The Last Valley by Martin Windrow is one of the best military history books I have ever read. It objectively examines both sides in the first war in Indochina – the French and their Vietnamese allies against the Viet Minh. The book explains the strategies of both sides throughout the war and the tactics used in individual engagements.
Windrow describes the history of French colonialism in Indochina and how and why the Viet Minh formed to oppose the French colonial rulers. He offers an overview of the hostilities between the Viet Minh and the French-led forces leading to the battle of Dien Bien Phu. Windrow’s descriptions and explanations of the battles leading up to the battle of Dien Bien Phu provide an understanding of the strategies involved. Particularly, Windrow describes a French victory at Na San that the French used as a basis for future operations in North Vietnam’s High Region. The French believed that Dien Bien Phu would be fought in the same manner as Na San. Windrow explains the many differences between the two battles and how General Vo Nguyen Giap, military commander of all Viet Minh forces, effectively applied the lessons he learned at Na San to the battle of Dien Bien Phu.
Along with his excellent descriptions of the historical events, Windrow also dispels the belief that the Viet Minh were an ill-led and ill-supplied force fighting a well-organized and equipped French-led force. Although there were imbalances between the two forces, it was not as disproportionate as many believed.
Initially the Viet Minh had poor equipment, but with the fall of China to Communism, they began to receive regular weapons and material shipments from China. These weapons became more sophisticated and of better quality as the war continued. In addition, as the war progressed, the military commanders became more adept at leading large numbers of troops. For example, Giap organized his forces into larger and larger units â€“ until he had parts of four infantry divisions and a heavy division at Dien Bien Phu. The military commanders were highly motivated to reach the goal of an independent and united Vietnam.
Although the Viet Minh’s leadership did improve, Windrow explains several of their weaknesses. Due to fear of the consequences for disobeying orders for plans of attack, Viet Minh leaders did not take initiative in altering those plans when they were clearly failing. Many times this lack of initiative caused unnecessary casualties for the Viet Minh and failure to take objectives.
As for the French, they often were poorly led at the higher levels of political and military leadership. The politicians throughout the war provided little leadership and few resources, both men and material, to those fighting in Indochina. Many politicians wanted to withdraw French forces and end the war, but were afraid that the withdrawal would portray them as being weak. They feared that this perceived weaknesses would lead to an insurrection in its Algerian colony. As a result of this tepid attitude, men and material were provided to the war effort at miniscule levels.
Windrow further explains that the French military high command was often inadequate. Many leaders held the Viet Minh at a high level of contempt. This contempt frequently led to poor decisions that resulted in several Viet Minh victories. Despite the poor leadership in the high command, Windrow commends the strong and gallant leadership of the commissioned and noncommissioned French officers in the field. In countless engagements, their leadership was the deciding factor in many tactical victories.
In addition, the French-led forces frequently were supplied with inferior equipment. They regularly were supplied with World War II era equipment that was worn-out or with secondhand American equipment. The new equipment that they did receive, their personnel were not properly trained to use. Because the French army was not conscription-based, the French military leadership had to stretch its best troops across the region.
For example, in a matter of weeks, parachute troops were moved from one end of the country to the other to stem Viet Minh advances. These parachute troops were regularly in combat for months. In comparison, these same conditions during World War II would have been considered suicidal because combat effectiveness decreases with so much stress for so long.
Windrow saves his best writing for his depiction of the battle of Dien Bien Phu. He thoroughly explains the various stages of the battle- highlighting in detail important benchmarks. His explanations of the conditions that the soldiers had to endure during the battle are exquisitely recounted, especially on the French side.
The horrors and frustrations that the commanders and the soldiers in the field experienced were beyond belief. The sacrifices of those who volunteered to parachute into the garrison with virtually no parachute training and almost no chance of victory were sobering. The reader gains a new appreciation of the common soldier who fought against the Viet Minh. They endured so much with so little.