Lang Son Campaign

Lang Son Campaign

The Lang Son Campaign (3 to 13 February 1885) was a major French offensive in Tonkin (northern Vietnam) during the Sino-French War (August 1884–April 1885). The Tonkin Expeditionary Corps, under the command of General Louis Brière de l'Isle, defeated the Chinese Guangxi Army and captured the strategically-important town of Lang Son in a ten-day campaign mounted under formidable logistical constraints.

Campaign preparations, January 1885

French strategy in Tonkin was the subject of a bitter debate in the Chamber of Deputies in late December 1884. The army minister General Jean-Baptiste-Marie Campenon argued that the French should consolidate their hold on the Delta. His opponents urged an all-out offensive to throw the Chinese out of northern Tonkin. The debate culminated in Campenon’s resignation and his replacement as army minister by the hawkish General Jules Lewal. On 5 January 1885 Lewal ordered Brière de l’Isle to 'capture Lang Son as soon as possible'.

Long-range planning for a campaign against Lang Son had been underway for several months, and Brière de l’Isle had already assembled large French forces at the French forward base of Chu on the Luc Nam River, which had been occupied by the French in the wake of the Kep Campaign (October 1884). On 3 and 4 January 1885 General de Négrier attacked and defeated a substantial detachment of the Guangxi Army that had concentrated around the nearby village of Nui Bop to try to disrupt the French preparations. De Nègrier's victory at Nui Bop, won at odds of just under one to ten, was regarded by his fellow-officers as the most spectacular professional triumph of his career. [Armengaud, "Lang-Son", 2–4; Bonifacy, "A propos d’une collection des peintures chinoises", 8–9; de Lonlay, "Au Tonkin", 342–60; Dreyfus, "Lettres du Tonkin", 81–6; Harmant, "La vérité sur la retraite de Lang-Son", 113–37; "Histoire illustrée de l’expédition du Tonkin", 221–7; Lecomte, "Lang-Son", 155–76; Lecomte, "La vie militaire au Tonkin", 79–86; Maury, "Mes campagnes au Tong-King", 129–32; Nicolas, "Livre d’or de l’infanterie de la marine", 362–7; Sarrat, "Journal d’un marsouin", 169–70]

Logistical arrangements for the Lang Son campaign were formidable. It would take the column around ten days to advance to the outskirts of Lang Son. The troops would be burdened with the weight of their provisions and equipment, and would have to march through extremely difficult country. The nights, in Tonkin in February, would be bitterly cold. Supplying the column with food and ammunition would tax the ingenuity of the marine infantry officers responsible for the mule trains and the coolies. It took the French a month to complete their preparations for the campaign, but by the end of January 1885, Brière de l’Isle had assembled an expeditionary column of just under 7,200 troops, accompanied by 4,500 coolies, at Chu. [De Lonlay, "Au Tonkin", 463–75; "Histoire illustrée de l’expédition du Tonkin", 228–30; Huard, "La guerre du Tonkin", 522–30; Lecomte, "Lang-Son", 177–206; Sarrat, "Journal d’un marsouin", 171–7]

French order of battle

The Lang Son expeditionary column ("colonne expéditionnaire de Lang-Son") was organised around the two brigades originally established by General Millot in January 1885. Each brigade contained two marching regiments ("régiments de marche"), each of two or three battalions, with supporting artillery and Tonkinese skirmishers. Each brigade was accompanied by field hospital and engineering detachments. Giovanninelli's 1st Brigade consisted of a two-battalion marine infantry regiment, a two-battalion regiment of Algerian riflemen (Turcos), a battalion of Tonkinese riflemen and three artillery batteries. De Négrier's 2nd Brigade consisted of a 'French' regiment of three line infantry battalions from the metropolitan army, an 'Algerian' regiment of two Foreign Legion battalions and one battalion of African Light Infantry, a battalion of Tonkinese riflemen and three artillery batteries:
*1st Brigade (Lieutenant-Colonel Ange-Laurent Giovanninelli)
**1st Marching Regiment (Lieutenant-Colonel Chaumont)
***marine infantry battalion ("chef de bataillon" Mahias)
***marine infantry battalion ("chef de bataillon" Lambinet)
**2nd Marching Regiment (Lieutenant-Colonel Letellier)
***3rd Algerian Rifle Battalion ("chef de bataillon" de Mibielle)
***4th Algerian Rifle Battalion ("chef de bataillon" Comoy)
**1st Battalion, 2nd Tonkinese Rifle Regiment ("chef de bataillon" Tonnot)
**Brigade artillery ("chef d'escadron" Levrard)
***3rd, 4th and 5th Marine Artillery Batteries "bis" (Captains Roussel, Roperh and Péricaud).

