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Battle of Tamsui

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Battle of Tamsui

Battle of Tamsui
Part of the Sino-French War

French warships bombard Tamsui, 2 October 1884
Date 8 October 1884
Location northern coast of Taiwan
Result Chinese victory
Far East Squadron
Commanders and leaders
Sébastien Lespès Sun K'ai-hua
Chang Kao-yuan
Liu Chao-yuan
Chang Li-ch'eng
six warships
600 fusiliers-marins
1,000 infantry with supporting cannon
Casualties and losses
17 dead, 49 wounded 80 dead, around 200 wounded

The Battle of Tamsui (Chinese: 淡水之役; French: combat de Tamsui) or Battle of Hobe (Chinese: 滬尾之役; literally: "Hobe battle"), fought on 8 October 1884, was a significant French defeat during the Sino-French War.


The battle of Tamsui was part of the Keelung Campaign (August 1884–April 1885). Following the outbreak of the Sino-French War on 23 August 1884, the French decided to put pressure on China by landing an expeditionary corps in northern Formosa to seize Keelung and Tamsui. On 1 October Lieutenant-Colonel Bertaux-Levillain landed at Keelung with a force of 1,800 marine infantry, forcing the Chinese to withdraw to strong defensive positions which had been prepared in the surrounding hills. Meanwhile, a second French force under the command of Rear Admiral Sébastien Lespès prepared to attack Tamsui.

Liu Mingchuan took measures to reinforce Tamsui, in the river nine torpedo mines were planted and the entrance was blocked with ballast boats filled with stone which were sunk on September 3, matchlock armed "Hakka hill people" were used to reinforce the mainland Chinese battalion, and around the British Consulate and Customs House at the Red Fort hilltop, Shanghai Arsenal manufactured Krupp guns were used to form an additional battery.[1]

The bombardment of Tamsui, 2 October 1884

On 1 October 1884, while the Formosa expeditionary corps went ashore at Keelung, Lespès lay off Tamsui with the ironclads La Galissonnière and Triomphante, the cruiser d’Estaing and the gunboat Vipère. His orders from Courbet were to bombard the Chinese forts at Tamsui, destroy the barrage across the Tamsui River and seize Tamsui itself.

The town of Tamsui (also known as Hobe, 滬尾) had a population of around 6,000 at this period, including a small European colony. Tamsui was defended by two major forts, both to the west of the town. The 'White Fort' (Fort Blanc), so called by the French to distinguish it from Fort San Domingo, the seventeenth-century Spanish 'Red Fort' that had become the premises of the British consulate in Tamsui, was a shore battery that commanded the entrance to the Tamsui River. To the northeast, defending the town against a landing, was a fort still under construction, the 'New Fort' (Fort Neuf). Although the New Fort was only partly armed, it had an excellent all-round field of fire. Other important fortification works had been built on all the neighbouring ridges.

Fort San Domingo, Tamsui (the premises of the British consulate in 1884)
The arrival of the French flotilla was the signal for feverish activity ashore, as the Chinese worked throughout the afternoon and evening to arm the New Fort and deployed their troops to repel any attempt to land by the French. The European residents of Tamsui, many of whom were British, hastily hung out Union Jacks from their houses to signal their neutrality to the French ships.[4]

As the French warships were unable to enter the Tamsui River, Lespès decided to bombard the White Fort and the New Fort on the morning of 2 October. In fact hostilities were begun by the Chinese, who began firing at sunrise on 2 October with three cannon which they had placed in the barbette of the New Fort the previous evening. The French flotilla immediately replied, delivering a heavy bombardment which lasted for several hours, eventually destroying the three Chinese guns and putting both the New Fort and the White Fort out of action.[5]

More than 2,000 shells were fired against the two forts. Many failed to explode on impact, and remained dangerous for days afterwards. Others missed their targets, because the bombardment was delivered from long range, and damaged many buildings in Tamsui itself, including all the European residences. The Canadian Presbyterian missionary Formosan converts with him.[6] He left a vivid description of the attack:

