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From Black Flags to Boxers: Thinking the Irregular Enemy in the Tonkin and China Campaigns

General Military Review No. 56
History & strategy

Un Pavillon noir vers 1885. Crédit : Charles-Édouard HOCQUARD
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In this article, Mr. Giraud underlines the interest of the study of French expeditions in the Far East at the end of the 19th century, from the point of view of knowledge of the enemy. Engaged in partly asymmetrical conflicts, first in Tonkin and then in China, French forces faced an irregular adversary composed of nationalist insurgents, pirates and secret martial arts societies. Despite still embryonic military intelligence, mainly oriented towards the regular armies of Western Europe, the French expeditionary forces are adapting, not without difficulty, to this complex human environment.

The Far East is a well-known theatre of operations for the French army, which has deployed there on several occasions during the colonial wars, then during the conflicts linked to decolonization and the Cold War.1. In the 19th century, France's interest in this region was both economic and political, in the context of the rivalry between colonial powers for access to the vast market represented in particular by the Middle Kingdom. The arrival of the French in Indochina: missionaries2The conflict between the two countries, first merchants and explorers, then soldiers and colonial administrators, quickly led to tensions with the latter.3. Worried about the security of its southern border, seeing with an evil eye the passage of the Annamite empire...4, Until then, China, under a French protectorate, faced the forces of the Tonkin expeditionary force: it was the Franco-Chinese war from 1883 to 1885. A few years later, after a long process of dismemberment of the Celestial Empire by the Western powers and Japan, the French and the Chinese were able to take the first steps towards the creation of the Celestial Empire.5France took part in an international expedition (1900-1901) to suppress the insurrection of the xenophobic Boxers movement, which threatened foreign interests.

During these two conflicts, the land forces are waging war "among the peoples", all the more so as the Chinese and Annamese governments are skillfully using irregular troops against France. Black flags, pirates and Annamite nationalist insurgents, then members of the Boxer movement, thus fought alone or alongside the regular imperial soldiers. How does the army envisage this complex enemy and how does it adapt to it? To answer this question, it is necessary to look, on the one hand, at the evolution of French military intelligence at the end of the 19th century, and, on the other hand, at the emergence of a French approach to counterinsurgency.

Black Flags, Rebels and Pirates in the Service of the Annamite and Chinese Empires

The Tonkin expedition was divided into two stages. From 1883 to 1885, France confronted mainly Chinese regular troops who had crossed the border, assisted by Annamese imperial soldiers and Black Flags, in a conflict of an asymmetrical type. The Treaty of Hué establishing the protectorate over Annam and Tonkin6The treaty, signed on August 25, 1883, was rejected by China, which invaded without a declaration of war. The imperial army was finally pushed back behind the border but counterattacked in March 1885, forcing the French to evacuate Lang Son.7. The Treaty of Tien Tsin8 was finally accepted by China on June 9, ending operations against it. On the French side, the land forces of the Tonkin Corps represented at the height of the fighting two divisions with two joint brigades (plus one in reserve), i.e. up to 35,000 men at the end of 1885, to which must be added 4,000 to 5,000 sailors from the Far Eastern naval division and 30,000 native auxiliaries.9. On the other side, the Annamese Imperial Army mobilizes about 20,000 men. Of unequal value, these units are not all equipped with firearms; when they do have them, they are essentially rifles and cannons of old models, donated by France.10. On the Chinese side, at the height of the confrontation, the imperial troops included three infantry divisions, or about 35,000 soldiers. The latter had a heterogeneous firepower but overall equivalent to the French. The Black Flags, for their part, differed from the pirates and other Chinese bands of brigands operating in Tonkin in their organisation and equipment, which were close to a conventional army, sometimes even superior to the Annamese army. Ancient Taiping11 in revolt against the Qing Emperor, they fled repression to form armed bands in Tonkin. However, they are not a homogeneous group: there are black, white and yellow flags. The former, composed of 5 to 6,000 men maximum, are the most hostile to the French, but also the best armed. They are used as irregular auxiliaries by the Emperor of Annam, then by the Chinese Imperial Army, as was the case during the siege of Tuyen Quang.12.