*2nd Brigade ("général de brigade" François de Négrier)
**3rd Marching Regiment (Lieutenant-Colonel Herbinger)
***23rd Line Infantry Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Godart)
***111th Line Infantry Battalion ("chef de bataillon" Faure)
***143rd Line Infantry Battalion ("chef de bataillon" Farret)
**4th Marching Regiment (Lieutenant-Colonel Donnier)
***2nd Foreign Legion Battalion ("chef de bataillon" Diguet)
***3rd Foreign Legion Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Schoeffer)
***2nd African Light Infantry Battalion ("chef de bataillon" Servière)
**1st Battalion, 1st Tonkinese Rifle Regiment ("chef de bataillon" Jorna de Lacale)
**Brigade artillery ("chef d'escadron" de Douvres)
***1st Marine Artillery Battery "bis" (Captain Martin)
***11th and 12th Batteries, 12th Army Artillery Regiment (Captains Jourdy and de Saxcé). [Lecomte, "Lang-Son", 205–6]

The strengths of the infantry battalions varied considerably, depending on how long they had been in Tonkin. The battalions which had served longest in the Tonkin campaign could only with difficulty field as many as 500 men, while Schoeffer and Comoy's recently-arrived battalions could put 800 rifles into line.

The Lang Son campaign, February 1885

Capture of Cao Nhiat, 3 February

Shortly after midnight on 2 February the expeditionary corps set off from Chu, with de Négrier's 2nd Brigade leading the way, and advanced over the mountain of Deo Van to Cao Nhiat without meeting any enemy resistance. At Cao Nhiat the French captured an important Chinese rice dump, easing their supply difficulties. [Armengaud, "Lang-Son", 7; Bonifacy, "À propos d’une collection des peintures chinoises", 13; de Lonlay, "Au Tonkin", 475–6; Lecomte, "Lang-Son", 227–30; Lecomte, "La vie militaire au Tonkin", 107–12; Nicolas, "Livre d’or de l’infanterie de la marine", 369; "Notes sur la campagne du 3e bataillon de la légion étrangère au Tonkin", 12–13]

Battle of Tay Hoa, 4 February

On 4 February the expeditionary corps fought its first action with the Chinese, at Tay Hoa. The battle was fought almost wholly by de Négrier's 2nd Brigade, which was leading the march, and demonstrated the unfitness for field command of Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Gustave Herbinger, the French commander who would in late March 1885 take the controversial decision to retreat from Langson. Ordered to capture the 'Great Fort', the key to the Chinese position, with his three French line battalions, Herbinger made an elaborate flank march which exhausted his troops and wasted valuable time. At length, seeing his operational timetable threatened, de Négrier ordered Schoeffer's 3rd Legion Battalion to take the fort instead. The legionnaires scrambled rapidly up the mountain paths towards the Chinese position and captured it under Herbinger's nose. Meanwhile, on the other side of the battlefield, Captain Gravereau's company of Diguet's 2nd Legion Battalion was isolated and surrounded by the Chinese. The company was eventually disengaged by its comrades, but suffered heavy losses. Although the battle was indisputably a French victory, French casualties were disconcertingly heavy: 18 dead and 101 wounded, most of them in Diguet and Schoeffer's Legion battalions. These were the heaviest casualties the French had suffered in a single engagement since the start of the Sino-French War. [Armengaud, "Lang-Son", 8–12; Bonifacy, "À propos d’une collection des peintures chinoises", 13–14; de Lonlay, "Au Tonkin", 476–8; Harmant, "La vérité sur la retraite de Lang-Son", 141–9; Lecomte, "Lang-Son", 230–40; Maury, "Mes campagnes au Tong-King", 134–7; Lecomte, "La vie militaire au Tonkin", 112–19; Nicolas, "Livre d’or de l’infanterie de la marine", 369–71; "Notes sur la campagne du 3e bataillon de la légion étrangère au Tonkin", 13–15]