Mackay said later, in a conversation recorded by the Anglican missionary William Campbell, that the French marksmanship had been very inaccurate, and had recklessly endangered the lives of innocent civilians.[8]

French preparations for a landing at Tamsui, 2–7 October 1884

Realising that his naval bombardment had failed to achieve its objective, and as he had only a small landing force at his disposal, Admiral Lespès sent d’Estaing back to Keelung on the evening of 2 October to request reinforcements of a battalion of marine infantry to enable him to make a landing to the north of the river, seize the forts, then destroy the command post from which the mines could be detonated. The French could then clear the pass by exploding a large powder charge, and the ships could enter the river. Meanwhile he attempted to neutralise the mines himself. On the evening of 2 October the gunboat Vipère scouted the pass and located the buoys of the mines. On the following night the launches tried to drag the electric wires. They failed, and one of them was almost destroyed when the Chinese exploded one of the mines at a distance.[9]

D'Estaing reached Keelung on the afternoon of 3 October. By then the French had already secured the hills to the west of the town and the Chinese had retreated, but Courbet was reluctant to release one of his three battalions of marine infantry. It was probably the correct decision, though it would later be criticised. Although the Chinese had momentarily fallen back, they might launch a counterattack at any moment, and if they did the French would need every man to hold the extensive defence perimeter they had just established at Keelung.[10]

Courbet nevertheless did what he could to give Lespès a respectable landing force. He sent him three more ships (Tarn, Châteaurenault and Duguay-Trouin), which arrived off Tamsui on the evening of 5 October. They carried their own landing companies and also the landing company from Bayard, giving Lespès a total of 600 men available for shore operations. Lespès thereupon began making preparations for a landing to assault the defences of Tamsui and clear the mines from the mouth of the Tamsui River.[11]

He organised the 600 sailors available for a landing into a battalion of five companies under the command of capitaine de frégate Martin of La Galissonnière, who had commanded the landing force at Keelung on 5 August with distinction. The ironclads Bayard, La Galissonnière and Triomphante each supplied one company. The smaller vessels d'Estaing and Châteaurenault provided a fourth company, and Tarn and Duguay-Trouin a fifth.[12]

The Chinese defences at Tamsui

The action of 8 October 1884 at Tamsui (map by Captain Garnot of the 3rd African Battalion)

The Chinese defence was commanded by General Sun K'ai-hua (孫開華), who had been responsible for building the New Fort in 1876. He was assisted by General Chang Kao-yuan (章高元) and Brigadier-General Liu Chao-yuan, Liu Ming-ch’uan’s great-nephew. According to Liu Ming-ch'uan’s official report of the battle, the Chinese force included the Cho-Sheng Regiment, whose commanders included Kung Chang-ao (right wing), Li Ting-ming (centre division) and Fan Hui-yi (rear division). Two other regular battalions from different regiments were also present, under the direct command of Chang Kao-yuan and Liu Chao-yuan. A battalion of Formosan hillmen, recently enrolled by Li T'ung-en, also fought in a skirmishing role, under the command of Chang Li-ch’eng. The Chinese force seems to have numbered around 1,000 infantry in total.[13]

Sun K’ai-hua deployed the Cho-Sheng Regiment in the front line. He entrenched one line of infantry in front of Fort San Domingo facing northwest, the direction from which a French assault was expected, and placed a second line of infantry in wooded terrain on the right flank, almost at a right angle to the main Chinese trenches, where it could enfilade the French advance before it reached the main defences. According to Liu Ming-ch'uan’s report, Kung Chang-ao's division was posted at a spot known as 'the false creek' (Chia-chiang), and Li Ting-ming's division lay in ambush at Yu-ch'e-k'ou. Neither locality can now be identified. Sun K'ai-hua commanded the regiment's defence in person.[13]

