Despite an image that inextricably binds the Legion with North Africa, it was Indochina that provided both its most popular garrison and ultimately its calvary. After 1883, the Legion burst the narrow confines of its North African existence, which had contained it for over a decade, to join in the Scramble for Africa and the French expeditions in the Far East, an extension of tasks that required tripling Legion strength from a modest four battalions in the summer of 1883 to a dozen by the turn of the century.
The history of the French penetration of Indochina is fairly complex, but the ingredients were typical of French imperialism, including fear of British colonial rivalry, the desire to tap the reputedly rich markets of China’s Hunan province via Tonkin, pressure by the French Catholic Church to protect their missionaries and, above all, the presence of a handful of French officers ambitious to advance their country’s future there and not content to wait upon events. In the 1840s, the French had begun to cast about for a base in the Far East to offset that of the British at Hong Kong. Their chance came with the outbreak of the Second Opium War in 1857, during which a combined Anglo–French force occupied Canton and in 1860 Peking. As the Catholic Church was one of the pillars of Napoleon Ill’s Second Empire, the French seized the opportunity offered by the concentration of military force in the Far East to chastise the Annamese—the contemporary term for Vietnamese—for their persecution of Catholic missionaries. They bombarded Da Nang in 1858 and seized Saigon in 1859, which the Annamese signed over to them in 1862. In 1867 the French took the rest of Cochinchina, the southernmost province of Annam, and declared it a French colony.
The advance of the British into Burma kindled fears among some Frenchmen that perfidious Albion was about to open a southern route into Hunan. The exploration of the Mekong River by young French naval lieutenant Francis Gamier in 1866-67 proved that to be a dead end. However, in 1873, French trader and arms merchant Jean Dupuis proved the Red River to be navigable from Hunan to the Gulf of Tonkin. Furthermore, he had discovered that in Hunan salt fetched thirty times its Hanoi price. However, problems arose when the Annamese pointed out that the exportation of salt from their country was illegal. Not to be deterred, Dupuis mobilized his small army of Chinese thugs, captured the chief of police in Hanoi, seized a dozen river junks filled with salt and prepared to tow them up the Red River by steamboat. The Annamese attempted to negotiate an end to the crisis. But in June 1873 Dupuis’s patience cracked—he seized a portion of Hanoi, ran up the French colors and sent word to Admiral M. J. Dupré, the governor-general in Saigon, that either France back him or he would call on the English.
Of course, Dupré knew that Dupuis was only making empty threats. Besides, he had formal orders from Paris not to intervene in Tonkin. However, Dupré hoped that by ending the increasingly bloody confrontation in Hanoi he could persuade the Annamese government in Hue to recognize officially the aggrandizement of French control of Cochinchina in 1867, while heading off any competition by European rivals. Therefore, he sent none other than Francis Gamier with 180 men to Hanoi to extricate Dupuis from the difficulties of his own making. It proved to be a serious mistake. Once in Hanoi, Gamier and Dupuis discovered that they were two of a kind—Gamier began to issue proclamations declaring the Red River open to commerce and in November stormed the Hanoi citadel. Urged on by Christian missionaries, he proceeded to impose his rule in the Red River Delta. However, Gamier was killed in December leading what amounted to a single-handed bayonet charge against a force sent to recapture Hanoi. Dupré ended the crisis by signing a treaty with Hue in March 1874, which gained recognition for Cochinchina as well as established French concessions in Haiphong and Hanoi.
The 1874 treaty was fraught with complications. Annam was nominally a vassal state of China. The Chinese regarded Indochina, and especially the northern province of Tonkin, as vital to the security of their southern frontier. However, the French interpreted the treaty to mean that Chinese suzerainty was at an end. Continued frustration over the failure to open the Red River, and the insecurity of the small French garrisons at Haiphong and Hanoi, caused Saigon to dispatch fifty-five-year-old naval captain Henri Rivière to Tonkin with 233 French marines and Annamese auxiliaries to reinforce the French concessions there in March 1882. If the French had wanted history to repeat itself, then they could not have contrived a more congenial set of preconditions. Despite formal orders to the contrary, Rivière stormed the Hanoi citadel. A French fleet sailed to his rescue, but in May 1883 Rivière was killed when his force, ignoring the most elementary notions of security, was ambushed outside of Hanoi.
