May 8, 2023
Last time we spoke about the final battles to push the Qing forces out of Tonkin. The Qing, Black Flag and Vietnamese forces were fighting bitterly, on the open field and as guerillas to kick France out of Tonkin. The guerilla activity led to bloody months at the isolated outposts of Thai Nguyen, Hung Hoa and Tuyen Quang. To dislodge the Qing army from Tonkin, the French attacked them at Nui Bop and seized Lang son thus saving the outposts from being taken. After securing their outposts the French recommenced their offensive attacking Hoa Moc. But the Qing and Black Flag forces erected a siege at Tuyen Quang, to which the French beat them again. Then at Dang Dong, the French finally pushed the Qing forces across the Gate of China back to their homeland. The war over Tonkin was fierce, costing countless lives and all for a war never officially declared, but was it all won and done? Well we are about to find out.
#47 The Sino-French War of 1884-1885 part 4: Of War and Peace
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 Francois Oscar de Negrier took his 2nd brigade and absolutely smashed the remnants of the Guangxi army at Dang Dong, sending them fleeing back into their homeland. For good measure the French literally blew up the Gate of China, also known today as the “Gate of Friendship” which was the border between Guangxi and Tonkin. The customs building, walls, gate itself, all of it was blown sky high. Once this was done the 2nd brigade pulled back to Lang Son at the end of February of 1885. Thus by March the the Guangxi army had been pushed out of Tonkin by General Oscar, while the Yunnan army had been defeated heavily at Tuyen Quang and Hung Hoa by the 1st brigade of Giovanninelli.
Despite the sweeping victories, the Qing were not truly defeated by any means they still held considerable forces across the border. General Briere de L’isle thought about launching an offensive against the nearest target within China, such as the military depot at Longzhou, but he did not have enough men to really pull it off, he had to wait for reinforcements. Reinforcements would arrive in mid march. He sat down with his officers and devised a course of action. It was agreed the 1st brigade would attack the Yunnan army to push them beyond the Yen Bay while the 2nd brigade would hold its position at Lang Son.
The Guangxi Army in the meantime was rebuilding its strength and by March 17th had been bolstered to 30,000 men. Soon the Guangxi army was pressing upon the Tonkin border with two major camps at Yen Cua Ai and Bang Bo with over 9 separate military commands. At Yen Cua Ai were 10 battalions led by General Feng Zicai, around 7500 men strong. Behind Yen Cua Ai in the village of Mufu, 2-3 kms away were another 7000 men led by Generals Su Yuanchun and Chen Jia; another 15kms behind Mufu at the village of Pingxiang was another 7000 men led by General Jian Zonghan and Fang Yusheng. 50 kms to the west AT Aiwa village was 3500 men led by Wei Gang. 15 kms east in at Cua Ai sitting just a toehold within Tonkin was 3500 men led by General Wang Debang. And overall commander of the Guangxi army, General Pan Dingxian was at Haicun, over 30 kms behind Mufu village with 3500 men. General Oscar had around 1600 men to hold Lang Son, yes it was not looking good for the french boys.
On March 22nd, Feng Zicai led a raid against a French outpost at Dong Dang. That said outpost was held by forces under Lt Colonel Paul Gustave Herbinger, someone we spoke a tiny bit about in a previous battle who made the rather idiotic decision to outflank the enemy by going way too far around, so far that his superior simply sent another force to attack the enemy. Herbingers french foreign legionnaires fought off the raid once the rest of the 2nd brigade came up to support his outposts defense. Upon driving off the raiders, General Oscar decided it was a good idea to strike back. He hoped to take the enemy by surprise and led the men to cross over to the Zhennanguan pass which held the Guangxi encampment at Bang Bo. Oscar did not intend for a major offensive against Guangxi province, his simple aim was to raid them back and give some breathing room for Dong Dang.