From 1885 to 1902, the Tonkin corps dealt mainly with the Annamese nationalist insurgents of the Can Vuongmovement.13The main victims were bands of Annamese and Chinese pirates and brigands, often consisting of former Black Flags. In this asymmetric conflict, counter-guerrilla operations vary in intensity, from simple police operations to high-intensity engagements involving artillery. The Can Vuong insurgents are grouped into peasant militias that can represent several hundred individuals, under the control of local elites.14. Poorly trained and lightly equipped, they pursue a strategy of subversion designed to create insecurity in the French system. All the methods of the "little war" were used: traps, ambushes, harassment of isolated posts, attacks on rearguards, scorched earth policy, repression of civilians supporting the French. Weaker units (Indochinese auxiliaries, militias, guards) were particularly targeted; direct confrontation with French forces was rare. The actions seek to provoke an indiscriminate response to cut the French off from the population. Bands of Chinese pirates and brigands criss-crossed the Tongan coast and the interior, mixing outlaws, deserters and rebels.

Thriving on cross-border traffic, some are well-armed and do not hesitate to join forces to attack isolated French posts or columns in the mountains of Tonkin. Finally, let us underline the complex game of the ethnic minorities of Upper Tonkin, such as the Taï, some of whose chiefs supported the French after fighting them. In total, the Tonkin Corps suffered significant losses estimated at 13,000 French and Algerian soldiers, plus 10,000 native auxiliaries; 30% were killed in action.15.

The task force is in trouble during the counterinsurgency phase. The accounts of veterans clearly show the confusion in which the French find themselves: thus the terms "pirates", "rebels" and "bandits" are used indiscriminately to designate the Annamese nationalists of the Can Vuong and the bands of Chinese looters.16. This lack of knowledge of the enemy can be explained by the deficiencies of military intelligence at the time.17. At the central level, it has only just been organised on a permanent basis with the creation of the 2nd office of the General Staff of the Minister of War, a consequence of the reorganisation of the French army after the defeat of 1870 against Prussia. The ministerial instruction of 17 February 1875 specifies that " the Army staff is responsible for centralising all information on foreign armies ". In this capacity, the officers of the 2nd bureau published the Revue militaire de l'étranger ; however, it focused mainly on the regular European armies, with the Prussian army occupying a large place in it.18. Tactical intelligence, meanwhile, was the subject of General Lewal's pioneering work in the 1880s.19 ...but remains essentially confined to cavalry reconnaissance. The latter are particularly dangerous in Tonkin; they are preferred to the interrogation of the natives, the recruitment of local guides and irregular auxiliaries, without uniforms, in charge of gathering intelligence.20. Beginning in the 1890s, however, intelligence about the enemy became more accurate, thanks in part to the experiences of officers who had fought in Tonkin, such as Colonel Frey.21. It relies on Catholic missions as a source of information, for example, to estimate the number of Annamese armed bands operating in the Delta. In 1894, a " Vademecum of the officer in Tonkin" was published.22...written by a former expeditionary force officer. This publication details the tactical procedures of the Annamese and Chinese insurgents, and gives advice to officers on how to carry out this counter-guerrilla warfare. The author invites them, for example, not to follow to the letter the regulations, designed for conventional engagement in Europe. He underlines the limits of the French guns, ineffective against the enemy's earthen ramparts and bamboo hedges; he advocates the use of model 1874 rifles, more rustic and robust than the 1886 model in endowment designed for European combat. Large operations were considered counter-productive, with small mobile columns obtaining much better results. This is the evolution adopted by the expeditionary force from 1891. The heavy inter-service columns of 1885-87 were succeeded by smaller, lighter, well-coordinated and well-informed tactical groups, supported by indigenous militias, which harassed bands previously cut off from their support by a blockade. Tonkin was then divided into four military territories whose chiefs also had civil powers: it was within this political-military framework that Colonel Gallieni, Major Lyautey (his deputy) and Colonel Pennequin, who had been in charge of the military, were to be appointed.23 develop their theories on pacification and counterinsurgency. A better knowledge of the country and its culture enables them to implement a policy of pitting different minorities against each other.