When news of the events in Hanoi reached Paris, the Chamber of Deputies voted five and one half million francs to support operations in Tonkin and earmarked reinforcements of three thousand men for the Far East, promising that “France will avenge her glorious children.” A French fleet sailed up the Perfume River and seized two forts that guarded access to Hue. They then forced the Annamese to accept a treaty of full protectorate. In December 1883, a French force, which included one battalion of the Legion, captured strategic Son Tay on the Red River. This caused the Chinese to reinforce Bac Ninh, correctly thought to be the next French target. However, after desultory resistance, the poorly disciplined Chinese abandoned Bac Ninh on March 12,1884. In May 1884, the Chinese agreed to withdraw from Tonkin.
The war appeared to be over. However, in June, when a French force was dispatched to occupy Lang Son, the last substantial town in Tonkin before the Chinese frontier, they were stopped thirty miles south of their objective by a Chinese garrison near the small town of Bac Le. What happened next depends upon the version one reads. One sympathetic to the Chinese claims that their commander explained that he realized that France and China were now at peace, however, he had received no orders to withdraw. He asked the French to wire to Beijing for instructions on his behalf. The French commander, Lieutenant Colonel Alphonse Dugenne, gave the Chinese one hour to clear off. When they did not, he attacked, but was repulsed with twenty-two dead and sixty wounded. Dugenne, and later official French propaganda, advanced the claim that they were treacherously ambushed at Bac Le. Whatever the case, this time France, under pro-colonialist prime minister Jules Ferry, intended to make a better job of it. The French prepared a full-scale invasion, one that included the Legion.
The problem for the French was how best to bring about a decisive victory over China. They decided to divide their forces, one group striking at Formosa while a second would reinforce Tonkin. It proved to be a costly and nearly disastrous decision. After bombarding Fuzhou on the Chinese mainland, and thereby eliciting a declaration of war upon France by China, the French under fiery Admiral Amédée Anatole Courbet landed a force on the northern coast of Formosa near Chi-lung in October 1884. It was hard to see what the French hoped to achieve by an invasion of Formosa. The island was far from Beijing. And while it is true that Courbet seized the coal fields of northern Formosa, the coal was low grade and its loss of little value to China. Apparently Paris felt that a campaign on the mainland of China was too risky and so settled for a peripheral operation more easily supported by the navy.
The Formosa action of 1884-85 is one of the little-known campaigns of the Legion, and with good reason—it got nowhere. The Chinese had anticipated the attack, and stiffened their garrison with twenty thousand soldiers, over three times the number the French would bring against them. The French got ashore with a ridiculously small force of 1,800 men and, after a hard struggle, seized the heights above Chi-lung. However, they were repulsed at Tan- shui twenty miles along the coast. The monsoon broke over this condition of stalemate, turning the French camp into a morass through which cholera raged. The Formosa invasion, meant to bring pressure on the Celestial Empire, soon had the French squirming in discomfort—their army was melting away from disease, and their front line was so porous and poorly manned that the Chinese would creep between the outposts at night to exhume and decapitate the bodies of dead French soldiers.
In January 1885, with the garrison at Chi-lung down to six hundred men, reinforcements were landed, one of whom was Lionel Hart. He discovered the town to be hardly more than a pile of cinders in an amphitheater of mountains whose heights were occupied by the enemy. The marines and joyeux welcomed the legionnaires, but “they are all very pale and very tired.” With these reinforcements, the French launched offensives in late January to disengage Chi-lung and, in March, pushed to the outskirts of Tan-shui. However, it was clear that Formosa was a dead-end theater, that the French had nothing to gain from persisting there but more casualties and a diversion of scarce resources. The real decision had to be sought in Tonkin.
