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Avatar of GI KoreaBy on December 21st, 2006 at 8:08 am

Heroes of the Korean War: Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Monclar

» by in: Korean War

France’s Impact on the Korean War

After the North Koreans invaded South Korea in June of 1950 an emergency session of the United Nations was convened to gather military support for the Republic of Korea. 16 countries from the United Nations offered military aid that fell under United States command. The total international force of all 16 countries combined only equaled one tenth of the US military’s contribution to the defense of Korea with many of the international soldiers being rear echelon types. So the actual amount of combat soldiers was much lower.

However, countries that did offer combat soldiers usually sent their best. England, Australia, New Zeland, and Canada all sent units that went on to fight heroically in great battles such as The Battle of Kapyong and The Battle of the Imjim. Sword wielding Turkish and Thai soldiers were also highly respected for their combat skills. However, out of all the international soldiers sent to fight in the Korean War, one battalion to me sticks out more than all the others. This is due partly to their combat record and also to the reputation and personality of their commander. That unit is the French Battalion de Coree under the command of the then Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Monclar.

The French Battalion consisted of 39 officers, 172 non-commissioned officers and more than 800 enlisted personnel, the battalion arrived at Pusan on November 30, 1950. During the war 3,421 French soldiers would fight in Korea.

I know some you may be thinking, What the French? Come on. Yes the French. The French battalion sent to Korea shouldn’t be compared to the current state of the French military. Jokes like this doesn’t help France’s combat reputation, but back then this battalion was no joke.

One battalion of soldiers may seem like a small contribution from a country as large and wealthy as France, but you need to look at the historical context of those times. France was deeply involved in heavy combat in Indochine against communists insurgents there, then they had a insurgency in Algeria to combat, plus military commitments to secure their colonies in Africa. Obviously France was spread very thin and could only afford the one battalion. However, the one battalion they did send was an all volunteer battalion composed of some of their top soldiers led by France’s best commander LTC Ralph Monclar.

Legendary French Foreign Legionaire Ralph Monclar

Now why would their best soldiers volunteer to go fight in Korea? First of all, many French soldiers were still embarrassed by the performance of the French military during World War II. This was an opportunity on an international stage to show that World War II was just a fluke and that the French were back. You had others that simply hated communists. Some fought simply for the glory, others were in it for the money since the battalion’s volunteers were payed quite well. Then you had some that volunteered because they had already been to the hot steamy jungles of Indochine and the cold winters of France and figured that Korea would be a nice year around temperant Mediterranean climate since the 38th parrallel runs through the Mediterranean Sea. How wrong those guys were.

The commander of the battalion, Raoul Charles Magrin-Vernerey, who in World War II shortened his name to Ralph Monclar to be more understandable to Allied forces, was actually a 3 star general before the war and voluntarily took a demotion to Lieutenant Colonel to lead the battalion. He was a veteran of World War I where he was wounded seven times and received eleven awards for valor. After World War I, he was left 90% disabled from his wounds. He was sent to Syria to heal and up and lead soldiers there. By 1924 he was fully recovered and was selected for the French Foreign Legion and led soldiers in Morrocco, the Middle East, and Vietnam. During World War II Monclar and 500 French soldiers joined the Free French forces in England. They went on and fought and defeated the Italian Axis forces in Eritrea. He was on the verge of retirement in 1950 when he volunteered to lead the French battalion in Korea.

Here is how one infantry company commander CPT Ansil Walker, remembered LTC Monclar:

The French soldiers were volunteers from Legion garrisons in Africa and other parts of the world. Their leader was a battle-scarred veteran of the Legion who led them in battle wearing his monocle, a beret, a bright red scarf–and using a cane to compensate for his limp. Sixty-year-old Raoul Monclar, as he called himself, had given up his three-star general’s rank and his true name of Magrin-Venery and had reverted to the rank of lieutenant colonel, since general was too high a rank for a battalion commander. Now, with a nom de guerre and the proper rank to lead a volunteer battalion in combat under the U.N. flag, he and his 1,000-man force had become Colonel Freeman’s “Fourth Battalion.” “This is my finest hour,” Monclar declared.

During the Korean War the French battalion was task organized under the 23rd Infantry Regiment which fell under the US 2nd Infantry Division. The 2ID is the lone US Army Division remaining in defense of Korea to this day. A true legacy of the Korean War. The French Battalion would remain with the 23rd Regiment until hostilities ended on July 27, 1953 with the signing of the Armistice Agreement. During this time the French Battalion would participate in many notable, bloody battles.

