatly outnumbered. French military commanders estimated he had won a battle with the odd’s being 1 out of 10 for a French victory. Having neutralized Nui Bop, General Brière de l’isle was not able to perform an offensive against the main Guangxi army base at Lang Son. It was going to be a 10 day march just to get to the frontline of Lang son, a march where the troops would being carrying all their equipment and provisions through heavy bush. Briere de L’isle knew all too well how formidable such a trek would be and waited until February gathering as many coolies as he could muster to help. Throughout January he got together 7200 troops and 4500 coolies. His Tonkinese expeditionary force held two brigades: the 1st led by Colonel Ange-Laurent Giovanninelli and the 2nd led by general de brigade Oscar.
On february the 3rd they began their long trek setting out from Chu, going over the Deo Van mountains to Cao Nhiat without seeing enemy units. The next day saw the first action at Tay Hoa. The 2nd brigade who were leading the march, found themselves face to face with a large fort. Oscar ordered the large fort to be seized as it threatened their campaigns timetable, and had his 3rd regiment to advance towards it. Lt Colonel Paul Gustave Herbinger leading the 3rd regiment of the 2nd brigade made an elaborate flanking maneuver that saw his forces exhausted and wasting valuable time. Oscar greatly annoyed by this, then simply ordered the 3rd French Foreign Legion battalion of the 4th regiment to attack the fort. The legionnaires scrambled up the mountain paths and quickly seized the fort as Herbinger’s men continued to trek towards it looking foolish as hell. French casualties were 18 dead and 100 or so wounded, the heaviest the French had suffered to a single engagement up to that point in the war.
The next day, the French assaulted a assortment of forts defending the Guangxi army camps at Dong Song and Ha Hoa. The 1st brigade hit the left sides while the 2nd took the right side. French soldiers tossed dynamite onto garrison barrack roofs, fired upon Qing trenches and unleashed hell with artillery to keep the enemy confused and dazed. On the 6th Dong Song was taken by late afternoon with very low casualties incurred for the French. Most of the Qing forces fled Dong Song heading through Pho bu valley towards Lang Son. The loss of Dong Son threatened the Guangxi Army’s right wing holding a position at Bac Le, forcing them to pull back up the Mandarin road to Thanh Moy.
Meanwhile at Dong Song, the French resupplied, taking great stores from the Guangxi army and continued their march by February 11th, coming into contact with the enemy at Pho Vy. The Qing were easily dislodged from the village by Herbinger’s regiment, but soon he was met with a heavy counterattack that forced General Oscar to pull up reserves to help him. On february 12th, the French made it to Bac Vie, just a few km’s south of Lang Son. Giovanninelli’s 1st brigade was leading the way and took the brunt of the initial assault against the Qing lines of defense. The battle was fought in a thick fog, allowing the Qing forces to mount daring counterattacks that nearly repelled Giovanninelli’s entire brigade. But the French were able to break through the center of the Qing defensive lines, isolating two wings who routed and began fleeing to Lang Son. The French received 30 deaths and 188 wounded or their efforts, the highest casualties of the campaign.
The next day the French forces entered Lang Son as the Guangxi Army had abandoned its main hq, only putting up rearguard actions as it did so. The Guangxi army was falling back towards the Chinese border, but put up a strong defensive position in the small town of Dong Dang within Tonkinese territory. In the words of Briere de L’isle about the Lang Son campaign, issued on February the 14th after capturing Lang Son
“You have hoisted the French flag above Lạng Sơn. A Chinese army ten times your numbers has had to recross the frontier in complete rout, leaving in your hands its standards, its arms and its ammunition. It has been forced to abandon to you or to disperse in the mountains the European equipment on which it had so heavily relied to block our march. Glory to all of you who successfully measured yourselves with this army in the actions of the 4th at Tay Hoa, the 5th at Ha Hoa, the 6th at Dong Song, the 9th at Deo Quao, the 11th at Pho Vy, the 12th at Bac Vie and the 13th at Lạng Sơn, and chased it, despite its vigorous resistance, from the formidable positions which it occupied! Honour also to the officers charged with bringing up the food and ammunition trains. It is thanks to their devotion and indefatigable energy that you have been able to eat, and that our advances were not longer delayed”
Now while the Lang Son campaign was coming to an end, back over at the isolated outposts of Thai Nguyen, Hung Hoa and Tuyen Quang, things went to shit again. As soon as Tuyen Quang was relieved during the battle for Yu Oc and the French pulled out, the Yunnan army and Black Flag went right back to work attacking it. Tuyen Quang was given a new garrison, 630 men strong led by Marc-Edmon Domine. Liu Yongfu’s ever annoying Black Flag Army, roughly 3000 men strong at this point, were joined by a Yunnan Army force 9000 men strong led by Tang Jingsong. Tuyen Quang held a fortress, not too large in size, lying on the western bank of the Clear River next to the town of Tuyen Quang. The town held a citadel, barrack buildings, 300 yards of walls and was surrounded by wooded hills. The wooded hills made it extremely difficult for the garrison as enemy snipers were able to fire from their cover. When Dominee got the garrison job, he immediately went to work building a blockhouse on a hill 300 meters south of the towns citadel, defended by some French foreign legionnaires.
