Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Monday, May 03, 2010

Camerone: Keeping Priorities Straight

Once the airstrip became unusable, the French relied on airdrops for their supplies. A lot of the supplies ended up falling behind enemy lines, and other supplies fell into the no-man's-land between the French and the Viet Minh positions. On April 30, the day on which the French Foreign Legion celebrates Camerone, some supplies had fallen into no-man's-land. From page 347:

One such situation that day was to have humorous side effects. At 2200, de Castries' headquarters reported to Hanoi a successful raid on the Communist trenches and fortifications south of E2 by Maj. Coutant's 1/13 Foreign Legion. One Viet-Minh blockhouse was completely destroyed with plastic charges and two others were severely damaged. In addition at least ten enemy soldiers were killed and others were wounded, while there were no friendly losses to report. The communique, however, failed to stress that the idea of the raid originated in the fact that two complete crates of "Vinogel" wine concentrate had fallen into no man's land east of the Eliane ridgeline held by the Legionnaires. The Legionnaires, who thus far that day had had to celebrate Camerone with exactly one bottle of wine per platoon, were not about to let that precious booty fall into enemy hands. A commando of volunteers was organized (as one non-Legionnaire observed: everybody would have volunteered for that raid) and as soon as night fell pushed off into no man's land. The main objective was rapidly secured, the knocking out of the enemy bunkers being a mere tactical necessity incident to the success of the operation.

German Legionnaires Sing a Song

The Viet Minh captured lots of French troops and made psychological efforts to sow doubt and disloyalty among them. This was ultimately successful in the case of some of the soldiers from Algeria, who later fought against the French in that country. This passage concerns Germans serving in the French Foreign Legion. From page 435 of Hell in a Very Small Place:

[Major de Mecquenem] particularly remembered in his camp a group of Foreign Legionnaires of German extraction who had decided, correctly enough, that this was not their war anyway and that what now counted most was to stay alive until the conclusion of the cease-fire. They informed the camp commander that they had turned "progressive" and were immediately given a preferred status within the camp, along with improved food rations. Every morning part of the ceremonial consisted in a lecture by the camp's political commissar on the previous day's victories in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, and it became the role of the "progressives" to provide a suitable cheering section for the announcement of such victories. They cheered or gustily sang the Internationale for the defeats of the 3rd BT on Anne-Marie and of the Algerians on the Dominiques. They also had no objections to applauding the destruction of the Moroccans and Vietnamese paratroopers on Eliane 1.

But then came the bitter battles of mid-April for the Northern Huguettes. One morning the Viet-Minh camp commander read the rousing news that the Foreign Legion infantrymen and paratroopers who had held the Northern Huguettes had been overwhelmed and that part of the vital airstrip was now in the hands of the People's Army. There was a dead silence among the assembled prisoners and, in contrast to established habit, the cheering section of the "progressives" also had remained silent. In an annoyed voice, the camp commander turned to them and said: "Come on, sing! What are you waiting for?"

The Foreign Legionnaires looked at each other in silence and then began to sing. There was an instant gasp of shock among the assembled French prisoners - until they recognized the German song: "Ich hatt' einen Kameraden, Einen bess'ren findst du nicht . . ." ["I once had a comrade / you couldn't find a better one . . ."] The turncoat Legionnaires were singing the beautiful song with which Germans have honored their war dead since the Napoleonic wars of 1809. It was one thing to cheer at the demise of the other "strange" units fighting in the valley; it was another to betray the Foreign Legion. The "progressives" were stripped of their special privileges and returned to the rice-and-water diet of the other prisoners.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Vietnamese Paratroopers Sing a Song

For my first post from Hell in a Very Small Place, one of my favorite scenes from the book. The French have lost Eliane 1 (E1), a strongpoint at Dien Bien Phu. They are mounting a counter-attack to retake the hill. The passage is from page 235:

