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

Taken by Doctor Charles-Édouard Hocquard

Taken by Doctor Charles-Édouard Hocquard

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.

Le Monde illustré 1881 hotchkiss cannon revolver
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.

Son Tay

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.

French marine infantryman in Tonkin, 1883

French marine infantryman in Tonkin, 1883

French marine infantrymen in Tonkin. Taken by Doctor Charles-Édouard Hocquard

French marine infantrymen in Tonkin. Taken by Doctor Charles-Édouard Hocquard

Uniforms of the Tonkin expeditionary corps, 1885 (fusilier-marin, marine infantryman, Turco and marine artilleryman

Uniforms of the Tonkin expeditionary corps, 1885 (fusilier-marin, marine infantryman, Turco and marine artilleryman

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.

The French gunboat Pluvier engages the Vietnamese defences of Nam Dinh with her masthead-mounted canons-revolvers, 27 March 1883. Published in Le Monde. She did much the same at Son Tay

The French gunboat Pluvier engages the Vietnamese defenses of Nam Dinh with her masthead-mounted canons-revolvers, 27 March 1883. Published in Le Monde. She did much the same at Son Tay

Pluvier's men in the attack across the canal

Pluvier’s men in the attack across the canal

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.

Le patrouilleur de service public Pluvier

The ship carries a Médaille commémorative de l’expédition du Tonkin and other relics in honor of the Son Tay gunboat.

La Médaille du Tonkin on corvette pluiver

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.

french sailor boarding (2)
The more things change.

Displacement: 500-tons
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
Small arms

If you liked this column, please consider joining the International Naval Research Organization (INRO), Publishers of Warship International

They are possibly one of the best sources of naval study, images, and fellowship you can find http://www.warship.org/membership.htm

The International Naval Research Organization is a non-profit corporation dedicated to the encouragement of the study of naval vessels and their histories, principally in the era of iron and steel warships (about 1860 to date). Its purpose is to provide information and a means of contact for those interested in warships.

Nearing their 50th Anniversary, Warship International, the written tome of the INRO has published hundreds of articles, most of which are unique in their sweep and subject.

PRINT still has it place. If you LOVE warships you should belong.

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About laststandonzombieisland

Let me introduce myself. I am a bit of a conflict junkie. I am fascinated by war and warfare, assassination, personal protection and weaponry ranging from spud guns and flame throwers to thermonuclear bombs and Soviet-trained Ebola monkeys. In short, if it’s violent or a tool to create violence it is kind of my thing. I have written a few thousand articles on the dry encyclopedia side for such websites as Guns.com, University of Guns, Outdoor Hub, Tac-44, History Times, Big Game Hunter, Glock Forum, Firearms Talk.com, and Combat Forums; as well as for print publications like England Expects, and Strike First Strike Fast. Several magazines such as Sea Classics, Military Historian and Collector, Mississippi Sportsman and Warship International have carried my pieces. Additionally I am on staff as a naval consultant and writer for Eye Spy Intelligence Magazine. Currently I am working on several book projects including an alternative history novel about the US-German War of 1916, and a biography of Southern gadfly and soldier of fortune Bennett Doty. My first novel, about the coming zombie apocalypse was released in 2012 by Necro Publications and can be found at Amazon.com as was the prequel, Chimera-44. I am currently working on book two of that series: "Pirates of the Zombie Coast." In my day job I am a contractor for the U.S. federal government in what could best be described as the ‘Force Protection’ field. In this I am an NRA-certified firearms, and less-than-lethal combat instructor.

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