The 23rd Regiment was commanded by Colonel Paul Freeman. Freeman and Monclar would become quick friends. It must of felt strange for Freeman to be commanding such a legendary combat veteran as Monclar who had just a few months earlier had been a 3 star general. These two men would be key leaders in three very important battles that would cement their friendship in blood; the Battles Wonju, the Twin Tunnels, and Chipyong-ni.

During the Twin Tunnels battle on January 30, 1951, in the Kumdang Chon Valley, Monclar actually led a company of his men up Hill 453 to secure the northern flank of the regiment. COL Freeman actually commented that the French company was slow in securing the hill because of Monclar. Freeman wanted Monclar to stay behind with the rest of his battalion but Monclar insisted on leading his men up the hill himself. Keep in mind that Monclar is at the time 59 years old with many injuries and prior bullet wounds leading his men up this large mountain. It shows what kind of shape the guy was in for his age. The French company was attacked on February 2nd by an entire regiment of Chinese. Monclar ordered them to fix bayonets and charge the Chinese. Despite heavy odds the Frech drove the Chinese forces back into full retreat off of Hill 453.

On the 11-14 February 1951 the 23rd Regiment was ordered to defend the city of Chipyong-ni at all costs against 6 Chinese divisions. The odds were stacked against the regiment 10-1 but 8th Army Commanding General Matthew Ridgeway was determined to make a stand against the advancing Chinese who had won every battle since entering the war and Chipyong-ni was going to be the place. The entire regiment was completely surrounded by the Chinese so the soldiers dug in and prepared for the up coming onslaught.

The Chinese attacked the night of February 13, 1951 against the defensive perimeter the French Battalion manned. The Chinese during the war liked to blow horns and bang drums to command troops and also for psychological impact against the UN forces. When the Chinese began their bugle calls and drumming to start their attack, the French soldiers began blowing their own air horns and yelling back at them. The French were actually looking forward to a fight and couldn’t wait. When a Chinese platoon attacked the French line, a squad of French soldiers fixed bayonets and charged them. The Chinese platoon had the French squad outnumbered 3-1 but they turned and ran after seeing the French squad charge them with bayonets.

Here is how another company commander remembers the Chinese assault on the French lines:

The enemy soldiers formed one hundred or two hundred yards in front of the small hill which the French occupied, then launched their attack, blowing whistles and bugles, and running with bayonets fixed. When this noise started, the French soldiers began cranking a hand siren they had, and one squad started running toward the Chinese, yelling and throwing grenades far to the front and to the side. When the two forces were within twenty yards of each other the Chinese suddenly turned and ran in the opposite direction. It was all over within a minute. After this incident it was relatively quiet in the rice paddies near the road cut.

This is how CPT Walker recalled the French actions that day:

A noisy party of Chinese seemed about to fall upon the French in the west. Hearing the preparations, the legionnaires leaped out of their positions screaming a battle cry, fixing bayonets as they charged, and cranking a shrieking Chinese siren of their own. They set upon the surprised and terrified enemy. Survivors turned to escape, only to be tackled, caught, and hauled back by the French as prisoners of war.

The heroic French defense would set the tone for the rest of the defenders of Chipyong-ni that day.

During the battle Monclar and Freeman would move from foxhole to foxhole encouraging soldiers and dodging bullets at the same time. They were very much lead by example type of commanders who did not want to be seen hiding in the rear during a tough fight. The Battle of Chipyong-ni was ferocious and bloody but it proved to be a turning point for UN forces in the war after the 23rd Regiment and the French decisively defeated the Chinese offensive at Chipyong-ni.

The word of the Chinese defeat spread throughout the front lines of the 8th Army and it proved that the Chinese were not invincible and could be decisively defeated. However, this victory would not have been possible without the French Battalion and their legendary commander Ralph Monclar.

The battalion after Chipyong-ni went on to fight in other pivotal battles in the Korean War including Hongchon and Heartbreak Ridge. In the weeks following Chipyong-ni many of those wild French soldiers that held the line Chipyong-ni would perish in the hills of Hongchon. The French had 40 soldiers killed and 200 wounded in the capturing of a 1000 meter high Chinese fortified hill in -30C temperatures that would eventually open the road for the 8th Army across the 38th parrelell. At Heartbreak Ridge that fall of 1951 another 60 of these brave Frenchmen would die in one month of fighting on the isolated ridgeline.