Then something very strange happened. Something which, in the recollection of the thousands of men who heard it that night, had rarely happened before in Indochina. As the hundred Legionnaires and French paratroopers stormed across the low saddle between E4 and E1, they began to sing. Some of the French paratroop songs are in fact translations of German paratroop songs, and now, as they stormed forward, the German Legionnaires were singing in their grave Teutonic accents while the French were singing in their own language. For a moment there seemed to be a brief lull in the battle - even the enemy seemed to attempt to identify the strange new sound. But the song and singers melted away in the firefight atop Eliane 1 and Bigeard decided to throw in the last available ready reserves: 2nd and 3rd Companies, 5th Vietnamese Paratroops. This was the same battalion that had covered itself with shame at the ford of Ban Ke Phai on March 15. Purged of their unreliable elements, and reinforced by some of the French cadre left over from the disintegrated T'ai battalions, they had given a good account of themselves in the previous battles for Huguette and the Five Hills. Yet somehow they had never again been taken seriously. Now their turn had come to be offered up for sacrifice on Eliane 1. Unflinchingly, the little Vietnamese paratroopers and their French cadres began the climb, and they, too, sang. In 1954, the Vietnamese Army was still a young army. It had flags of its own and a national anthem. But so far, no one had yet found the time to provide that army with a rousing marching song that could be shouted at the top of one's lungs if only to drown out one's fright. But there was one song which was then still in the cultural inventory of every Vietnamese schoolboy, and that was the French national anthem, the Marsellaise. As the Vietnamese paratroopers in turn emerged on the fire-beaten saddle between the hills there suddenly arose, for the first and last time in the Indochina War, the Marsellaise. It was sung the way it had been written to be sung in the days of the French Revolution, as a battle hymn of the French Republic. It was sung that night on the blood-stained slopes of Hill Eliane 1 by Vietnamese fighting other Vietnamese in the last battle France fought as an Asian power.

Hell in a Very Small Blog

So a while ago I read Hell in a Very Small Place, by Bernard Fall. Fall was a French journalist and academic who spent several years in Vietnam (ultimately dying there in 1967 after stepping on a landmine). Hell is the story of the battle of Dien Bien Phu. Dien Bien Phu literally means "seat of the border county prefecture." It was a sleepy town in a remote valley until the French chose to locate a military base there, complete with airstrip, in 1953. The Vietnamese Communists (the Viet Minh), under the military leadership of Vo Nguyen Giap (still kicking at the age of 98), decided to concentrate their forces on Dien Bien Phu. It was a major logistical effort, and in a sense it was exactly what the French wanted. The Viet Minh didn't engage in guerilla tactics. They brought in artillery, anti-aircraft guns, and a large conventional army. This was supposed to be the kind of fight the French were bound to win.

But as it turned out, the French were ill-supplied and out-gunned. Once the Viet Minh had their guns trained on the airstrip, it became impossible to supply the French base except by airdrop. The Viet Minh tightened the noose and brought in more anti-aircraft, and more and more of the supplies (including ammunition) started dropping into Viet Minh hands. The base was overrun on May 7, 1954, and the surviving French troops were marched to prison camps. It was a major humiliation and basically the end of the French military presence in Vietnam.

Over the next week I'll post particularly gripping passages from Hell. The book is hard to recommend because it is 466 pages of military history, but it contains more than its share of human drama. I hope I can capture some of that on my blog by literally copying it word for word.

A few minor notes: I will try to refer to the Vietnamese Communists as "Viet Minh" rather than "Vietnamese." There were plenty of Vietnamese who fought for the French, and as we shall see, some of them were exceptionally brave. Although I will refer to all soldiers fighting for the French as "French," many were not French at all. Some were in the French Foreign Legion, some were soldiers from French colonies like Morocco and Algeria. Others, of course, were Vietnamese. Still others were tribesmen from Vietnam who were not ethnically Vietnamese.

But I hope to keep my commentary light and let Fall's book speak for itself.