The siege of Tuyen Quang is ranked in the annals of the Legion heroics only slightly below that of Camerone, and rightly so. However, the strategic role played by Tuyen Quang in the French campaign of conquest is unclear. Grisot claimed that Tuyen Quang formed a “barrier” against the advance of the Yunnan army. In one sense, the prolonged resistance of Tuyen Quang tied down large numbers of Black Flags and Yunnanese regulars who might have caused the French great embarrassment elsewhere. However, the failure of the Chinese to operate against the delta while Brière de I’Isle was heavily engaged in the north probably had more to do with a lack of any coordinated Chinese strategic plan than with the resistance of the Legion at Tuyen Quang itself. For after all, Chinese who invested Tuyen Quang in December 1884 could easily have bypassed the fortress by going down the Red River, or by surrounding the garrison with a small holding force while the bulk of their army operated elsewhere, especially after February 1885 when Brière de I’Isle launched his operation toward Lang Son. In all probability, the Chinese saw Tuyen Quang as a vulnerable target and decided that there they might inflict upon the French a defeat of proportions significant enough to create at least psychological damage.
So if the military significance of Tuyen Quang is unclear, its symbolic importance became immense. And all the more so because the place was virtually undefendable—a square each of whose walls measured three hundred yards built on the banks of the Clear River. The fortress was dominated by a number of wooded hills. Captain Champs, a sergeant-major in 1885, was of the opinion that if the Legion had been sent to garrison Tuyen Quang, “then the post wasn’t worth much.” But the legionnaires and tirailleurs tonkinois defended it for three months with a dogged tenacity that suggested that they valued their reputations, and their lives, even if the place was a strategic backwater.
On January 16, the Chinese began to dig their lines of investment around the garrison, which were complete by the 20th. On the night of January 26-27, a mass of Chinese charged through the Annamese village 400 yards from the garrison, set it alight and then surged toward the French positions. The warm reception they received from the legionnaires drove them back in confusion: “We must have killed more than a hundred,” the Protestant chaplain Th. Boisset wrote in his diary, “and the cannonade does not seem to be finished yet.” This convinced the Chinese to begin more methodical siege operations. Soon trenches began to snake toward the French positions, despite the best efforts of the garrison’s four light cannon to dispute their progress. The Chinese objective was a blockhouse that stood on a small mole 350 yards from the southwestern angle of the French position. When it became obvious to the French that the Chinese had driven mine shafts beneath the blockhouse and were prepared to blow it up, they pulled in the garrison on the night of January 30, and then destroyed the fortification with their artillery.
The Chinese continued their siege with admirable, if unsettling, persistence. During the day they made fascines—bundles of sticks used to shore up parapets—and kept up a constant sniping on the garrison that caused one or two casualties each day. At night they pushed their saps relentlessly forward, while bombarding the garrison with a constant, casualty-producing fire. For their part, the French worked feverishly to shore up their positions, but were hampered by the fact that the garrison counted only twenty-nine shovels. On February 3, an Annamite crept out to take news of the garrison’s predicament to Hanoi, but Boisset speculated that the operations around Lang Son might prevent a relief from being sent. To prevent surprise attacks, the French lowered lanterns from the wall at night. So close were the approach trenches that some enterprising legionnaires snagged a Chinese flag using a cord with a noose tied to the end of a bamboo pole.
On February 8, as the officers dined, a shell burst on the roof of their mess, scattering debris over the plates, the infallible announcement that the Chinese had received artillery. While at first the firing was badly regulated, gradually the enemy gunners became more expert and their shells began to slam into the pagoda that Marc Edmond Dominé, the garrison commander, used as a command post, and hit the shacks that housed the troops, causing casualties. In the early hours of February 12, the Chinese blew a mine beneath the French defenses and a Forlorn Hope—The party sent to seize and hold the breach—rushed forward. A rapid French response killed between thirty and forty of the advance party, which convinced the assault columns waiting in the saps to postpone their attack. Hardly minutes passed when a second mine blew. A Chinese appeared to plant a flag in the breach, only to be shot down by the legionnaires who, brought forward by cries of “aux armes!,” rushed to the defenses. Three subsequent assaults were repulsed, but at a cost of five legionnaires killed and six wounded. The next day, a sortie by the garrison drove the Chinese out of their most advanced saps and allowed the legionnaires to destroy some of the approaching earthworks. But the relief provided by this small success quickly evaporated when it became apparent that the Chinese had added heavy mortars to their siege batteries.
At six o’clock on the morning of February 22, the Chinese sent up a din of trumpets and shouts from their trenches. Anticipating an explosion, Captain Catelin of the Legion began to pull his men back from the positions he knew to be mined. Seconds later, the first of three mines was exploded by the Chinese, the second of which killed a Legion captain and the last of which collapsed almost sixty yards of wall. Groups of defenders kept up a hot fire while their comrades worked feverishly for four hours to repair the damage caused by the mines. They succeeded, but at the end of the day the Legion counted one officer and four legionnaires dead, and one officer, three NCOs and thirty-seven legionnaires wounded.
On the following day, another Chinese assault was repulsed. On the 25th, the deadly Chinese tactic was repeated—a mine blew, followed by an assault that obliged a number of legionnaires to keep the assailants at bay while their comrades worked to repair the damage. Four more legionnaires perished and another twelve were wounded. At eleven thirty in the evening of February 27, more mines exploded, followed by an assault on three different points of the defenses. The Chinese swarmed on the breaches, waving their black flags and hurling grenades and satchels of powder. “For nearly 30 minutes, the fighting continued hand-to-hand on the breaches, the combatants separated only by the bamboo palisades which crowned the defenses,” Dominé wrote in his diary. By dawn, repeated attacks had been driven off, but the Legion had lost another three dead, including an officer, and nine wounded.
The garrison’s situation was desperate. Only 180 rifles were in working order to defend a perimeter 1,200 yards long, 120 yards of which had been destroyed by mines. On March 1, the garrison heard firing to the south and suspected that it was a relief force. But Domine’s troops were too exhausted to mount a breakout. When Chinese firing redoubled on March 2, many must have feared that they might be overwhelmed before the relief could arrive.
In fact, the Chinese firing had masked their withdrawal. On March 3, the garrison woke up to discover that the Chinese had decamped in the night. The reason soon became clear—that very afternoon, the relief column, which had left Lang Son on February 16, stumbled up the track along the Clear River after fighting a desperate action at Hoa Moc against a blocking force that cost more killed than had perished in the entire siege—indeed, Hoa Moc was the most murderous battle fought by the French in Tonkin since their 1883 invasion. For many in the relief force, the sight of Tuyen Quang was a sobering one: “All the approaches [to Tuyen Quang] —churned, blasted, lamentable—were covered with corpses and the carrion rotted in the air,” Huguet complained. “The pestilential emanations of all of these putrid corpses turned your stomach …” “What a spectacle! What desolation! What ruin!” exclaimed Boisset when he emerged from the citadel to walk over a battlefield littered with abandoned weapons and tools of the siege, and furrowed with almost six miles of trenches. “Our liberators cannot believe their eyes.” So impressive was the defense of Tuyen Quang that the government ordered the publication of Domine’s journal in the Journal officiel, while a separate edition was printed and distributed to garrison libraries throughout France and the colonies. But France’s, and the Legion’s, trials in Indochina had only begun.