In early november the Yunnan Army made its way down the Red River, advancing upon Tuyen Quang building small encampments in villages as they did. By december, the Yunnan forces built 3 enormous fortified camps at Thanh Quan, Ca Lanh and Phu An Binh, for the purpose of raising a siege of Tuyen Quang. The French only saw minor skirmishes up to this point, then in January of 1885, the Qing and Black Flag forces began to squeeze the supply lines going to Tuyen Quang. On the 31st the Yunnan army began its initial attack, which was met with considerable losses. They would launch attacks again on the 10th of january and 26, but not meeting much success. Thus they began the age old tradition of sapping to mine the walls of the fortress. By the 27th their sappers had gone to work sapping towards the blockhouse. 3 days later the French foreign legionnaires knew they would be mined so they abandoned the blockhouse and the Yunnan forces quickly seized it. The Qing used the blockhouse as an advanced position to set up artillery to hit the French fortress, bombarding them nearly every day. The French were met with cannon, mortar and rifle fire from all sides of their position. Domine posted his best snipers along walls trying to inflict casualties on the attackers and occasionally used his artillery to hit the enemy. However the Qing snipers using the wooden hills were impossible to hit, but they inturn were not very successful at hitting the french.
The Qing continued to sap around the French walls, hoping to cause a large breach, but the French were well prepared for this. French counter sappers broke into the Qing tunnels on the 11th of february causing a underground revolver fight, that must of been terrifying. The French tried to flood the tunnel, but by the night of the 12th, the Qing exploded mines under a part of the fort walls. Luckily for the French the mine was weakened by the flooding, not resulting in a large enough explosion to breach. The next day another mine was exploded and this one did cause a 50 foot breach in a southwest part of the walls of the citadel. The Qing surged for the breach and were met by French foreign legionnaires who kept them at bay. By the 17th the Qing brought their artillery closer up to dislodge the legionnaires who were forced to pull back from their foxholes.
On the 22nd, the Qing delivered a major assault after they exploded a mine in another part of the walls acting as a feint to get the defenders to leave the 50 foot breach. The Qing surged again into the breach, but were repelled by a countercharge led personally by Dominee. Then a 3rd mine was exploded taking down 60 yards of wall, signaling a decisive moment. Hundreds of Qing forces surged out of their siege trenches towards the large breaches, met by rapid French rifle fire. As terrifying as it was for the outnumbered French in their trenches they managed to keep the Qing at bay. The breaches were too large, it seemed all was hopeless for the defenders, but word was received that Lang Son had just been seized. General Briere de L’isle left 3000 men to garrison Lang Son and personally led the 1st brigade of Giovanninelli back to Hanoi and raced upriver to relieve Tuyen Quang.
As he made his way, additional forces from Hung Hoa joined him giving him a total strength of 3400 men. The French knew the Black Flags and Yunnan army forces had established yet again a strong encampment at Yu Oc, this time in its gorge near the village of Hoa Moc. Briere de l’isle took the men directly through the Yu Oc gorge, forcing the Qing to mount a defense in Hoa Moc. Liu Yongfu took command of the combined forces there, 6000 strong manning 3 lines of trenches, with their flanks resting on the Clear River to the east and a rough mountain to the west. It was a well positioned defense, forcing the French to attack directly from the front.
