First Indochina War

Background Information on Indochina

French Indochina was the part of the French colonial empire in Indochina in Southeast Asia.
French Indochina was formed in October 1887 from territories Annam, Tonkin, Cochinchina (who together form modern day Vietnam) and the Kingdom of Cambodia. Laos was added after the Franco-Siamese War of 1893.
The capital of French Indochina was the city of Hanoi, they spoke French and their form of government was a Federation, this represented the firm grip that France had over Indochina, an influence that was not always appreciated by the natives of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and similar countries.
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French Indochina (also known as the French Indochina War, the The Anti-French War, the Franco-Vietnamese War, the Franco-Vietminh War, the Indochina War and the Dirty War in France and in contemporary Vietnam, as the French War)
What was the First Indochina War? The First Indochina war was a war fought in French Indochina that the French occupied from 1887-1954.

Who were the combatants?

The French Union that contained-France, the State of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia (with the United States provide a little support) Commanded by the following leaders (a brief description of each is given):

France State of Vietnam

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Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque (1945-46) was the Free France general during World War II; he became Marshal of France, in 1952. As new commander of the Far East French Forces, Leclerc's forces set forth in October 1945 in French Indochina, first cracking a Viet Minh blockade around Saigon, then driving through the Mekong delta and up into the highlands. Admiral d'Argenlieu criticized Leclerc saying. "I am amazed - yes, that is the word, amazed - that France's fine expeditionary corps in Indochina is commanded by officers who would rather negotiate than fight". General Leclerc, returned to Paris from Vietnam, now warned, "Anti-communism will be a useless tool unless the problem of nationalism is resolved." But his wisdom was ignored. Jean-Étienne Valluy then replaced him.

Jean-Étienne Valluy (1946-8) attempted to wipe out the Viet Minh in one stroke, but failed. "If those gooks want a fight, they'll get it," said Valluy as he landed in Haiphong on December 17, his temper boiling over the slaughter of three French soldiers by Viet Minh militia in Hanoi that day. The French surrounded the Viet Minh base, Viet Bac in 1947 by securing its only two roads and dropping paratroopers. They almost captured Ho Chi Minh, who slipped into a camouflaged hole at the last minute. But General Valluy, whose experience until then had been in Europe, quickly sized up his efforts as possible. With a total of some fifteen thousand men, he was trying to defeat sixty thousand enemy troops over nearly eighty thousand square miles of almost impenetrable forest. Unlike his 19th-century predecessors, he was up against not small insurgent bands but a disciplined army. He could only withdraw to a thin string of forts along Route 4, a twisting road running through ravines and over high passes between the towns of Lang Son and Cao Bang. Chronically exposed to Viet minh ambushes, French soldiers dubbed it the Rue sans Joie, or Street without Joy.

Roger Blaizot (1948-9) General Officer Commanding 1st Motorized Colonial Division, General Officer Commanding 9th Colonial Division
French Liaison Officer to Supreme Allied Commander South-east Asia- 1945
General Officer Commanding Forces Francaises Extrême Orient. He fought in a couple of battles but they resulted in a French Union defeat. He was replaced by Carpentier in 1949.

Marcel-Maurice Carpentier (1949-50) was a French military officer who served in World War II and First Indochina War. In 1949 he was appointed commander-in-chief of French Union forces in Indochina, but in 1950 De Lattre replaced him.
Jean de Lattre de Tassigny (1950-51) commanded French troops in Indochina during the First Indochina War. He won three major victories at Vinh Yen, Mao khé and Yen Cu Ha and defended successfully the north of the country against the Viet Minh but his only son, Bernard de Lattre de Tassigny, was killed in action during the war In 1951, illness forced de Lattre de Tassigny to return to Paris where he later died of cancer; he was posthumously made Maréchal de France. After his return to France, his successors Salan and Navarre were far from having an equal success in Indochina.

