By late 1953, the French army had lost the initiative in its fight to retain the nation’s colony in Indochina. A Vietnamese insurgency controlled much of the countryside and was steadily increasing in strength. In some seven years of fighting, the Viet Minh had grown from a small, nimble guerrilla force into a disciplined army of a half-dozen divisions, supplied by the Chinese Communists, who had won their own war against Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces.
The French were facing defeat in Indochina, a defeat that would represent one more stain on the honor of an army once the envy of all Europe. France had suffered hideous casualties in World War I, the result of a strategy so inept and leadership so brutally insensitive that after one failed campaign about half the army had mutinied. In the mythic battle of that war, Verdun (see P. 56), the French had held on. But the repercussions of that battle, with its 400,000 French casualties, mired the nation and, indeed, the army in a defensive stance that bordered on defeatism and led to construction of the static Maginot Line; in 1940 German armor had made short work of the French army that manned it.
Now, in Indochina, the French army was eager to reclaim la gloire, and it believed it had the necessary troops, particularly paratroopers and legionnaires. The government back in Paris was less sure.
The army needed a bold plan. What General Henri Navarre, commander of French forces in Indochina, conceived was audacious: The French would build a fortified airhead in a valley near the Laotian border, some 200 miles from Hanoi. This advance base would lie within striking distance of three main enemy supply routes and other targets. If the enemy should try to eliminate the threat by a direct attack, it would spark the set-piece battle on open terrain for which the French command longed. They had the aircraft, and given their superiority in artillery, the battle would have to go their way.
In November 1953, the first French troops arrived by parachute and chased off Viet Minh units training in the area. The French improved the existing airstrip, then began a buildup of troops and supplies, including a dozen tanks disassembled for air transport and then reassembled back on the ground. With a force of more than 15,000 troops, they also established a chain of strongpoints around the perimeter. It was rumored the French named the strongpoints—Anne-Marie, Beatrice, Claudine, et. al—after the commanding generals’ mistresses.
The strongpoints anchored a perimeter of some 40 miles —too much ground for just six battalions to hold. But the French were counting on superior firepower. Their artillery commander, Colonel Charles Piroth, who had lost an arm in prior combat in Indochina, had assured both himself and his superiors that enemy artillery was no threat. French counter-battery fire would suppress any Viet Minh artillery that made it through the jungle to the battlefield. The airfield would remain open, enabling resupply by American-made C-47 and C-119 transports.
On March 13, 1954—almost four months after the first paratroopers had jumped into Dien Bien Phu—Viet Minh artillery opened fire on Beatrice. Until then, the campaign had comprised inconclusive sorties that had cost the French more than 1,000 casualties. But they retained control of the valley, and the airfield remained open. The attack on Beatrice marked a shift to a different kind of warfare—a siege. Piroth’s guns were impotent against the Viet Minh artillery dug in on the heights. On March 15, he committed suicide with a hand grenade.
For two months, the Viet Minh dug toward French lines under the cover of artillery fire the French could not suppress—not with counter-battery fire and not with airstrikes. This mode of combat marked the furthest thing from modern mobile warfare. It was Verdun all over again. And again the French soldier fought furiously and desperately—this time to defeat.
French losses at Dien Bien Phu totaled 2,293 killed, 5,195 wounded and 10,998 captured. Viet Minh casualties exceeded 23,000. With the battle lost in early May, the French government agreed, at Geneva, to a peace that led to creation of an independent Vietnam, partitioned into North and South. Unification was forcibly accomplished 21 years later when an army commanded by Vo Nguyen Giap—the same general who led Viet Minh forces at Dien Bien Phu—rolled into Saigon.
Fifty-five years after the French defeat, Dien Bien Phu remains a popular destination for international visitors. Accessible by weekly flights from Hanoi, it has grown into a modern town with paved roads, a hotel and a small but impressive museum displaying equipment, weapons and uniforms of both sides. While rice paddies have reclaimed the westernmost outposts, Françoise and Huguette, visitors may tour Dominique, Elaine, Isabelle, the former command bunker and the cemetery containing the French dead. All the main battle positions are maintained in their immediate post-battle condition.
With its defeat at Dien Bien Phu, the French army—the army of Valmy, Austerlitz and, yes, Verdun—passed into history.
Originally published in the January 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.