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Drinking to forget: Tiger blood in Tonkin

Drinking to forget: Tiger blood in Tonkin

By the late 19th century the Legion was absolutely ensconced in its two essential bases. The primary and most well-known was North Africa – extra particularly Algeria – with the homebase or ‘ville mère’ at Sidi-bel-Abbés.

In addition to a vacationer vacation spot, French Indochina was a well-liked posting for legionnaires too.

This was the onerous, ‘real’ Legion lifetime of the bled, lengthy marches, remoted outposts and payday binges fuelled by tough native pinard and pastis that had grow to be emblematic of the Legion in the favored creativeness.

Following the conquest of Tonkin in the late 1880s, the Legion arrange a second residence in the extra sensual environment of Indochina, the place life was considerably simpler – Legionnaires got extra day without work due to what was thought-about a much less wholesome local weather, their colonial service pay (North Africa was thought-about ‘home’ service) went additional in order that extra menial chores could possibly be carried out by younger boys.

Moreover, whereas in Algeria, dalliances with native ladies have been uncommon in the acute, in Indochina many legionnaires have been in a position to hold a mistress also referred to as a ‘congaï’[1] or just ‘co’ who would accompany them to the bars of Saigon or Hanoi for night drinks: beer or ‘choum’ the native rice wine that value 35 centimes a litre. And there was opium although to what extent it changed the Legion style for booze is unsure.

Within the aftermath of WWII it was Indochina that was to be the stage for the Legion’s first nice check. French makes an attempt to re-impose a colonial regime after the struggle was the set off for a basic rebellion and try at a seizure of energy by the Viet Minh – led by Ho Chi Minh, the icon of Vietnamese independence.

Militarily, economically and socially exhausted by conflict and occupation, France primarily stumbled right into a low degree guerilla struggle in late 1945 after which discovered itself preventing a full-scale insurgency by 1949 and it leant closely on the Legion, whose ranks swelled in the post-war period with the flotsam of displaced peoples and various fugitives – nevertheless, tales of the Legion turning into a haven for SS struggle criminals in yet one more embellishment, although an estimated 60% of the Legion was composed of Germans in the late ‘40s so it’s one not completely with out benefit.

In complete, over the course of the seven-year conflict over 70,000 legionnaires would struggle in Indochina and over 10,000 can be killed and lots of extra wounded.

The Legion obtained its first style of the kind of struggle it was in for and the enemy they have been up towards in 1948 in the course of the Cao Bang marketing campaign.

As in North Africa, the French scattered small garrisons across the nation in with the purpose of imposing troops everywhere in the countryside to ‘stop the rot’ of infiltration by communist guerillas however as an alternative they only tied down huge numbers of troops (over 82,000 by 1954) which might have been higher utilised elsewhere and have become beacons for ceaseless assaults, as did the convoys despatched to resupply them up Route Coloniale four (RC4).

Confronted with vicious ambushes fought at shut quarters with an enemy that struck with out warning after which melted again into the jungle leaving the convoy, “nothing but a tangle of disemboweled corpses and burned out machines,” the survivors typically drank themselves into oblivion once they limped into their vacation spot.[2]

In addition to beer and choum, French troops have been nonetheless issued with a wine ration, even in the sector. When out on operations carrying round bottles of wine in giant portions was impractical so in their fight ration kits troopers have been issued with a dehydrated wine focus referred to as ‘Vinogel’, typically nicknamed ‘Tiger blood’.

The thought was to combine the vinogel with two elements water to one half wine (many most popular one to considered one of course) however there have been some who merely ate it in its dehydrated state.

In 1947 the French conflict minister, Paul Coste-Floret, had visited Indochina and have become considerably distressed on the concept of vinogel.

‘You see’, he lectured the French commander in chief, Common Raoul Salan: “It’s not something you drink, it’s something you eat. I’m going to send you some decent wine.”

“You might send a few battalions as well,” Salan prompt. His personal sensible anxieties, juxtaposed towards the usually frivolous and muddled considerations of successive French politicians, would show properly based.[3]

French trenches on the redoubt generally known as ‘Anne-Marie 1’. They have been neither deep nor robust sufficient to stand up to the Viet Minh artillery.

As so typically with military rations, vinogel might not have been the highest quality however in a selection between that and nothing in any respect most solders knew which they most popular, as an incident on the battle of Dien Bien Phu clearly illustrates.

Dien Bien Phu was designed by the French chiefs of employees because the decisive set piece battle to draw out the Viet Minh and destroy them.

Hundreds of troops, principally paratroopers and legionnaires, can be parachuted after which landed into the Dien Bien Phu valley in northwestern Vietnam, athwart the Viet Minh’s provide strains into Laos, thereby daring the enemy to come out and battle to dislodge them.

The troops would dig in, fortify the valley and let the waves of Viet Minh attackers break themselves towards barbed wire, pillboxes and concentrated artillery. The French defenders can be stored resupplied by air, two airstrips having been constructed for the aim.

