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Sino-French Naval War, 1884-1885 Review


France and China collided in the 1880s over the issue of Chinese expansion into North Vietnam, as the growing French colonial empire sought to add additional territory to its control, while the Heavenly Kingdom endeavored to defend its traditional vassal of Vietnam against Western take over. The resulting war, the Sino-French War of 1884-1885, was relatively brief - around a year long - but would be one of the largest colonial wars fought by the French Third Republic, showcasing severe internal debates in France over the question of imperial expansion, and providing a new chapter in French and Chinese naval history, showcasing the new naval technology produced by the second industrial revolution at the end of the 19th century. Piotr Olender's book Sino-French Naval War, 1884-1885 is a short but well written and useful summary for this mostly forgotten war, showing the tactical and operational fighting by the French fleet and its forces operating ashore, as well as providing sufficient detail on the operations of the French Army in North Vietnam. Although narrow and firmly committed to a purely military investigation of the war, it makes for a useful introduction and a good military history.

Fighting during the Sino-French War

Fighting during the Sino-French War

The organization of the book is rather simple. The first few chapters cover the long term developments which led up to the war, such as French influence in Vietnam and the Cochinchina Campaign which led to the French foothold in Southern Vietnam, and the various French campaigns and expansions north along the coast which ultimately brought the French into conflict with the Chinese, the suzerain and protector of Vietnam.

At this point, in chapter 5, it provides a comparative look at the two opponents, such as the governmental structure of China and the organization of its military, both naval and army, before moving onto the French and how the army was divided, and what sort of professional units existed for service in the colonial campaign against China.

Following this, the war itself is covered with the French landings at Keelung, where French success in defeating Chinese coastal batteries was followed up by a forced withdrawal, a defeat, which provoked open hostilities. This was followed by the much more important battle of Foochow, where the French utterly annihilated the Chinese southern fleet and broke out of the river where it was stationed through destroying Chinese coastal defenses along their path,

French torpedo boats attacking Chinese ships at Foochow

French torpedo boats attacking Chinese ships at Foochow

Strategy at this point diverged, as French Admiral Courbet preferred to launch a series of raids on the Chinese coastline, but Paris chose to attack Taiwan instead. This had decidedly mixed success as the French rapidly became bogged down and their attempts to blockade the island were ineffective. This led the French to implement a rice blockade to stop the export of rice from Southern China to Northern China, which the Chinese were unable to circumvent, while the capture of the Pescadores Islands off of Taiwan assuring a better blockading position. These French successes were matched by the outnumbered but significantly qualitatively superior French armies in Vietnam smashing a number of Chinese assaults, but the wounding of their commander and authority devolving to his subordinate led to a propitious retreat at one point, with the idea of a major defeat being relayed back to Paris. A political crisis intervened and led to a peace, a limited French victory with French control over Vietnam secured, and some additional economic concessions in China, but nothing more. France barely avoided a full withdrawal from the region as the French parliament only by a few votes authorized continued credits for occupation, but it did set in progress the creation of naval marine troops to provide a professional army that could be deployed for such wars in the future. In military technology terms however, the war provided very little new, and its star weapon, the spar torpedo, was already in track for being replaced with the self-propelled torpedo. The Chinese would not learn much from their defeat, leaving them poorly situated to face the Japanese a decade later:

Olender's book's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness: it is very direct, to the point, and short. It is a bare 140 pages, and it has a huge number of photos in that space. It is quick, simple to read, and aims for a general overview of the war. In general, the military aspect is surprisingly well covered - it does an excellent job of providing understandable descriptions of the battles between the French and Chinese, with good analysis of their consequence, the forces involved, and reasons for their success or failure, incorporating sufficient supporting details about operational factors such as disease or supplies to give some context. The Battle of Foochow and the following river descent by the French as they engaged Chinese coastal batteries along the way is particularly well done. It also has a very impressive number of pictures, of commanders, battles, troops, and ships. Unfortunately logistics is not as detailed as it could have been, such as the supporting infrastructure for the French, which only receives some meager discussion for the French using Singapore for resupply purposes, without a full picture of the capabilities of the naval base at Saigon.

Of course, such a rather short book does inevitably come with sacrifices. Although there is some information on the broader objectives of the French, it is limited, without connection back to Metropolitan interest groups and what sort of broader policy the French might be pursuing. Things are even more limited on the Chinese side, where there is next to no focus on broader Chinese strategy, or their operational plans for how they hoped to win the war. There were notably some factions in France which hoped to use the war to gain colonial concessions from China such as Taiwan or the Pescadores: it is unfortunate that these are not explored.

This extends to third parties. The role of neutrals is not very well covered, although it does get hinted at. There must have been very delicate negotiations between the French, British, Americans, and Japanese, and at times the book does mention that it was due to concerns over offending the British that certain policies, such as a blockade of the Yangtze, were not conducted. And it does provide a good overview of the French blockade of Taiwan and how the Chinese were able to circumvent it reasonably easily. But this section could have been much expanded.

For the most unfortunate omission, how patriotism and population attitudes affected the war is almost entirely missing. There are some notes about this, but they are buried in the footnotes. How did the Chinese population perceive the war? What about the Vietnamese, and particularly Vietnamese troops in French service? Were there any guerrilla operations or wars of national resistance? Such attitudes would have been of massive importance for the period and the conduct of the war, but receive next to no focus.

Overall, this short, concise, and direct book is an excellent introduction and military summary of the conflict, but should be understand as being a principally military history and that it is rather narrow on other subjects. It does include a decent ending section discussing the results of the war on France and China and how it related to larger technological trends in the late 19th century, but it doesn't fully integrate the war into the broader course of the times nor provide specific effects. A good and useful book - but one which is sharply circumscribed by its short length.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Ryan C Thomas

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