Emperors of Indochina (modern day Vietnam), in particular, the Nguyen Dynasty

In 1558, Le Anh Tong, emperor of the ruling Le dynasty entrusted Nguyen Hoang with the lordship of the southern part of Indochina. In 1698, Nguyen Huu Canh, a high-ranking noble, is often credited with the expansion of Saigon into a significant settlement. Initially called Gia Dinh (pronounced Zzhar Din), the city became known as Saigon in the 18th century.

In 1777 a rival dynasty, the Tay Son brothers, attacked Saigon eliminating almost the entire Nguyen dynasty, with just the fifteen-year-old Nguyen Anh managing to escape into the far south. He took refuge at Pigneau de Behaine's seminary (a French missionary) from September to October that year before both were forced to flee to the island of Pulo Panjang in the Gulf of Siam. The move was in fact a political step taken by Pigneau. By aligning himself with Nguyen Anh, he became less of a missionary and more of a politician thereafter.

In November 1777, Nguyen Anh was able to recapture Saigon, and in 1778 pursued the retreating Tay Son as far as Binh Thuan.

He next visited France with his son and signed the Treaty of Versailles on November 21 1787, offering the French Government land and concessions in return for their military help. The Governor in French India was expected to be in charge of implementing the treaty, but he failed to follow through, leaving de Behaine to his own devices. He recruited French businessmen who were intending to trade in Indochina and also spent fifteen thousand francs of his own money, purchasing guns and warships. From 1789-1799 the French reinforced the south, training Anh's infantry according to the European model.

De Behaine died in 1799, by which time Anh had united Indochina after a three-hundred-year division of the country. He celebrated his coronation at Hue on 1 June 1802 and proclaimed himself emperor.

Needless to say however, later emperors were opposed to French involvement in their country, and they tried to reduce the country's growing Catholic community. With the imprisonment of missionaries who were said to have illegally entered the country, that became the primary pretext for the French to invade (and now occupy) Indochina. 

French Indo-China

In 1858 French Emperor Napoleon III approved the launching of a punitive expedition over Indochina's mistreatment of European Catholic missionaries. The expedition evolved into a full invasion. On 18 February 1859 France conquered the city of Saigon along with three southern provinces. By 1862, the war was over and in the Treaty of Saigon, France annexed those provinces, which became the colony of French Cochinchina. "Cochin" was a Portuguese derived word that came from India, possibly meaning "Little".  

The subsequent 1863 Treaty of Hue saw three new ports opened to French trade, free passage of French warships to Cambodia (Kampuchea), freedom for French missionaries, and a large indemnity payable to France for the cost of the war.

Following the Sino-French War (1884-1885), the French supplanted China's control of Tonkin (today known as North Vietnam). They introduced the silver Piastre to the provinces, a coin initially equivalent to the Mexican Peso or Dollar.

In 1887, a grouping of the three Indochinese regions — Tonkin (north), Annam (centre), and Cochinchina (south) with Cambodia in the west formed the Union of French Indochina. Laos was added in 1893 and the leased Chinese territory of Guangzhouwan ("Guangzhou Bay") in 1898.

In 1902, the capital was moved from Saigon in the south to Hanoi (Tonkin) in the north.

Through much of World War 2, the French colonial government remained largely in place, though increasingly subservient to the Japanese after France's occupation by Germany in 1940. Following the capture of Paris by the Western allies in August 1944, conditions deteriorated. In March 1945, the French officials who were still alive were placed in prison. Japan announced the formation of the Empire of "Vietnam", a name that had been originally adopted by the Nguyen dynasty between 1804-1839.

Following Japan's surrender in August 1945, fighting between the freed French forces in the south and the Viet Minh erupted.

Viet Minh was a nationalist alliance founded in 1941 by Ho Chi Minh, an Indochina independence leader. At the time, he had been originally supported by the Western allies and the US.

Background to France Re-taking Control of Indochina

The concern of the Allies' Far Eastern Commission had primarily been to wind down the Supreme Headquarters of the Imperial Japanese Army Southeast Asia, and render humanitarian assistance to all prisoners of war. In late August 1945, Major-General Douglas Gracey - a British Indian army officer - was appointed to head the Commission, and the 80th Brigade commanded by Brigadier D.E. Taunton of his 20th Indian Division, was the Allied Land Forces French Indochina (ALFFIC) which followed him to Indochina.

British occupying forces were ready to depart for various Southeast Asian destinations, and some were already on their way, when General Douglas MacArthur caused an uproar at the Southeast Asia Command. He forbade reoccupation until he had personally received the Japanese surrender in Tokyo. This was originally set for 28 August, but a typhoon caused the ceremony to be postponed until 2 September.

MacArthur's order had major consequences. The delay in the arrival of Allied troops enabled revolutionary groups to fill the power vacuums that had existed in Southeast Asia since the announcement of the Japanese capitulation on 15 August. The chief beneficiaries in Indochina were the Communists, who exercised complete control over the Viet Minh, the nationalist alliance founded by Ho Chi Minh in 1941. In Hanoi and Saigon, they rushed to seize the seats of government, killing and intimidating their rivals.

Awkwardly too, while the Allies view was that the French had sovereignty over Indochina, America opposed their return, but there was no such official American animosity towards the Communist-led Viet Minh at the time.

