Battle of Phủ Hoài - Background


The Tonkin campaign is conventionally considered to have begun in June 1883, with the decision by the French government to despatch reinforcements to Tonkin to avenge the defeat and death of Henri Rivière at the hands of Liu Yongfu's Black Flag Army at the Battle of Paper Bridge on 19 May 1883. These reinforcements were organised into a Tonkin Expeditionary Corps, which was placed under the command of général de brigade Alexandre-Eugène Bouët (1833–87), the highest-ranking marine infantry officer available in the French colony of Cochinchina.

The French position in Tonkin on Bouët's arrival in early June 1883 was extremely precarious. The French had only small garrisons in Hanoi, Haiphong and Nam Dinh, isolated posts at Hon Gai and at Qui Nhon in Annam, and little immediate prospect of taking the offensive against Liu Yongfu's Black Flags and Prince Hoang Ke Viem's Vietnamese. During June the French dug in behind their defences and beat off half-hearted Vietnamese demonstrations against Hanoi and Nam Dinh. The early arrival of reinforcements from France and New Caledonia and the recruitment of Cochinchinese and Tonkinese auxiliary formations allowed Bouët to hit back at his tormentors. On 19 July chef de bataillon Pierre de Badens, the French commandant supérieur at Nam Dinh, attacked and defeated Prince Hoang Ke Viem's besieging Vietnamese army, effectively relieving Vietnamese pressure on Nam Dinh.

The arrival of Admiral Amédée Courbet in Along Bay in July 1883 with substantial naval reinforcements further strengthened the French position in Tonkin. Although the French were now in a position to consider taking the offensive against Liu Yongfu, they realised that military action against the Black Flag Army had to be accompanied by a political settlement with the Vietnamese court at Hue, if necessary by coercion, that recognised a French protectorate in Tonkin. On 30 July 1883 Admiral Courbet, General Bouët and Jules Harmand, the recently-appointed French civil commissioner-general for Tonkin, held a council of war at Haiphong. The three men agreed that Bouët should launch an offensive against the Black Flag Army in its positions around Phu Hoai on the Day River as soon as possible. They also noted that the Court of Hue was covertly aiding and abetting Liu Yongfu's Black Flag Army, and that Prince Hoang was still in arms against the French at Nam Dinh. They therefore decided, largely on Harmand's urging, to recommend to the French government a strike against the Vietnamese defences of Hue, followed by an ultimatum requiring the Vietnamese to accept a French protectorate over Tonkin or face immediate attack. The proposal was approved by the navy ministry on 11 August, and on 20 August, in the Battle of Thuan An, the French stormed the forts at the mouth of the Hue River, allowing them to attack Hue directly if they chose. The Vietnamese asked for an armistice, and on 25 August Harmand dictated the Treaty of Hue to the cowed Vietnamese court. The Vietnamese recognised the legitimacy of the French occupation of Cochinchina, accepted a French protectorate both for Annam and Tonkin and promised to withdraw their troops from Tonkin. Vietnam, its royal house and its court survived, but under French direction.

While Harmand and Courbet were entrenching the French protectorate at Hue, General Bouët attempted to carry out his part of the programme settled at the Haiphong conference of 30 July. On 15 August 1883, Bouët attacked Liu Yongfu's Black Flag Army in its strong defensive positions in front of the Day River.

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