French Military Cemetery in Keelung
French cemetery in Keelung. Source: Photo by Isabelle and Bruno Frebourg
This cemetery in Keelung, Taiwan, contains the remains of seven hundred officers, NCOs and soldiers killed in 1884-1885.
The French military cemetery in Keelung, Taiwan, contains the remains of over seven hundred officers, NCOs and soldiers killed on the battlefield during Admiral Courbet’s expedition in 1884-1885.
The history of the Keelung cemetery is linked to the French colonial adventure in the Far East.
Starting in 1858-1859, France carried out two military expeditions in China alongside the United Kingdom. Rigault de Genouilly took Saigon in February of 1859 and set up a naval base. Five years later, the Treaty of Saigon (5 June 1862) forced the Emperor of Annam to cede the provinces of South Vietnam. Increasingly interested in trade with China, Paris decided to form an expeditionary force in 1881 to take possession of Tonkin.
The 4,000 men under General Bouet, Admiral Courbet and Commissioner of the Republic Harmand, landed in the South and imposed a French protectorate. The Emperor of Annam took refuge in the North and asked Beijing, his suzerain, to intervene.
Admiral Courbet then decided to occupy the Pescadores Islands (Penghu) and Formosa (Taiwan) to dissuade any Chinese intervention on the peninsula. At the end of the month of August 1884, French ships bombarded the port of Keelung, in the north of the island of Formosa, and landed on the coast. With its steep, mountainous topography and a modern defence system (the area was equipped with Krupp cannons), the French troops had to settle for blockading the island after bombarding the port of Tamsui (in October), while awaiting reinforcements that arrived in January 1885. On 7 February, Admiral Courbet gave the order to attack the forts in Keelung.
Eight hundred French soldiers of the Foreign Legion took up the fight. The Chinese were nonetheless determined to hold firm: 30,000 men were stationed in the north of Formosa in March and the fortifications were constantly strengthened. The expeditionary force made slow, hard progress. Some one hundred men fell to take “Fort Bamboo”. Tropical fevers and cholera sidelined others. Admiral Courbet, needing a quick victory, changed his plans.
On 31 March, the French fleet gathered before the Pescadores Islands and bombarded their forts; the Chinese surrendered on 1 April – the blockade of Formosa was lifted a few weeks later.
On 9 June, 1885, the Treaty of Tientsin confirmed the French protectorate over Annam and put an end to the French occupation of the Pescadores. Nearly seven hundred soldiers had died during this expedition, 60% of them from illness.
Between June and July 1885, the French Corps of Engineers united their bodies at two military cemeteries at Keelung (Formosa – Taiwan) and Magong (Pescadores – Penghu). In 1890, the crew of the “L'Inconstant” erected a commemorative monument at Keelung that was placed under the protection of the Chinese authorities. In 1897, while Formosa was under Chinese domination, France signed an agreement for maintaining the graves with the island’s general government. The cemetery, initially located at the seaside, was moved by the Japanese in 1903, causing the destruction of 196 of the 200 steles at the site. In 1909, Keelung cemetery welcomed the remains of soldiers buried in northern Taiwan. The land chosen covers 0.1630 hectares (0.4 acres) at Tchong Pan Teou, in the Zhongzheng district of Keelung. In 1929, the French Embassy in Tokyo accepted to take charge and handle maintenance for the cemeteries in Keelung and Magong.
The end of the Japanese occupation of Formosa at the end of WWII left many graves abandoned. The soldiers’ bodies, the steles at the cemetery in Magong, and the ashes of Navy Infantry Lieutenant Louis Jehenne and of Marie Joseph Louis Dert, Deputy Navy Commissioner, were transferred on the “Pimodan” to Keelung cemetery in 1954.
The monument to the memory of Courbet, built on Mount Shetou in the bay of Fengkuei facing the port of Magong, was moved – the Admiral’s remains were brought back to France. A new commemorative monument, erected by the local authorities, was inaugurated on 27 March 1954. The following 5 August, the French and Chinese authorities agreed on a 90-year lease for the land occupied by the cemeteries in Keelung and the commemorative stele in Magong.
The site was managed by the French representative at the embassy until 1993. The general secretariat at the French Institute of Taiwan took over, with financial assistance from the Ministry of Defence. In 1997, a French ministerial decision led to an agreement to place the management and maintenance of the cemetery in the hands of the municipality of Keelung. On the Pescadores Islands, the city of Magong renovated the Mount Shetou site, adding various Dutch, Japanese and French commemorative monuments. It classified the cemetery a historical monument in 2001.
A commemorative ceremony is held each year on 11 November.
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