The situation in Tonkin was far from reassuring. Although nine thousand French troops occupied it in the spring of 1884, a garrison that would eventually grow to forty thousand by the summer of 1885, they were on the strategic defensive. Quite apart from the Chinese buildup over the border in Kwangsi, troops that already had begun to infiltrate south, the French faced another, more persistent enemy in Tonkin—the Black Flags. The Black Flags took their name from the fact that each section, and each officer, carried a black flag. The result was that their lines were so festooned with standards that one legionnaire preparing to attack the fortress of Bac Ninh in March 1884 was moved to declare, “Look…. They’ve done their washing. It’s hanging out to dry.”
The French referred to them as pirates, which they certainly were— most were Chinese who drifted south because of poverty or after the failure in 1864 of the Taiping rebellion against the Chinese government. But they were more than that. Organized by an intelligent but illiterate Chinese named Liu Yung-fu, the Black Flags dominated the upper reaches of the Red River from their base at Lao Cai on the border with Yunnan. Despite their semi-brigand status, they enjoyed official relations with both the Vietnamese and Chinese governments—the Vietnamese recognized them because they controlled the primitive and predatory montagnards populations, who were not ethnic Vietnamese, to the northeast of the Red River Delta, while the Chinese saw them as an extra measure of Chinese control in Tonkin. L. Huguet, a marine officer, described the Black Flags as very well armed with Remingtons, Spencers, Martini-Henrys and Winchester repeaters.
Their uniform(!) is made up of a jacket and light trousers of blue wool. Their legs from the bottom of the knee to the ankle are protected by cloth bands of the same color. As for their headgear, it varies enormously. Most often it consists of a large hat with a wide brim, sometimes doubled inside with a piece of fabric like the rest.
The French spent most of the spring and summer of 1884 securing the Tonkinese delta and moving into the highlands as far as Tuyen Quang on the Clear River. The Chinese and the Black Flags had three primary strengths—they were very numerous; they were much better armed than were the French, whose 1874 model single-shot Gras rifles gave them a lower rate of fire; and they were expert at building defensive fortifications. So impressive were their fortifications that Western wisdom assumed that they must have had European help. After viewing one such fortress, which was made up of a series of palisades separated by open ground and trenches filled with bamboo spikes, Martyn was of the opinion that “a company of Royal Engineers could not have made a better job of it.” His fellow legionnaires believed that an Englishman by the name of “Sir Collins” had directed its construction. Furthermore, these fortifications were often surrounded by bush of such density that the attacking force might have to hack a path to it and then emerge one by one into open ground before deploying for an attack, a lengthy and extremely lethal process.
However, the French criticized the strategy of the Chinese and Black Flags as timorous and unimaginative. Huguet, who fought on the Red and Clear Rivers, found that the enemy “are past masters in the art of moving earth. That which makes their strength is also their weakness. Used to the shelter of deep trenches where they burrow like moles, they lack the daring to march and manoeuvre in open country.” Their insistence on fighting from prepared defensive positions meant that they rarely ambushed advancing French columns often strung out along narrow jungle paths: “In such places our small troop would have been infallibly destroyed if we had encountered a few audacious enemy,” Huguet believed. “Fortunately for us, the Black Flags did not know how to profit from the abundant advantages which the exuberant tropical vegetation offered them.” As for the Chinese regulars, he found them individually courageous, but their tactic of passive defense was “even less comprehensible given the fact that they benefited from superior numbers. In truth, if they had been more flexible, Tonkin would not belong to us.” Dick de Lonlay, who participated in the Lang Son expedition, was of the opinion that in the open field the Chinese lacked “unity of direction, cohesion.” Their fortifications, while well built, were usually badly sited. “Our troops are fighting against men who are sufficiently disciplined, battle-hardened, but who are almost always badly led,” he concluded.