Raoul Salan (1952-3) Salan became the commander-in-chief in Indochina. Although he was probably the most experienced officer in Indochina, the new government led up by René Mayer wanted a new policy in Indochina and replaced him in January 1953 with Henri Navarre, who was previously in charge in the intelligence service, not on field operations.

Henri Navarre (1953-4) In May of 1953, Navarre replaced Raoul Salan as commander of French forces in Indochina, in the midst of a war with the Viet Minh that was going badly for the French. Navarre was charged to bring the war to an honorable end. He quickly switched the French strategy from defensive to offensive operations. Navarre created mobile strike forces and sent a large number of troops to Dien Bein Phu, where they would sit on an important Viet Minh transport route and also perhaps draw the Viet Minh into a pitched battle in which the French forces would presumably have complete air and artillery superiority. However, the French underestimated the capacity of the Viet Minh, who managed to place the French position under heavy artillery fire and eventually achieved a decisive victory that more or less ended the First Indochina War.

Vietnamese National Army
Nguyen Van Hinh (1950-4) Nguyễn Văn Hinh was appointed the Vietnamese National Army Chief of State by Emperor Bảo Đại. On November 8, 1954, after the First Indochina War he left South Vietnam in exile for France.

The strength:
French Union: 190,000
Local Auxiliary: 55,000
State of Vietnam: 150,000
Total: 395,000 troops.

And the:

Viet Minh that contained support from (China and the USSR) commanded by
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Ho Chi Minh.
After the August Revolution (1945) organized by the Viet Minh, Ho became Chairman of the Provisional Government (Premier of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam) and issued a declaration of independence that borrowed much from the French and American declarations. Though he convinced Emperor Bảo Đại to abdicate his government was not recognized by any country. He repeatedly petitioned American President Harry Truman for support for Vietnamese independence, but Truman never responded. In 1945, in a power struggle, the Viet Minh killed members of rival groups, such as the leader of the Constitutional Party, the head of the Party for Independence, and Ngo Dinh Diem's brother, Ngo Dinh Khoi. Purges and killings of Trotskyists, the rival anti-Stalinist communists, have also been documented. In 1946, when Hồ traveled outside of the country, his subordinates imprisoned 25,000 non-communist nationalists and forced 6,000 others to flee. Hundreds of political opponents were also killed in July that same year. All rival political parties were banned and local governments purged to minimize opposition later on.

Ho Chi Minh

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Vo Nguyen Giap. Principal battles: Lang Son (1950); Hoa Binh (1951-1952); Dien Bien Phu (1954)
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The strength:
125,000 Regulars,
75,000 Regional,
250,000 Popular Forces/Irregulars
Total: 450,000 troops.

How and why did it occur?

The First Indochina War was one of a series of many wars and conflicts in Vietnamese history. The nation of Vietnam has been oppresed many times throughout history and the Vietnamese have always opposed this. If you look at the past record of Vietnam, this war was a natural reaction to the oppresive French forces, and the introduction of Ho Chi Minh's communist principles would have further flamed the fire of independence, this would have resulted in the many conflicts that followed.
The build up to the First Indochina War is not a very smooth ride. The lead up involves many other countries aiding and opposing Vietnam along the way. These countries include Japan, Britain, China and the United States. The United States supported the French, as they were afraid of a communist outbreak in South-East Asia. So the U.S chose the French. China and Russia who were communist helped the Viet Minh as they were also communist and they disliked the U.S. French President De Gaulle quotes that if France loses Indochina that France may not be well respected and powerful which implied war.
A brief summary of the key figures and events that led up to the war are given below, note that political unrest elsewhere on the globe would have influenced many of these events (these include the Cold War, unrest in many Asian and African countries and a dogmatic western culture).

external image Giap-Ho.jpgGiap and Ho Chi Minh after Ho's declaration of independence in Hanoi, 1945.