For their heroics during the Korean War, the French Battalion received three United States Presidential Unit citations, for the battle of the Twin Tunnels, Chipyong-ni, and Hongchon. During the Korean War the French Battalion had 287 soldiers killed in action, 1,350 wounded in action, 7 missing in action, and 12 become prisoners of war. The name of the dead French soldiers can seen today on the wall at the Korean War Memorial in Yongsan commemorating the dead from all the countries that participated in the Korean War. The battalion proved the French was a capable fighting force and won back some of the prestige the French military had lost from World War II not to mention helping to secure the freedom of this now thriving democracy of the Republic of Korea.

General Ridgeway best summed up the actions of the French Battalion during the Korean War with these words given to a joint session of the US Congress in 1952:

I shall speak briefly of the 23rd US Infantry Regiment, Colonel Paul L. Freeman commanding, [and] with the French Battalion. Isolated far in advance of the general battle line, completely surrounded in near-zero weather, they repelled repeated assaults by day and night by vastly superior numbers of Chinese. They were finally relieved. I want to say that these American fighting men, with their French comrades-in-arms, measured up in every way to the battle conduct of the finest troops America and France have produced throughout their national existence.

However the glory this battalion won back for the French would be short lived. After the Armistice Agreement was signed effectively ending the Korean War, the French Battalion was reassigned to Indochine to battle the communist insurgency. The battalion was eventually completely destroyed in a series of ambushes along the infamous Highway 1 which ran parrallel to the coast of Vietnam and was dubbed the Street Without Joy. Though the French Battalion found no joy in Vietnam they did find honor from their actions in Korea.

Note: Any of you gamers out there who own Steel Panthers can now play as the French at the Battle of Chipyong-ni. Also note that this is an updated post with more information from the one I did in June 2005.

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  • RP
    7:01 am on December 22nd, 2006 1

    Very good read, I'm glad you that you don't fit in the hate everything French crowd, that has befallen many Americans, or maybe you do and just like to point out that the French didn't screw up everything, nice blog.

  • Avatar of GI KoreaGI Korea
    9:05 am on December 22nd, 2006 2

    I do not hate everything French. If I disagree with something I will disagree with whatever it is at an individual level. If I disagree with something Chirac says that does not mean I hate the French. Likewise I see to often people hate President Bush so they hate Americans as well. However, Monclar is a person that I cannot see how anyone cannot appreciate what he and his men did during the Korean War. He is a true hero of the Forgotten War.

  • Heroes of the Korean War: LTC J.R. Stone at ROK Drop
    9:55 am on January 3rd, 2007 3

    [...] The PPCLI joined the 27th Brigade in mid-February and the Canadians saw their first combat action of the Korean War in late February during the UN offensive to the 38th parallel following the Chinese defeat at Chipyong-ni by the US 23 Infantry Regiment and their attached French Battalion. It was during this advance that the Canadians also received their first combat casualties of the Korean War.  In April of 1951 the 27th Brigade was assigned to move south and construct blocking positions in the hills of Myeongjisan mountain just north of the city of Kapyong.  The Chinese had launched their Spring Offensive of 1951 to recapture Seoul  The Kapyong valley was one of three high speed avenues of approach to capture Seoul.  The other two were the Uijongbu and Munsan corridors.  The Chinese had decided that the Kapyong Valley would be where they would concentrate their attack to recapture Seoul.  The Chinese command figured that if they recaptured Seoul they could negotiate a ceasefire from a position of strength since they controlled the South Korean capitol.  [...]

  • Paul H.
    9:00 am on January 6th, 2007 4

    1) An excellent tribute to an almost completely forgotten episode of history that deserves to be remembered.

    Thanks for the account; I knew that the French "Battalion de Coree" had compiled a distinguished record in the Korean war but never knew the details.

    Its later destruction in the extended road ambush in Vietnam (extended in both time and space as I recall) is well documented in at least one of the several books by Bernard Fall on Vietnam.

    It's been 30 years since I read the account, but I think I remember that the Viet Minh made heavy use of recoilless rifles from ambush positions to support their attacking infantry. The battle was so intense that French armored vehicles found themselves using their machine guns to "clean off" swarming infantry climbing over the vehicles in front of them.

    I think (unlike Korea) that there was no air support available; in fact if I remember the account correctly the only thing flying above the convoy was observation aircraft, one reason why the battle could be so well documented later.

    2) "Obviously these guys have nothing in common with the modern day French army…"

    I suspect this observation by you is as unfair as would be a similar observation about ROK troops currently serving in Iraq.

    Western armies are subject to the political guidance of their political superiors. One suspects that a good deal of the professional French army would have been happy to serve in Iraq alongside the US, but to express anything publicly along those lines would be to commit career suicide.