A strategy of occupying defensive positions deep in the country and forcing the aggressive French to come to them might have worked well, especially given the desperate logistical problems that the French encountered in Tonkin. However, the Chinese seldom demonstrated the tactical skill required to capitalize on their superior firepower. Although they possessed artillery, they seldom used it. They were also miserable marksmen: “The Chinese . . . never put the rifle to the shoulder as Europeans do when about to fire,” wrote Le Poer.
Instead, they tuck the rifle-butt into the armpit and try to drop the bullet, as it were, on the attacking party. They cannot well do this until the attack comes within five hundred yards of the defence, nor can they do it when the enemy is within two hundred yards of their line … as we closed with the bayonet and were practically at point-blank range, the Black Flags wavered and fired at the sky rather than at us.
Everyone agreed that the Chinese tended to become a bit windy when the French got close enough to skewer them. However, their fortifications could break the momentum of an attack, so that both sides might fire at each other through holes in the bamboo palisade until the French could blast their way in using dynamite or their light artillery. Then the Chinese would flee, abandoning their fort. This was perhaps because they tended to place their best troops in the front line, and when these suffered heavy casualties (which they invariably did) or were broken, those in the second echelon tended to take to their heels. In any case, the French seldom had enough troops to surround these fortresses and cut off the retreat, so the Chinese, while badly mauled, simply retired to another defensive position, and the process began again.
The Tonkin campaign of 1884–85 was to become one of the most controversial of French imperial campaigns between the Commune and the outbreak of World War I. The fact that it came perilously close to complete disaster derailed the brilliant parliamentary career of Jules Ferry, while it generated a controversy over the retreat from Lang Son in the French army that still has yet to be resolved. The Ferry government’s aggressive colonialism, combined with the leadership of two of the French army’s most dynamic colonial officers, Generals Louis-Alexandre Briére de I’Isle and François de Négrier, and the relative ease with which a small number of French troops had attacked and overwhelmed strongly held defensive positions like that of Bac Ninh in March 1884, was to have potentially disastrous consequences for the campaign the French fought during the winter of 1884-85. Above all, it gave the French enormous confidence in themselves, and of no corps was this more true than of the Legion.
General de Négrier especially became something of a cult figure in the Legion after he led them against the 1881 Bou Amama rebellion in Algeria. A.-P. Maury described him as “severe especially with drunks and the undisciplined, but he was fair and he looked after us like a father. When we met, he questioned us with affability and interest.” Needless to say, Négrier’s popularity paid dividends on operations—when Maury’s company was dispatched to take a village, “we went and took it as he ordered, without hesitation or waiting. We were his Legion. He counted on us. We had to prove that we were worthy of his affection and of his esteem.” When in March 1885 Bôn-Mat’s legionnaires were ordered to invade China and attack a fortified Chinese position containing an estimated twelve thousand to fifteen thousand men with only three thousand, they saw nothing strange about it: “… We were so used to winning that everything seemed possible to us,” he wrote. “Because Maulen [Vietnamese for “Quick,” the nickname given to Négrier by his soldiers and the natives] led us, whose name alone was worth several battalions, and because it flattered our ego to go on an excursion on Chinese territory.”
The willingness of the French to attack also was linked with the savage nature of the conflict. “The Chinese have put a price on our heads,” even the Christian Lionel Hart recounted. “They dig up our dead, cut their heads off, and put them on the end of their lances or on their flagpoles, and show them to us while laughing from their fortifications. Sometimes one recognizes the face of a friend, and, turning away from this sickening spectacle, we swear vengeance. ” Le Poer, too, reported that the sight of comrades who had fallen out on the march, only to be killed and mutilated by the Black Flags, drove the legionnaires into such a frenzy of vengeance that in the next action they slaughtered all their Chinese prisoners. A.-P. Maury agreed that his legionnaires took no pity on the Chinese after they received a basket containing heads and a letter explaining, “Voilà! This is how all French will be treated.”
