Historical Dictionary



The fighting was at times ferocious at Dien Bien Phu during the three Vietnamese attacks occurring between 13 March and 7 May 1954. Artillery explosions obliterated the small Tai border town and churned the surrounding green fields into craters, surrounded by mounds of black dirt and rubble. Those who recall the valley floor after the battle spoke of Verdun. Attacking soldiers going over the top encountered deadly machine gun fire while French planes tried to bomb as closely as possible to the perimeter protecting their besieged troops all the while combing the surrounding cliffs for signs of enemy movements, including the porters and troops slowly lugging weapons up the jungle hills. Heavy, seemingly incessant rain in April filled the trenches with knee deep mud, breeding disease and infections as un-evacuated corpses on both sides rotted away, giving rise to an indescribable stench matched only by the sights of the decomposing cadavers. Swarms of yellow flies descended upon the corpses and the infected wounds leaving their larvae to turn into maggots, terrifying young soldiers on both sides of the trenches. Towards the end, a major dysentery epidemic broke out on the Vietnamese side. Similar things occurred on the French Union side.

Internal studies reveal that the Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s (DRV) medical services treated 10,130 wounded Vietnamese during the battle of Dien Bien Phu, including minor (flesh wounds), medium (bone fractures), and seriously wounded (requiring surgery). Getting them out of the line of fire and to the hospitals behind the lines was an arduous task given the gruelling conditions. Rains flooded the trenches and seeped into field hospitals. Only 34% of the DRV men wounded during the first wave attack could be transported to a medical station of any type in under six hours albeit by the third attack 63% were being transported to safety within that period of time. Within days of the first attack, however, field hospitals were overwhelmed with wounded. A medical student in Surgical Unit No. 2 during the battle, Nguyen Thi Ngoc Toan, recalled decades later “that it was very scary at night”.

The extraordinary mobilization of upper Vietnam for the battle of Dien Bien Phu reached beyond the soldiers. The 261,451 men and women civilian porters (and 500 pack horses) were as much a part of this battle as the soldiers. Besides the weapons they lugged, they also hauled tons of rice and medicines to feed and heal the soldiers. This also made them some of the prime targets for French bombers as the line between civilian porters and combatants blurred. The violence of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu thus extended beyond the valley floor, running across all of upper Vietnam and even into northern Laos.

But violence was most concentrated on the battlefield and the Vietnamese soldier took the direct hits. Vietnamese troops at Dien Bien Phu suffered a killed-in-action rate of 32% during the first wave attack, 25% during the second, while with the third it dropped to 20%. Artillery fire accounted for 86.3% of the wounds inflicted on DRV bodies at Dien Bien Phu. Precise statistics are such that one can map this assault as follows: (1) head, face and neck injuries, 23.7%, (2) upper limb wounds, 32.5%, (3) lower limb wounds, 27%, (4) chest and back injuries, 11%, (5) stomach injuries, 2.6%, and (6) bone and organ injuries in the pelvic area, 2.7%. Of the soldiers suffering severe head and back injuries, hundreds of them would never walk again, being disabled (tan phe), paralyzed (te liet), or worse.

The battle of Dien Bien Phu was the single most intense battle of the entire Indochina War both for the French Union and Viet Minh armies. It may well have been the single most violent showdown of 20th-century wars of decolonization. By mid-April, after the second wave, morale dipped dangerously on the DRV side. According to official statistics, the DRV suffered 13,930 casualties of whom 4,020 died because of battle wounds. French military intelligence estimated that the DRV lost around 20,000 men in this two-month battle of the trenches. 10,000 would seem a more accurate estimation. Over 2,000 French Union forces died defending the entrenched camp at Dien Bien Phu. See also COURT MARTIAL, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF VIETNAM; DESERTION; DIEN BIEN PHU, BATTLE OF; DIEN BIEN PHU, BATTLE PREPARATION AND CONTEXT; DIEN BIEN PHU, CANCELLATION OF FIRST ATTACK; DIEN BIEN PHU, FILM; DIEN BIEN PHU, SIGNIFICANCE OF.