Upon Gracey's arrival on September 13 to receive the surrender of Japanese forces, he of course realized the seriousness of the situation in the country. Saigon's administrative services had collapsed, and a loosely controlled Viet Minh-led group by now had seized power. Since the Japanese were still fully armed, there was the fear that the Japanese would be well able to undermine the Allied position, due to the Viet Minh's lack of strong control over some of the allied groups. Furthermore, Gracey had poor communications with his higher headquarters in Burma because his American signal detachment was abruptly withdrawn by the US government for political reasons, and it was a loss that could not be rectified for several weeks.

Gracey wrote that unless something were done quickly, the state of anarchy would worsen.

Because of all this, the French officers were able to persuade Gracey - in a move which exceeded the authority of his orders from Mountbatten - to rearm local colonial infantry regiments who had been held as prisoners of war, there were then about 1,000 French prisoners of war. With the arrival of the newly formed 5th Colonial Infantry Regiment (RIC) commandos, they could then evict the Viet Minh from the hold they had on the Saigon administration. Gracey saw this as the quickest way to allow the French to reassert their authority in Indochina while allowing him to proceed in disarming and repatriating the Japanese.

Gracey drew up a proclamation on September 21 that declared martial law, stating that he was responsible for law and order throughout Indochina south of the 16th parallel. Mountbatten, in turn, made an issue of this, claiming that Gracey was responsible for public security in key areas only, however the Chiefs of Staff and the Foreign Office supported Gracey.

During the following days, Gracey gradually eased the Viet Minh grip on Saigon, replacing their guards in vital points with his own troops which were then turned over to French troops. This procedure had to be adopted because the Viet Minh were not going to relinquish their positions directly to the French.

Thus the French regained total control of Saigon. By September 23, most of Saigon was back in French hands, with less than half a dozen vital positions in Viet Minh control. However on that day, former French prisoners of war who had been reinstated into the army together with troops from the 5th RIC, ejected the Viet Minh in a battle in which two French soldiers were killed.

On the night of the 24th an independence mob abducted and butchered a large number of French and French-Indochinese men, women, and children. On the 25th, the Viet Minh attacked and set fire to the city's central market area, while another group attacked Tan Son Nhut Airfield. The airfield attack was repelled by the Gurkhas. One British soldier was killed along with half a dozen Viet Minh. The British now had a war on their hands, something which Mountbatten had sought to avoid.

For the next few days, parties of armed Viet Minh clashed with British patrols, the Viet Minh suffering mounting losses with each encounter. The British soldiers were experienced troops who had just recently finished battling the Japanese, and many officers and soldiers had also experienced internal security and guerrilla warfare in India and the North West Frontier. In contrast the Viet Minh were still learning how to fight a war.

On 3 January 1946 was the last big battle between the British and the Viet Minh. About 900 Viet Minh attacked the Frontier Force Rifles camp at Bien Hoa. The fighting lasted throughout the night, and when it was over about 100 attackers had been killed, but without the loss of a single British or Indian soldier. Most Viet Minh casualties were the result of British machine-gun crossfire.

End of the Campaign

In mid-January, the Viet Minh began avoiding large-scale attacks on British, French, and Japanese forces. The fighting characteristics were those which later became common: ambushes, hit-and-run raids, and assassinations, while the British, French, and Japanese constantly patrolled and conducted security sweeps. Although the Viet Minh had sufficient manpower to sustain a long campaign, they were at the time beaten back by well-led professional troops who were familiar with an Asian jungle and countryside.

Gracey flew out on the 28th January 1946. Before his departure, he signed control over French forces to French General Philippe Leclerc, who had been in Saigon since October 9 1945. Most British forces departed on March 26. On March 30, the SS Islami passenger liner took aboard two British/Indian battalions. A single company of the Punjab remained to guard the Allied Control Mission in Saigon, and on May 15 it left, the mission having been disbanded a day earlier as the French now became responsible for getting the remaining Japanese home. The last British troops to die in Indochina were six soldiers killed in an ambush in June 1946.


For Britain's involvement in the First Indochina War, the officially stated casualty list was 40 British and Indian soldiers killed, with French and Japanese casualties a little higher. An estimated 2,700 Viet Minh were killed. The unofficial total may be higher, but given the methods with which the Viet Minh recovered their dead and wounded, the exact number may never be known. About 600 of the dead Viet Minh were killed by British soldiers, the rest by the French and Japanese.

Main articles: First Indochina War and Second Indochina War
Three more bloody decades of fighting lay ahead which would end in defeat for two major world players, France and US. From March to July, 1946, the Viet Minh systematically set about, as Ho's lieutenant Le Duan said, "(to) wipe out the reactionaries." Known as the "Great Purge", the goal was to eliminate everyone thought dangerous to the Communist Party of Vietnam, and tens of thousands of nationalists, Catholics and others had been massacred by 1948.

Between May and December 1946, Ho Chi Minh spent four months in France attempting to negotiate full independence and unity for Vietnam, but failed to obtain any guarantee from the French. After a series of violent clashes with Viet Minh, French forces bombarded Haiphong harbor, captured Haiphong and attempted to expel the Viet Minh from Hanoi, a task that took two months.

December 19, 1946 is often cited as the date for the beginning of the First Indochina War, as on that day 30,000 Viet Minh under Giap initiated their first large-scale attack on the French in the Battle of Hanoi.
The War in Indochina of 1946 - 1954, had begun.

The Indochina Wars are generally numbered as three:

The first being France's unsuccessful eight-year conflict with the Vietminh nationalist forces (December 19, 1946 - July 20, 1954).

The second being the war for control of South Vietnam, featuring an unsuccessful US intervention, ending in 1975.

Finally, the conflict in Cambodia, sparked by the Vietnamese invasion in 1978.

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