    Unless of course a French military man logs on here to tell me otherwise..

  • GI Korea
    9:05 am on January 6th, 2007 5

    I make my statement about the French military because of their lack of relevance in the world today compared to relevance 50 years ago. The French military was not very effective recently during the Ivory Coast up rising. I think they would not be very effective in Iraq either considering they are a military that cannot take any casualties.

  • Heroes of the Korean War: Colonel Paul Freeman, Part-2 at ROK Drop
    7:16 pm on February 13th, 2007 6

    [...] man battalion from the French Foreign Legion led by one of my all time favorite military leaders, LTC Ralph Monclar. COL Freeman’s regiment totaled 4,500 soldiers with only 2,500 of the soldiers being [...]

  • Marc Gaynes
    10:51 pm on March 2nd, 2007 7

    First, thanks for an honest article which doesn’t pander to (our) American bias against the French military. However, it is inaccurate to write that the French soldiers after the war were embarassed by their military record in World War II. In 43-45 the record of the Free French military was exemplary. Very little in English language sources truthfully assess the French military contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany; but to the French military that contribution did much to erase the embarassment over the defeat of 1940. Further, American military historians quickly condemn the French military for the defeat by the Germans; however the British were similarly humiliated in the Battle of France; the Soviet armies of 1941 were obliterated by the German juggernaut. Yet those countries’ military performance is assessed not on those defeats, but rather on the Allied ultimate triumph and their part in that ultimate victory. Those countries’ reputations in World War II are solid. Why isn’t France’s WWII reputation based on its contributions to the Allied victory? An honest answer requires an honest asssesment. We Americans should no longer pretend that thhe French contribution was non existant or inconsequential. It was very real, quantifiable, and a host of anecdotes exist to bolster the significant numerical contribution. Anecdotes such as the French troops securing Monte Cassino; the first ground casualties at D-Day being French commandos on June 5; the capture of the port city of Marsailles in 2 days (while US forces had to beseige the port city of Beest for months); even the French stopping the German “Battle of the Bulge” offensive, Operation Whirlwind,” in the South dead in its tracks. Yes, the Free French were independent in WWII. Yes they refused to be treated as second class soldiers. But remember when viewing WWII photos of French troops in Shermans, dressed in US ODs, that was all LendLease — at DeGaulle’s insistance. France paid in blood and in money for that independence. Should our American indignation at that independence still color our assessment of France’s military capability?

  • FrancisK
    7:19 am on April 12th, 2007 8

    To GI Korea,

    1.5 million casualties in WW1
    600,000 in WW2
    50,000 in Vietnam

    Not enough for you?

    As for Ivory Coast and Africa, the French (especially the French Foreign Legion) has never had much trouble stopping rebellions, but as we can see in Iraq, sheer force isn't always an easy answer. The FFL was heroic in 1978 dropping paratroopers in Kolweizi, Zaire in a Mogadishiu-type situation and are among the very best in these type of situations. Another little known fact is again the FFL on high-alert in 1984, ready to drop paratroopers on Quadaffi's forces in Chad. Quadaffi was warned and backed out. And no, the FFL is not entirely foreign, French nationals can enlist under an assumed name and nationality.

  • Avatar of GI KoreaGI Korea
    10:37 am on April 12th, 2007 9

    FrancisK, you are making my point for me with your examples. The French military is irrelevant today and I have had French officers even tell me so. They are embarrassed by how the French government has allowed the military to rot and not allow the military to shoulder worldwide security burdens that a country the size of France both in population and economically should shoulder.

    Case in point is the Balkans. Why was the US military needed to restore security to the Balkans and Kosovo when that was a European problem? Why are US forces still in Kosovo and the Europeans not fully handling the Balkans situation? Next case in point, with all the hype over Darfur how come no one in France or Europe doing anything to stop the genocide and looking at the Americans to do it? Don't even get me started on Afghanistan. Monclar is probably rolling over in his grave right now seeing the increasing irrelevancy of the French military.

  • FrancisK
    12:58 pm on April 12th, 2007 10

    GI,

    There are 36,000 French troops deployed throughout the world right now, including in the Balkans, that's not irrelevant but we're talking about a country smaller than Texas. As for Darfur, I don't see the US nor Europe inclined to take any military action, do you?

  • Avatar of GI KoreaGI Korea
    2:29 pm on April 12th, 2007 11

    Yes I know France has troops deployed but what are they doing?

    France has a population of 64 million people with a GDP of $1.830 trillion dollars which is the seventh highest GDP in the world. Yet they cannot deploy combat troops to assist NATO combat operations in Afghanistan?

