The French Indochina War, also called the First Indochina War, was an armed conflict which was fought between the French Far East Expeditionary Corps, led by France, and the communist Viet Minh insurgent guerrilla army, in French Indochina from December 19, 1946, to August 1, 1954. The Far East Expeditionary Corps were French colonial forces which belonged to French Union, supported by Emperor Bao Dai’s Vietnamese National Army. The Viet Minh was a clandestine armed force which was led and commanded by Ho Chí Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap. Although the conflict engulfed the entire country and also extended into the neighboring French Indochina protectorates of Laos and Cambodia, most of the battles were fought in Tonkin in Northern Vietnam.
Following the reoccupation of Indochina by the French following the end of World War II, the area having fallen to the Japanese, the Viet Minh launched a rebellion against the French authority governing the colonies of French Indochina. The first few years of the war involved a low-level rural insurgency against French authority. However, after the Chinese communists reached the Northern border of Vietnam in 1949, the conflict turned into a conventional war between two armies equipped with modern weapons supplied by the United States and the Soviet Union.
French Union forces included colonial troops from the whole former empire (Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, Laotian, Cambodian, Vietnamese and Vietnamese ethnic minorities), French professional troops and units of the French Foreign Legion. The use of metropolitan recruits was forbidden by the governments to prevent the war from becoming even more unpopular at home. It was called the “dirty war” (la sale guerre) by supporters of the Left in France and intellectuals (including Sartre) during the Henri Martin Affair in 1950.
Although the strategy of pushing the Viet Minh into attacking a well defended base in a remote part of the country at the end of their logistical trail was validated at the Battle of Na San, the lack of construction materials (especially concrete), tanks (because of lack of road access and difficulty in the jungle terrain), and air cover prevented an effective defense. The decisive battle which practically put an end to the war in Indochina was the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, which was fought in 1954. Other important military operations and battles of the French Indochina War were: the Battle of Cao Bang (1947), Battle of Hoa Binh, Battle of Dong Khe, Battle of Mang Yang Pass, Operation Brochet, Operation Camargue, Operation Hirondelle, Operation Mouette, Operation Castor.
After the war, the Geneva Conference on July 21, 1954, made a provisional division of Vietnam at the 17th parallel, with control of the north given to the Viet Minh as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh, and the south becoming the State of Vietnam under Emperor Bao Ðai, in order to prevent Ho Chi Minh from gaining control of the entire country. A year later, Bao Dai would be deposed by his prime minister, Ngo Dinh Diem, creating the Republic of Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh’s refusal to enter into negotiations with south Vietnam about holding nationwide elections in 1956, as had been stipulated by the Geneva Conference, would eventually lead to the Vietnam War.
Weapons used in the French Indochina War
The weapons used by both the French Far East Expeditionary Corps and the French Foreign Legion units during the First Indochina War were practically American World War II Weapons, which were also used in the Korean War. French infantry elements used the M1 Garand, the BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle), the Thompson submachine gun, the French FM 24/29 light machine gun (FM: fusil mitrailleur), and the French MAS-36 bolt-action rifle for the snipers. The artillery consisted of French 150mm and 155mm howitzers, and US M101 howitzers, which fired 105 mm high explosive (HE) semi-fixed ammunition and had a maximum range of 7 miles. The most important armored vehicle which the French Army deployed in Indochina was the US M24 Chaffee tank.
At the beginning of the armed conflict the Viet Minh troops used both old French and Japanese rifles such as the Lebel M1886 and the MAS-36 rifles (French), and the Arisaka rifle (Japanese). However, by 1949, the Viet Minh began to be supplied with the Soviet SVT-40 semi-automatic rifles which they obtained via China; and by 1954, at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the communist forces were already using the AK 47 assault rifle. The Viet Minh artillery units used the Soviet 152 mm howitzer-gun M1937, and at Dien Bien Phu they deployed 140 field howitzers, 50 heavy mortars, 70-80 recoilless guns, 36 anti-aircraft guns, and 12 Soviet made Katyusha rocket launchers.
French Indochina War (Video)