The instrumentalization of the Boxers by the Dowager Empress Tseu-Hi

The " Boxer Rebellion", which led to the intervention of the International Expeditionary Force, is a xenophobic popular movement born in 1898 in north-eastern China. The Boxers, more often referred to by the English term Boxers, are an irregular force of up to 100,000 men. The Yihe-quan movement, literally: "Fists of Justice and Concord", was originally a popular martial arts association; its members practice Meihua-quan or "Plum Blossom Boxing".24 which they first use against foreign missionaries and the Qing power25. The Boxers are divided into different groups that are rarely coordinated: there is no commander-in-chief to avoid power struggles. The basic unit or tan, led by a Grand Master, consists of 25 to 100 men or women organized in small groups of 10, highly disciplined. Dressed in martial arts clothing, their armament is limited to knives and old rifles. The Boxers share certain beliefs such as invulnerability to enemy bullets, which they sometimes demonstrate by shooting each other with blanks. From May 1899, the movement gained momentum by opening up to all xenophobic secret societies; their violent actions targeted foreign interests: destruction of telegraph lines and railways, massacres of missionaries and Chinese converts, etc. At the beginning of 1900, they control the Tien-Tsin region and threaten Beijing where foreign legations are located. At the end of May, a first international column of 360 and then 2,000 European soldiers is sent to protect Peking; it confronts the Boxers from June 11th. On the 17th, a second expeditionary force26 of about 20,000 men took the Takou forts that commanded access to Tien-Tsin and Beijing, forcing the Dowager Empress Tseu-Hi to declare war on the eight nations. The Boxers, allied with the imperial troops, enter Beijing and lay siege to the legation district during the "55 Days of Beijing", from 20 June to 14 August 1900. The regular imperial army was then made up of about 360,000 men, to which up to 1.3 million militiamen could be added. Globally inferior to European armies, some of its units were however modernized on the Western model after the defeat in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894. This is the case of two divisions of the Beiyang army, stationed in Beijing province.27. On the French side, about 3,000 soldiers of the navy troops, already present in the Far East, took part in the operations from May to September 1900; it was during this conflict that they were attached to the War Ministry, under the name of Colonial Troops.28. These troops were then relieved by the French Expeditionary Force in China (CEFC) to two joint brigades, i.e. about 18,000 men out of a total of 100,000 to 110,000 Western and Japanese soldiers in early 1901.29. After the capture of Beijing, a phase of pacification begins in order to annihilate the remains of the rebellion; the main mission of the CEFC is then the control of the area. On September 7, 1901, China agreed to sign the " Boxer Protocol".30 that ends the hostilities. During the conflict, the Boxers are largely instrumentalized by the Chinese power. After a phase of fierce repression, the Empress officially recognized the movement by a decree of June 21, 1900, in the middle of the legations; another decree, on June 29, however, differentiates between the "good" and the "bad" Boxers.31. After the capture of Peking, almost annihilated, they are finally blamed for the war by a decree of September 7; the Empress officially requests the help of foreign powers to eliminate them.

Faced with this asymmetrical enemy, the French army seems this time to be better prepared. The leaders commanding the expeditionary force had already fought the Chinese and had significant experience of the Far East theatre. This is particularly the case of Brigadier General Frey.32He was not only the commander of the First Expeditionary Force, but also the commander of the CFEC, Major General Voyron, who served in Tonkin and commanded the troops of Indochina. The collection and exploitation of military intelligence remains the responsibility of the 2nd General Staff Office of the War Ministry. Due to the compromise of certain officers of its Statistics Section in the Dreyfus affair, its activities were refocused on intelligence of military interest.33. Concerning the Chinese opposing forces, reading the Military Review of Foreign Armies34 shows the discerning ability of the officers of the 2nd bureau, despite the amalgamation of the Boxers in the imperial army at the time of the siege of Beijing35. At the tactical level, the search for military intelligence seems to focus less on the enemy than on the capabilities of the allies: the most recent equipment, such as the famous French 75 mm cannon, were in fact deployed and tested during this conflict, a showcase of modern warfare. In the end, French losses were much lower than in Tonkin, with 433 killed.36. After the " Boxer Protocol", part of the CEFC became the French Brigade of Occupation of China, then the Corps of Occupation of China, establishing a permanent French military presence until its departure, forced by the Japanese in 1945.

In spite of the particular and non-transposable context of colonial empires, these two conflicts are therefore of definite interest for the historian of military events, but also for today's army officers.

Faced with an unconventional enemy, the French forces adapted and improved their intelligence capabilities, while laying the foundations for what is today called "interculturality".37. It is in these Far Eastern theatres that a real French school of counter-insurrection also developed, enriched in the 20th century by the experiences of Salan, Galula and Trinquier. Finally, these engagements are, to a certain extent, a success from the point of view of inter-service, joint and even inter-allied cooperation.


1 Indochina War (1946-1954) and Korean War (1950-1953).

2 France was also in charge of protecting Catholic missions in the Far East.

3 The French army had already been deployed in China during the 2nd Opium War (Franco-British expedition of 1860).

4 Current Vietnam. In colonial times Tonkin corresponded to the northern territories, Cochinchina to the southern territories, Annam to the central territories of this empire.

5 Period that historiography calls the "unequal treaties" between China and the Powers, from the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 until the Second World War.