A final factor in the audacity and vigor of the French campaign was the officer corps. Officers in this period got mixed reviews from legionnaires. Martyn and Bôn-Mat appear to have enjoyed cordial relations with their officers. Maury, too, praised his lieutenant in Indochina, who failed to break him when he was discovered asleep on guard duty during the precipitous retreat from the Gates of China, but instead listed a lesser offense on his record. Others, however, found them severe and disdainful. Lionel Hart believed that “Our superiors admire us as soldiers, but despise us as individuals. They make us understand this often. For them, we are just rabble and cannon fodder. They do not know us personally.” Charles des Ecorres, who served in the 1870s but who did not go to Tonkin, believed that officers merely saw legionnaires as stepping-stones for their own ambitions:
The Legion has always been a formidable arm in the hands of an ambitious commander. They have nothing to fear, no criticism, no one is interested in these pariahs of all races who come to get holes in their hide for France. So, get on the road and watch out! One marches, one sweats his guts out. The plain is peopled with cadavers and the officer gets his promotion which he grandly merits.
The problem of arrogant, indifferent, even brutal officers was not a new one in the Legion—Le Poer complained that any officer who showed concern for his troops risked derision by his fellow officers. Nevertheless, logic would seem to dictate that an openly expressed disdain of officers for their troops, if widespread, must undermine efficiency: Captain G. Prokos, who studied Legion operations in Tonkin very closely, insisted that successful officers “led their men as friends, as true collaborators whom he must, above all, make interested in the success of the enterprise.” Otherwise they fell out on the march, and he was soon left with “a small core of disheartened men who only continued to follow from a spirit of discipline or pride.”
Obviously, as has been noted, all officers who led legionnaires did not fall into the unpopular category—even a rather sour Le Poer confessed that he became friends with his captain in Tonkin after the officer had shown great consideration for his dying friend Nicholas. Others may have been distant, even abrupt, but this leadership style was perhaps better accepted in an era when social distinctions and deference were assumed to be normal, especially among those of a working-class background, from which the majority of legionnaires were drawn.
It is also possible that legionnaires took such attitudes more or less in stride because the combative qualities of their superiors far outweighed their character defects. Even if officers w, e gruff, legionnaires, even fairly cynical ones, appeared to respond well to leaders who were tough, brave and above all competent. Le Poer discovered that legionnaires were left in no doubt about “… how little he cares for their comfort” and were angered by the tendency of the officers “to swear at the sick, to sneer at the wounded, to order the dead to be thrown any way into a trench, and to abuse the burial party because they did not cover the carcasses quickly enough.” What was more, this attitude of contempt actually discouraged some of the best men from seeking promotion—his aristocratic Russian friend Nicholas, for instance, turned down a battlefield promotion to corporal because “… the idea of one who had commanded a company accepting the control of a squad and receiving curses and abuse from the company officers when a soldier got into trouble was not to be entertained for a moment.” However, he had to concede that their physical courage was beyond reproach: “Our officers fought like devils,” he wrote. “Truth to tell, though we did not like them, we could not help admiring their courage in a fight.”
Nor was the question of whether or not to follow an officer, popular or unpopular, one up for discussion in the Legion: “The column goes to ground, flat on the earth, awaiting the order, the supreme order,” Carpeaux recorded.
All eyes are on the enemy, but all thoughts are on the captain! They counsel him, implore him, supplicate, order him depending on the force of their energy. Everyone feels death, there, very close. Everyone wants to avoid it, to flee it. But no one dares to run, preferring to be killed rather than be treated as a coward…. But the captain remains standing up and still undecided. This is a superb opportunity for him to get noticed, to be decorated. To turn back is to lose his cross [of the Legion of Honor].