It was a tactic that was discovered to have labored on the a lot smaller battle of Nà San in late 1952 however the essential flaw, in fact, was that France didn’t have adequate plane to repeat it on this a lot bigger scale and their perception that the Viet Minh possessed no anti plane functionality proved a deadly and horrible mistake.

Nonetheless, the logistics of the operation make for spectacular studying. Between 20 November 1953 when the French started touchdown in the valley and eight Might 1954 when the battle ended, almost four,000 tons of provides had been dropped to the garrison. Included in the provides have been 199,760 rations of bread, 12.5 tons of canned sausages, 875 tons of recent fruit and greens, virtually 60,000 gallons of wine and eight,480 gallons of vinogel.[4]

On Christmas Day 1953, with nonetheless no signal of the Viet Minh launching an assault, the garrison was in a position to take pleasure in a prolonged lunch which included, chilly beef, fried potatoes, cheese, muffins, wine and Champagne. It made good copy for the accompanying struggle reporters again in Hanoi nevertheless it was an phantasm quickly to be too rudely shattered.

When the battle started on 13 March the French plan went instantly awry and the shortage of enough preparations turned obvious. As their troops had dug in in a collection of forts with names comparable to ‘Beatrice’, ‘Eliane’, ‘Isabelle’ and ‘Gabrielle’ (named after the commander’s mistresses was one concept), the Viet Minh had hauled artillery up into the encompassing hills. They utterly ignored the French positions and have been too properly camouflaged and entrenched for French artillery to neutralize. Béatrice was overrun on the primary night time, the preliminary enemy bombardment inflicting flimsy trenches and bunkers to collapse earlier than Vietnamese infantry attacked in human waves, swamping the remaining defenders who referred to as down supporting artillery on their very own positions after which tried to escape. From then on there was no respite. No extra Champagne save at headquarters.

Earlier than too lengthy the airfield was untenable and planes might not land. Provides of males, gear and rations had to be parachuted in and whereas males might steer themselves to land amongst buddies, bins couldn’t and lots of fell in and round positions occupied by the enemy.

A Vietnamese stamp commemorating the battle which ended French colonialism

This led to a faintly comedian episode amid the in any other case gruelling and determined backdrop of the battle.

On 30 April, because the historian Bernard Fall[5] relates, the legionnaires of the 13eme demi-brigade was confronted with the prospect of celebrating Camerone with only one depressing bottle of wine per platoon. Then phrase got here by way of that two crates of vinogel have been among the many para-drop that had fallen into no man’s land reverse them that day. A restoration social gathering was put collectively (everybody volunteered one veteran remembered) led by a Main Coutant.

To make sure the protected retrieval of the crates, the legionnaires first had to head over to the enemy strains and destroy a number of bunkers, a process that was accomplished with plastic explosives and 10 enemy killed and lots of wounded for no lack of their very own. The vinogel was recovered and day’s celebrations have been saved.

The French commander, Basic Christian de Castries, radioed his superiors in Hanoi that night detailing the raid’s success – although omitting the precise functions for which it had been staged.

Regardless of the ever-shrinking perimeter, the drops, together with occasional deliveries of recent fruit and greens and even many luxurious gadgets, by no means let up. Different alcohol dropped in included: 135 litres of ‘aperitifs’, 72 bottles of Champagne, 72 bottles of ‘fine wine’, 148 bottles of Cognac and rum and seven,680 66cl bottles of beer in addition to powdered milk, asparagus, mustard, biscuits, pencils, writing paper, razor blades, shaving cleaning soap, 12,000 packets of cigarettes and 949 bottles of eau-de-cologne.

Nonetheless, it was because the battle progressed that the majority of vinogel was dropped, practicality belatedly taking priority over frippery and pedantry – however too late. Too late.

Inexorably, regardless of heroic resistance, the Viet Minh tightened the noose across the French in that sad valley, which now resembled the shell-blasted wastes of Verdun or Stalingrad from earlier wars. Though the Vietnamese suffered monumental losses in their assaults, they have been too quite a few and their place too robust.

Against this there weren’t merely sufficient males (although no scarcity of volunteers), provides or the planes to fly them in on the aspect of the French. Dien Bien Phu as an idea had failed completely and it took French colonialism in Indochina with it.

On 7 Might the shattered garrison surrendered. The very subsequent day the Geneva Convention started and by August the warfare was over and Vietnam partitioned alongside the 17th parallel.

The Legion life in Indochina was over and the models ready to return to Algeria – straight into one other, although altogether bloodier and extra vicious, struggle of de-colonialisation that was to deliver its world crashing down round it.

Learn extra:

Drinking to Overlook: The Legion

Drinking to Overlook: The asylum of misfortune


[1] Actually ‘young girl’

[2] Porch, Douglas, The French Overseas Legion: A Full Historical past of the Legendary Preventing Pressure, New York: HarperCollins Publishing, 1991, p519

[3] Morgan, Ted, ‘Valley of Death: The Tragedy at Dien Bien Phu’, New York, Random Home

[4] Shrader, Charles, ‘A War of Logistics: Parachutes and Porters in Indochina, 1945-1954’

[5] Fall, Bernard, ‘Hell in a Very Small Place’