Behind Fort San Domingo, Chang Kao-yuan and Liu Chao-yuan lay in reserve with two battalions of regulars, each from a different regiment, ready to counterattack when the moment was ripe. Chang Li-ch'eng’s hillmen were posted close to the shore in the hills to the north of the main Chinese positions, enabling them to skirmish against the left flank of the advancing French. These were intelligent dispositions, well-chosen to repulse a frontal attack.[13]

The battle of Tamsui, 8 October 1884

Rough seas on 6 October and 7 October prevented a landing, but on 8 October the sea was finally calm enough for a landing to take place, and Admiral Lespès landed his 600 fusiliers-marins opposite the New Fort early in the morning. Captain Martin of La Galissonnière, the officer originally scheduled to command the attack, was ill, and command of the attack was transferred at the last moment to capitaine de frégate Boulineau of Châteaurenault. The squadron was deployed in line ahead off the harbour entrance to support the attack, facing north. The line was headed by Châteaurenault, followed by d’Estaing, Tarn, Triomphante, Duguay-Trouin and La Galissonnière, with Vipère bringing up the rear.[14]

Many of the town's European residents, excited by the prospect of a battle, formed picnic parties and flocked to vantage points on the nearby hills to obtain a good view of events. They were confident that the French would win, and expected Tamsui to be in French hands by nightfall.[15] Boulineau deployed his five companies into two lines, with a strong guard out to the left where the danger of a flanking attack by the Chinese was strongest. His first line consisted of the landing companies of La Galissonnière and Triomphante, each of 120 men, under the respective command of lieutenants de vaisseau Fontaine and Dehorter. Dehorter’s company held the right of the line. The second line, 200 metres behind the first, consisted of the two mixed companies from the smaller ships, each of 130 men. The company from Tarn and Duguay-Trouin, under the command of enseigne de vaisseau Deman, was on the right, behind Dehorter’s company. Bayard’s landing company, 100 men strong, was posted on the left flank of the main body. The deployment, which was completed by 10 a.m. was protected by naval gunfire from the French flotilla, which swept the ground between the beach and the forts.[16]

At 10 a.m. Boulineau led his small force forward at a smart pace over the sand dunes. Things immediately began to go wrong. The dunes had hidden the ground beyond from the sight of the French squadron. The French had been expecting to find an open terrain of rice paddies and small clumps of trees. Instead, they discovered that the approaches to the forts were thickly wooded. The battlefield was dotted with small cultivated fields surrounded by tall hedges and spiny plants. The ground was also broken by ditches, and covered with tall bushy trees. This broken terrain provided perfect cover for the Chinese, and made control by the French commanders almost impossible.[17]

The companies and sections lost sight of one another as soon as they entered the scrub. They also began to drift off the line of advance prescribed by Admiral Lespès. Boulineau realised that there was nothing he could do to regain control, and decided he would have to rely on the initiative of his company commanders. The New Fort was still visible in the distance, so the four companies of his main body could at least see the direction in which they were supposed to be heading.[17]

Around 11.30 a.m. the sailors from Triomphante, on the right of the first line, made contact with Sun K'ai-hua's troops, concealed in the bushes and trenches between the White Fort and the New Fort. A firefight began at this point, which quickly spread along the French front line and drew in the landing company of La Galissonnière. The French front line was now under heavy fire from both the Chinese trenches to its front and from the concealed enemy positions in the woods and hedges on its left. The two reserve companies, which had fallen into disorder while picking their way across the broken ground, came up to the front line shortly afterwards. The landing company from D'Estaing and Châteaurenault entered the line between Fontaine and Dehorter's companies, while Deman's company joined the left of the line.[18]

Meanwhile the Chinese had begun to put pressure on the French left. Despite the supporting fire provided by the French ships, Chang Kao-yuan’s troops were able to force back the French flankguard from Bayard, pushing it back on the French main body. Bayard's sailors were able to link up with Deman's company, but the French landing force was now deployed in a single line around one and a half kilometres long. It no longer had any reserves. The firefight extended along the entire French front.[19]

Lieutenant de vaisseau Dehorter, Triomphante, mortally wounded at Tamsui on 8 October 1884