Carpeaux’s observation also serves to underline the further point that personal pride played a large part in the Legion’s fighting prowess. And while this is true for all forces, in the Legion this personal pride was reinforced by the fact that, in addition, one wanted to disgrace neither his squad nor his nationality, much less besmirch the reputation of the Legion itself. Lastly, the effects of poor leadership, when it existed, might be minimized by the existence of a parallel hierarchy in many squads. This was a product both of the romantic reputation of the Legion as a haven for gentlemen down on their luck and of the anonymat, which allowed men to embellish, or invent, pasts of such distinction that they gained a social ascendancy in their squads. Le Poer insisted, no doubt with exaggeration, that ex-officers virtually abounded in the Legion, that the authorities realized this and were careful to assign no more than one per squad. “Every one of them was a second corporal, so to speak, and really, to take the case of the man I knew best, Nicholas was far more respected amongst us than our authorized superior, and the corporal was well aware of the fact as we,” he wrote. “Well, these were the leaders.” They might be a force for good or evil—indeed, Le Poer claimed that Nicholas contrived a massacre of Chinese prisoners to avenge one of their mutilated comrades that their superiors were powerless to stop. But when such men existed and were well disposed, they might, on occasion, provide an element of leadership and cohesiveness to counter the effects of indifferent officership.
In sum, these first relatively facile victories, together with the desire to avenge deaths and mutilations at the hands of a barbarous enemy and a spirited, ambitious officer corps willing, even eager, to take risks, caused the French commanders to underestimate their enemy, to fail to notice improvements in enemy forces, and ultimately to overreach themselves. The French were overconfident, and with good reason, as even Le Poer believed: “… In the first place, the generals and the other officers firmly believed that the Black Flags and their allies would never be able to stand up against either our rifle fire or our charge…. In the second place, we soldiers had learned to depend implicitly on our commanders. They had led us so well that we had as much confidence in their foresight and military skill as they had in our courage and steadfastness.” It was a characteristic that was to mark the fighting in Indochina even after 1885—Martyn, speaking of an unsuccessful attempt to seize a fortress despite repeated attacks (unsupported by artillery), put them down “. . . to the fact that the French officers persistently refused to recognize the military ability of these pirate commanders, and consistently under-estimated the fighting power of their men.”
Had the French been more attuned to the intricacies of Chinese politics, they might have noted in the early autumn of 1884 that the Chinese and Black Flags appeared prepared to take the strategic offensive. In October 1884, Liu Yung-fu’s Black Flag, reinforced by a contingent of Yunnanese troops, settled in around the town of Tuyen Quang, which lay on the Clear River in the highlands northwest of Hanoi. In mid-November, a column of seven hundred legionnaires and marines under Lieutenant Colonel Duchesne made their way up the Clear River supported by three gunboats. “From a tourist point of view, the valley of the Clear River is really magnificent,” Huguet found, high wooded mountains through which a river of limpid water sometimes rushed and foamed between granite cliffs, or meandered through broad valleys planted with fields of maize. However, from a military point of view the abrupt terrain and dense jungle afforded ample opportunities for ambush.
Six miles short of Tuyen Quang, the column fought its way through an enemy position after the Legion outflanked a Chinese line established along a fortified ridge. After a rest, the column set out again: “An absolute silence, strange, unusual settled down over this dismal landscape, and froze the hearts of the most courageous,” Huguet remembered. “In spite of ourselves, one felt impregnated with the horror which oozed from this funereal countryside . . .” Every eye was peeled for ambush. The trail disappeared into a narrow gorge, and became very muddy, and night was fast approaching. The bugler of the avant-garde blew the opening chords of the “Boudin,” the Legion march that was gaining in popularity in the corps since first being introduced during the Mexican campaign. In the distance, the call was answered. Even a marine like Huguet was relieved. Soon Vietnamese bearing torches arrived to light the way to Tuyen Quang. On November 23, the column departed without incident, leaving a garrison composed of two companies of legionnaires, a company of tirailleurs tonkinois (Tonkinese rifles), and other odds and ends including 32 artillerymen, a few engineers, a doctor and a Protestant pastor—a grand total of 619 men, 390 of whom were legionnaires, and thirteen officers under the command of Major Marc Edmond Dominé of the Bat d’Af. The curtain of Black Flags closed once again around Tuyen Quang.
