Historical Dictionary



The Empire held an important place in Charles de Gaulle’s strategic thinking and the Free French army reflected it. De Gaulle’s government-in-exile, the Comité français de Libération nationale (CFLN), first came to life in Algeria following the Allied liberation of North Africa in 1942. From there, Free French forces drew upon the colonies to build a new army. In September 1943, the CFLN created the Corps Expéditionnaire d’Extrême-Orient and confided its command to General Roger Blaizot. De Gaulle was equally determined to liberate Indochina from Vichy and the Japanese. However, it was only after the liberation of France in mid-1944 that the French could begin work on creating a real Expeditionary Corps for the Far East. They did so by combining the 2ème Division blindée under the command of Jacques Massu, the 9ème Division d’infanterie coloniale (9ème DIC) led by Jean Valluy, and the 3ème Division d’Infanterie coloniale (3ème DIC). General Philippe Leclerc replaced Blaizot as commander of the Expeditionary Corps for the Far East, which debarked in Saigon in early October 1945. The size of the Expeditionary Corps (excluding auxiliary troops or “supplétifs”) grew from around 53,000 in January 1946 to 110,245 on 31 March 1948 before increasing to 204,000 on 1 January 1954.[1]

The Expeditionary Corps was a professional or volunteer army. Unlike for the Algerian War, there was no national draft in France for the Indochina War, although Pierre Mendès France threatened to introduce one if a negotiated settlement to the conflict were not reached. Moreover, budget constraints and military commitments to Europe and elsewhere made the question of providing troops to the Expeditionary Corps a permanent problem. As French military historian Michel Bodin has shown, throughout the entire war, almost two thirds of the soldiers of the Expeditionary Corps were not French nationals. The army drew instead on a wide variety of men from French North Africa (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia), French Africa (mainly Senegal), the French Foreign Legion (many but not exclusively from the former German Third Reich), and above all Indochina (from Vietnam first then secondly from Cambodia and Laos).

In 1948, with the war anything but over, the French army decided to create mixed units and to step up the “jaunissement” or “Vietnamization” (literally, “yellowing”) of the Expeditionary Corps in order to make up for the lack of French and European troops as the war entered its most intensive phase. Even the Foreign Legion and the elite French paratroopers were forced to create “mixed battalions” to remain operational. If French and Vietnamese troops fought together during the Indochina War, more so than the Americans did with their South Vietnamese counterparts in the 1960s, it was mainly because French nationals were such a relative minority in the French Expeditionary Corps. In all, 1,609,980 men served in the Expeditionary Corps in Indochina between November 1945 and July 1954.

In accordance with the Geneva Accords signed in July 1954, the French stationed the Expeditionary Corps in the provisional state located below the 17th parallel, then known as the State of Vietnam. The Expeditionary Corps was to implement the Geneva agreements. As Pierre Grosser has pointed out, the French Expeditionary Corps also served an important symbolic role for the French in the wake of the Indochina War – proof that the French army had not been truly defeated (an obsession for many officers) and that by remaining in southern Vietnam, in Asia, the French thus remained a world power in the eyes of the Americans and British. However, despite the French desire to maintain its army in non-communist Indochina, Paris no longer had the financial wherewithal or the political will to do so. Moreover, the European commitments that had long burdened the French army and the outbreak of the Algerian War hardly allowed for such overextension. As François Mitterand put it in 1952, the French had to concentrate their energies on Africa and Europe. And Ngo Dinh Diem, president of the Republic of Vietnam from 1955, was only too happy to get the French out of the way. In April 1956, the French withdrew their army from Indochina, ending one hundred years of a French military presence in Vietnam. See also ARMY, ASSOCIATED STATE OF VIETNAM, LAOS, CAMBODIA; FINANCIAL COST OF THE WAR; SOUTH EAST ASIA TREATY ORGANIZATION.

[1]. In March 1968, the American army in Vietnam numbered 510,000 troops and the army of the Republic of Vietnam 800,000 men, meaning some 1.3 million troops just for southern Vietnam.