The UN French Battalion in Korea
1950 - 1953
70th anniversary of the Korean War
Online resources to find out more
At dawn on 25 June 1950, after a short artillery preparation, the North Korean army crossed the 38th parallel, bringing to a head several years of tensions between the two Koreas and marking the start of the Korean War. Kim Il Sung, the North Korean leader responsible for triggering of the conflict, hoped to crush the ill-equipped and poorly trained South Korean army in no time. But he was not banking on the response from part of the international community. The United States approached the United Nations and, on 27 June, the UN secretary-general, Trygve Lie, issued an appeal to Member States to enforce international law. A multinational force was therefore set up, under the aegis of the UN, tasked with restoring South Korean sovereignty by force.
Volunteers board the Athos in the port of Marseille,
October 1950. Photo: François de Castries. © ECPAD
Engaged in Indochina and having to fulfil its obligations in the European theatre as well as maintain security in its North African territories, France could only agree to a limited contribution for Korea, and initially refused to send in troops on the ground. For political reasons (France was, after all, a permanent member of the Security Council and meant to have its voice heard on the big international issues), the French authorities finally agreed, on 25 August 1950, to put together a battalion of volunteers, mostly made up of reservists. The French Army, which faced a severe shortage of troops, was initially opposed to providing regular officers and troops for the Korean theatre of operations. The United Nations French Battalion (BF/ONU) was born. In September and October 1950, it was set up in Auvour, near Le Mans, from reservists from all arms: infantry, cavalry, artillery, sappers, etc. It was intended that losses should be replaced with reinforcement detachments, of which a total of 16 were formed between 1951 and 1953. In order to give a certain distinction and prestige to France’s modest contribution, General Monclar temporarily gave up his four stars for the five braids of lieutenant-colonel, and was made head of French Land Forces Command (EMFTF), which had overall responsibility for the UN French Battalion. At the time of departure from Marseille, in late October 1950, these two bodies comprised approximately 1 050 men.
The UN French Battalion is remembered as a battalion of volunteers, who joined up spontaneously to go and fight in Korea. However, the term “volunteer” requires a bit of explanation and qualification. While it is true that, at the time of the formation of the French Battalion, the commander of the French Army, General Blanc, was opposed to the deployment of regular soldiers, of which the unit included only a small number in autumn 1950, the situation was to change in 1951. Despite a series of recruitment campaigns, the shortage of young French volunteer reservists to join the battalion was such that, after giving regular personnel permission to apply, in October 1951 the then war minister, Pierre de Chevigné, ordered appointments to be made among the troops on standby to depart for Indochina.
BF/ONU observer on the front line, 1953 (ECPAD, D54-12-331).
Upon arrival in Korea, where they were met by turmoil due to the intervention of Chinese “volunteers” in the conflict, the French Battalion was attached to an American unit, becoming the 4th Battalion, 23rd Regimental Combat Team of the US 2nd Infantry Division (nicknamed “Indianhead” because of its insignia, the head of an Indian chief). With the battles of Wonju (January 1951), the Twin Tunnels and Chipyong-ni (February 1951), the French soldiers quickly found themselves in the firing line, demonstrating all their bravery and earning recognition from the American troops. In spring 1951, the French Battalion distinguished itself once again, at Inje, in the UN’s counter-offensive (May 1951). This well-deserved glory, however, eclipsed the largely unknown crisis of morale which the Battalion’s men were suffering, after six months on the front line. The very severe losses, the physical exhaustion due to several months of fighting without let-up, the waiting on rocky peaks in extreme weather conditions and the isolation had, by spring 1951, dealt a significant blow to the morale of the Battalion.
A variety of measures were taken to remedy the situation and improve the living conditions of the French troops. The most important of them was perhaps the shortening of the term of duty in Korea, from the two years originally stipulated in their contracts to one year, like that of the other UN forces deployed in the conflict. Another, more immediate measure that was sure to provide rapid relief to the men was the introduction of a system of leave, the first since the Battalion’s arrival in late November 1950. In June 1951, it was the turn of the French volunteers to enjoy the famous “rest and rehabilitation” (R&R). In summer 1951, the opening of peace negotiations in Kaesong and the halting of the major offensives meant that the French troops were able to enjoy several weeks of rest. It was short-lived, though, and the French Battalion was soon called up to take part in one of the most violent battles in the war: the Battle of Heartbreak Ridge.
Aid station at Heartbreak Ridge (ECPAD, D54-01-73) - Donated by Colonel Pierre Collard.
