The Tonkin Affair, (French : L'Affaire Tonkin) named after the French protectorate of Tonkin, of March 1885 was a major French political crisis that erupted in the closing weeks of the Sino-French War. It effectively destroyed the political career of the French prime minister, Jules Ferry, and abruptly ended the string of Republican governments inaugurated several years earlier by Léon Gambetta. The suspicion by the French public and political classes that French troops were being sent to their deaths far from home for little measurable gain, both in Tonkin and elsewhere, also discredited French colonial expansion for nearly a decade.
The "Affair" (as most French political scandals are still termed), was triggered on 28 March 1885 by the controversial Retreat from Lạng Sơn. The retreat, which threw away the gains of the February Lạng Sơn Campaign, was ordered by Lieutenant-Colonel Paul Gustave Herbinger, the acting commander of the 2nd Brigade, less than a week after General François de Négrier's defeat at the Battle of Bang Bo (24 March 1885). General Louis Brière de l'Isle, the commander-in-chief of French forces in Tonkin, was in Hanoi at the time, and was planning to shift his headquarters to Hưng Hóa, to supervise a planned offensive against the Yunnan Army around Tuyên Quang. Brière de l'Isle concluded that the Red River Delta was in jeopardy and fired off a telegram on the evening of 28 March to the French government, warning that the Tonkin Expeditionary Corps faced disaster unless it was immediately reinforced:
I am grieved to tell you that General de Négrier is seriously wounded and Lạng Sơn has been evacuated.
The Chinese forces advanced in three large groups, and fiercely assaulted our positions in front of Ky Lua. Facing greatly superior numbers, short of ammunition, and exhausted from a series of earlier actions, Colonel Herbinger has informed me that the position was untenable and that he has been forced to fall back tonight on Dong Song and Thanh Moy. All my efforts are being applied to concentrate our forces at the passes around Chu and Kép. The enemy continues to grow stronger on the Red River, and it appears that we are facing an entire Chinese army, trained in the European style and ready to pursue a concerted plan. I hope in any event to be able to hold the entire Delta against this invasion, but I consider that the government must send me reinforcements (men, ammunition, and pack animals) as quickly as possible.
The news contained in the 'Lạng Sơn telegram', as it was immediately dubbed, ignited a political crisis in Paris:
There was enormous feeling throughout France. This retreat of 2,500 men, who had returned to their starting positions without even being pursued by the enemy, took on from a distance the proportions of an irretrievable disaster. On the stock exchange on 30 March the 3% fell by three and a half francs; it had only fallen by two and a half francs on the day that war was declared in 1870. All the newspapers were full of accusations against the Cabinet, of false accounts of the 'bitter combats' that the 2nd Brigade, enveloped by the Chinese, must have fought to disengage, of fears for the entire expeditionary corps, whose situation was depicted as tragic. In the House, the deputies who were systematically opposed to our establishment in Tonkin were jubilant, and the proponents of a colonial policy did not dare defend their views of the previous day.
Brière de l'Isle's cable of 28 March gave the impression that a catastrophe had befallen the Tonkin expeditionary corps, and none of his later reassurances was able to entirely efface this initial impression. Although it knew by the evening of 29 March that Herbinger had halted his retreat at Dong Song and that Brière de l'Isle was stabilising the situation, the army ministry remained stunned by the news that Lạng Sơn had been abandoned, and decided to disclose the contents of both cables to the National Assembly on 30 March. Ferry attempted to use the occasion to demand an emergency credit to reinforce the Tonkin Expeditionary Corps. The debate that followed was one of the most vitriolic in France's political history.