2 September 1945:
Ho Chi Minh issues his Declaration of Independence from the French. Ho Chi Minh then declares himself president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and pursues American recognition but is repeatedly ignored by President Harry Truman.
2 September 1945:
On the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay, Japanese representatives sign the Instrument of Surrender proclaiming their unconditional surrender, formally ending World War II.
13 September 1945:
British forces arrive in Saigon to disarm the Japanese in South Vietnam.
22 September 1945:
In South Vietnam, 1400 French soldiers released by the British from former Japanese internment camps enter Saigon and go on a deadly rampage, attacking Viet Minh and killing innocent civilians including children, aided by French civilians who joined the rampage.
24 September 1945:
Viet Minh successfully organize a general strike shutting down all commerce along with electricity and water supplies. In a suburb of Saigon, members of Binh Xuyen (a Vietnamese criminal organization), retaliate by massacring 150 French and Eurasian civilians, including children.
26 September 1945:
The first American death in Vietnam occurs, during the unrest in Saigon an OSS officer named Lt. Col. A. Peter Dewey is killed by Viet Minh guerrillas who mistook him for a French officer. Before his death, Dewey had filed a report on the deepening crisis in Vietnam, stating his opinion that the U.S. "ought to clear out of Southeast Asia."
October 1945:
35,000 French soldiers under the command of World War II General Jacques Philippe Leclerc arrive in South Vietnam to restore French rule. Viet Minh immediately begin a guerrilla campaign to harass them. The French then succeed in expelling the Viet Minh from Saigon.
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French Solders outside Saigon.

November 1945:
Ho Chi Minh attempts a compromise with the French by dissolving the Indochinese Communist Party.
February 1946:
In a separate agreement with France, Chiang Kai-shek agrees to withdraw Chinese troops from Vietnam and allow the French to return in exchange for French concessions in Shanghai and other Chinese ports.
6 March 1946:
Ho Chi Minh signs the Primary Agreement with France which allowed French forces back into Vietnam to replace Nationalist Chinese forces, in exchange for French recognition of his Democratic Republic of Vietnam as a free state within the Indochinese Federation and French Union. Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh welcome the French, saying, "I love France and French soldiers. You are welcome. You are heroes."
March 1946:
Nationalist Chinese troops depart Hanoi and Vietnam.
March-July 1946:
Armed and backed up by the French, the Viet Minh set about executing leaders and members of nationalist Vietnamese groups. Ho Chi Minh’s lieutenant Le Duan said, "to wipe out the reactionaries." Known as the "Great Purge", the goal was to eliminate everyone thought dangerous to the Vietnamese Communist Party, and tens of thousands of nationalists, Catholics and others were massacred from 1946-1948.
May 1946:
Ho Chi Minh spends four months in France attempting to negotiate full independence and unity for Vietnam, but fails to obtain any guarantee from the French.
June 1946:
In a major affront to Ho Chi Minh, the French high commissioner for Indochina proclaims a separatist French-controlled government for South Vietnam (Republic of Chochin China).

external image 250px-Flag_of_South_Vietnam.svg.pngexternal image Image:CoA_of_South_Vietnam.svgFlag of the State of Vietnam

July 1946:
With French armored personnel carriers cordoning off the areas, the Viet Minh storm the headquarters of remaining nationalist groups, arresting most remaining opposition leaders who were later executed.
27 August 1946:
French President De Gaulle declares, "France is a great power. Without the overseas territories which she would be in danger of no longer being one". French policy was now clear.
23 November 1946:
The French bombard Hiaphong and occupy it, killing 6,000 Vietnamese civilians. Ho appeals to the US for the last time. “To support independence". The American’s were split. They either had to support the Viet Minh’s push for independence or support the French so there would be no communist outbreaks in Southeast Asia.
November-December 1946:
After a series of violent clashes with Viet Minh, French forces bombard Haiphong harbor and occupy Hanoi, forcing Viet Minh forces to retreat into the jungle.

Where were the significant turning points in the war?

