Dien Bien Phu, Battle of
DIEN BIEN PHU, BATTLE OF.THE FRENCH POSITION
CONDITIONS IN THE GARRISON
Dien Bien Phu (13 March–7 May 1954) was the last battle fought by the French Army in the twentieth century. It was also the last battle waged with forces drawn from other parts of the French Empire (which had been reorganized as the "French Union" in 1946). The defeat there, furthermore, signaled the beginning of the empire's definitive dismantlement: the fall of Dien Bien Phu inflicted a profound psychological shock on metropolitan France, instigated the demise of the Laniel government (1953–1954) and the rise of Pierre Mendès-France to power (prime minister, 1954–1955), as well as the signing on 21 July 1954 of the Geneva Accords, which ended France's engagement in Vietnam and drew up its partition, originally meant to be provisional.
From a bird's eye point of view of the Dien Bien Phu basin-turned-battlefield in 1954, the strategic choices made by the French command over the course of the previous year appear rather stupefying. In order to loosen the pressure being exerted by the Vietminh on the Tonkin Delta, and also to forestall an attack on Laos, General Henri Navarre had envisioned creating a kind of acute abscess 350 kilometers west of Hanoi near the Laotian border, supplied from the air and designed to force the Vietminh to engage in a full frontal battle where they would be wiped out. To this end the basin was occupied in an air operation spread out over three days, which dropped a total of six battalions of para-troopers and one artillery group that refurbished a preexisting airfield, and then held their positions in anticipation of the first wave of reinforcements.
In March 1954 this Northwest Operational Task Force, under the command of Colonel Christian de Castries, was composed of 10,800 men, 40 percent of whom were from the Foreign Legion. The Vietminh commander, General Vo Nguyen Giap, met this challenge by concentrating several divisions around the basin, an additional several thousand "coolies," and above all two hundred pieces of artillery (including antiaircraft cannons and rocket-launchers), whose transport and assembly in the jungle could not have taken place without unheard of physical effort on the part of the Vietnamese, combined with the Vietminh's singularly supple ingenuity, whose work completely evaded French aerial observation. Also contrary to general-staff estimations, enemy supply lines using bicycles, hand-carted across the jungle, proved equally efficacious as logistical support.
Furthermore, the Vietminh artillery completely evaded French counterattacks once the bombardment began on 13 March 1954 (leading the chief of French artillery, Colonel Charles Piroth, to commit suicide in his bunker). The Vietminh made the airfield their primary target, thereby rapidly cutting off the French garrison at its umbilical cord, since it was unable to evacuate its wounded, who then became dependent on parachute-drop operations rendered highly unreliable by inclement weather and the effectiveness of enemy antiaircraft fire.
With the fall of the uppermost line of hills dominating the camp's line of entrenchment (all dubbed, ironically, with feminine code names), the battle was lost in the first ten days. "Beatrice," on the northwest side of the basin, was the first to go, followed by "Gabrielle," in an isolated spot on the north side of the entrenchment. Finally "Dominique," "Eliane," "Huguette," and "Claudine," the rest of the northern trenches, fell too.
By 20 April, despite counterassaults intended to prevent the basin's total destruction, the net area under French control was reduced by half, from an initial eight square kilometers to just four The fighting force itself was reduced to 9,940 men, including 1,670 lightly wounded who remained at their posts, and 800 heavily wounded who could not be evacuated, and who therefore had to be herded into muddy shelters, rain soaked by the slightest downpour. The fate of the wounded was atrocious, and weighed heavily on the morale of the entire garrison, which by 13 April had lost nearly 5,000 men, both wounded and dead, including almost 160 officers. The airlift of an additional four battalions of reinforcements composed of nine hundred paratroopers and a significant number of irregular troops, failed to stem the losses. The emotional and physical exhaustion was such that soldiers were reported to have died without even incurring a single wound. Despite the presence of a certain number of deserters who managed to hide inside the encampment, the battle raged on until 7 May based entirely on the heroics of the garrison itself, which by that date was holding on to little more than their HQ perimeter and a few final footholds situated to the south of the airfield: Dien Bien Phu was in this respect a true soldier's battle. The basin fell with no formal capitulation: the shooting simply stopped as a way of signifying to the enemy the cessation of combat.
On both sides, the fight hinged primarily on trench warfare. The Vietminh gained ground on the French positions by digging parallel trenches and inching their way forward across the length of the basin. The French meanwhile sought to defend their positions by burying underground bunkers, whose remnants are still visible on the ground. The fact that spontaneously in their letters and notebooks French soldiers so frequently compared Dien Bien Phu to Verdun in 1916 is easily explained by this mode of entrenched confrontation, the omnipresence of mud, and the defensive nature of the battle being waged against an enemy benefiting from superiority in manpower and materiel. Had not their fathers fought like this during World War I? As it had been for them, just forty years earlier, was it not necessary therefore to just "hold on?" De Castries, promoted to the rank of general while the battle raged on, would invoke it himself by referring to Dien Bien Phu as a Verdun without its "Sacred Way," the sole supply and escape route left open to the French in 1916.
Unlike Verdun, however, the entrenched camp's survivors, save the most seriously wounded, were forced to head east on foot, toward captivity in Vietminh outposts near the Chinese border. These 9,500 men (including 700 wounded), in a wretched physical and moral state, exhausted by 56 days of battle, many suffering from dysentery, were made to walk 600 kilometers in 40 days. This is considered one of the worst death marches ever inflicted on a group of soldiers in the twentieth century, to which was added the incredibly high death rates in the camps themselves: fully two-thirds of the prisoners taken at Dien Bien Phu would be dead before their liberation came in the fall of 1954.
Bruge, Roger. Les hommes de Dien Bien Phu. Paris, 1999.
Corvisier, André (under the direction of). Histoire Militaire de la France. Volume 4: De 1940 à nos jours. Paris, 1992.
Grauwin, Paul. J'étais médecin à Dien-Bien-Phu. Paris, 1954.