Pur Autre Vie

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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.


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