The Chinese and French were separated by a distance of about 100 metres. The situation called for regular, controlled volleys by the French, but the excited sailors were firing individually into the bushes, as fast as they could. Boulineau realised that they were simply wasting their ammunition. He repeatedly yelled orders to his men to cease fire, but only a small part of his command could hear him. No bugle signals could be sent, as Boulineau's bugler had been shot dead shortly after the start of the action. The French line continued to waste its ammunition on an elusive target.[19]

The initiative now passed decisively to the Chinese. Chang Kao-yuan's troops kept up their pressure on the French left, working their way around the flank of Bayard's company. Sun K'ai-hua's regulars also began to lap around the company from Triomphante on the French right flank, issuing out of the White Fort in large numbers. To deal with the threat to the French left, Deman took part of his company out of the front line and brought it up in support of Fontaine's men. On the right the sailors from Triomphante made a series of charges to hold back Sun K'ai-hua's troops.

The pressure on the French line now began to tell. The French had been engaged for an hour, and had used up two-thirds of their ammunition. As the number of wounded rose, men had to be detailed to take them back to the beach. The French line also began to drift backwards. Any hope of stemming the retreat disappeared when several French officers fell in close succession. Lieutenant de vaisseau Fontaine of La Galissonnière was wounded in the foot close to the Chinese positions on the left of the French line, where the enemy fire from both front and flank was heaviest, and fell not far from the Chinese lines. Two sailors tried to bring him in, but all three men were captured by the Chinese and immediately beheaded. Enseigne de vaisseau Deman was wounded close by, and on the French right flank lieutenant de vaisseau Dehorter of Triomphante was also mortally wounded.[19]

Fontaine and Dehorter's fall was decisive. Both French flanks gave way. The landing company from Triomphante was now almost out of ammunition, and could no longer resist the pressure from Sun K'ai-hua's troops. On the left Bayard's company was at one point cut off from the rest of the French line by Chang Kao-yuan's men, and had to charge to disengage itself.

The Hotchkiss rapid fire 37 mm multi-barrelled "canon-revolver", manufactured from 1879

At midday Boulineau gave the order for retreat. The landing companies fell back to the shore, bringing their wounded and some of their dead with them. Nearly one man in every ten had been wounded, and the retreat was necessarily slow. It was covered by the landing companies of La Galissonnière and Triomphante, which fell back slowly, in good order, firing measured volleys to keep the Chinese at a distance. The French had to leave several of their dead behind during the retreat, including the bodies of Lieutenant Fontaine and his two helpers.[19]

The re-embarkation began shortly afterwards. The sea had become very rough, and the boats were unable to ground. The sailors on the beach had to wade out in water up to their necks to embark. As the sailors crowded together in the choppy water, the landing force was at the mercy of a well-timed Chinese attack. Fortunately for the French, the Chinese came up slowly and did little to hinder the evacuation. During the confusion, as the French sailors struggled to clamber aboard the boats, one of the launches capsized, tipping all its occupants into the sea. The Hotchkiss canon-revolver mounted at its bow also fell overboard. The launch was soon righted but the French had to abandon the Hotchkiss, which was later recovered by the Chinese and displayed as a trophy of victory.[20]

Lieutenant de vaisseau Augustin Boué de Lapeyrère of Vipère realised the potential danger of a Chinese counter-attack, and was given permission by Lespès to move his small gunboat to a position close inshore to cover the French withdrawal. From there it fired shells to keep the Chinese at a distance.[21]

At half past midday the first boats put out from the shore and steered towards the French ships. By 1.10 p.m. they had all left the beach. Vipère followed them slowly, firing at increasingly long range at the Chinese troops on the shore. At 1.30 p.m. the boats reached the ships. The sea was now very rough, and the wounded cried out in pain as their comrades helped them up the ladders onto the ships' decks.[22]


The failure of the attack was an embarrassing setback to the French. Captain Garnot later blamed the defeat on the small size of the landing force, and on the use of naval landing companies rather than trained infantry:

