‘A lesson for Taiwan’s coastal defence’: How France’s ill-fated 1884 invasion is remembered

from our special correspondent in Taiwan – The Taiwanese military regularly holds drills on what it calls “red beaches” – coastal areas deemed vulnerable to large enemy landings. As Beijing threatens to seize the island by force, Taiwanese historians and military planners are looking at past invasion attempts. Some say that a daring French amphibious attack on Tamsui, north of Taiwan, still has valuable lessons for the country’s defence planners despite taking place 140 years ago.

Advertising

The sound of crashing surf almost covers the noise of airplanes landing and taking off every few minutes from Taoyuan international airport, the main transport hub to get into Taiwan. Fishermen on the Zhuwei beach throw their lines, staring at the horizon under thick, dark clouds. This stretch of sand on Taiwan’s northern coast looks deceptively normal, but it’s at the centre of sophisticated war games by Beijing and Washington.

These simulations often include an attempt by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to land troops there in a bid to capture Taiwan’s main airport as well as the port of Taipei, whose cranes are clearly visible from the beach. Both infrastructures, which would be critical in case of an invasion to bring in reinforcement, are within a 10km radius. The centre of Taiwan’s capital with its presidential office and government institutions is only 35km away.

The port of Taipei is visible from Zhuwei’s beach. Taiwan’s main international airport is located a few kilometres from where this picture was taken. © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

Taiwan is a rugged island with deep jungles and high mountains, geography that military planners describe as a nightmare for invading forces – similarly to the gruesome battles between US and Japanese soldiers on small Pacific islands during World War II. The relative proximity of government headquarters to the coast has made the option of a “decapitation strike” very enticing to military planners considering invading the island throughout its history.

An old bunker on a beach near Taoyuan airport. There are no signs of recent defensive structures on this so-called "red beach".

An old bunker on a beach near Taoyuan airport. There are no signs of recent defensive structures on this so-called “red beach”. © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

Among the last to have actually tried it were French forces in the late 19th century, during the heyday of European gunboat imperialism. The battle of Tamsui saw about 600 French marines landing on a beach 25km east of Zhuwei at the mouth of the Tamsui river, which flows right into Taipei.

The attack came as part of the wider Sino-French war, while another group of French troops was bogged down near Keelung, a port in northeast Taiwan. France’s strategic objective was to seize Taiwan as a bargaining chip to obtain the withdrawal of Chinese troops from northern Vietnam. China was then an empire ruled by the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).

‘Decapitation strike’

“The landing in Tamsui was the operation that Chinese communists have been dreaming of: a daring military raid aimed at quickly penetrating into Taipei,” professor Shiu Wen-tang, a retired researcher from the Institute of Modern History at Academia Sinica, told FRANCE 24.

Shiu Wen-tang shows Qing-era cannons in a fort overlooking the mouth of the Tamsui river. Back in 1884, the French had superior artillery power, but the Qing infantry forces pushed them back to sea

Shiu Wen-tang shows Qing-era cannons in a fort overlooking the mouth of the Tamsui river. Back in 1884, the French had superior artillery power, but the Qing infantry forces pushed them back to the sea. © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

“The topography hasn’t changed much. Military planners in Beijing know the island very well, thanks to their satellites. They’ve sent thousands of secret agents and corrupted Taiwanese generals … They are aware that the hills around are bristling with missiles,” he adds.

Chinese god offering help

The raid didn’t end well for the French. After successfully going ashore in the early hours of October 8, 1884, French marines faced tough resistance from Qing soldiers when they tried to move inland. Despite heavy covering artillery fire from their gunships, the invading forces were forced to retreat after a few hours of fighting.

View on Shalun beach, where French marines landed ashore in 1884. The landing itself went well, but they were quickly ambushed as they moved inland.

A view of Shalun beach, where French marines landed in 1884. The landing itself went well, but they were quickly ambushed as they moved inland. © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

Professor Shiu shows us several small memorials commemorating that rare Qing victory over Western invaders. Some are classic murals depicting battle scenes with historical notes. Others look a bit more strange, at least to Western eyes. An engraved artwork in a temple shows a Chinese divinity hovering over Qing troops as they repel French soldiers.

Details of the engraved artwork in the Qingshui temple representing the French assault on Tamsui.

Detail of an engraved artwork in the Qingshui temple representing the French assault on Tamsui. © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

On the shore of the Tamsui river, a sculpture of a bird painted in the colours of the French flag sits atop yellow naval mines.

