Paul Cheeseright is a former FT correspondent, and also is a member of the Asian Affairs Editorial Board.
Maurice de Cazenove was in his early 20s when he arrived at Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) as a young career officer of Marshal Leclerc’s Expeditionary Corps aiming to reclaim French control of Indochina. He was in Vietnam for two years from 1946. He recaptured some of his memories of that time when we met three weeks before he died, aged 97, in his family home.
By then he was frail. Propped up in bed and unable to talk at length, he was as cordial as he could be in answer to questions about his Vietnam experience. This was not a usual interview. Responses were often confined to a single sentence, even one word. But his remarks, once placed in the context provided by memoirs and historical studies, give a flavour to the early days of France’s ill-fated colonial aspiration.
Cazenove found himself in Nhatrang, a provincial capital on the eastern coast where the seaboard meets the Central Highlands. The town had an airfield used both by French bombers and later by the US; it is just north of Camranh Bay, turned by the US into a large military base. He would have been just dropped off there, because as Bernard Fall, that highly reputed Franco-American analyst put it, Leclerc used his armoured forces like the cavalry had been used 100 years earlier.* They scurried through the countryside securing one town after another so that within a few months much of what was then called Cochin China was in French hands – to the extent of 100 yards on the side of major roads.
Nhatrang seems to have been a relatively easy posting for Cazenove. That is probably just as well. He said his training had been rapid so he would not have been in a good position for rugged fighting. He was an artillery man but, he recollected, he only fired his artillery piece once when he was there. In any event, the Viet Minh, the Vietnamese forces, Communist controlled and the main opposition to France and based in the north, had not in the mid-1940s penetrated down the coast as far south as Nhatrang.
So the French military authorities evidently gave scant attention at that period to Nhatrang. Cazenove noted how he commanded a post with about 20 soldiers of whom three or four were French and the rest Cambodian. In its minor way this was an early example of the French aim to organise local forces to do more of the fighting. General Henri Navarre, the French commander-in-chief at the time of the fateful battle of Dien Bien Phu, had made the expansion of South Vietnamese, Cambodian and Lao forces one of the main elements in his strategy to assert French control over Indochina. Later, more than 30 years after Cazenove, the Americans tried the same approach in a policy called “Vietnamization” by President Richard Nixon. In neither case could the foreigners forge a winning side.
With his tiny force, Cazenove had a wide brief. Speaking like a government spokesman, he said his purpose was “to maintain peace and prosperity”. And how could he do that? His response was not that of a government spokesman. Use arms, “utiliser les armes”, was his crisp and limited reply. So, in those few words he evoked the distance between the occupying French and the indigenous population. That was evident anyway in his acknowledgement that he had no Vietnamese friends. Still, according to his family and many years later, he did acquire and retain a fondness for Vietnamese food.
Among the family photographs, there are two pictures of contrasting mood. Cazenove was a tall young man, and the first shows him sitting confidently in his jeep, his knees beside the steering wheel. His spectacles gave him a serious air and that is also manifest in the second picture which seems to have been taken earlier, before he left for Vietnam; he was in his dark full dress uniform, sword included, his air nervous and embarrassed. The first picture gives the impression of ease at work, the second concern about getting started.
When he did start, his work was primarily defensive. He explained that operations were difficult because of the presence of spies. Here he was alluding to a problem which dogged both the French and the Americans after them. By the early 1950s, so James Warren, a latter day military scholar pointed out, “the Vietminh’s network of clandestine agents was well placed in the French rear to obtain excellent intelligence on …operations in advance.”**
Not that spies proved the only problem. Another picture from the Cazenove family shows the watchtower of the small fort in Nhatrang. Such forts festooned all over Vietnam as the French sought to garrison, police and defend the populated areas. It was a hopeless task with the small number of troops Leclerc had under his control. Philippe Devillers, who was with Leclerc, so a contemporary of Cazenove and later a historian, reckoned he needed three times as many, and that was in the south.*** In addition, the forts tied up troops needed as the Vietminh became more powerful.
The Vietminh insurrection against the French in north Vietnam began in earnest during December 1946, so well into Cazenove’s tour of duty, but at the same time well away from him. His tour finished in 1948, an unexceptional length of time: Just under 28 per cent of the French military active in Indochina stayed between 15 and 24 months, according to analysis by Michel Bodin, the French scholar.**** Cazenove stayed in the forces but by 1966 he was back at the family home, near Lasalle, a small town in the Cevennes area of south France, establishing a property business. And there he died.
* The Two Vietnams (second revised edition), London 1967;
** Giap, New York, 2013;
*** Histoire du Vietnam 1940-1952, (third edition), Paris 1952;
**** Soldats d’Indochine, 1945-1954, Paris 1997.