The French defeat left them stuck on the northern part, unable to advance or capture more land.[24]


French casualties at Tamsui were 17 dead and 49 wounded.[Note 1] The French wounded were evacuated to Keelung aboard Tarn on 9 October and were then taken to Saigon aboard the state transport Nive. Lieutenant Dehorter, mortally wounded, was brought back to the French ships and evacuated with the other wounded. He died aboard Nive on 12 October while the transport was still at sea, and his remains were buried in Saigon.[25]

The French dead also included lieutenant de vaisseau Fontaine of La Galissonnière. The French were unable to recover Fontaine's body nor those of two French sailors killed nearby. The bodies of the three dead Frenchmen, abandoned on the battlefield, were beheaded by the Chinese, and the severed heads were paraded through Tamsui on the evening of 8 October by the victorious Chinese army. Captain Boteler of HMS Cockchafer and the British consul Frater complained strongly to Sun K'ai-hua about the lack of respect shown to the French dead, and the three severed heads were handed over to them for Christian burial.[26] The Chinese took prisoner and beheaded 11 French marines who were injured in addition to La Gailissonniere's captain Fontaine and used bamboo poles to display the heads in public, to incite anti-French feelings in China pictures of the decapitation of the Frenchmen were published in the Tien-shih-tsai Pictorial Journal in Shanghai.[27]

Chinese casualties, according to European employees of the Tamsui customs, were 80 dead and around 200 wounded.[28]

Account of the beheadings of French troops

A most unmistakable scene in the market place occurred. Some six heads of Frenchmen, heads of the true French type were exhibited, much to the disgust of foreigners. A few visited the place where they were stuck up, and were glad to leave it—not only on account of the disgusting and barbarous character of the scene, but because the surrounding crowd showed signs of turbulence. At the camp also were eight other Frenchmen's heads, a sight which might have satisfied a savage or a Hill-man, but hardly consistent with the comparatively enlightened tastes, one would think, of Chinese soldiers even of to-day. It is not known how many of the French were killed and wounded; fourteen left their bodies on shore, and no doubt several wounded were taken back to the ships. (Chinese accounts state that twenty were killed and large numbers wounded.) In the evening Captain Boteler and Consul Frater called on General Sun, remonstrating with him on the subject of cutting heads off, and allowing them to be exhibited. Consul Frater wrote him a despatch on the subject strongly deprecating such practices, and we understand that the general promised it should not occur again, and orders were at once given to bury the heads. It is difficult for a general even situated as Sun is—having to command troops like the Hillmen, who are the veriest savages in the treatment of their enemies—to prevent such barbarities. "It is said the Chinese buried the dead bodies of the Frenchmen after the engagement on 8th instant by order of General Sun. The Chinesse are in possession of a machine gun taken or found on the beach.
—Davidson, The Island of Formosa, Past and Present[29]


The Fu-you kung Matsu temple, Tamsui

The French defeat at Tamsui on 8 October 1884 was widely publicised in China, and had a far greater effect on national morale than the simultaneous French victories in Tonkin during the Kep Campaign (6–10 October 1884). A detailed account of the battle by Liu Ming-ch'uan, which absurdly multiplied French casualties, was published in the Peking Gazette in November 1884. In this report, Liu claimed that 300 French troops had been killed:

The French fleet being stationed off Taipei, Hobe and other places, the French troops made a vigorous attack on 8 October and landed. Sun K'ai-hua, provincial commander-in-chief, advanced by different routes to attack them with the forces under his command. Chang Kao-yuan, provincial commander-in-chief, and others also led their divisions against the enemy. The French troops were repulsed, and again advanced several times, but our troops engaged them at close quarters, Sun K'ai-hua making a direct advance upon them with his men, and beheading the officer bearing the standard, which he captured, besides killing about 300 of the enemy.
—Davidson, The Island of Formosa, Past and Present[30]