6 Cochinchina became a colony in 1862, Cambodia a protectorate in 1863.

7 This failure, very limited in its military consequences, nevertheless had important repercussions in France, since it led to the fall of the government of Jules Ferry.

8 Signed for the first time on 11 May 1884 but not respected. It is one of the "unequal treaties".

9 Michel BODIN: The French in Tonkin 1870-1902. A difficult conquest, Soteca, 2012.

10 In the framework of the second Treaty of Saigon, which consolidated French possessions in 1874.

11 From 1851 to 1864, a civil war pitted the insurgents who had formed a dissident kingdom called " Taiping Tian Guo " in southern China against the traditional imperial regime. The result was an estimated 20 to 30 million deaths, making it the deadliest civil war in history.

12 From November 23, 1884 to March 3, 1885, the 600 Tongan legionnaires and riflemen of the Dominated Battalion Chief heroically resisted more than 10,000 Chinese assailants, regulars and Black Flags.

13 Literally: "help the king".

14 Michel Bodin, op. cit.

15 Several thousand died of disease, particularly cholera. On the enemy's side, the losses are ten times higher.

16 Michel Bodin, op. cit.

17 The expression is to be understood in the contemporary sense of 'intelligence of military interest', i.e. 'everything that has or may have consequences for forces on operations in current or potential crises' (Intelligence Academy).

18 Laure LOUCOPOULOS: La Revue Militaire de l'Étranger (1872-1914), a major player in officer training at the beginning of the Third Republic, 2012.

19 Jules LEWAL: War studies. Tactique des renseignements, Paris, Baudouin, 1881.

20 Captain R. CARTERON: Souvenirs de la campagne du Tonkin, Baudouin, 1891 and Michel BODIN, op. cit.

21 Colonel Henri-Nicolas FREY: Pirates and rebels in Tonkin, our soldiers in Yen-thé, Hachette, 1892. Cf . also Captain LECOMTE: La vie militaire au Tonkin, Paris, Berger-Levrault, 1893.

22 Henri GALLAIS: Vade-mecum of the officer in Tonkin. Collection of useful information on the life of the posts in the mountainous regions, for the use of the Europeans who were going to start in our new colony of the Far East, Paris, Challamel, 1895.

23 On the lesser-known role of the latter, see in particular Jean-François KLEIN, Théophile Pennequin, le "sorcier de la pacification" (1849-1916), in Samia El-Mechat, Coloniser, pacifier, administrer : XIXe-XXe siècles, Éditions du CNRS, 2013.

24 Yan YAN: Le mouvement des Boxeurs en Chine (1898-1900), Éditions You Feng, 2007.

25 The last Chinese imperial dynasty (1644-1912) was of Manchu origin and therefore did not belong to the majority Han ethnic group; the Boxers made it responsible for Chinese submission to foreigners.

26 Within the framework of the Eight Nations Alliance: France, the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, Russia, Japan, Austria-Hungary and Italy.

27 Zhili or Petchili for the French.

28 By the law of 7 July 1900. They depend on the Direction des troupes coloniales (No. 8) of the General Staff, created by decree of 21 January 1901.

29 Jean-François BRUN: Intervention armée en Chine: l'expédition internationale de 1900-1901, Revue historique des armées (online), N° 258, 2010. URL: http://journals.

30 It is part of the "unequal treaties". In addition to heavy reparations, China must accept the permanent presence of foreign armies on its soil.

31 That is, looters and troublemakers. Yan YAN, op. cit.

32 Discussed in the previous section. He published in 1904: L'armée chinoise: l'armée ancienne, l'armée nouvelle, l'armée chinoise dans l'avenir, Paris, Hachette.

33 Counter-espionage is taken away from him. Sébastien LAURENT: Politiques de l'ombre, Fayard, 2009, p. 392; Gérald ARBOIT: Des services secrets pour la France, CNRS, 2014, p. 87.

34 Ex-Revue militaire de l'étranger (the name was changed in 1899).

35 See for example Volume 57, January-June 1901, Les événements militaires en Chine (1900-1901), pp. 134-149.

36 Jean-François BRUN, op. cit.

37 " Interculturality in military action (...) seeks to understand the different cultures that interact in a theatre of operations in order to enable military action ", Battalion Commander P.-E. HANQUIER: Without mastery of intercultural dialogue, war is lost, Brennus 4.0, 12 May 2019,

Title : From Black Flags to Boxers: Thinking the Irregular Enemy in the Tonkin and China Campaigns
Author (s) : Monsieur Jean-Philippe GIRAUD