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.