The Chinese victory is still commemorated in Tamsui. According to local tradition, Sun K'ai-hua owed his victory to the intervention of the sea goddess Matsu, a deity revered by the seafaring Chinese of Fukien province and their descendants in Taiwan. The Kuang-hsu emperor, on receiving Liu Ming-ch'uan's report of the victory, observed with satisfaction, 'The goddess has been kind to my people and kind to myself.' A wooden commemorative tablet in the Fu-you kung (福佑宮), a Matsu temple in Tamsui completed in 1796, bears the inscription yi-t'ien ch'ao-you (翌天昭佑), 'the noble sky brings kindly sunshine', in allusion to the emperor's words.[31]


The battle, one of the rare French defeats in the Sino-French War, was of considerable political significance. China's war party had been placed on the defensive after the loss of China's Fukien fleet in the Battle of Foochow on 23 August 1884, but the unexpected Chinese victory at Tamsui six weeks later bolstered the position of the hardliners in the Qing court. A court conference convened by the empress dowager Tz'u-hsi on 28 October decided to continue the war against France until the French withdrew their demand for the payment of an indemnity for the Bac Le ambush. On 5 November the Qing court offered the French peace terms so extreme that they had no chance whatever of being accepted. They included demands for the cancellation of the Tientsin Accord, the abandonment by France of its protectorate over Annam and Tonkin, and the continuing occupation of Lao Cai, Cao Bang and Lang Son by Chinese troops. The British foreign secretary Lord Granville, who was seeking to mediate the dispute between France and China, described the Chinese terms as 'those from a victor to the vanquished' and refused to transmit them to the French. The intransigence of the Qing court ensured that the Sino-French War would continue for several more months, with increasing losses and expenditure on both sides.[32]


  1. ^ The casualties among individual ships' companies were distributed as follows: La Galissonnière, 9 dead, 9 wounded; Triomphante, 4 dead, 17 wounded; Duguay-Trouin, 4 wounded; Châteaurenault, 7 wounded; Tarn, 2 dead, 4 wounded; Bayard, 3 wounded; d’Estaing, 2 dead, 5 wounded.


  1. ^ Tsai 2009, p. 97
  2. ^ Davidson 1903, pp. 223-4
  3. ^ Davidson 1903, pp. 230-1
  4. ^ Davidson 1903, p. 225
  5. ^ Garnot 1894, pp. 49–50
  6. ^ Mackay 1896, p. 193
  7. ^ Mackay 1896, pp. 193–4
  8. ^ Campbell 1915, p. 156
  9. ^ Garnot 1894, p. 50; Loir 1886, pp. 196–8
  10. ^ Loir 1886, pp. 198–9
  11. ^ Garnot 1894, pp. 50–53
  12. ^ Garnot 1894, p. 53
  13. ^ a b c Davidson 1903, pp. 241–2
  14. ^ Loir 1886, pp. 200
  15. ^ Davidson 1903, pp. 225–31
  16. ^ Garnot 1894, pp. 53–4; Loir 1886, pp. 200–201
  17. ^ a b Garnot 1894, p. 54
  18. ^ Garnot 1894, pp. 54–5
  19. ^ a b c d Garnot 1894, p. 55
  20. ^ Garnot 1894, pp. 55–6
  21. ^ Loir 1886, pp. 203
  22. ^ Garnot 1894, pp. 56
  23. ^ Garnot 1894, pp. 57
  24. ^ Elleman, Bruce A. (April 6, 2001). Modern Chinese warfare, 1795-1989. Routledge. p. 89.  
  25. ^ Garnot 1894, p. 56; Loir 1886, pp. 204–5
  26. ^ Davidson 1903, p. 229; Garnot 1894, p. 56
  27. ^ Tsai 2009, pp. 98-99
  28. ^ Garnot 1894, p. 56; Lung 1993, p. 326
  29. ^ Davidson 1903, p. 229
  30. ^ Davidson 1903, pp. 241–2
  31. ^ Fu-you kung website
  32. ^ Eastman 1967, pp. 174–83; Lung 1993, pp. 294–305


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