On the morning of 30 March, a deputation from the Union républicaine and Gauche républicaine, the two groups which accounted for the bulk of Ferry's support during the undeclared war with China, pleaded with the premier to resign before the debate. Ferry was under little doubt that his administration would fall, but he refused to go without a fight. In the afternoon he entered the chamber amid the disapproving silence of his supporters and a storm of imprecations and insults from his opponents, led by Georges Clemenceau. He had not slept the night before and walked towards the rostrum slowly and gravely, his face pale and anxious, like a condemned man to the scaffold. From the rostrum he gave the Chamber of Deputies the latest news on the military situation in Tonkin and explained the measures he had taken in response. 'We must avenge the check at Lạng Sơn,' he said. 'We must do this not only to secure our hold on Tonkin, but also to safeguard our honour around the world.' Georges Périn, one of Clemenceau's supporters, interjected excitedly. 'Our honour, yes! But who was it that compromised it in the first place?' The Chamber broke into a clamour. Eventually, when he could again make himself heard, Ferry demanded an extraordinary credit of 200 million francs, to be split equally between the army and navy ministries. He went on. 'I cannot go into the details of this expenditure in this forum. We will discuss them further with the scrutiny commission.' Clemenceau shouted scornfully, 'Who will ever believe you?' Ferry implored the deputies not to consider the vote on the credits as a vote of confidence. If they wished, they could overturn his cabinet afterwards and choose a new administration. But for the sake of the French troops in Tonkin, they must first vote to send out more ships and more men. He concluded by formally moving that the credits be voted.
His opponents erupted in anger. Périn yelled 'Don't keep on exploiting the honour of our flag! You’ve wrapped yourself in our flag for far too long! Enough is enough!' Clemenceau attacked the premier in savage terms. 'We’re completely finished with you! We’re never going to listen to you again! We’re not going to debate the nation's affairs with you again!' The Chamber erupted in applause, and Clemenceau went on. 'We no longer recognise you! We don’t want to recognise you!' There was a new burst of applause. 'You’re no longer ministers! You all stand accused' — there was a roar of applause from the deputies of both the left and the right, and Clemenceau paused dramatically — 'of high treason! And if the principles of accountability and justice still exist in France, the law will soon give you what you deserve!'
Ferry's opponents demanded immediate discussion of Clemenceau's interpellation. Ferry countered by moving that the vote on the credits should be taken first. Amid scenes of angry turbulence, the deputies voted on Ferry's priority motion. It was defeated by a handsome margin of 306 votes to 149. This defeat spelled the end for his administration. His opponents greeted the result of the vote with howls of delight.
As Ferry sought to leave the Palais Bourbon to return to the Elysée Palace, he had to run the gauntlet of a furious crowd of demonstrators gathered together by Paul de Cassagnac. The demonstrators yelled abuse at the fallen premier, jabbing their fingers towards him violently. 'Down with Ferry! Death to Ferry!' Ferry's friends hustled him past this baying pack. But there was worse to come. The news of the cabinet's fall had gone round Paris like wildfire, and in front of the palais Bourbon an excited mob, estimated by journalists at around 20,000 people, thronged the pont de la Concorde. This crowd had been whipped up to a frenzy by agitators from the far-right parties, and at the sight of Ferry it gave tongue. 'Down with Ferry! Throw him in the Seine! Death to the Tonkinese!' No French premier had ever before faced such an outpouring of hatred.
The immediate consequence of the Tonkin Affair was to bring about a rapid end to the Sino-French War. The sudden and ignominious end of Jules Ferry's second administration removed the remaining obstacles to a peace settlement between France and China. Ferry's successor, Charles de Freycinet, promptly concluded peace with China. The Chinese government agreed to implement the Tientsin Accord of 11 May 1884, implicitly recognising the French protectorate over Tonkin, and the French government dropped its longstanding demand for an indemnity for the Bắc Lệ ambush. A peace protocol ending hostilities was signed on 4 April 1885, and a substantive peace treaty was signed on 9 June by Li Hongzhang and the French minister Jules Patenôtre.