There were 14 major battles or operations during the conflict. Most have being won by the French, but the Viet Minh ended up wining the war. How is that so? This is because the battle of Dien Bien Phu was a key strategic victory that paved the way for the Vietnamese victory and the surrender of 20,000 French troops. On top of that, the commander of the Viet Minh, Ho Chi Minh, did not commaned one singal battle they were all commanded by Võ Nguyên Giáp and why did not the American’s participate with force like they did in the Second Indochoina War otherwise known as the Vietnam War, after all they were worried about communism and supported the French at the Genve Conference.
Jan 47 General Giap's Viet Minh forces join Ho at Tan Trao. From the northern border jungles of Lang Son and westward to Truong Son (later to be known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail) the Viet Minh charter bases and hideouts. 15,000 French troops hunt Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh leaders with no success . French begin punitive raids on villages supporting the Viet Minh. General Giap adopts a policy of avoiding all-out confrontation and conforms with Mao Tse-tung's key principal on warfare, "always maintain the nitiative".
4 Feb 47 French opinion poll shows 36% favored force, 42% favored negotiations, 8% thought France should leave Indo-China altogether. 14% had no opinion.
7 Oct-
22 Dec 47
French Operation Lea, a series of attacks on Viet Minh guerrilla positions in North Vietnam near the Chinese border, results in over 9,000 Viet Minh causalities, although most of the 40,000 strong Viet Minh force slips away through gaps in the French lines.

Map_tonkin_autumn_1947.jpgOperation Lea.

Jul 49 The French establish the (South) Vietnamese National Army.
Jan 50 China begins sending military advisors and modern hardware to the Viet Minh. With supplies assured, General Giap declares that the guerrilla phase is now over and the counter-offensive had begun. General Giap transforms his guerrilla fighters into conventional army units including five light infantry divisions and one heavy division.
Feb 50 The United States and Britain recognize Bao Dai's French-controlled South Vietnam government. France requests US military aid.


Feb 50 Viet Minh begin an offensive against French outposts in North Vietnam near the Chinese border.
8 May 50 US announce military and economic aid to the pro- French regimes of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. US aid was to jump from an initial $10 million to exceeding $1,000 million by 1954, 78% of the French war bill, even though all concerned conceded that the war could not be won.
26 Jul 50 United States military involvement in Vietnam begins as President Harry Truman authorizes $15 million in military aid to the French. American military advisors will accompany the flow of U.S. tanks, planes, artillery and other supplies to Vietnam. Over the next four years, the U.S. will spend $3 Billion on the French war and by 1954 will provide 80 percent of all war supplies used by the French.
16 Sep 50 General Giap begins his main attack against French outposts near the Chinese border. As the outposts fall, the French lose 6,000 men and large stores of military equipment to the Viet Minh.
27 Sep 50 The U.S. establishes a Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) in Saigon to aid the French Army.
Sep-Oct 1950 General Giap launches his first major counter offensive against the French and overwhelms French forts in the far north. French losses in this period were 6,000 troops killed or captured. Equipment losses included more than 900 machine guns, 125 mortars, 13 heavy guns, 1,200 automatic rifles, 8,000 rifles and 450 trucks.
Dec 50 French General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny is appointed High commissioner and Commander in Chief of Indochina. The French forces adopt a more offensive role with more use of air support.
13 Jan 51 20,000 Viet Minh under Gen. Giap begin a series of attacks on fortified French positions in the Red River Delta. The open areas of the Delta, in contrast to the jungle, allow French troops under the new command of Gen. Jean de Lattre to strike back with devastating results from the 'De Lattre Line' which encircles the region. 6,000 Viet Minh die while assaulting the town of Vinh Yen near Hanoi in the first attack, causing Giap to withdraw.
14-15 Jan 51 Two Viet Minh divisions attack a French force of 8,000 troops at Vinh Yen, 56 klms north west of Hanoi. Air support plays a major role. The Viet Minh under Giap retreat suffering heavy losses (Est 6,000 to 9,000 killed, 7,000 to 8,000 wounded with 600 captured).

external image 190px-French_indochina_napalm_1953-12_1.pngFrench napalm exploding outside the 'De Lattre Line.'

