“The Ghosts of Tonkin”, on France 3: endless mourning for the families of the soldiers of Dien Bien Phu

Dien Bien Phu, one of the most humiliating defeats in the long history of the French army

“The Ghosts of Tonkin”, on France 3: endless mourning for the families of the soldiers of Dien Bien Phu

Dien Bien Phu, one of the most humiliating defeats in the long history of the French army. The bloody battle which, from March 13 to May 7, 1954, between valleys and hills extending over 16 kilometers in length, cost the lives of more than three thousand French soldiers and left thousands wounded and missing has been, on several occasions, treated on the screen.

But this documentary by Patrick Jeudy has the merit of evoking Dien Bien Phu by opting for an unusual angle: recounting, through the report of Captain Paul Belmont kept in the archives of the defense historical service, the grueling mission carried out in June 1955, a year after the fighting, on the scene of the tragedy.

Paul Belmont, a fighter at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, taken prisoner then appointed head of the burial office in Saigon, was chosen by the general staff to carry out a complex mission: return to the combat field to identify as many remains as possible and thus allow families to mourn.

Complicated searches

Among the names to be identified, Belmont is discreetly made to understand that priority is that of Alain Gambiez, second lieutenant who fell at the age of 22 and son of General Fernand Gambiez, emblematic figure of the French army, great commando specialist .

After tough negotiations with the North Vietnamese authorities, Belmont flew from Saigon on June 4, 1955, for a journey that saw him land near Dien Bien Phu by helicopter on June 8, at “a place I never thought never see again,” he said. He must stay on site for a fortnight, without a radio transmitter or camera, but with a pencil, a map of the site and aerial photos. The mission is expected to last two weeks.

Closely watched, housed in a hut, he sees familiar silhouettes emerging in the night, those of the hills to which the French soldiers had given female names: Dominique, Eliane, Gabrielle, Elise, Isabelle...

The silence is total, the trenches have disappeared under the vegetation, the blood has dried, the bodies have decomposed, nature has regained its rights and, between two heavy downpours, the search promises to be even more complicated than expected.

“A kind of mournful fervor.”

Over the days, Belmont, helped by locals, will search numerous strategic locations, often without success. But his quest will not be completely in vain. After four days, near the site called “Eliane 3”, Paul Belmont finally identified a first soldier, thanks to his plaque. This is the paratrooper Maurice Millet, who died at the age of 22.

Between mass graves, tombs with illegible inscriptions and muddy grounds, the captain undertakes a job that is as physically exhausting as it is morally trying: "The mission continues with a sort of lugubrious fervor", he wrote after nine days of research.

At the end of his mission, Paul Belmont finally identified eight soldiers. Among them, Alain Gambiez, the general's son. During each discovery, the short life and journey of the soldier in question are put into images, supported by filmed and photographic archives, which gives the documentary a moving dimension. “In conclusion, many cemeteries could not be surveyed,” writes Belmont. To this day, most of the remains of French soldiers killed in the battle remain buried beneath the modern city of Dien Bien Phu.