On the morning of March 2nd, the French approached what looked like deserted trenches, there were no signs of the enemy. Giovanninelli sent a platoon over to check it out and they were met with a volley at point blank range killing and wounding 30. Seeing the enemy, Giovanninelli opened up his artillery upon the left flank and sent a battalion forward to assault it. The Qing responded by exploding a mine in front of their trenches devastating an Algerian unit leading to the assault failing. Another assault was formed, but once they came within rifle fire the Qing overpowered them sending them reeling back.
Giovannenilli redeployed his artillery to hit another section of the first trench lines and then tossed a 3rd assault which broke through a section of the forward trenches. This prompted Liu Yongfu to launch a counterattack against the French left flank to try and distract them from advancing more, but it was driven off with heavy losses. The casualties had mounted up heavily for both sides and by night time it was unknown whether the French would have enough power to break through during the morning. Briere de l’isle and Giovanninelli were shocked by the enemies resistance and in the words of Lt Huguet,
“The general-in-chief was sitting behind a bank, anxious, his head in his hands, surrounded by his staff, perhaps wondering whether he would have to retreat. Colonel Giovanninelli, who valued the life of the humblest soldier as dearly as his own, was pale and shaken as he watched the lines of bloodstained stretchers file past him, and kept exclaiming in a strangled voice, 'My children! My poor children!' The bullets whistled incessantly in the close air, and the groans of the wounded men lying in the rose bushes, inside the bamboo groves, and against the sides of the enemy works, rose ever more distinctly”.
That night, Liu Yongfu ordered his forces to make a counterattack to try and take back the lost front line trenches. The French responded with a bayonet charge leading to a night brawl of hand-to-hand lighting until the Qing were driven off. The next day Giovanninelli was forced to bring up all the reserves and ordered an entire brigade assault against the stretch of forward trench lines still held by the enemy. The French began at a trot, then went into a full blown charge expecting to be met by a halestorm of volley fire, but instead found the trenches deserted. Liu Yongfu had pulled out after the failed night attack, leaving the way to Tuyen Quang clear.
It was a bloody fight. The French had 76 deaths and 408 wounded, the highest casualty rate and largest loss of life in a single days fighting for the war. 6 officers were dead, 21 wounded, countless men would be tossed onto gunboats only to die in hospitals in Dap Cau and Thi Cau. It was a decisive victory as Liu Yongfu and the Yunnan army lifted their siege of Tuyen Quang, withdrawing further west. Briere de L’isle entered the brutalized outpost on March 3rd , and as told to us by Captain Jean-Francois-Alphonse Lecomte,
“We approached the fortress. At the head of a group of officers we saw a captain with a long white beard, who was flourishing his cane and dancing an impromptu jig. The first man he met in the relief column was a bugler. He threw his arms around him. Then he embraced the second bugler. The band tried to keep its dignity, but to no avail. He then abandoned the buglers and fell on the neck of the first drummer. For a moment the drum stood between him and the object of his affections, but eventually he managed to plant two loud kisses on the drummer’s cheeks. Then he made for the general-in-chief. There was a sudden hush, as when an orchestra falls silent at the end of a dance. He recovered himself, solemnly clicked his heels, and saluted General Brière de l’Isle. We recognised Captain de Borelli. "Good afternoon, Captain, how are you? We’re delighted to see you!" "Indeed! Me too! Especially as I only just escaped being killed this morning!"
The men of Tuyen Quang had 50 dead and 224 wounded during their defense of the town. It was estimated by the French that the Black Flag and Yunnan forces suffered 1000 deaths and 2000 wounded during the siege and battle of Hoa Moc. The fight to save Tuyen Quang would become the defining image of the Sino-French War and placed second only to the Battle of Camerone in 1863 for the roll of battle honors of the French Foreign Legion.
Now when Briere de l’isle grabbed the 1st brigade to relieve Tuyen Quang, he left the 2nd brigade of Oscar to occupy Lang Son, but also to press forward to rid Tonkinese soil of the Guangxi Army. General Oscar had 2900 men and knew the enemy had left a last toehold at Dong Dang. That toehold turned out to be an extremely formidable one. They established a position on a 300 meter limestone plateau rising west of the Mandarin road and just a bit north of Dong Dang leading to what is known as “the gate of China”. The gate of china was a border gate, think of a less grand Great wall of China, that sits atop a large sheer cliff. It can only be climbed from its western approach and it was very well defended with artillery positions on its summit. The Guangxi army’s position along the hills east of the Mandarin road were covered by numerous elevated infantry and artillery positions making it extremely difficult to attack head on. For a force to seize this they would need to assault the limestone massif and to do that one would first have to seize the town of Dong Dang. The town itself was the weakest point of defense for the Guangxi army, it held low lying buildings. There were also forts in the villages to the west of Dong Tien, That ke and Pho bu.
