1784: Fifteen crooks hanged at Newgate 1942: Evzen Rosicky, athlete

1884: Field executions during the Bac Le ambush

June 24th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1884, a French expeditionary force’s summary battlefield executions marked its retreat from an ambush — and the approach of the Sino-French War.

Having established a foothood in south Vietnam (Cochinchina), France was pushing into north Vietnam (Tonkin) — a campaign that could open a potentially lucrative route straight into China.

For the same reason, China viewed Tonkin as its own security zone. The ensuing skirmishes had as we lay our scene been recently abated by the Tientsin Accord* — an accord on France’s terms, since she had lately enjoyed the run of play in the field.

One of those terms was Chinese withdrawal from Tonkin, and as one might expect the Chinese had little appetite to speedily effect such a submission. In June 1884, when a small French column commanded by a Lt. Col. Alphone Dugenne pushed into what was supposed to be France’s new satrapy, it expected to occupy undefended towns.

Instead, on June 23, having forded the rain-swollen Song Thuong River, Dugenne’s force encountered Chinese regulars manning a chain of clifftop forts.

Outnumbered and on unfamiliar ground, the French surely felt their vulnerability. “High rocks, deep canyons, dense woods and somber defiles, where a handful of resolute men could easily have stopped a whole army, were the principal features of the country,” according to a French-derived account published later that year in the U.S.** “The heat was intense, and fatigue overcame the soldiers, already tired by the thousands of ostacles of the road. The fiery atmosphere did not allow any ret, even during the night, and terrible showers of rain, accompanied with thunder and lightning, converted the rivulets into torrents which swept everything before them, soaked the poor soldiers and destroyed provisions.”

A delegation under flag of truce informed Dugenne that China’s commander was aware of the Tientsin Accord, but had received no superior orders to withdraw. This obviously put both forces in an uncomfortable position. The Chinese wanted time: was this a good faith sorting-out (the Tientsin arrangements were barely six weeks old), or a double game? When the eventual winners wrote the history of events, they called what ensued June 23-24 the Bac Le ambush.

Believing that he had an arrangement with his opposite number, Dugenne’s column moved ahead on the afternoon of the 23rd, in a defile ominously commanded by the Chinese positions. Suddenly — and accounts from the two sides each accuse the other of provoking the first shots — the French came under Chinese fire. “Every tree, every overhanging rock, concealed an invisible enemy, who, being perfectly under cover himself, safely inflicted death all around him,” our correspondent’s account runs.


Illustration of the Bac Le ambush from Le guet-apens de Bac-Le by a French officer who survived it, Jean-Francois-Alphonse Lecomte.

But the ambush did not become a massacre; the French were able to regroup, stabilize their position, and camp that night — the Chinese “so near that they could hear them talk.”

The next day, the French would find themselves hopelessly outgunned but not (yet) encircled, and by mid-morning would be effecting an orderly retreat. In the course of it, Dugenne ordered at least two sets of executions to maintain discipline: early in the morning, it was “the hanging of two Chinese spies who had just been caught … with great solemnity and a great apparat, which caused a hail of bullets to whiz from all sides, where the Chinese friends of the hanged men were concealed.”

Hours later, as his column formed up to withdraw, Dugenne harshly punished his own native Tonkinese auxiliaries, green recruits who had all but routed in the first moments of the ambush when they came under fire and whose ill discipline could not be brooked on retreat: Dugenne “gave an order before [retreating] to shoot down ten Tonquinese of the native troops.”

Dugenne reached friendly forces safely, and with him accounts of a “massacre” that would incense public opinion in Paris. China’s refusal to meet the ensuing French demands for satisfaction in this affair would by August trigger open war in Tonkin.

* Not to be confused with 1885’s Treaty of Tientsin, which actually ended the Sino-French War.

** San Francisco Evening Bulletin, Sep. 11, 1884

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Hanged,History,Known But To God,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Soldiers,Spies,Summary Executions,Vietnam,Wartime Executions

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