The French had not been idle elsewhere, however. In October, they had driven the Chinese out of the country from Bac Ninh to Bac Le, and might have pushed north to Lang Son had not the demands of Tuyen Quang, the lack of reinforcements and the insistence of the war minister in Paris that operations be restricted to the delta not prevented it. However, the replacement of the war minister, which coincided with the arrival of reinforcements including two battalions of legionnaires in January 1885, allowed the French commander, General Brière de I’Isle, to launch his forces north to clear the “Mandarin Road,” hardly more than a track running from Hanoi through Lang Son to the “Gates of China,” once and for all. On February 3, 1885, the column composed in all of twelve battalions of around nine thousand men set out under a gray drizzle. As the column filed out of the delta and entered the rather desolate-looking mountains, Bon-Mat for one had a sense of foreboding:
“… One felt that the task would be difficult, that we marched toward the unknown, and, instinctively, we looked behind us to look once more upon this plain. . . . We only knew the delta, rich and populated, abounding with resources of all sorts, the Tonkin where one lives, where one plays. We were going to find the Tonkin where one suffers, where one dies.”
Barely two days into the mountains, the advancing column encountered strongly held Chinese positions—“each valley is barred by a trench; each peak is crowned by a fort; it’s an inextricable jumble of fortifications,” wrote Bôn-Mat. At first the French stormed them head on, but the cost was substantial. One Legion company lost one-third of its force and all of its officers in this first combat, so that the command of the company fell to the sergeant-major. After this experience, it was discovered that a simple flanking maneuver often sufficed to send the Chinese scurrying to cover their line of retreat. After three days of fighting, Bon-Mat’s legionnaires moved into the abandoned forts, ignoring the Chinese corpses lying about, collapsed onto the straw beds and barely had time to eat a biscuit before falling asleep. However, they were up early, for “if the Chinese abandoned their forts, they left their fleas .. ,”
On February 9, the march continued northward beneath a lowering sky. The Chinese offered only delaying actions, but the track became a quagmire, and the revictualing convoy often arrived late at night only after a difficult march by torchlight. At nine o’clock on the morning of February 12, the column came in sight of strong Chinese positions organized in depth along the heights at Bac Viay, the last stop before Lang Son. A strong artillery barrage drove the Chinese from their first lines, and the fortresses on the hilltops held long enough to permit the rest to escape. The road to Lang Son lay open, but at a cost of well over two hundred casualties, so many in fact that they could not all be evacuated. The French attempted to pursue, but without success: “The Chinese carries his rifle and cartridges,” read the battalion diary. “Our infantryman has the pack which weighs him down.” Only harassing fire greeted the French as they marched along the river road on February 13. The mountains fell away, the river made a sharp bend to the right, and suddenly Lang Son appeared barely a mile away.
In 1885, Lang Son was a square walled citadel about 425 yards on each face, enclosing some brick pagodas, a few huts, a mirador and much empty space. Most of the population occupied the village of Ki Lua, which stood about three-quarters of a mile north of Lang Son. The few flags flying from the ramparts disappeared as the French approached, and within minutes a tricolor spanked the air above the battlements. On the 23rd, the French marched out to drive the Chinese from Dong Dang, a small settlement that stood ten miles north of Lang Son at the head of a narrow valley that ran to the Gates of China. After a fairly typical combat during which the Chinese were driven from their forts perched on mountain peaks, they fled up the rough track that threaded between high cliffs to the Gates of China, leaving a wake of abandoned equipment.