“This is where Qing forces operated their line of naval mines, which prevented enemy gunboats from going up the river into Taipei. The French failed to approach this location by sea. That’s why their commanders sent the marines. They got pretty close but, in the end, they didn’t reach the mines,” says Shiu.

This memorial is located where the Qing engineers controlled a line of naval mines preventing French ships from sailing into Taipei.

This memorial is located where Qing engineers controlled a line of naval mines preventing French ships from sailing into Taipei. © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

As Taiwan prepares to defend its “red beaches”, does the failed French invasion hold lessons 140 years later? The country’s defence establishment is certainly aware of this historical battle, says Jiang Hsinbiao, a policy analyst at Taiwan’s Institute for National Defense and Security Research.

“One of the lessons for Taiwan’s military is that it is necessary to destroy the enemy’s landing ships while they are still travelling at sea to prevent their soldiers from landing,” Jiang told FRANCE 24.

A porcupine bristling with missiles

This fits with the “porcupine” doctrine that Taiwan’s armed forces have been working on, given that the military balance is tipped in favour of the PRC’s forces, far superior in number. Instead of investing in expensive but vulnerable kit – ships, jets or tanks – the new doctrine suggests a focus on asymmetrical warfare.

The porcupine metaphor encapsulates a fundamentally defensive strategy, with a large number of widely dispersed missile launchers playing the same role as the animal’s coat of sharp spines.

“Taiwan is currently implementing its ‘porcupine’ doctrine by stockpiling Patriot and Tien Kung surface-to-air missiles, as well as anti-ship ammunition like the Harpoon and Hsiung Feng [missiles] (…) Missile launchers have been spread all over the island to deter the enemy,” says Jiang.

Landing vehicles drive on a beach during a military drill in Taoyuan on March 23, 2023.

Taiwanese landing vehicles drive on the beach during a military drill in Taoyuan on March 23, 2023. © Sam Yeh, AFP

There are only a dozen or so “red beaches” across Taiwan, which allows defense planners to better determine potential invasion routes. Most of the island’s coastline is too rugged for large military landings, according to military analysts. The Taiwanese military regularly conducts anti-landing drills with drones, tanks, and mechanised infantry.

“The width of a typical ‘red beach’ is such that only one battalion (between 600 and 800 soldiers) can land at a time. If the subsequent landing troops echelon cannot land in time, the enemy will not be able to consolidate their beachhead. They would be easily annihilated by the defence forces,” says Jiang. “The PRC’s military will not be able to attack Taiwan by amphibious landing only; it will be accompanied by airborne warfare.”

A screengrab shows a simulated Chinese attack on Taiwan conducted by Major Maxwell Stewart for the Centre for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) in June 2023.

A screengrab shows a simulated Chinese attack on Taiwan conducted by Major Maxwell Stewart for the Centre for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) in June 2023. © CIMSEC

Invasion simulations have resulted in different outcomes, some showing PRC troops being repelled with the assistance of US forces, others showing the fall of Taipei only 31 days after the establishment of a beachhead near Taoyuan airport.

‘A contest of will’

As we walk on the very spot where French marines landed, Shiu Wen-tang says that the 1884 failed invasion still holds valuable political lessons. Overconfidence was clearly a major factor in the French defeat. Landing only 600 marines to fight thousands of entrenched troops was an outright mistake. The PRC’s military is expected to use their superior numbers but they could well underestimate their Taiwanese rivals on other aspects.

Shiu Wen-tang reflects on the ill-fated invasion of Tamsui on Shalun beach, where French marines landed in 1884.

Shiu Wen-tang reflects on the ill-fated invasion of Tamsui from Shalun beach, where French marines landed in 1884. © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

A key political lesson for the Taiwanese side is that it must rely on a strong level of civilian-military trust to withstand the first invasion shock without falling into chaos. Eleven years after the French defeat, Japanese forces conducted their own amphibious landing near Keelung in northeastern Taiwan. Qing defenders were then demoralised. Law and order quickly broke down, and the Japanese invaders seized the island with limited casualties.

“This stands in sharp contrast to the Battle of Tamsui, where the Qing imperial administration had efficient leaders who were trusted by the local population,” notes Shiu. “In the end, war is always a contest of will. If a people is not willing to resist, then they have already lost.”

Source: Thanks france24