For many years after the Battle of The Teutoburg Forest, Roman Princeps Augustus could be heard passionately bellowing “Varus! Give me back my Legions!” So devastating was the Roman defeat in the Teutoburg Forest in 9 A.D. that the great “Anointed One” could never put the memory of such a humiliation behind him. Indeed it was the blackest mark on a career studded with success. Much like Augustus, the specter of undefeated Germanic tribes would come to haunt Rome for the rest of its existence. And yet the lessons from this World Changing event were ignored. The narrative of a great imperial power setting out to crush the challenge of perceived inferiors yet failing due to massive hubris seemed to escape the French in the events leading up to the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The French failed to learn the lessons that hit the Romans like so many German axes against routed Roman troops. The French failed to see how the Vietminh power was based on strong, loyal local coalitions, something France could not claim to have.
Arminius, leader of the Germanic coalition against Rome, proved and the Vietminh later executed on this fact, that to assert control over a region, one must rally local strong support to succeed. Arminius, was able to succeed in overcoming elite trained Roman Legions by drawing together many of the disparate Germanic tribes by weaving a patchwork of anti-Romanism. Conversely the Romans failed in Germania because they did not follow their strategy of incorporation that had made Roman Hegemony over the Mediterranean so efficient and long lasting. Instead Varus, Governor the Roman province Germania, was known to be harsh towards conquered Germanic tribes and often imposed unbearable taxes. Rather than rally local support, Rome went into the battle alone, on foreign soil, against an enemy united solely to defeat Rome.
The French, in their colonial war to maintain Indochina, sought to divide not just their opposition, but all Vietnamese. The French wanted to assert hegemony by making cynical friendships and discrediting long established Vietnamese traditions. France would often prop the Catholic minority above the Buddhist majority, and merged old kingdoms to form superficial bonds in provinces, as in the case of Laos. Much like the Romans failed to do with the tribes of Germania, the French failed to make the Vietnamese feel invested in the future of a Vietnamese-French relationship. Because the French had made it clear that their presence in Indochina was for resource extraction purposes only, an adversarial relationship emerged between the colonizers and colonized. Thus, when the French were ambushed and devastated, most in Vietnam were not weeping; they were elated.
The Battle of Dien Bien Phu was an ambush that resulted from France’s failed strategic planning and understanding of local Vietnamese politics. France having entrenched themselves too deeply in the lessons of World War I were rendered inflexible, like so many of their fortifications, to deal with a Vietnamese insurgency. From World War I, the French took the lesson that attrition won wars, and defensive fortifications were the prime tool of such success. The French often failed to capitalize on the mobility of their modern military, in favor of immobile, rigid defensive structures all over northern Vietnam. The French hoped the Vietminh would waste so many lives trying to take French fortifications, that eventually they would run out of troops to fight with. On the other hand the Vietnamese used mobility to their advantage to outmaneuver French fortifications.
From this emerges another lesson that should have been learned from the Teutoburg debacle. Picking the location of battle is crucial. Similarly important is the ability to be flexible in one’s chosen location of battle. Mobility provides this flexibility. The Romans in the Teutoburg Forest were ambushed because the densely packed legions were led into a forest and confined to a narrow road that provided little maneuverability. Maneuverability is crucial because it gives troops the power to react to sudden changes in the battle. Thus when the legions were stormed in lighting attacks by Germanic raiders, Roman inflexibility made slaughter easy.
The French defensive network at Dien Bien Phu made them highly inflexible. In order to achieve success the French had to lure the Vietminh into designated killing zones that allowed for crossing fire. When the Vietminh reacted to this by building a series of trench works that zig-zagged towards French defenses, the immobile French could not react in time to change their course of strategy. The French either had to hope the Vietnamese could be bled out before reaching their fortifications, or would somehow be relieved in the ever growing encirclement. Despite the fact that they were led to Dien Bien Phu through the feints and diversions of Vietminh General Vo Nguyen Giap, the French believed that Dien Bien Phu would be secure because of how remote it was.
Dien Bien Phu was a fortification located in a valley. As a result it became very difficult to supply and depended on air lifts for materiel. Furthermore, typically high ground is preferred in war. This did not concern the French. They believed it would be impossible for the Viet Minh to supply such a remote location. What the French did not factor in was the level of organization and determination of the Viet Minh courier system. The courier system was a system where manual laborers one by one transported war materiel up to Dien Bien Phu. Artillery was provided by the Chinese and Soviets, Cold War nemeses of the French.
The Vietnamese had advantages in manpower and initiative. Combined with foreign artillery, the Vietminh had a recipe for success. Despite many losses, through grit and determination, the Vietminh worked their way up to the different French fortifications of Gabrielle, Anne-Marie, and Beatrice, and overran them. Once these fortifications were gone, the crossing fire they could provide became eliminated along with French hopes of bleeding the enemy to defeat.
The aftermath for both imperial powers was devastating. The Roman losses from the three legions and auxiliary forces in the Teutoburg Forest are estimated at around 20,000 casualties. For the French 10,000 soldiers were either killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. For Rome, gone was the Roman air of invincibility. So embarrassing was the loss, never again would any Roman Legion bear the numbers XVII, XVIII, XIX. This was a macabre homage to Rome’s greatest fiasco since Cannae. For France, Dien Bien Phu marked the beginning of the unraveling of its great empire dating back to the 19th century. Within 20 years France’s overseas empire was all but disintegrated. The implications of this battle reversed the trend of European domination over third world powers. Dien Bien Phu was the first time a major European power was defeated by a subjugated people. For the rest of the 20th century the narrative of imperialism would be its rapid post World War II decline, not continuing European domination.
In both cases, France and Rome were great imperial powers fighting wars to oppress, rather than lift their subjects. As a result neither could secure local support when combating opposing factions. Furthermore, both powers believed they were superior and their opposition was inferior. This arrogance led to poor assumptions and unwise tactical decisions when facing the enemy. France, having ignored the lessons from Roman history became destined to fail in Indochina. In the end, with such high losses and international humiliation for naught, France could only cry Navarre, “Give us back our Legionnaires!”