The Light That Failed 7

During the years that followed, the French frequently attacked Khang’s village, confiscating its rice and water buffalo and burning its huts. They withdrew after each foray, and the Vietminh returned. Khang summed up the story of the war in a sentence: “We couldn’t protect it, and they couldn’t hold it.”
The Vietminh also recruited women, among them Khang’s wife, who served as a courier. She would collect intelligence from Vietminh spies inside French installations:
I would resort to all kinds of tricks to get near the posts. I would pretend to cut grass around the post, and our man inside would come out shouting for me to go away. He would push and shove me, passing me a message with information on the number of French troops in the post and how many guns they had. Or I would make believe he owed me money. I would cry insults at him, and he would finally give me a ten-piaster note. I would return him a five-piaster note in change with a message folded into it, warning him, say, that we were planning an attack. Sometimes, when I had to deliver bundles of documents, I would put them in my shoulder baskets and cover them with manure.
The Vietminh force had established a base in the Viet Bac, eighty miles to the north, in a landscape of jungle-clad mountains honey¬combed with caves. Heavy monsoon rains drenched the region for half the year, covering it with a protective mist against air raids. The French encircled the area in 1947 by securing its only two roads and dropping in paratroopers. They almost captured Ho Chi Minh, who slipped into a camouflaged hole at the last minute. But the French commander, General Etienne Valluy, whose experience until then had been in Europe, quickly sized up his effort as impossible. With a total of some fifteen thousand men, he was trying to defeat sixty thousand enemy troops over nearly eighty thousand square miles of almost impenetrable forest. Unlike his nineteenth-century predecessors, he was up against not small insurgent bands but a disciplined army. He could only withdraw to a thin string of forts along Route 4, a twisting road running through ravines and over high passes between the towns of Langson and Caobang. Chronically exposed to Vietminh am¬bushes, French soldiers dubbed it the Rue sans Joie, or Street without
Giap had bought time to enlarge his forces. He promoted local guerrillas to regional units and assigned regional officers and noncoms to bigger detachments. Between 1949 and 1950, he quadrupled the number of regular Vietminh battalions to one hundred and seventeen. But his army never exceeded three hundred thousand men—fewer than that of France, which comprised more than one hundred thou¬sand French, Foreign Legion and African colonial troops in addition to three hundred thousand Vietnamese. Giap’s ability to recruit more soldiers was limited by French control of most of Vietnam’s populated areas.
The situation changed drastically in 1949, when the Chinese Com¬munists reached the Vietnamese border. China could now provide the Vietminh with automatic weapons, mortars, howitzers, even trucks, most of it captured American materiel, some of it Soviet equipment earmarked for the Korean war. Chinese advisers joined Vietminh de¬tachments, and Vietminh units crossed into China to train at camps near Nanning and Ching Hsi. Giap swiftly expanded his battalions into regiments, and soon he had mobilized six divisions, each num¬bering ten thousand men, among them a “heavy division” composed of artillery and engineering regiments. The image of ragtag Vietminh guerrillas persisted, but it was pure romanticism. Giap now com manded a real army, backed up by China’s enormous weight. As a veteran Vietminh officer, recollecting the period after 1949, told me: “It was a significant moment. We were no longer isolated from the Communist camp.”
The Vietminh relied at first exclusively on porters to deliver their Chinese supplies, and the manpower needs were immense. To sustain an infantry division, for example, required forty thousand coolies, crawling like ants through jungle trails and over mountain passes. One of Giap’s initial aims, therefore, was to open the roads to trucks and other vehicles from China, which meant ousting the French from their garrisons near the border. Some French strategists urged the evacu-ation of these overextended positions, arguing that Hanoi and the Red River rice bowl be more heavily protected. But the French command, courting disaster, stubbornly refused to budge. Retreat, in its view, signified surrender.
Giap began his drive gradually in 1949 by harassing the most isolated French garrisons, bottling up their defenders and leaving the coun¬tryside open to the Vietminh. Then, accelerating as his strength in¬creased, he directed his offensive against larger French garrisons. In September 1950, after the summer rains had subsided, he took Dongkhe, located on Route 4 between Caobang and Langson, wiping out two French columns as they rushed to its rescue. A month later, having cut the French supply line from Langson, he attacked Caobang, ambushing its defenders as they fled south to Langson. Panicked by the collapse of Caobang, the French withdrew from Langson, aban¬doning precious artillery, mortars, eight thousand rifles and more than a thousand tons of ammunition. Soon afterward, they pulled out of Laokay and Thai Nguyen, two other key posts in the vicinity. Some six thousand French army troops were killed or captured in the en¬gagements. France lost the crucial Chinese frontier section—and, with it, any chance of victory in Indochina. Looking back, the French scholar Bernard Fall called the series of setbacks France’s greatest co¬lonial defeat since the fall of Quebec to the British in 1759. By now, a CIA report described the French hold on Indochina as “precarious.”
The stunned government in Paris dismissed its senior officers and civilian officials in Indochina and conferred both military and political responsibility on General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, one of France’s most prominent soldiers. The appointment represented an extraor¬dinary compliment to Giap, the former schoolteacher. He responded to the honor, gallantly proclaiming that his army would now face “an adversary worthy of its steel. ”

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