23-28 Mar 51 In the second attack, Giap targets the Mao Khe outpost near Haiphong. But Giap withdraws after being pounded by French naval gunfire and air strikes. 3,000 Viet Minh are killed.
29 May- 18 Jun 51 Giap makes yet another attempt to break through the De Lattre Line, this time in the Day River area southeast of Hanoi. French reinforcements, combined with air strikes and armed boat attacks result in another defeat for Giap with 10,000 killed and wounded. Giap's leadership is questioned by the Viet Minh leadership. A scapegoat in the form of Nguyen Binh is found and Giap and Ho continue to lead the Viet Minh. Giap restructures his command and tightens control over various functions. Among the French casualities is Bernard de Lattre, the only son of General De Lattre.

external image vanden_a.jpg General de Lattre.

Nov 51 US Senator John Fitzgerald. Kennedy visits Vietnam and declares, "in Indo-China we have allied ourselves to the desperate effort of the French regime to hang on to the remnants of an empire".
16 Nov 51 French forces link up at Hoa Binh, a Viet Minh staging area 80 kms west of Hanoi. Gen. De Lattre attempts to seize the momentum and lure Giap into a major battle but overextends his forces by setting up additional posts. Giap takes advantage and inflicts heavy casualties. Giap then withdraws and allows the French to retake their positions.
20 Nov 51 Stricken by cancer, ailing Gen. De Lattre is replaced by Gen. Raoul Salan. De Lattre returns home and dies in Paris two months later, just after being raised to the rank of Marshal.
9 Dec 51 Giap begins a careful counter-offensive by attacking the French outpost at Tu Vu on the Black River. Giap now avoids conventional warfare and instead wages hit and run attacks followed by a retreat into the dense jungles. His goal is to cut French supply lines.
31 Dec 51 By year end 1951, French casualities in Vietnam surpass 90,000.
Jan 52 General de Lattre de Tassigny dies of cancer and is succeeded by General Raoul Salan. Salan orders the withdrawal of French forces from posts along the Black River between Hoa Binh and Viet Tri and finally Viet Binh.
22-26 Feb 52 The French withdraw from Hoa Binh back to the De Lattre Line aided by a 30,000 round artillery barrage. Giap's forces continually ambush French forces during the retreat and destroy many elements of the French rearguard. Casualties for each side surpassed 5,000 during the Black River skirmishes.


Oct 52 Giap's take the offensive and orders his troops to the delta area between the Black and Red Rivers, withdraws, then attacks Nghia Lo.
11 Oct 52 Giap now attempts to draw the French out from the De Lattre Line by attacking along the Fan Si Pan mountain range between the Red and Black Rivers.
18 Oct 52 Giap's forces attack Nghia Lo several times and overrun the French position, followed by nearby posts. The Viet Minh then advance westward for a month and are forced to halt after over-extending their supply line.
29 Oct 52 The French counter Giap's move by launching Operation Lorraine targeting major Viet Minh supply bases around Nghia Lo in the Viet Bac region. The operation involves nearly 30,000 troops and aims at drawing the Viet Minh into a full-scale battle. Giap outsmarts the French by ignoring their maneuvers and stays in position along the Black River.

external image lorrmap2.jpgOperation Lorraine

14-17 Nov 52 The French cancel Operation Loraine and withdraw back toward the De Lattre Line but must first fight off a Viet Minh ambush at Chan Muong.
20 Jan 53 Dwight D. Eisenhower, formerly Allied commander in Europe during World War II, is inaugurated as the 34th U.S. President.
Apr 53 Communist forces mass to invade Laos. Giap deploys his divisions with little encounter. Giap realizing that he cannot sustain his primitive supply line withdraws but the Viet Minh now have freedom of movement through a large part of northern Laos and could dominate the territory west of the Black River. Giap keeps the French forces tied down.
Apr 53 US Vice President Nixon arrives in Hanoi and tells the French, "It is impossible to lay down arms until victory is won".
May 53 French General Henri Navarre appointed as Commander in Chief and is sent by Premier Rene Mayer with orders to return in a month and report. He reports ".... that there was no possibility of winning the war in Indo-China".