Oscar left a single company of the 2nd African battalion with some batteries to hold Lang Son and the 23rd battalion to hold Dong Dang which would act as his supply line as his main body marched to Zhennanguan. On March 23rd, 1600 men with 10 artillery pieces made their way. The next day the French were met with fierce resistance when they approached Zhennanguan. There they found the Guangxi army utilizing outwork fortifications. Along with the defense, Wang Debang sent his force from Cua Ai to launch a counterattack hitting the French right flank. Oscars men were able to repel the counterattack and seize the outworks and the next day he had his men launch an attack against the enemy’s main at position of Bang Bo. He planned to hit the front while simultaneously sending men to sweep around the rear. The frontal defensive line of Bang Bo held a long trenchline which the french named the Long trench. To attack the front, Oscar sent the 111th battalion led by chef de bataillon Francois Leon Faure and for the rear attack, the 2nd legion battalion of chef de bataillon Digeut and the 143rd battalion of chef de bataillon Farret. Herbinger who was leading the 3rd regiment was ordered to guide Diguet and Farret to perform their rear attack maneuver. Unfortunately a thick fog hit the area causing Herbinger to get lost. Oscar, unaware of Herbingers plight mistook a Guangxi army column moving towards the Long Trench to be Herbingers 2 battalions, and promptly ordered Faure to launch his frontal attack.
Fauvre’s 111th formed their line and charged into the fray. They immediately came under intense fire from Feng Zicai’s infantry manning the Long trench and other Guangxi units manning nearby hills. Within seconds several officers were killed. Two companies made it to the trench and after a very short hand to hand fighting match were fleeing from a major counter attack led personally by Feng Zicai. The carnage was intense, and what saved many of the fleeing French was the Guangxi army’s resolve to behead the wounded and plunder them of their arms.
Meanwhile to the right of the battlefield, Ferrets 143rd battalion and Diguets 2nd legionnaires leapt into the fray of battle, several hours longer than expected. They quickly seized a Qing held fort. At 3pm, Pan Dingxin after watching the 111th battalion flee for their lives saw Herbingers command and tossed a counterattack their way. Herbingers command was nearly encircled, in fact a single company of the 143rd battalion led by the Irish officer, Captain Patrick Cotter were completely encircled. Harbinger ordered the men to retreat and leave Captain Patrick’s company behind, but the French foreign legionnaires ignored the order and charged at the Qing to break free the company. Despite the company being able to break free, Captain Patrick was killed in the action. Gradually Digeut and Farret’s men fell back, performing a fighting withdrawal to keep the Qing onslaught at bay best they could.
During the chaos, the 3rd legion battalion of Lt Colonel Schoeffer had been ordered to stay on Tonkinese soil around Dang Dong to protect their flanks found themselves fighting desperately to keep a line of retreat for the incoming french. Schoeffer’s men had to fight off both flanks enabling the rest of the army to fight their way back down the middle. General Oscar was leading the rearguard to try and maintain morale and was successful at stopping a complete rout of his forces. Oscar spent the majority of the late afternoon quelling disorder amongst differing commands, trying to keep the men together. The entire brigades morale was dropping as was their ammunition, so Oscar called for a general retreat back to Lang Son. On the night of March 24th they camped at Dong Dang exhausted and shell shocked. Sergeant Maury of Digeuts 2nd legionnaires had this to say about the feelings of the men.
“The night was very dark. The soldiers marched in complete silence. We felt cheated, ashamed, and angry. We were leaving behind us both victory and many of our friends. From time to time, in low murmurs, we established who was missing. Then we relapsed into the silence of mourning and the bitterness of loss. And so we reached Dong Dang, without being disturbed. We slept in the field hospital huts, after drinking some soup. We were harassed and hungry. We had not eaten all day, and had drunk nothing since morning except a single cup of coffee. In spite of my weariness, I spent a troubled night. My spirits were haunted by the day's memories, by images of the fighting and phantasms of our misfortunes. I was shaken with spasms. I trembled as I have never done on the battlefield. I lay down, but was unable to sleep.”
The French had 74 deaths, 213 wounded, amongst the dead were 7 officers. They estimated the Qing casualties to be around 1650. The defeat shocked France who were becoming accustomed to victory reports. Oscar kept the men marching back to Long San, as their coolies all abandoned them creating a sever supply issue. The Guangxi army pursued them the entire way, leading to another battle at Ky Lua on march 28th. This time the French had rested a bit and took up defensive positions behind earthworks. The rationale for the battle was to hold onto the road to Long San for as long as possible and they managed to repel an intense attack from the enemy. The French saw 7 deaths with 38 wounded but inflicted severe casualties upon the pursuing enemy. The French claimed to have seen over 1200 corpses scattered around the battlefield and perhaps wounded over 6000 Guangxi soldiers if its to be believed. Towards the end of the carnage, Oscar was severely wounded in the chest while helping his scouts find Qing positions. He was forced to hand command over to the most senior officer, Herbinger. At this point many officers had commented on his lackluster performance during the undeclared war, he had seriously messed up on quite the occasions.
