Warship Wednesday Sept. 7, 2016: The river plover and the black flags
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday Sept. 7, 2016: The river plover and the black flags
Here we see the paddlewheel dispatch boat (aviso à roues) Pluvier of the French Marine Nationale in Haiphong harbor in the 1880s. Designed for use in Senegal, she instead was sent to French Cochinchina, where her interesting design proved most useful.
She was the fifth vessel in the French Navy named in honor of the wading plover bird, preceded by three Napoleonic-era gunboats all lost in those conflicts and a 4-gun fisheries patrol cutter who sailed for 32 years.
Built in Cherbourg in 1880, she was a humble ship of some 500-tons, 165-feet oal length. Her steam propulsion plant was an obsolete paddlewheel, chosen for its use in shallow riverine waters in the growing French African colony. Her armament: a pair of smoothbore naval guns one fore, one aft, and two Hotchkiss revolving cannons in her canvas foretop–just the thing for controlling a riverbank.
Her Hotchkiss could be used on ship’s boats to get in closer as needed.
Termed a dispatch boat, most other navies would classify the shallow draft gunboat as a sloop, corvette or large gunboat. At the time of her construction, the French navy ordered four paddle wheeler dispatch boats all named after animals: Albatross, Peacock, Plover (Pluvier) and Squirrel (Ecureuil), all to different designs, for overseas colonial service.
Pluvier‘s skipper, Lieutenant de vaisseau commandant M. Vedel, was a gentleman and he sailed for Cochinchina in 1881, as trouble was afoot there.
First, let us talk about Indochina, and how the French acquired it.
In September 1858, France occupied Đà Nẵng (Tourane) and within six months conquered Saigon and three southern Vietnamese provinces: Biên Hòa, Gia Định and Định Tường. The southernmost part of Vietnam became a colony known as Cochinchina, and within two decades, the French were ready for rapid expansion.
On 25 April 1882, French naval captain Henri Rivière stormed the ancient citadel of Hanoi in a few hours without warning, leading Governor Hoàng Diệu to kill himself after sending a note of apology to the Emperor. This act of pretty blatant colonialism alarmed the Vietnamese and Chinese governments but didn’t stop them from allowing Rivière to capture Nam Dinh the following March (where Pluvier‘s Hotchkiss guns came into play, see illustration below).
With the French openly moving to annex Tonkin by force, the Chinese and Vietnamese approached exiled warlord Liu Yongfu and his pipehitting Black Flag Army to join a three-party coalition in which the Chinese and Viets were willing to fight to the last Black Flag foot soldier.
Though the Black Flag was able to nearly annihilate Riviere’s force (and kill him in the process) at the Battle of Paper Bridge, a renewed French effort (the Tonkin Expeditionary Corps under Gen. Alexandre-Eugène Bouët) was able to smack around Yongfu at Phu Hoai in August 1883 and Palan that September, putting him on the run but not breaking him.
While the Black Flag Army along with reinforcements from the Chinese and Vietnamese armies proper holed up in the walled fortress of Son Tay, Gen. Bouët resigned his position as head of the Tonkin Corps and was replaced by one Admiral Anatole-Amédée-Prosper Courbet who decided he needed a lot of expeditionary firepower in the form of French naval might.
This new force, the Flottille de Tonkin, consisted of nine small coastal gunboats (chaloupes-canonnières); the mighty ironclads Bayard and Atalante as well as the cruiser Châteaurenault from the Mediterranean; and the Pluvier, upon which Courbet hoisted his flag. Even though just 165-feet long, she was the most impressive ship that could traverse the Sông Hồng River (Red River/Fleuve Rouge ou Song koi) to Son Tay– the ironclads and cruiser left behind in the coast.
And upriver they went, the gunboats, Pluvier, and a force of requisitioned local steam launches, junks and tugs on 11 December.
Courbet’s 9,000-man force was made up of a cornucopia of Cambodian riflemen, a battalion of the Foreign Legion, two North African battalions, some Tonkinese riflemen, and two battalions of French Marines and armed sailors from the flotilla who toted some mixed artillery behind them. It was a motley, polyglot force to be sure.
The battle joined on 14 December and it seesawed back and forth, with the better French units (Legionaries and Marines) doing to bulk of the heavy lifting and receiving most of the casualties on Courbet’s side and the Black Flags doing the same on the side of the locals. Liu Yongfu ordered three large black flags to be flown above the main gate of the citadel of Sơn Tây, bearing Chinese characters in white, and promised a heavy fight, to which his Chinese and Viet regulars cheered and then proceeded to wish his troops the best of luck.
The crew of the Pluvier gave hard service ashore, fighting on foot with the Marines while her gunners poured steel rain down on the 1000-year old masonry fortifications and villages from their fighting tower.
Finally, on the morning of 17 December, after forcing the gates the day before, the French stitched together a huge tricolor crafted from strips of cloth torn from the captured Black Flag banners and hoisted it over the citadel as Courbet made a triumphal entry on horseback, a modern Caesar.
The battle cost France 83 dead and 320 wounded, but it cost Yongfu much more as it broke the back of the Black Flag Army, who slunk away into the jungle. Within months, the warlord’s force disbanded. As for Courbet, he returned to his bluewater flagship, the ironclad Bayard, and died of cholera in the Pescadores in Makung harbor on the night of 11 June 1885.
While the admiral’s body was returned to France and received a hero’s burial (and several naval vessels named in his honor: an ironclad in service from to 1909, a battleship in service from 1913 to 1944, and a modern stealth frigate, F 712, presently in active service) the humble Pluvier remained in Indochina, performing constabulary service for another decade that included fighting pirates in the Gulf of Tonkin, some of whom were out of work Black Flag veterans.
Meanwhile, in 1887, Cochinchina, Annam and Tonkin became French Indochina, which it would remain until 1954.
Ancient Son Tay reverted to a provincial backwater, though it was used as a military staging point by the North Vietnamese to keep high value material out of nearby Hanoi– and served as the location of a POW camp for captured Americans that was the subject of an epic rescue attempt in 1970 that led to the formation of SFG-Delta.
About Pluvier‘s most notable use after Son Tay was that she carried Prince Henri d’Orleans to Siam on a state visit.
She was sold in 1898, a paddle wheeler in naval service whose time had passed. From what I can ascertain, she remained in commercial service as a coaster for at least another decade.
Since then, the French Navy added a sixth Pluvier (a tug built in Nantes in 1917 then lost at sea between Toulon and Cattaro in 1919), and renamed a seventh Pluvier (the former WWII-era U.S. Navy harbor tug YTL-160) who served until 1967.
In a more appropriate honor, the eight Pluvier, patrouilleur de service public (PSP) gunboat P678, of the OPV58 (Flamant-class) design, was commissioned in 1997. Like her Son Tay ancestor who she is roughly the same size as, she is designed for coastal surveillance work, and was coincidentally built in Cherbourg.
The ship carries a Médaille commémorative de l’expédition du Tonkin and other relics in honor of the Son Tay gunboat.
Lightly armed, her sailors, supported by the ship’s heavy machine guns (Brownings instead of Hotchkiss this time) are ready to go ashore when needed.
Length: 165 feet (50m)
Beam: 24.6 ft.
Draft: 6 feet
Installed power: 2 boilers, twin compound 2-cylinder engines (420hp) twin paddlewheels.
Crew: 40 + could carry 200 infantry if needed.
2 naval guns, smoothbore
2 Hotchkiss revolver cannon
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