Actions at Ha Hoa and Dong Song, 5 and 6 February

On 5 February the French assaulted the main complex of forts defending the Chinese entrenched camp at Dong Song, around Ha Hoa. The two French brigades attacked side by side. The 1st Brigade, on the left, overran a number of Chinese forts before their defenders could escape, and wiped out the garrisons by blowing in the roofs with dynamite. The 2nd Brigade, on the right, captured the principal Chinese work of Pins Parasols, so named because it had been built around a conspicuous clump of umbrella pines. The speed of the French attacks, prepared by artillery, kept the Chinese off balance throughout the battle, and French casualties were relatively low: 4 dead and 18 wounded. [Armengaud, "Lang-Son", 12–14; Bonifacy, "À propos d’une collection des peintures chinoises", 14–15; de Lonlay, "Au Tonkin", 478–9; Harmant, "La vérité sur la retraite de Lang-Son", 149–50; Lecomte, "Lang-Son", 241–50; Lecomte, "La vie militaire au Tonkin", 120–4; Maury, "Mes campagnes au Tong-King", 137–8; Nicolas, "Livre d’or de l’infanterie de la marine", 371]

On 6 February the French fought a morning action to clear the Chinese from their last defences before Dong Song, and took possession of the entrenched camp of Dong Song in the afternoon. French casualties in this action were 3 dead and 41 wounded. Brière de l'Isle had been hoping to push the Chinese back across the mountain of Deo Quao into the Song Thuong valley, away from Lang Son, but most of the Chinese troops fell back up the Dong Song valley to Pho Bu, where they could make a further stand for Lang Son. [Armengaud, "Lang-Son", 15–16; Bonifacy, "A propos d’une collection des peintures chinoises", 15; de Lonlay, "Au Tonkin", 480–1; Harmant, "La vérité sur la retraite de Lang-Son", 150; Lecomte, "Lang-Son", 250–8; Lecomte, "La vie militaire au Tonkin", 124–5; Maury, "Mes campagnes au Tong-King", 138–42; Nicolas, "Livre d’or de l’infanterie de la marine", 372–3; "Notes sur la campagne du 3e bataillon de la légion étrangère au Tonkin", 15–16]

Action at Deo Quao, 9 February

The capture of Dong Song threatened the supply line of the Guangxi Army's right wing at Bac Le, and the Chinese hastily pulled back from Bac Le and retreated up the Mandarin Road to Thanh Moy. To cover their retreat they attacked the French outposts on the mountain of Deo Quao on 9 February. The French units on Deo Quao easily repelled this attack, but the diversion allowed the Guangxi Army to regroup and make a final stand in front of Lang Son. [Armengaud, "Lang-Son", 16–19; Bonifacy, "A propos d’une collection des peintures chinoises", 16; de Lonlay, "Au Tonkin", 481–6; Harmant, "La verité sur la retraite de Lang-Son", 150–1; Lecomte, "Lang-Son", 273–6; Maury, "Mes campagnes au Tong-King", 142–4; "Notes sur la campagne du 3e bataillon de la légion étrangère au Tonkin", 16–18]

