French Paratroops - Dien Bien Phu - March 1954
Viet Minh Memorial Dien Bien Phu French graveyard
Dien Bien Phu
All the empires were falling,
Nationalism then calling,
At the close of the Second World War;
A new force disturbing,
With the Cold War emerging,
Imperialism holding on as before.
Old hatreds converted,
World attention diverted,
A new chess game with battle lines drawn;
Korea and Malaya,
In fact all South East Asia,
Super Powers using each as a pawn.
So French politicians,
Imposed pre-war conditions,
Attempting to hang onto the past;
Yet freedom neglected,
Leads to rulers rejected,
Colonialism collapsing real fast.
One hundred years of oppression,
French control, an obsession,
In the end, an incredible cost;
Just maintaining her forces,
Benefits outweighing what was lost.
Communication back then,
And pride, of military men,
Had led to the final disasters;
Meanwhile, with the pump fully primed,
That revolution well timed,
For those slaves to throw out their masters.
Indochina’s ‘first war’,
Ended after May ’54,
Two new flags replaced red, white and blue;
That country’s division,
’Twas Geneva’s decision,
After the battle of Dien Bien Phu.
* * *
The French Foreign Legion,
Had been rushed to this region,
Along with Union troops and Indo-Chinese;
’Twas ‘cannon fodder’, with traces,
Of the world’s mixed races,
Europeans, Moroccans and Senegalese.
In the previous year,
Some had fought in Korea,
Conditions in contrast, with those of before;
“Defend that fortress!” the order,
Out near the Laotian border,
This would determine the course of that war.
With roads closed to this place,
A converted military base,
Paratroopers and supplies floated in;
Strategy and tactics proved poor,
On this exposed valley floor,
Bombarded by encircling Viet Minh.
From tranquil mountains, surrounding,
Incessant artillery pounding,
A smoky haze hung, like a misty dawn;
Came human wave after wave,
No quarter asked, no one gave,
French ammunition low, then finally all gone.
Each aeroplane re-supply,
Turned back or blown from the sky,
Any relief force was never to come;
Bayonets fixed, a last stand,
Combat vicious, hand to hand.
10,000 defenders, then overrun.
Romantic Beau Geste type stories,
Or Napoleonic past glories,
Such legends had their Waterloo;
And way back in May ’54,
The French met theirs like before,
At the battle of Dien Bien Phu.
This poem is based on the battle between the forces of colonial France and the Viet Minh guerrillas. The latter were attempting to gain independence from the French who had occupied Indochina (Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) since 1858. After World War 2 France attempted to resume her colonial rule in both Africa and Indochina but in the latter arena she was met with dogged and successful resistance from Ho Chi Minh’s guerrillas, all under the command of General Nguyen Giap. Many smaller battles were fought over 9 years throughout the region, resulting in casualties to the French of 172,000 odd and an untold number of Viet Minh. Matters came to a showdown in November 1953 when French paratroopers were dropped into the isolated fortress of Dien Bien Phu located in northern Tonkin Province (later part of North Vietnam) near the border with Laos. This was to be the battle to make or break either side.
The siege by the Viet Minh began on 13 March 1954. They occupied the jungle high ground, surrounding the valley where Dien Bien Phu was protected by support bases, each spread out over some 10 kilometres along the valley floor. Any of the primitive roads leading into the valley had been blocked off long before by the Viet Minh forces and so the French had to have their troops and supplies dropped in by parachute from cargo planes. Fierce battles raged on for 55 days, until 7 May 1954, when the French unconditionally surrendered. In France the government collapsed and by July 1954 French Indochina was no more. Ho Chi Minh became the self-appointed president of North Vietnam, whilst Ngo Diem, with U.S. support, was appointed president of South Vietnam. Both ruled by terror. Elections for a unified country, scheduled for 1956, were never held and war again became inevitable. It officially broke out on a full scale in July 1965 when U.S. troops landed at Da Nang. For a full detailed analysis of the 1954 battle readers are referred to Bernard Fall’s Street Without Joy, 1961 and Tony Geraghty’s March or Die, 1986.
“The basis of the colonial idea cannot be other than self-interest.
The sole criterion to apply to any colonial enterprise
is the sum of advantage and profit for the mother country!”
- Éugene Étienne, French M.P., 1885.
Dien Bien Phu