“A battle entered into the pantheon of glorious defeats of the French army”

“A battle entered into the pantheon of glorious defeats of the French army”
“A battle entered into the pantheon of glorious defeats of the French army”

On May 7, 1954, “Claudine” and “Eliane”, two of the last French support points installed on hills, supposed to protect the Diên Bien Phu valley, in Indochina, fell in turn. At 6 p.m., after two months of intense battle, the ceasefire was declared. The victory of the Viet Minh, the armed organization of the Vietnamese Communist Party, was declared against the French Far East Expeditionary Force (Cefeo). This will precipitate the end of the Indochina War (1946-1954), the departure of France and the fall of North Vietnam under communist rule, in the middle of the Cold War.

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As we commemorate the 70th anniversary of Diên Bien Phu this Tuesday, what rank should we give today to this defeat in French military history? 20 minutes interviewed two specialists in the Indochina War, historian Laure Monin-Cournil and Lieutenant-Colonel Ivan Cadeau, historian and head of the “doctrine, operations and intelligence” office in the Defense Historical Service.

Is Diên Bien Phu one of the “great” French defeats?

Unquestionably yes for Lieutenant-Colonel Ivan Cadeau, specialist in the Indochina and Korean wars. “The Indochina War is ultimately only known, almost, through the defeat of Diên Bien Phu. It caused a shock among French public opinion, which had largely been disinterested in the conflict, or even ignored it. And suddenly, in the spring of 1954, we learned that something serious had happened. »

“It’s a defeat with a special status,” continues the historian. We cannot compare it to Waterloo, for example, which lasts a few hours. There, we have guys posted on support points to whom we have given women’s first names, and who will hold out for two months against an opponent infinitely superior in number. » During these weeks of deadly fighting, the soldiers of the French Union, composed among others of legionnaires or members of the colonies, will resist the artillery assaults of the Viet Minh forces, and the two camps will go as far as fighting in the body to body.

“It’s a tragedy with thousands of victims [le bilan officiel évoque 3.000 morts et disparus côté Cefeo, 8.000 morts côté Viêt Minh], and the whole world will follow the suffocation of the entrenched camp, the fall of the support points, which will feed the myth. Especially since these are elite battalions which are engaged, continues Ivan Cadeau. The golden age of the French airborne troops was the Indochina War, and Diên Bien Phu was their battle, to be placed among Camerone and Sidi-Brahim within this sort of pantheon of the army’s glorious defeats. French. Diên Bien Phu is ultimately a battle which belongs above all to the army and its traditions. It’s the French gesture, a defeat with honor. »

“In the press of the time, we talk a lot about it as an act of glory, of heroism,” says Laure Monin-Cournil. And the few times the word defeat is used, there is necessarily the word heroic behind it. Besides, to avoid talking about defeat, we talk about the fighters. However, it is indeed, above all, a defeat. »

What are the reasons that explain this defeat?

It is generally established that the French, in the fall of 1953, wanted to set a trap for the Viet Minh by luring it into what is customary to call the Diên Bien Phu basin. Trap which would have turned against them. “Diên Bien Phu is a valley, which is 18 km long and 9 km wide,” insists Ivan Cadeau. She was chosen by General Commander-in-Chief Navarre to respond to the challenge posed by the adversary, who wanted to seize the last possessions in northern Vietnam and was moving towards Laos. The only place to establish an air-land base, that is to say centered around an airstrip, is Diên Bien Phu. This site then aims to radiate in order to disrupt the adversary’s offensive, in no case to establish a trap to attract the Viet Mihn. Ultimately, it was the reactions of the adversary which made Diên Bien Phu an entrenched camp, since the French were no longer able to leave it from the beginning of January 1954.

“What attracts the French is the airstrip, which will allow everything to be transported by air,” confirms Laure Monin-Cournil. The historian nevertheless believes that the French command underestimated the capabilities of the Viet Minh to also transport equipment in this mountainous terrain which surrounds the Diên Bien Phu valley. However, he managed to bring all the light equipment and supplies up these slopes “by thousands of Vietnamese on foot and by bike”, while the artillery pieces were transported in trucks of Soviet origin.

For Ivan Cadeau, it is not so much the delivery of this material as its use that surprises the French. “The use of slope artillery will hurt. It will be a flood of fire. And the French, for their part, showed themselves to be careless in the construction of their shelters and support points, which did not respect the criteria necessary for the solidity of a field fortification. They were short of materials, it’s true, but they didn’t dig deep enough. »

Violent fighting in Diên Bien Phu, March 14, 1954.– UNCREDITED/AP/SIPA

The fight began on March 13 between the 15,000 men led by General de Castries and the 70,000 men of General Giap, and turned into trench warfare. “We compare this battle to Verdun, we even spoke of “tropical Verdun”, while Verdun is one of the great victories of the French army” underlines Laure Monin-Cournil. “And unlike Verdun, we are not doing everything to save Diên Bien Phu,” adds Ivan Cadeau. “The first two days were fateful,” recalls Laure Monin-Cournil. Afterwards, there were reinforcements arriving, notably the paratroopers with all the aura of Bigeard’s battalion on March 16, and confidence returned a little. But it is short-lived. »

What consequences does this defeat have at the international level?

To return to the parallel with Waterloo, “which ends with the departure of the Emperor”, Ivan Cadeau emphasizes that Diên Bien Phu does not have the same impact since “the Fourth Republic remains in place. » Nevertheless, its consequences are resounding.

“It is a defeat which hastens the end of the Indochina War at the Geneva conference [le 21 juillet 1954], and which resulted in half of Vietnam coming under communist rule”, in the middle of the Cold War, underlines Laure Monin-Cournil. “This defeat also comes a little less than fifteen years after the great slap in the face of 1940,” recalls Ivan Cadeau. This confirms that France is no longer a great power. It is also the first step towards the loss of his empire. Diên Bien Phu marks the beginning of an international downgrading for France. »

What resonance does Diên-Biên Phu have in France?

If the defeat causes a shock in France, it is short-lived, believes Laure Monin-Cournil. “In mainland France, this is not the main concern. Indochina is far away, and we will very quickly move on to Algeria, which worries the French more. Furthermore, let us remember that the fighters of Diên Bien Phu are exclusively professional soldiers, with relatively few French people from mainland France. The Far East Expeditionary Force is composed mainly of members of the French Union, from the colonies and the legion. »

“In Diên Bien Phu, there was only a maximum of 17% of French mainland citizens, or less than a fifth of the workforce,” says Ivan Cadeau. It is like the expeditionary force, that is to say something very varied in origins and faiths, with elite units and everyone. »

What happens to the survivors of Diên Bien Phu?

After the fighting stopped, “858 fighters were evacuated to France” indicates Laure Monin-Cournil. But around 11,000 soldiers were taken prisoner. “We talked about 70% losses in the camps, it would in reality be more around 30%, which is already enormous,” assesses Ivan Cadeau.

The situation was confused during this period, especially since when the prisoners were released, between the end of July and the beginning of September 1954, “we do not know what became of certain legionnaires from Eastern European countries” points out Laure Monin-Cournil. “There is also the case of the thousands of Vietnamese who fought in the ranks of the French army,” adds Ivan Cadeau. Not all were executed, and after a period of re-education, most were even reintegrated into the ranks of the Viet Minh. »

“After a trip by boat, some 3,290 European fighters returned to France between November 1954 and January 1955,” continues Laure Monin-Cournil. On their arrival in Marseille, the prisoners were harshly received by the union population and the Communist Party, which they experienced very badly. Some of them will integrate, with difficulty, civil society; the others are scattered among several combatant units. Some will be found during the Algerian War. »



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