How France Remembers Its Vietnam War Dead

By Kolb, Richard K. | VFW Magazine, September 2008 | Go to article overview

How France Remembers Its Vietnam War Dead


Kolb, Richard K., VFW Magazine


Between 1946 and 1954, France's force sustained more than 55,000 military deaths (only 28% of whom were Frenchmen) in Indochina. It would be 50 years before they and 300,000 French veterans would be officially and publicly recognized.

With America's Vietnam Veterans Memorial Center taking shape, it is instructive to take a look at how France paid tribute to the participants, especially those who died, in its eight-year war in Indochina. The similarities with the U.S. experience in this regard are striking. Yet there was one major difference: the composition of the forces who fought the war.

But before following France's road to remembrance, it is necessary to delve into whom actually fought that country's war there. It may come as a surprise to many Americans that Frenchmen were in the minority in the armed forces fielded to preserve the French empire in Southeast Asia.

Indeed, as Edgar O'Ballance wrote in his The Indochina War, 1945-1954: "So few of the soldiers themselves were Frenchmen that the people of France were scarcely concerned-as, for example, they were later to become when the Algerian fighting developed ( 1954-1962), when practically every family in the land had a member involved."

Volunteers Only Need Apply

France's Far East Expeditionary Corps resembled "some ancient Roman field army with a spine of legions supported by a colorful range of multinational auxiliaries," wrote Martin Windrow, author of The Last Valley about the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. This was perfectly in keeping with Napoleonic tradition. When the "Little Emperor" invaded Russia in 1812, only 40% of his army was actually French. Many were conscripted Germans from conquered states. Likewise, in Indochina, France passed the burden of fighting largely to Foreign Legion, colonial and indigenous troops.

As far as French citizens, Paris relied fully on its career and volunteer military to wage war in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia after WWII. A post-WWII amendment to France's Budget Law restricted the service of draftees to the defense of "homeland" territory-France, Algeria (considered a part of France) and Frenchoccupied Germany.

In 1945-47, however, some soldiers recruited for the duration of WWII were still members of colonial infantry divisions. So their contracts were altered to retain them. From 1948 on, though, the army's rank and file was composed entirely of volunteers. Hence, by war's end, it was not unheard of to find NCOs into their sixth or seventh tours of duty.

One other Corps component also contained some Frenchmen. The famed French Foreign Legion was officered by the French and 12% of legionnaires in Indochina were actually French. But to join, they had to renounce their French citizenship. The Legion supplied the majority of the European infantry throughout the war and by early 1952, 35% of all European manpower.

A few Metropolitan (meaning French) infantry regiments sent "marching" (temporary) battalions made up of individual volunteers between 1946 and 1949. Specifically French units in Indochina were colonial, with specially organized Metropolitan regiments providing armor, artillery, engineer, signal and other logistical assets.

All such units were formed from volunteers with fixed terms of service. Metropolitan army and colonial infantry volunteers did two-year stints in Indochina. But those tours were often extended to 27 or 30 months. After October 1951, individual draftees could choose to volunteer expressly for service in noncombat roles outside "zones of active operations" in Vietnam.

Many of the volunteers came from small-town and rural backgrounds. "Some were genuine patriots who believed in their duty to the -French Empire, and others were passionate antiCommunists,'' Windrow wrote. Economic circumstances propelled still others into the professional military.

Casualties Reflect Composition

At its peak strength in May 1953, the Far East Expeditionary Corps counted only 69,000 actual Frenchmen (including the Air Force and Navy), or 36% of the total, among its ranks. …

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