The longer-term effect of the Tonkin Affair was to discredit the supporters within France of colonial expansion. In December 1885, in the so-called 'Tonkin Debate', Henri Brisson's administration was only able to secure fresh credits for the Tonkin Expeditionary Corps by the very narrowest of margins. Jules Ferry would never again serve as premier, and became a figure of popular scorn. The collapse of Ferry's ministry was a major political embarrassment for the proponents of the policy of French colonial expansion first championed in the 1870s by Léon Gambetta. It was not until the early 1890s that French colonial party regained domestic political support.
The consequences to colonial policy stretched beyond Tonkin, or even Paris. Writes one historian of French colonialism in Madagascar, "There was a general desire to have done with other colonial expeditions still in progress."
That said, the forces which drove French colonial expansion were little slowed by a loss of political popularity. French Indochina was consolidated under a single administration just two years later, while in Africa, military commanders like Joseph Gallieni and Louis Archinard continually pressured local states, regardless of the political climate in Paris. Large trading houses, such as Maurel and Prom company, continued to expand their overseas operations, and demand military support for this expansion. The formal creation in 1894 of the French Colonial Union, a political pressure group funded by such interests, marked the end of the post Tonkin climate in Paris, which was, as such, short lived.
The Sino-French War, also known as the Tonkin War and Tonquin War, was a limited conflict fought from August 1884 through April 1885. There was no declaration of war. Militarily it was a stalemate. The Chinese armies performed better than in other nineteenth-century wars and the war ended with French retreat on land. However, one consequence was that France supplanted China's control of Tonkin. The war strengthened the dominance of Empress Dowager Cixi over the Chinese government, but brought down the government of Prime Minister Jules Ferry in Paris. Both sides were satisfied with the Treaty of Tientsin. According to Lloyd Eastman, "neither nation reaped diplomatic gains."
The Battle of Bang Bo, known in China as the battle of Zhennan Pass (Chinese:鎮南關之役), was a major Chinese victory during the Sino-French War. The battle, fought on 23 and 24 March 1885 on the Tonkin-Guangxi border, saw the defeat of 1,500 soldiers of General François de Négrier's 2nd Brigade of the Tonkin Expeditionary Corps by a Chinese army under the command of the Guangxi military commissioner Pan Dingxin (潘鼎新).
Anatole-Amédée-Prosper Courbet was a French admiral who won a series of important land and naval victories during the Tonkin Campaign (1883–86) and the Sino-French War.
The Siege of Tuyen Quang was an important confrontation between the French and the Chinese armies in Tonkin during the Sino-French War. A French garrison of 630 men, including two companies of the French Foreign Legion, successfully defended the French post of Tuyen Quang against vastly outnumbering Chinese forces in a four-month siege from 24 November 1884 to 3 March 1885. 'Tuyen Quang 1885' remains one of the Legion's proudest battle honours.
Louis Alexandre Esprit Gaston Brière de l'Isle was a French Army general who achieved distinction firstly as Governor of Senegal (1876–81), and then as general-in-chief of the Tonkin Expeditionary Corps during the Sino-French War.
The Battle of Phu Lam Tao was a politically significant engagement during the Sino-French War, in which a French Zouave battalion was defeated by a mixed force of Chinese soldiers and Black Flags.
The Battle of Cầu Giấy or Paper Bridge, fought on 19 May 1883, was one of the numerous clashes during the Tonkin Campaign (1883–86) between the French and the Black Flags. A small French force under the command of capitaine de vaisseau Henri Rivière attacked a strong Black Flag defensive position near the village of Cầu Giấy a few miles to the west of Hanoi, known to the French as Paper Bridge. After initial successes, the French were eventually enveloped on both wings, and were only with difficulty able to regroup and fall back to Hanoi. Rivière and several other senior officers were killed in the action.
The Battle of Hòa Mộc was the most fiercely fought action of the Sino-French War. At heavy cost, Colonel Giovanninelli's 1st Brigade of the Tonkin Expeditionary Corps defeated forces of the Black Flag and Yunnan Armies blocking the way to the besieged French post of Tuyên Quang.