Action at Pho Vy, 11 February

After a pause for breath at Dong Song to resupply with food and ammunition and to establish a shorter supply line back to Chu across the mountain of Deo Quan, the Tonkin expeditionary corps pressed on towards Lang Son. On 11 February the 2nd Brigade contacted advance elements of the Guangxi Army at Pho Vy. The Chinese were ejected from their positions by Herbinger's three French battalions with little difficulty, and fell back on their main body at Bac Vie. [Armengaud, "Lang-Son", 20–1; de Lonlay, "Au Tonkin", 487–8; Harmant, "La vérité sur la retraite de Lang-Son", 151–7; Lecomte, "Lang-Son", 277–88; Maury, "Mes campagnes au Tong-King", 144–50; Nicolas, "Livre d’or de l’infanterie de la marine", 373–4; Normand, "Lettres du Tonkin", 106–15, 151–2, 166–7 and 190–3; "Notes sur la campagne du 3e bataillon de la légion étrangère au Tonkin", 18]

Battle of Bac Vie, 12 February

The culminating battle for Lang Son was fought on 12 February at Bac Vie, several kilometres to the south of Lang Son. In a costly but successful assault, the Turcos and marine infantry of Giovanninelli’s 1st Brigade stormed the Chinese defences. The battle was fought in thick fog, allowing the Chinese to mount a dangerous counterattack at one point that nearly swept away part of Giovanninelli's brigade. Eventually the French broke through the Chinese centre, and the isolated Chinese wings retreated in disorder back to Langson. French casualties at Bac Vie were 30 dead and 188 wounded, the highest casualties of the campaign. Most of these casualties were sustained by the two Turco battalions in Giovanninelli's brigade, which had borne the brunt of the battle. Brière de l’Isle's "officier d'ordonnance" 2nd Lieutenant Bossant, the son of a senior French general, was killed at Brière de l’Isle's side during the fighting. [Armengaud, "Lang-Son", 21–4; de Lonlay, "Au Tonkin", 488–93; Harmant, "La vérité sur la retraite de Lang-Son", 157–8; "Histoire illustrée de l’expédition du Tonkin", 235–6; Hocquard, "Une campagne au Tonkin", 381–4; Lecomte, "Lang-Son", 288–98 and 304–5; Maury, "Mes campagnes au Tong-King", 150–3; Nicolas, "Livre d’or de l’infanterie de la marine", 374–8; "Notes sur la campagne du 3e bataillon de la légion étrangère au Tonkin", 18–21]

Capture of Lang Son and action at Ky Lua, 13 February

On 13 February the French column entered Lang Son, which the Chinese abandoned after fighting a token rearguard action at the nearby village of Ky Lua. In compliment to their performance at Bac Vie, Brière de l'Isle gave Giovanninelli's Turcos and marine infantry the honour of leading the French entry into Lang Son. The Guangxi Army fell back towards the Chinese border and occupied a strong defensive position at Dong Dang, a small town just in Tonkinese territory. [Armengaud, "Lang-Son", 24–8; Bonifacy, "A propos d’une collection des peintures chinoises", 17–18; de Lonlay, "Au Tonkin", 493–5; "Histoire illustrée de l’expédition du Tonkin", 237; Hocquard, "Une campagne au Tonkin", 384–8; Lecomte, "Lang-Son", 298–305; Lecomte, "La vie militaire au Tonkin", 145–59, 161–77 and 179–86; Maury, "Mes campagnes au Tong-King", 153–6; Nicolas, "Livre d’or de l’infanterie de la marine", 378–80; "Notes sur la campagne du 3e bataillon de la légion étrangère au Tonkin", 21–2]