It seems Herbinger began his command in a rather panicked state, for despite the fact they had battered the Qing pursuers, he was convinced they were going to encircle the brigade at any moment. Against the majority of his officers' protest, he ordered the 2nd brigade to abandon Lang Son on the night he took command. They were to retreat to Chu and initially they were divided marching in two columns with Herbingers going towards Thang Moy and Schoeffer’s going to Dong Song. Herbinger began to fear the men towing the artillery would slow down his retreat so he ordered the artillery pieces tossed into the Song Ki Cong river alongside their brigades treasure chest. At the same time Herbinger send a runner over to Briere de l’isle over in Hanoi claiming he did not have enough ammunition to fight a second battle for Lang Son and that he was retreating. His claim of not having enough ammunition would later prove to be incorrect.
Both Herbinger and Schoeffer forced a intense pace for their marches and by the time the men reached Thang Moy and Dong Song they were exhausted. Briere de L’ilse upon receiving the message from Herbinger was shocked he abandoned Lang Song. He prompted sent word back to Paris about the ordeal. The next day Briere de l’isle sent a message over to Herbinger demanding him to hold his position at Thanh Moy and Dong Song. Herbinger thought it insane to do so, but he obeyed the orders nonetheless.
On the 30th, the French prepared their defenses at Thanh Moy and Dong Song. Herbinger tossed some cavalry patrols to figure out where the Guangxi army would hit them from and they came back with reports they were heading down the Mandarin road south of Lang Son. Harbinger sent word to Briere de l’isle, stating he believed the enemy would soon encircle them. The French defenders were told by Herbinger to fasten their bayonets and hunker down. Now it seems Herbinger’s nerves were shot, because on the night of the 30th he told his fellow officers he believed they were all going to be massacred the following morning. He went to bed at 8pm and an hour later he began to hear firing from forward outposts. It would turn out to be a false alarm, but one officer rushed over to Herbinger to wake him up and report the action to which Herbinger allegedly said “'I'm sick, and the column is just as sick as me! Leave me alone!'
Meanwhile Briere de l’isle was receiving Herbingers panicked reports throughout the night and he reluctantly gave Herbinger permission to retreat back to Chu at 10pm if in his words “if the situation demanded it”. That was more than enough for Herbinger who immediately ordered a retreat to Chu that very night. Harbinger’s message back to Briere de l’isle read this 'I will take advantage of the night and the moon to retire, in conformity with your instructions”. And so the men packed up and began their trek from Thang Moy and Dong Song linking up along the way. Schoeffer’s force were attacked by some Qing patrols, but it did not amount to much. Harbinger yet again, ordered artillery pieces to be spiked and abandoned believing they would slow down his column. However the gunnery officers disobeyed the orders and kept carrying the pieces all the way safely to Chu. At dawn the on the 31st, the Guangxi army caught up to the French near the village of Pho Cam, just as Herbinger received reinforcements, a squadron of Spahi cavalry. Upon seeing the cavalry, the French officers and soldiers rejoiced, seeking to direct them to charge into the forward Guangxi army patrols to break them down a bit, but Herbinger forbid a charge and instead ordered the retreat to continue at pace.
Now, while Herbinger thought the entire Guangxi army was coming after him, this was not the case. Back on the 29th, the bulk of the Guangxi army was actually retreating back towards Zhennanguan. That was until some Vietnamese caught up to them, giving them reports the French were shockingly abandoning Lang Son and in a full retreat. General Pan Dingxin could not believe it, and he immediately ordered his battered army to turn around to seize Lang Son. Once Lang Son had been taken he sent out smaller forces to skirmish with the retreating French to prod them along, because the reality was his army was in no condition to fully attack them. When he received word his skirmishers were hitting the French around Pho Cam, he ordered his main body to occupy Dong Song and Bac Le, knowing they were undefended. Thus Herbinger had unknowingly lost everything gained during the last offensive to kick the Guangxi army out of Tonkin!
