June 17 is an honored day in Vietnam for the sacrifice under the French guillotine this date of 13 early martyrs for national independence.
These were members of the nationalist Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang (VNQDD, or Viet Quoc). Not averse to the propaganda of the deed, these revolutionaries labored secretly under onerous French pressure following the previous year’s assassination of a labor recruiter.*
A year later (almost to the hour), with the movement crippled by arrests, the VNQDD tried an audacious gambit to revive its fortunes and trigger a general rising against the French.
The Yen Bai mutiny — named for the Tonkin city where it transpired** — saw 40 or 50 Vietnamese riflemen of the Fourth Régiment de Tirailleurs Tonkinois† and a like number of civilian sympathizers attacked the regiment’s officers in concert.
Alas, most of the other Vietnamese tirailleurs declined to join the rising, and it was suppressed within a few hours.
Over 1,000 accused revolutionaries stood trial for the Yen Bai mutiny, and the top leadership paid the top penalty this date — but as quietly as the French could manage. They were whisked out of their cells on the preceding evening and taken by secret convoy on a four-hour ride to the Yen Bai execution grounds, where a guillotine had been covertly erected.
We are going to go to pay our debt for the country. The flag of independence must be dyed with blood. The flower of freedom must be sown with blood. The country needs more and more sacrifices of its people. The revolution would meet success finally. We want to say goodbye to all of you with our respects.
-Nguyen Thai Hoc, taking his final leave of imprisoned VNQDD comrades
From 4:55 a.m. at Yen Bai, the thirteen men one by one were each lashed to the plank. One by one, each of their necks were fixed by the lunette under the blade. One by one, each cried out “Vietnam!” as the blade fell.
Bui Tu Toan
Bui Van Chuan
Ha Van Lao
Dao Van Nhit
Ngo Van Du
Nguyen Duc Thinh
Nguyen Van Tiem
Do Van Su
Bui Van Cuu
Nguyen Nhu Lien
Pho Duc Chinh, who allegedly asked (it’s unclear to me whether it was granted) to be guillotined face-up — perhaps a show of bravado
The founder of the VNQDD Nguyen Thai Hoc, whose name now graces a major street in the heart of Hanoi
The VNQDD at this point was organizationally shattered, and many of its un-arrested cadres fled to China — whose sponsorship would revive it and return it to Vietnam in the 1940s.
By then, the communists were in the saddle in Vietnam. In 1946, Ho Chi Minh purged the VNQDD from the national independence coalition. Its remnants would wind up in South Vietnam; today the Viet Quoc persists mostly in exile.
* The labor recruiter is only tangential to the Yen Bai story, but their function, to dragoon Vietnamese peasants into brutal plantation work on terms next door to slavery, made them particularly hated characters. More about that racket in this 1930 text (pdf) by an outraged Frenchman.
** A few other minor secondary incidents occurred elsewhere in the area, but the epicenter of the rising was always Yen Bai.
† After the mutiny, the French army tried to reduce its dependence on Vietnamese recruits.