Oscar led the men out of Lang Son on February 23rd going up the Mandarin road. Along the way his vanguard reached the village of Tham Lon and the hamlet of Ban Vinh. There they engaged a small group of Guangxi units who were patrolling the area. They quickly fled to warn their forces at Dong Dang of the incoming attack. The French forces had to fight their way up the rest of the Mandarin road, being assaulted on their left and right flanks. The Guangxi army’s artillery for once held a distinctive advantage because of the cliff positions and took a toll upon the French. This forced the French to assault multiple hills along the way to neutralize the artillery pieces until they fell upon the western town forts.
Upon seeing the defenses of the Guangxi army, Oscar knew they had to get them off the limestone massif. To attack that though, Dong Dan had to be seized, but to take that without losing half of his men he needed to neutralize the western forts. Oscar began by bombarding the forts with his artillery from a long range. Once the forts were silenced he turned his artillery upon the hills east of the Mandarin road, the idea was simple, he was trying to edge in with his artillery while avoiding as much of the enemy’s as possible. By 3pm the western forts and their defenders seemed sufficiently battered, so Oscar ordered Lt Colonel Herbinger to seize them. The Guangxi defender upon seeing the charging French left the forts, opening the path to Dong Dang.
The French began bombarding the towns buildings lighting them ablaze and leaving just a small amount of Guangxi units trying to skirmish. Herbinger ordered his men to assault the town and they began to advance over a km of open ground where the Guangxi army artillery atop the summit could fire down upon them. As the French marched towards the outskirts of the town they were met with intense artillery fire and the men hesitated. Their officers leapt from their horses, to push the men out of the firing range and this drove them into a charge of the blazing town. The soldiers charged wildly and disorderly through the town trying to get at the few Chinese skirmishes as their officers barked orders at them, but it was to no avail as the French soldiers were running for their damn lives under intense artillery fire and now the heat of fire from the town itself. The Guangxi skirmishers scared out of their mind fled the town and the French officers eventually regained their mens composure.
From here Herbinger ordered his men to march forward up the slopes towards the massif. They were met with intense artillery fire and men began to fall as they scrambling up the slopes as fast as they could. Despite mounting casualties, the French continued until they hit the most forward trench positions and only when a entire French battalion tossed its strength did the Guangxi defenders give way. The Guangxi army’s right wing fell back to That Ke as the French continued towards the summit of the limestone massif. They reached the summit, finally gaining the vantage point and began to fire down upon the enemy near the Mandarin road.
Now all that remained was a enemy position northeast of Dong Dang which blocked the advance up the Mandarin road. The French seized a hill due north of Pho Bu and began to use their artillery on it to hit the enemy. Seeing the right flank of the enemy fleeing to That Ke, Oscar ordered two forward companies to pursue them, while others seized the village of Cua Ai and finally the Gate of China. A french battalion reached the Gate of China which was protected by two flanking forts and trenches along the slopes of its neighboring hills. However all the forces allocated to these defensive positions had been moved forward at the offset of battle and when they ran back the French gave them little time to rally. Their lines quickly broke, allowing legionnaires to occupy the Gate of China with relative ease. The rest of the brigade gradually took Cua Ai, the hills east of the Mandarin road and all met up at the Gate of China as the Guangxi army fled to its homeland.
Believe it or not, the French claim to have lost 9 men dead and nearly 50 wounded, during this chaotic battle. The Guangxi army casualties are unknown but were probably in the hundreds. After clearing the Qing forces from Tonkin territory, the French literally blew up the Gate of China on february 25th. The Qing customs building, Tonkin-Guangxi border, were all destroyed. Oscar placed a wooden placard on the ruins inscribing in Chinese the words “'It is not stone walls that protect frontiers, but the faithful execution of treaties'
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The French had kicked the Qing forces finally out of Tonkin, so the war must be over right? One would think so, but there were still some surprises to occur in the undeclared Sino-French War of 1884-1885.