On April 1st, the 2nd brigade finally got to Chu, exhausted and bitterly demoralized. Briere de l’isle had ordered the 1st brigade to depart Hung Hoa for Chu and told Colonel Gustave Borgnis Desbordes to take command of the 2nd brigade. On the 2nd of April Colonel Desbordes relieved Herbinger of his command and issued the following order to the 2nd Brigade,
“In view of General de Négrier's serious wound, I have been asked to take provisional command of the brigade. I have arrived with fresh troops and ammunition. I have been told by the general-in-chief that there is to be no further retreat. We are to remain here at all costs. And that is precisely what we shall do.” Minecraft Ompf sounds.
Now the 1st brigade had not sat by idle while all the chaos and disorder befell the 2nd brigade. Back on March 23rd, the 1st battalion led by chef de bataillon Simon were ordered to depart from Hung Hoa to perform a preliminary reconnaissance of the village of Phu Lam Tao. The reason for this was because the French had been receiving reports the Black Flags along with remnants of the Yunnan army had begun occupying it. Simons men, 1000 strong went to the village discovering the reports to be true. Simon ordered his men to attack and disaster struck. According to Lt Colonel Bonifacy the troops quickly fell into disorder, tossed their equipment down, including rifles and fled the scene. A military report of the operation indicated 400 uniforms and large quantities of arms were abandoned. The French suffered around 50 casualties. Now while this was by no means a large engagement nor that significant of a defeat, in combination to the disastrous Long San retreat, it would lead to a devastating effect for France.
The situation these two combined events created is known as the “Tonkin affair”. Briere de L’isle while in Hanoi had begun to plan moving his HQ over to Hung Hoa where he further planned to launch an offensive against the Yunnan Army believed to be still operating around Tuyen Quang. However the disastrous retreat of Herbinger combined with the defeat of Simon’s force. This led Briere de l’isle to believe the entire Red River Delta region was threatened and he sent a fateful telegram, under duress which made its way to the French government on the 28th, here is the Lang Son Telegram,
I am grieved to tell you that General de Négrier is seriously
wounded and Lạng Sơn has been evacuated.
The Chinese forces advanced in three large groups, and fiercely assaulted our positions in front of Ky Lua. Facing greatly superior numbers, short of ammunition, and exhausted from a series of earlier actions, Colonel Herbinger has informed me that the position was untenable and that he has been forced to fall back tonight on Dong Song and Thanh Moy. All my efforts are being applied to concentrate our forces at the passes around Chu and Kép. The enemy continues to grow stronger on the Red River, and it appears that we are facing an entire Chinese army, trained in the European style and ready to pursue a concerted plan. I hope in any event to be able to hold the entire Delta against this invasion, but I consider that the government must send me reinforcements (men, ammunition, and pack animals) as quickly as possible.”
The telegram created a political crisis, the stock market plunged and many called for Jules Ferry to resign. Ferry dove into a heated debate calling for the need to avenge the loss at Lang Son and to secure Frances hold over Tonkin. To do this, Ferry demanded 200 million francs to be handed over to the army and navy which met a bitter rebuttal from George Clemenceau who absolutely tore Ferry for everything. Here is a bit of his speech,
“We’re completely finished with you! We’re never going to listen to you again! We’re not going to debate the nation's affairs with you again! We no longer recognise you! We don’t want to recognise you!You’re no longer ministers! You all stand accused (long pause) of high treason! And if the principles of accountability and justice still exist in France, the law will soon give you what you deserve!'
A motion of no confidence was immediately tabled and Ferry was voted down 306 to 149. Ferry left in absolute disgrace as all of Paris blew up blaming him for what became infamously known as “the tonkin affair”. The humiliating blow saw Henri Brisson become Prime Minister who started his premiership by trying to negotiate a peace with the Qing dynasty. Meanwhile back over in Formosa, the French were still effectively blockading its northern territory. The war in Formosa had never quieted down, Liu Mingchuan as you might recall received reinforcements in the form of Anhui and Xiang army units, by April of 1885 he had 35,000 men. They were also armed with more modern firearms such as the Lee Model 1879 rifle, Winchesters, Remingtons and Mausers. The french considered these forces to be the cream of the Qing military, well dressed, well armed, and noticeably tall and sturdy. Liu Mingchuan did not stop there, he began hiring more local Hakka militiamen and head-hunting Formosan aborigines.