In July 1951, the talks in Kaesong having come to a standstill, the UN commander decided to resume the offensive, in order to keep the pressure on the Sino-Korean forces, on the one hand, and to align the Allied positions on the front line, on the other. The resumption of the offensive gave rise to fierce fighting, symbolised for the French Battalion volunteers by the assault and capture of Hill 931, better known as “Heartbreak Ridge”. The initial assaults on Heartbreak, devastated by napalm bombing and churned up by US artillery shells, began on 15 September 1951 and from the outset the American battalions suffered appalling losses, their numbers being decimated with each attempt. The French Battalion was engaged on 26 September and it fell to 3rd Company to dislodge the North Koreans from the summit and slopes of the hill: so began a battle that was to last two weeks. By 21 October, when it was relieved, the Battalion had lost 60 men, with nearly 260 wounded, but thanks to the sacrifices of the French volunteers and their American comrades, Heartbreak Ridge was in the hands of United Nations troops. After the Battle of Heartbreak Ridge, the French Battalion was sent on leave, and that time was used by its original volunteers to prepare for departure. Of the original contingent, losses and repatriations included, there remained only 508 men, who finally left Korea on 2 January 1952.
The summit of Arrowhead Ridge, Korea, early October 1952. Photographer unknown.
The last two years of the conflict involved mainly patrol activities and “coup de main” attacks on enemy lines, to take prisoners or gather intelligence, and there were to be no more major offensives for the men of the UN battalion, aside from the very harsh fighting at Arrowhead. In summer 1952, the Sino-Korean battle units had time to gather reinforcements and shore up their positions just north of the 38th parallel. The number of artillery pieces had also been considerably reinforced with Soviet hardware, and the Chinese regularly opened fire on the Allied troops to disrupt and hinder their movements. The negotiations, which resumed in Pan Mun Jon in October 1951, continued to stumble on the issue of Chinese and North Korean POWs who did not want to return home and whom the Americans refused to hand over. By late September 1952, however, a clear resumption of activity could be observed in the Iron Triangle (delimited by the towns of Chorwon, Kumhwa and Pyonggang) and there were a number of indications of the imminence of a Chinese attack. The objective of that attack was to seize control of the high ground held by the coalition and open up the road to Seoul, defended in two places: White Horse Hill, held by the South Koreans, and Arrowhead (or Hill 281), in the hands of the French. To reinforce the defences, the Americans also sent in tanks and anti-aircraft guns. The Chinese assault began on the evening of 6 October 1952, and immediately proved to be bloody for the Battalion, which lost one of its elite units, the Pioneers Section. Throughout the night, resisting the deluge of Chinese artillery and the assaults of its infantry, the French troops stood firm. By the morning of 7 October 1952, 47 were missing; a high price had been paid for the defence of Arrowhead.
The fighting at Arrowhead seen through the eyes of Lieutenant Barrès
In a letter to his father, Lieutenant Barrès described the fighting at Arrowhead: “I have never seen anything like it. It was vicious, and not pretty. Bits of fellows flung in our direction or found lying around, brains scattered on the ground. For the first time, I saw brave men fall to their knees and beg for mercy. The Chinese losses must be unimaginable. It is a way of fighting that has to be seen to be believed. My men cannot go on. Our nerves are shattered, and I consider myself to have nerves of steel.”
A patrol of French soldiers in the Kumhwa sector, April 1952. Photograph: Appay. © ECPAD
In December 1952, the men of the French Battalion were relieved by its third contingent. It waged a static war, often in silence, and lost many of its number to Chinese bombardments or localised attacks. After the signing of the armistice on 27 July 1953, its men remained in Korea for several more months, before embarking for Indochina on 25 October 1953, where more tough fighting awaited them. The French Battalion arrived in Saigon on 1 November 1953 and was incorporated into Mobile Group 100, stationed in Annam (central Vietnam). It suffered heavy losses in the final stages of the war in Indochina, in June 1954.
The UN French Battalion constitutes a special case in the history of the French Army, despite the small number of troops – approximately 3 500 – to participate in its operations between 1950 and 1953. Originally formed of volunteers, the Battalion’s men were quick to distinguish themselves by their valour in combat, and the first engagements of winter 1951 caused an initially reluctant US command to reconsider its position. From then on, the French soldiers would be in all of the toughest fighting, reflected in a death toll of 289 at the hands of the enemy. France’s involvement in the liberation of South Korea and the sacrifice of its troops form part of the two nations’ shared history and remembrance, and still today, the French Battalion represents a bridge between the two countries.
Commander Ivan Cadeau
Centre de Doctrine et d’Enseignement du Commandement (Command Doctrine and Education Centre)
When the Battalion left Marseille, reservists made up 45% of its officers, 75% of its NCOs and over 90% of its ordinary soldiers.
Memorial to the Korean War (Paris) - CC-BY-SA-4.0