Battle against oblivion: the defeat that ended French colonial rule in Vietnam
Dien Bien Phu: three words that in France are still synonymous with a symbolic defeat. On 7 May 1954, after 57 days and nights of fierce fighting between Viet Minh troops and members of the French expeditionary force, the insurgents finally prevailed.
As historian Jean-Pierre Rioux noted, this was "the only pitched battle to be lost by a European army in the history of decolonisation" and it signalled the beginning of the end for France's empire. The victory by the soldiers of Ho Chi Minh would weigh on the Geneva negotiations, at the end of which, on 21 July 1954, the French prime minister Pierre Mendes-France signed the agreement ending the first war in Indochina. It had lasted eight years, leaving 3,420 killed and 5,300 wounded among the French, and many more among the Viet Minh.
At the time the military described Dien Bien Phu as a cuvette, or basin. But when we landed on the airstrip, which was originally laid out by the French and is now asphalted, the overall impression was very different. It is more like a large bathtub, surrounded by hills and mountains that form the sides of a broad valley.
Equally surprising, Dien Bien Phu is a large, rather untidy town (population circa 100,000), with houses patched together haphazardly, overlooking several long avenues. It looks like a provincial capital and at first sight there is nothing to recall the battle 60 years ago, when the valley was sparsely populated by the Tai ethnic minority. Walking down the street there is certainly no sign of the hillocks that dotted the plain, forming a ring of strongholds that were supposed to protect the main camp in the centre. The French had fortified these positions, giving them women's names such as Eliane, Beatrice, Gabrielle and Huguette. In fact, the city covers up such details. In Hanoi, veterans who took part in the battle told us they were unhappy about this trend. They would have liked Dien Bien Phu to stay as it was, a place of memory and a living museum for one of the great victories of modern times.
When the Viet Minh launched their attack on 13 March, the French forces under General Christian de Castries were itching for a fight. They were convinced that with their firepower, aviation, artillery and fortifications they would be able to drive the enemy back into a trap. Both sides seem to have been determined to make this the mother of all battles. The French believed that if they could defeat the insurgents here they could drive them back into Laos. General Vo Nguyen Giap, who threw most of the forces at his disposal into the battle, also saw the cuvette as a trap, but for the French.
In Hanoi we talked to Nguyen Phuong Nam, 84, who fought at Dien Bien Phu, commanding a regiment 800-strong and acting as a political commissar. "We had to drag the guns up the hills overlooking the valley, after dismantling them and transporting them on rafts," he says. "It was hard labour getting through the jungle, with the heat and the waterfalls. But we did it, because we wanted independence. We were primarily a force of peasant soldiers and we knew that victory would change our lives. Such moral force was unthinkable for the French."
So at 5pm on 13 March the Viet Minh guns opened fire, targeting Beatrice which actually consisted of three separate, well fortified mounds. The officers were killed and, one by one, the various strongholds fell to the enemy. By midnight Beatrice was off the air. The French were taken completely by surprise. They had no idea the Viet Minh could command such firepower, largely thanks to communist China and to a lesser extent the Soviet Union. In all they had 20 105mm guns, 24 75mm mountain guns, heavy mortars and anti-aircraft guns. In addition Giap had marshalled 30 regular battalions about 40,000 soldiers not counting support troops and volunteers. The French had several infantry units and paratroopers, some belonging to the Foreign Legion, in all about 15,700 men, many of whom were from north or west Africa.
Exploring Beatrice's reconstituted trenches now, it is easy to imagine the fearful conditions for troops crouching behind their fortifications as shells rained down, struggling to repel attacks with machine-gun fire. By mid-March the situation had deteriorated so far that General Rene Cogny, commander of French forces in Tonkin (North Vietnam), told General Henri Navarre, the expeditionary force leader, that "Dien Bien Phu might fall the following night". But Giap, whose forces had suffered heavy casualties in attacks on French positions, decided to hold off. However, on 30 March the "battle of the five hills" started. One after another the strongholds Huguette, Dominique and Claudine were overrun, leaving only Eliane, another series of hillocks, to protect the base camp. The drama's final act unfolded around Eliane 2, where the French made their last, suicidal stand.
The Vietnamese have focused much of their subsequent efforts to commemorate the battle on this spot. Apart from a new museum, which opened on 7 May, all one usually sees are plaques, few of which are translated into French or English. But at Eliane 2 visitors can view a fortified command post and the wreckage of a US M24 Chaffee tank, now set on a pedestal and protected by glass. Above all there are trenches that give some idea of how close the opposing forces were.
In Hanoi another veteran, battalion commander Nguyen Dung Chi, told us his story in perfect French. "I was in the trench closest to the French. I was always in the frontline," he says. "On 30 March we failed to take Eliane. We had made tactical mistakes. On 6 and 7 May we decided to seize the positions on the flanks and at the rear. The assault ended in hand-to-hand fighting ... We couldn't see anything any longer, we didn't try to take aim, we just moved forward, jumping from trench to trench, stepping on bodies. When the French command post fell I saw the dead bodies of a white man and an African. In our ranks, people were sometimes dispirited of course, but very little."
It was all over. The Viet Minh laid charges just in front of the remaining French positions, setting them off to signal the start of the final assault. The huge hole they made is still visible.
Chi, a witty old fellow, recalled the first hours of victory. Though not the first to enter the main command post, he saw it shortly after the French surrendered. "Silence had fallen on Dien Bien Phu," he explains. "It stank. The smell of death but also rotting flesh with all the wounded French soldiers lying there." He ran into Genevieve de Galard, the "angel of Dien Bien Phu", a nurse who stuck it out till the end to look after the wounded and dying. "I walked towards her," Chi recalls. "She raised her arms and said: 'Don't shoot!' I asked her where the HQ was. She made a sign with her hand: 'Over there.' I went to see but it was empty. On the general's table I found an atlas open at the page for the USSR, a Parker pen and a paratrooper's knife." He smiles. "I took the knife and pen as souvenirs."
Parts of the story are still uncertain, though. The photograph of Vietnamese troops raising the red flag with a yellow star over the HQ did not really happen, according to Dao Thanh Huyen, a French-speaking journalist who coordinated the book Dien Bien Phu: Vu d'en Face.
So this scene, which symbolised Vietnam's victory over an old colonial power, was invented. Another controversy centres on the issue of whether the French surrendered or not. The chief of staff had ruled out such humiliating behaviour, but the Vietnamese account differs. Chi says: "When the firing stopped, I saw French soldiers here and there waving scraps of white fabric."
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