The French prisoners in Vietnam
At the close of the First Indochina War, more than 20 000 French, Legionnaire and African troops were reported as “prisoners or missing”, in addition to tens of thousands of Indochinese. A still vivid trauma.At the close of the First Indochina War, more than 20 000 French, Legionnaire and African troops were reported as “prisoners or missing”, in addition to tens of thousands of Indochinese. A still vivid trauma.
Most of the POWs captured by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) in Indochina between 1945 and 1954 were taken prisoner between the battles of Route Coloniale 4 (October 1950) and Dien Bien Phu (March-May 1954).
The majority of the survivors were freed in the summer of 1954, sick and emaciated, while nearly 4 000 European and African POWs were granted early release during the course of the conflict. In the overcrowded camps improvised by the DRV, they were subjected to health and dietary conditions which, while similar to those endured by the surrounding Vietnamese population, took their toll on the European and African ranks, especially in the camps of NCOs and ordinary soldiers.
But the terrible death rate was not the only shock that awaited them in captivity. “It had to do with the humiliation of belonging to a strong army and being defeated by a supposedly weak people; the physical change of arriving in a totally different human and material environment, involving a return to a primitive way of life in the Tonkin forest; the surprise at being treated from the outset as ‘friends’ rather than enemies; the disappearance of ranks and stripes, mainstays of self-confidence,” writes Colonel Bruge in his book Le Poisson Rouge,
adding: “It was also a feeling of utter moral helplessness before an entirely new and incomprehensible mindset, vocabulary and reasoning.”
“Pretending to play the game”
Labelled “war criminals” for their participation in an “unjust” colonial war, they were nevertheless “pardoned” under President Ho Chi Minh’s “policy of clemency”: the military “proletariat” they formed was deemed to have been duped and exploited by the French colonialist government in the pay of US imperialists. Abandoned by these “warmongers”, the DRV would give them the opportunity to open their eyes to their condition and that of the Vietnamese people, and atone for their mistakes by signing political declarations. By doing so, they could become “peace fighters”, with the hope, above all, of being freed.
Disorientated by particularly deadly marches to the camps, fatigue, privations and endless political education classes, the POWs found captivity put their social and moral values to the test. In each camp, microsocieties of captives were formed, in a significantly different way than before capture, giving rise to major divisions – still sensitive today – between those who resisted, shirkers, informers, and so on. A climate of widespread suspicion soon set in among them, which led to the strengthening of groupes primaires, whose members helped each other combat exhaustion and disorientation, and came up with survival strategies, while putting as little strain as possible on their military loyalty.
French prisoner freed by the Viet Minh. © ECPAD
Their apparent submission to DRV propaganda was thus frequently sublimated into a new symbolic arrangement of their fighting spirit: “We realised that to fight the Viet Minh, we had to use the same weapon as them: lies,” said Captain Lepage on being freed (SHD, Vincennes). By “pretending to play the game” – an expression often used by former POWs to explain their apparent compromise for survival – they in fact averted the suspicions which they anticipated from the French military authorities; suspicions that contributed to making their liberation one of the mainstays of their wounded memory.
The psychological effect of captivity
The various potentially traumatic aspects of the experience of captivity nevertheless combined in an alchemy unique to each prisoner. It would therefore be wrong to reduce the experience of prisoners of war to a passive one, in which they are like the dead in limbo or mere objects of DRV propaganda; in captivity, they became subjects of an atypical experience. Some highlighted the ways in which they benefited from encountering the Vietnamese population, while others took “an instructive view” of their captivity, according to C-J. Baylé.
For many, mostly officers, the primary concern was to comprehend the extraordinary experience they had just been through; thus, some sought to model the psychological effects they had undergone in captivity, particularly with the French counter-insurgency in Algeria in mind. In any event, all or nearly all came out of the experience instilled with such bitter anti-communist feeling that even today it contributes to concealing the Vietnamese, and subsequently the Algerian, independence struggles, beneath the mask of an international fight against communism.
Freed French Union prisoners arrive at Trung Ha. © ECPAD
A duty to remember
From the 1950s to the present day, the accounts of former French prisoners of war – which are relatively numerous, despite what is often written, yet barely audible – are structured around compositions, decompositions and recompositions of a complex sociopolitical nature, which vary according to the context and position of the teller; their focus, however, shows remarkable consistency: the experience of former POWs, subjected to considerable trauma, was not recognised on a level with the knowledge they acquired of the “communist system” or the suffering they endured “in the name of France”.
Therefore, having fought for the recognition of their rights (law of 31 December 1989) and their suffering in the public sphere (the “Boudarel Case”), the National Association of Former Prisoners of Indochina (ANAPI), founded in 1985, today calls for their memory to be honoured. It also calls for the restoration of the sociopolitical framework whose breakdown, first in Indochina, then in Algeria, was one of the primary causes of their trauma. By doing so, through the restoration of their fight for the “free world” and the “civilising action” of France in Indochina, they are ultimately seeking to rectify history itself.