20 Nov 53 The French under new commander Gen. Henri Navarre begin Operation Castor, construction of a series of entrenched outposts protecting a small air base in the isolated jungle valley at Dien Bien Phu in northwest Vietnam. The French hope to draw the Viet Minh into a pitched battle. 800 French paratroopers parachute into Dien Bien Phu and begin preparations for a fortified camp, building two airstrips to link the base with Hanoi.

external image image002.jpgLocation of Dien Bien Phu.

Jan 54 Operation "Atlante" begins. It is designed to clear the coastal areas of Viet Minh, but ends in March without achieving the objective.
Mar 54 The Dien Bien Phu garrison now includes a dozen battalions, two groups of 75mm guns, 28 105mm howitzers, four 155mm howitzers, mortars, and 10 light tanks. Six Grunman fighters armed with napalm are on alert on the airfield. Three main bastions form the defense of the larger airstrip, while the main stronghold includes the village itself. Four smaller outposts formed the outer defense.
13 Mar 54 50,000 Viet Minh under Gen. Giap begin their assault against the fortified hills protecting the Dien Bien Phu air base. They outnumber the French by nearly five-to-one.
external image Dien-Bien-Phu-parachutiste.jpgexternal image Dien_bien_phu_castor_or_siege.png
30 Mar -
1 May 54
The siege at Dien Bien Phu occurs as nearly 10,000 French soldiers are trapped by 45,000 Viet Minh. French troops soon run out of fresh water and medical supplies.
The French urgently appeal to Washington for help. The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff now consider three possible military options: sending American combat troops to the rescue; a massive conventional air strike by B-29 bombers; the use of tactical atomic weapons. President Eisenhower dismisses the conventional air raid and the nuclear option after getting a strong negative response to such actions from America's chief ally, Britain. Eisenhower also decides against sending U.S. ground troops to rescue the French, citing the likelihood of high casualty rates in the jungles around Dien Bien Phu. No action is taken.
7 May 54 Dien Bien Phu falls. At 5:30 p.m., 10,000 French soldiers surrender at Dien Bien Phu, depriving France of any bargaining power at Geneva. By now, an estimated 8,000 Viet Minh and 1,500 French have died.

external image 0804dien8.jpgFrench mass march.

7 May 54-
late-July 1954
French survivors are marched for up to 60 days to prison camps 804 k's away. Nearly half die during the march or in captivity.

The Battle of Dien Bien Phu and French withdrawal of Indochina.

This video is all about the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. It shows the battle itself, then the retreat of French troops, then the mass surrender of French Troops and the massive march for 60 days. It shows the victory of the Viet Minh.


The Geneva Conference lasted from May 8 – July 21, 1954. It was a conference between many countries that agreed to end hostilities and restore peace in French Indochina and Vietnam. It produced a set of treaties known as the Geneva Accords, signed on behalf of France by Pierre Mendès-France and of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam by Pham Van Dong.

external image Gen.jpg Geneva Conference

How does it effect modern day Vietnam and France?

Indochina and especially Vietnam still has many lasting French buildings and the like. The third largest religion in Vietnam is Roman Catholic, due to the coming of Christianity in Vietnam. Vietnam has the fourth-largest Roman Catholic population in Asia.

external image 43_image.jpg Catholic Church in Hanoi.

Throughout the French occcupation of Indochina, French culture has deeply influenced the lives of the Vietmanese. An example of this are Vietmanese bakeries. The Vietmanese learned to bake breads and pasteries etc from the French. In Western Countries it is rumored to be that Vietmanese bakeries have the best produce money can buy.
external image kwd22.jpgOf course there are still traditional bakeries in Vietnam

261998616_949aad3edb.jpgVietmanese bakery in Port Macquarie.

Vietnam remains to have it's former colonizers traditions while still holding there own.

By Jack Johnston