    Compare France to Australia for example. Australia has a population of 20 million and a GDP of 674.9 billion dollars which is 17th in the world. Australia has combat troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan and is not even part of NATO yet just deployed an additional 300 SAS soldiers to Afghanistan to aid the NATO commanders call for more combat troops in Afghanistan.

    The Canadians have a population of 32 million and the world's 11th highest GDP and have seen heavy combat in Afghanistan and taken heavy casualties as well.

    I have maintained on this blog that the US should handle Iraq. That was a fight we picked and should finish. However, Afghanistan is a NATO mission which the US, Brits, Canadians, Dutch, and Aussies are unfairly caring the heavy burden of combat operations in while other countries including France are nothing more than combat tourists. That is why I say Monclar is rolling over in his grave.

    I bring up Darfur because it is the cause celeb currently and because all the talk about the genocide in Darfur and yet no country is doing anything substantial to stop it. Why don't the Europeans show a united front and force Sudan to stop the genocide by deploying a massive peacekeeping force? First of all the Europeans lack the capablity to carry out a large military operation due to the gutting of their militaries and secondly it is just like with the Balkans Europe won't do it unless the US leads the action. Finally China is backing Sudan because of Sudanese oil so no one wants to upset China. Thus the black Africans will keep dying while Europe and everyone else does nothing.

    Like I said Monclar is rolling over in his grave.

  • FrancisK
    12:49 am on April 13th, 2007 12

    Putting out fires and peacekeeping for the most part and I see your point. Your comparaison with Australia and Canada is a fair one. Having said that, the (very good) French air force took part in the early phase of the Afghanistan air bombings (the only non-US force to do so), trained Afghan officers, sent special forces (11 casualties so far) and the Legion. French bases in Djibouti (one of the Legion's permanent posts in Africa) are regularly used by the US air force and I know for a fact that US special operations have been training with the Legion in underwater/amphibian exercises. Lately the French government has cut-down some of its military personel (not sure by how much) under the pretext it's over-stretched, disapointing indeed. I totally agree with you on the Sudan situation. Politics…

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    6:36 pm on May 8th, 2008 14

    [...] Following the Chinese defeat at Chipyong-ni by the US 23rd Infantry Regiment with support from the French Battalion, the 3rd ID was tasked to begin an offensive operation against the retreating Chinese forces. The [...]

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    6:23 pm on June 2nd, 2008 15

    [...] http://rokdrop.com/2006/12/21/heroes-of-the-korean-war-ltc-ralph-monclar/ [...]

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    7:18 am on November 9th, 2008 18

    [...] Allied soldiers adopted and cared for many orphans during the Korean War to include these two adopted by the French Battalion: [...]

  • frenchie
    3:23 am on May 7th, 2009 19

    Thank you for this tribute to our troops.

    My country(france) is not the biggest country ,not the most poweful country but it's my County.

    I know our behaviour could be arrogant ,yes we lost 1940's campaigne ,that's a fact but we fought (100 000 death/month)

    Sorry for my bad english

  • JFM
    10:32 pm on May 18th, 2010 20

    A little point about Monclar being a "thre star general". That is in US terms. The French uniform for his rank (General de Corps d'Armee literally Corps General) has four stars.

  • Pops
    11:15 pm on May 18th, 2010 21

    I noted on the webpage for the 60th Anniversary of the Korean War there is a commemoration event at Chipyong-ni, at which the French Battalion fought in Feb 51, but no further information, at:
    http://eng.koreanwar60.go.kr/30/2002010100.asp?uq

  • lirelou
    12:38 am on February 3rd, 2011 22

    Just a postscript note. I did not see this when I was in Korea in 2006, or I would have commented. The wrap-up about the French Battalion being destroyed in fighting along RC 1 (the "Street without joy") is in error. The Battalion was brought into Indochina as a "Metropolitan" unit, and reorganized as a two battalion Regiment by integrating Indochinese (specifically Vietnames troops and ethnic Cambodians from the Mekong Delta) and became the core about which Mobile Group 100 was formed. In June 1954, Mobile Group 100 was destroyed in a series of fights along Colonial Route 14 and 19 (today's National Route 14, running from Ban Me thuot up through Pleiku to Kontum and beyond). The principal disaster came along Highway 19 between Pleiku, An Khe, and the Mang Yang pass. As you can see by the "Korea Battalion" website, the unit also lists the names of its KATUSA dead in Korea and Vietnamese/Cambodian names from Indochina.

    http://bataillon-coree.org/combattants.php?statut

 

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