Liu Yongfu - Son Tay, Bac Ninh and Hung Hoa

Son Tay, Bac Ninh and Hung Hoa

Liu began an unconventional campaign against the French, with success. Liu fought two further actions against the French in the autumn of 1883, the Battle of Phu Hoai (15 August 1883) and the Battle of Palan (1 September 1883). The Black Flag Army was mauled in both these battles, but was not seriously damaged as a fighting force. In December 1883, however, Liu Yongfu suffered a major defeat at the hands of Admiral Amédée Courbet in the Son Tay Campaign. Despite fighting with fanatical courage in the engagements at Phu Sa on 14 December and Son Tay on 16 December, the Black Flags were unable to prevent the French from storming Son Tay. Although there were also Chinese and Vietnamese contingents at Son Tay, the Black Flag Army bore the brunt of the fighting, and took very heavy casualties.

Angered that his Chinese and Vietnamese allies had done little to support the Black Flag Army at Son Tay, Liu stood on the sidelines during the Bac Ninh campaign (March 1884). After the French capture of Bac Ninh, Liu retreated with the Black Flag Army to Hung Hoa. In April 1884 the French advanced on Hung Hoa with both brigades of the Tonkin Expeditionary Corps. The Black Flags had thrown up an impressive series of fortifications around the town, but General Charles-Théodore Millot, the French commander-in-chief, took it without a single French casualty. While General François de Négrier's 2nd Brigade pinned the Black Flags frontally and subjected Hung Hoa to a ferocious artillery bombardment from the Trung Xa heights, General Louis Brière de l'Isle's 1st Brigade made a flank march to the west to cut Liu's line of retreat. On the evening of 11 April, seeing Brière de l'Isle's Turcos and marine infantry emerging behind their flank at Xuan Dong, the Black Flags evacuated Hung Hoa before they were trapped inside it. They set alight the remaining buildings before they left, and on the following morning the French found the town completely abandoned.

Liu now fell back up the Red River to Thanh Quan, only a few days march from the frontier town of Lao Cai. He was now in a position to retreat into China if the French pursued him. Several hundred Black Flag soldiers, demoralised by the ease with which Courbet and Millot had defeated the Black Flag Army, surrendered to the French in the summer of 1884. One of Millot's final achievements was to advance up the Clear River and throw the Black Flag Army out of Tuyen Quang in the first week of June, again without a single French casualty. If the French had seriously pursued Liu Yongfu after the capture of Tuyen Quang, the Black Flags would probably have been driven from Tonkin there and then. But French attention was diverted by the sudden crisis with China provoked by the Bac Le ambush (23 June 1884), and during the eventful summer of 1884 the Black Flags were left to lick their wounds.

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