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Belligerents and Participants
The defeat of China in the Sino-French War of 1884 led to the ceding of territory to France. The Indochinese Union (French Indochina) was formed in October 1887 from Annam, Tonkin, Cochinchina provinces (Vietnam) and the Kingdom of Cambodia, Laos was later added to the Indochinese Union after the Franco-Siamese War in 1893. Many who were unhappy with this new colonial status formed independence movements and secret societies, which created continual unrest. These became a particular concern to French authorities when the Great War erupted. Whether the threat these organizations posed were real or imagined, authorities believed that German agents were stirring up revolt against French rule. German provocateurs are known to have been active against Allied colonies in many parts of the world, so this fear may not have been unfounded. The French responded by interning all German nationals, especially those within the business communities of Saigon and Haiphong, and their property was confiscated.
Four battalions of Vietnamese soldiers were raised, which began arriving in France in 1915. They saw action in a number of battles, taking high casualties in May 1917 at the Second Battle of the Aisne. Shortly afterwards these units began being transferred to the Vosges where they fought off German attacks in 1918 from June into the fall. They would largely serve in this mountainous region until the end of the War. Other Indochinese units were sent to serve in Solonika.
While Indochinese served in combat roles, French military leaders had little confidence in their abilities. Fifteen battalions of Indochinese were conscripted into the Colonial Labor Service that mainly served on the Western Front. Some saw work in factories, but the majority worked in the back services, constructing trenches, transporting ammunition, and serving as guards. Despite the passive nature of this work, many were killed by German artillery fire due to their proximity to the front lines.
Although the Vietnamese battalions consisted of volunteers as well as conscripts, this patriotic urge never outstripped their desire for independence. A number of revolts against French rule broke out in the Indochinese Union during the Great War, but these were easily crushed by French authorities, and their leaders executed. One of the more notable uprisings involved Vietnamese soldiers led by their boy king Duy Tan in Hue, May 1916. The French had installed Duy Tan to be their puppet, and now they had to exile him to Reunion, a small island in the Indian Ocean under French control, to avoid further unrest.
After the War, Nguyen Ai Quoc (Ho Chi Minh) journeyed to France as a representative of the Vietnamese people at the Paris Peace Conference. After President Wilson’s call for the self-determination of all peoples in his Fourteen Points speech, the Vietnamese had found some hope that they might gain independence from France. An appeal was made to the American Secretary of State for help, but the Vietnamese delegation was basically ignored, and it was decided that they would remain a French Colony.
Many of the returning Vietnamese veterans were disillusioned and bitter by the poor treatment they received at the hands of the French. Not only did their contribution toward victory go unrecognized, they encountered much racism along the way. They would now form a more radicalized and determined base for leaders such as Nguyen Ai Quoc to draw upon in their struggle for independence.