Aftermath

Battle of Dong Dang, 23 February

On 16 February Brière de l'Isle left Lang Son with Giovanninelli's 1st Brigade to relieve the Siege of Tuyen Quang. Before his departure he ordered General de Négrier, who would remain at Lang Son with the 2nd Brigade, to press on towards the Chinese border and expel the battered remnants of the Guangxi Army from Tonkinese soil. After resupplying the 2nd Brigade with food and ammunition, De Négrier advanced to attack the Guangxi Army at Dong Dang. On 23 February de Négrier stormed the Chinese defences at Dong Dang. At the start of the battle the Chinese attacked both French wings to prevent de Négrier from deploying on a wide front, but their attacks were driven off. The 111th Line Battalion and the other two battalions of Herbinger's French regiment then assaulted the town of Dong Dang and smashed through the Chinese centre. In the final phase of the battle the French scaled a limestone massif behind Dong Dang and drove off its defenders, forcing the Chinese to retreat towards the Chinese border town of Longzhou (Lung-chou). [Armengaud, "Lang-Son", 28–35; Bonifacy, "À propos d’une collection des peintures chinoises", 20–1; de Lonlay, "Au Tonkin", 503–12; Dreyfus, "Lettres du Tonkin", 117–20; Grisot and Coulombon, "La légion étrangère de 1831 à 1887", 459–60; Harmant, "La vérité sur la retraite de Lang-Son", 175–80; "Histoire illustrée de l’expédition du Tonkin", 238–47; Lecomte, "Lang-Son", 337–49; Maury, "Mes campagnes au Tong-King", 159–72; Nicolas, "Livre d’or de l’infanterie de la marine", 380–3; Normand, "Lettres du Tonkin", 122–34, 135–41 and 169–74; "Notes sur la campagne du 3e bataillon de la légion étrangère au Tonkin", 22–7]

An important factor in the Chinese defeat at Dong Dang was the failure of the Chinese commander Pan Dingxin (潘鼎新) to concentrate his forces to meet the French attack. A sizeable contingent of fresh troops under the command of Feng Zicai (馮子才) was left to cover a border crossing several kilometres to the east of Dong Dang, and took no part in the battle. French casualties at Dong Dang were light: 9 dead and 46 wounded. Chinese casualties were far heavier, and included three Chinese generals. Pan Dingxin and Dong Ligao (董履高) were wounded (the latter seriously), and Yang Yuke (楊玉科) was killed. [Lung Chang, "Yueh-nan yu Chung-fa chan-cheng", 334–5]

After clearing the Chinese from Tonkinese territory the French crossed briefly into Guangxi province and on 25 February blew up the 'Gate of China', an elaborate Chinese customs building on the border at Zhennan Pass (Zhennanguan). They were not strong enough to exploit this victory, however, and de Négrier returned to Langson with the bulk of the 2nd Brigade at the end of February. A small French garrison under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Herbinger was left at Dong Dang to watch the future movements of the Guangxi Army. Three weeks later the Chinese attacked the Dong Dang garrison, precipitating a series of events that led to the French defeat at the Battle of Bang Bo (Zhennan Pass) (24 March 1885).

Notes

References

* Armengaud, J. L., "Lang-Son: journal des opérations qui ont précédé et suivi la prise de cette citadel" (Paris, 1901)
* Bonifacy, "A propos d’une collection des peintures chinoises représentant diverse épisodes de la guerre franco-chinoise de 1884-1885" (Hanoi, 1931)
* De Lonlay, D., "Au Tonkin, 1883-1885" (Paris, 1886)
* Dreyfus, G, "Lettres du Tonkin, 1884-6" (Paris, 1888)
* Grisot and Coulombon, "La légion étrangère de 1831 à 1887" (Paris, 1888)
* Harmant, J., "La verité sur la retraite de Lang-Son" (Paris, 1892)
* Hocquard, C., "Une campagne au Tonkin" (Paris, 1892)
* Lecomte, J., "Lang-Son: combats, retraite et négociations" (Paris, 1895)
* Lecomte, J., "La vie militaire au Tonkin" (Paris, 1893)
* Lung Chang [龍章] , "Yueh-nan yu Chung-fa chan-cheng" [越南與中法戰爭, Vietnam and the Sino-French War] (Taipei, 1993)
* Nicolas, V., "Livre d'or de l'infanterie de la marine" (Paris, 1891)
* Maury, A., "Mes campagnes au Tong-King" (Lyons, undated)
* Normand, R., "Lettres du Tonkin" (Paris, 1886)
* "Notes sur la campagne du 3e bataillon de la légion étrangère au Tonkin" (Paris, 1888)
* Sarrat, L., "Journal d'un marsouin au Tonkin, 1883-1886" (Paris, 1887)
* Thomazi, A., "Histoire militaire de l’Indochine française" (Hanoi, 1931)
* Thomazi, A., "La conquête de l'Indochine" (Paris, 1934)


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