On the other side the Formosa expeditionary corps had also been bolstered, now 4000 men strong led by Lt Colonel Jacque Duchesne who had gained fame serving a major defeat to Liu Yongfu’s black flag army at the battle of Yu Oc. The two opposing forces skirmished quite often, until January of 1885 when a real offensive began. Duchesne ordered his men to seize Yeuh-mei-shan known as “la table” to the french. The offensive started out rough due to terrible torrential rain. The French and Qing forces fought for days at a place known as Fork Y, but in the end Duchesne’s men were able to push the Qing out of the way and they continued to march upon La Table. By February La Table was seized and the Qing forces bombarded their position by mid february until the French silenced their artillery using their own. In March Duchesne launched a second offensive, successfully breaking the Qing encirclement of Keelung, delivering an outstanding outflanking maneuver. Duchesne’s men pushed the Qing past the Keelung river losing 41 men dead and 157 wounded, while estimating they inflicted up to 1500 casualties on the enemy. The French seized numerous forts the Qing had built up to surround Keelung at Shih-ch’iu’ling, Hung-tan-shan and Yeuh-mei-shan, renaming them La Dent, Fort Bamboo and fort La Table.
It was an incredible French victory given the odds, but these feats were done at the same time as the famous Siege of Tuyen Quang and thus remained largely unknown to the French public. Alongside this, Duchesne’s victories enabled Admiral Courbet to follow them up by landing marine forces from the Keelung garrison to capture the Pescadore islands in late March. Controlling the Pescadore islands allowed the French to thwart Qing reinforcement of Formosa, thus France was gradually consolidating its control over the entire island. But this also came right smack dab in the middle of the Herbinger Lang Son retreat disaster. Admiral Courbet almost had to evacuate Keelung to take the forces over to Tonkin to save the situation, but the peace talks had begun before he could do so. Imagine that, a French controlled Taiwan? What the alternate history peeps would do with that one I do not know.
So things were not going well for France, the French public were losing their minds over the Tonkin debacle forcing them to the peace table. However, things were going wildly worse for the Qing dynasty. Because if you can remember way back when, before we began this French adventure, the Qing were having troubles with Japan over Korea. The Gapsin coup had occurred in December of 1884 drawing the Qing attention towards the threat of Japan. Things in Korea were beginning to get much worse and to be honest, as grand a success as Herbinger had delivered the Qing during his disastrous retreat, in truth the Guangxi army was decimated by the war. Yes they grabbed their positions back within Tonkin, but holding them was another matter entirely. To add to their misery it looked like they were going to lose Formosa, thus Empress Dowager Cixi ordered the Qing envoys to the peace table.
The Qing sent Li Hongzhang to meet with Jules Patenotre and they opened up by agreeing to the provisions of the Tientsin Accord. The French would get their protectorate over Vietnam, but they were to drop the longstanding demand of reparations for the Bac Le ambush. Negotiations carried on into April of 1885 where they finally agreed to a preliminary peace protocol and an immediate ceasefire in Tonkin and Formosa. The French agreed to life their rice blockade and the Qing finally agreed to pull out the Yunnan and Guangxi armies from Tonkin with an official deadline stated for May of 1885. The Qing also made sure to pressure Liu Yongfu and his Black Flag Army to withdraw from Tonkin so he did not screw up their peace deal. By June of 1885 the new Tientsin Accord was signed.
A by product of this war, was the absolute destruction of a capable Vietnamese resistance movement. France added Tonkin and Annam to their holding of Cochinchina and would seize Cambodia by 1887 thus creating French Indochina. By 1893 Laos would also be added after the Franco-Siamese War, thus creating a large French Far east colonial empire. It would not be until the Pacific War whereupon France would lose its iron control over southeast asia.
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 www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. 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.
And so, France had won an undeclared war over the Qing dynasty and in the process would control a large portion of Southeast Asia, known to them as French Indochina. The Qing had been dealt yet again another humiliating blow.