The Tonkin Expeditionary Corps was an important French military command based in northern Vietnam (Tonkin) from June 1883 to April 1886. The expeditionary corps fought the Tonkin Campaign (1883–86) taking part in campaigns against the Black Flag Army and the Chinese Yunnan and Guangxi Armies during the Sino-French War and the period of undeclared hostilities that preceded it, and in important operations against Vietnamese guerrilla bands during the subsequent 'Pacification of Tonkin'.
The Lạng Sơn campaign was a major French offensive in Tonkin during the Sino-French War. The Tonkin Expeditionary Corps, under the command of General Louis Brière de l'Isle, defeated the Chinese Guangxi Army and captured the strategically important town of Lạng Sơn in a ten-day campaign mounted under formidable logistical constraints.
The Bắc Ninh Campaign was one of a series of clashes between French and Chinese forces in northern Vietnam during the Tonkin campaign (1883–86). The campaign, fought during the period of undeclared hostilities that preceded the Sino-French War, resulted in the French capture of Bắc Ninh and the complete defeat of China's Guangxi Army.
The Kép campaign was an important campaign in northern Vietnam during the opening months of the Sino-French War. A force of just under 3,000 French troops under the command of General François de Négrier defeated a major Chinese invasion of the Red River Delta launched by Pan Dingxin's Guangxi Army in successive engagements at Lam, Kép and Chu.
The Tonkin Flotilla, a force of despatch vessels and gunboats used for policing the rivers and waterways of the Tonkin Delta, was created in the summer of 1883, during the period of undeclared hostilities that preceded the Sino-French War.
François Oscar de Négrier was a French general of the Third Republic, winning fame in Algeria in the Sud-Oranais campaign (1881) and in Tonkin during the Sino-French War.
The Tonkin campaign was an armed conflict fought between June 1883 and April 1886 by the French against, variously, the Vietnamese, Liu Yongfu's Black Flag Army and the Chinese Guangxi and Yunnan armies to occupy Tonkin and entrench a French protectorate there. The campaign, complicated in August 1884 by the outbreak of the Sino-French War and in July 1885 by the Cần Vương nationalist uprising in Annam, which required the diversion of large numbers of French troops, was conducted by the Tonkin Expeditionary Corps, supported by the gunboats of the Tonkin Flotilla. The campaign officially ended in April 1886, when the expeditionary corps was reduced in size to a division of occupation, but Tonkin was not effectively pacified until 1896.
The Retreat from Lạng Sơn was a controversial French strategic withdrawal in Tonkin at the end of March 1885 that brought down the government of the French premier Jules Ferry and brought the Sino-French War to an end in circumstances of considerable embarrassment for France.
Result: Qing Empire(China) victory.
The Battle of Nui Bop was a French victory during the Sino-French War. The battle was fought to clear Chinese forces away from the French forward base at Chu, and was an essential preliminary to the Lạng Sơn Campaign in February 1885.
The Capture of Hưng Hóa was an important French victory in the Tonkin Campaign (1883–86).
Charles-Théodore Millot was a French general who distinguished himself in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71) and the Tonkin Campaign (1883–86). His victories at Bắc Ninh and Hưng Hóa brought to an end the two-year undeclared war in northern Vietnam between France and China, and paved the way for the conclusion of the Tientsin Accord between the two countries on 11 May 1884. Millot resigned as general-in-chief of the Tonkin Expeditionary Corps shortly after the outbreak of the Sino-French War on 23 August 1884 and returned to France.
The Tonkinese Rifles were a corps of Tonkinese light infantrymen raised in 1884 to support the operations of the Tonkin Expeditionary Corps. Led by French officers seconded from the marine infantry, Tonkinese riflemen fought in several engagements against the Chinese during the Sino-French War and took part in expeditions against Vietnamese insurgents during the subsequent French Pacification of Tonkin. The French also organized similar units of indigenous riflemen from Annam and Cambodia. All three categories of indigenous soldiers were known in Vietnam as Lính tập,