[Heroes from afar] French, Korean soldiers forged close bonds during war
“We did everything together, eat, train, fight in battles, wield the same weapons, wear the same uniform,” said Park Moon-joon, 89-year-old veteran of the Korean War, over the phone on Sept. 23. “They treated us like one of them. I didn’t know a word of French but that didn’t stop them from communicating with me about the combat plans.”
Park was one of about 150 Koreans assigned to the French Battalion during the Korean War (1950-1953).
“I was 20 years old at the time when I heard about the call from the French Battalion for any men who had graduated high school who wanted to serve with them,” Park said. “I signed up. It was then Feb. 10 of 1951. I was with the French Battalion until the armistice was signed in July 1953.”
By the time the Korean War broke out, it had been at least a century-old practice amongst the French to incorporate foreign soldiers.
“The Koreans were not auxiliaries — on the contrary, they were considered as brothers in arms,” said Philippe Lefort, ambassador of France to Korea, speaking during an interview at his residence in central Seoul on Sept. 22. “They formed the Korean section within the [French] Battalion. It is a peculiarity of the history of this battalion, which comes straight from the French tradition of the Foreign Legion and the marine troops, used to incorporate foreign soldiers.”
The battalion consisted of 3,421 soldiers according to the French Embassy in Seoul. Mostly volunteers, many of them had experience in conflicts abroad.
“France was already involved in the Indochina war, and the Algerian war was about to emerge,” said Lefort. “Despite this difficult environment, the French authorities deemed it necessary to support the United Nations Command and the peace in the Korean Peninsula, and made the decision to engage militarily. […] The needs of the Indochina war — our resources were almost exclusively devoted to it — led to the decision to set up a battalion of volunteers especially for this conflict.”
The French Battalion arrived in Korea against the backdrop of Chinese intervention in the war. They quickly distinguished themselves with the famous bayonet charge at the Battle of Wonju in January 1951, winning recognition from the American soldiers and UN forces commander General Matthew Ridgway.
By February 1951, the French were dispatched to the Jipyeong-ri area of Yangpyeong, Gyeonggi, where they were to engage the Chinese while Ridgway worked on building a stronger defense line in Wonju. Seoul had been captured by North Korean and Chinese forces in January 1951, and the UN forces were under mounting pressure.
The battle continued from Feb. 13 to 16 in 1951.
“In the freezing winter of February 1951, French soldiers, alongside the Americans, withstood three days of intense raids by Chinese troops, the equivalent of four divisions, before delivering a fatal blow with strikes supported by the Air Force,” said Ambassador Lefort. “We must not forget that the French soldiers, at that time, were the last bulwark against the Chinese, who came to help the North Korean people. The balance of power was 10 to one in favor of the Chinese.”
The French did not give in. With the arrival of American backup on the ground and in the air by Feb. 15, the UN forces emerged victorious. The French battalion was awarded their second Presidential Unit Citation by the United States after the battle. Seoul was recaptured by the UN forces in March 1951.
The tide of the war was turning, but it was far from over.
“The worst memory [that my father recalled] was the uninterrupted artillery bombardments for 24 hours during the Battle of Arrowhead,” Roger Quintard, son of Sergeant Robert Quintard, wrote in a Sept. 13 email. “[He said] it made an infernal noise and [they] wondered when it would end. During this time it was estimated that 20,000 artillery shells had fallen on the French position. Most surprising was the silence that followed the bombardment: almost as deafening.”
Sgt. Quintard served in the war from Dec. 26, 1951, to Dec. 5, 1952. Like many in the battalion, he was a career soldier who had experience in the Indochina wars. He died in 1995. His son heads the French Korean War Veterans Association.
A member of the French force who is well-remembered — even by the Korean public — is General Monclar.
“His real name is Raoul Charles Magrin-Vernerey, but in the French Forces, he was better known under the name of Monclar, a nickname for the resistance, used during the Second World War,” said Lefort. “In the early stages of the outbreak of the Korean War, General Monclar persuaded the deputy minister of defense to engage troops in Korea. He decided to bring himself in the war, but his rank was too high for commanding the battalion. So he accepted to lower his rank to lieutenant colonel, the only way to participate in the Korean War and to lead the French battalion on the battlefield.”
Forty-six French soldiers have been interred at the United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Korea in Busan. Seven soldiers’ remains were never recovered, but that statistic may be about to change.
In June last year, the Korean Ministry of National Defense Agency for KIA Recovery and Identification (Makri) found the remains of a soldier at the site of the Arrowhead Ridge.
“We have good reasons to believe, based on the articles found along with the remains, that the remains belong either to a French or an American soldier,” Korea’s Ministry of National Defense said in its statement in June 2019.
Families in France have been contacted and the authorities are in the process of matching DNA samples, said Ambassador Lefort.
“Meeting veterans is each time a deeply moving experience,” said the French ambassador. “Hwang shared with me memories of the war that he had never been able to share with his own family. By the time he was done telling his story, he had tears in his eyes, and so had I.”
The French diplomatic residence coincidentally holds Hwang's very first printmaking work, dated to 1968, and his most recent engraving work. Hwang gifted his piece “South North Korean Summit” to Lefort during their recent meeting in June.
“I can no longer meet every single French veteran of the Korean War to thank them, but I can at least show my gratitude to one French person,” Hwang said in a recorded interview with his staff members prior to meeting with Lefort.
“I came across several foreign soldiers during my service in the Korean War,” Hwang told the Korea JoongAng Daily in a Sept. 29 phone interview. “In one instance, against the booming sounds of the shells in the distance, I heard a young man crying. It was a young soldier. He spoke English, but I wasn’t sure where he was from. I asked him, ‘How could you come all the way here to risk your life for a country not your own?’ He said, ‘It is the will of my country to defend Korea.'”
In commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the war this year, the French Embassy in Seoul plans to join a ministerial summit with participating nations of the war in November organized by the Korean government. It will also host a photo exhibition at the end of November to commemorate the day the French Battalion arrived in Korea. A collection of photos of the battalion in Korea will be exhibited at Art Space in Busan from Nov. 28 to Dec. 13.
“In Paris, a ‘Wall of Names’ dedicated to the veterans will be inaugurated on Oct. 13, near the Korean War Memorial, an emblematic place where the Korean Embassy and veterans meet every year to commemorate the date of June 25,” Lefort said.
Also on Oct. 13 in Korea, the ambassador and his staff will be joining an annual event to honor one of the fallen, who, to his last breath, spoke of the Korean people.
“On May 8, 1951, after treating some Korean civilians in a nearby village, Military Doctor Major Jules Jean-Louis was on his way back to the French camp when he came across two soldiers of the 5th South Korean Division injured by a landmine,” Lefort said.
“He was also wounded,” Lefort said. “He succumbed soon after. His last words were: ‘Take care of the two wounded Koreans.’”
A statue of the doctor stands near the site to this day, in Hongcheon.
Every year on May 8, an official ceremony is held in his honor by the county office.
“France is always invited to participate,” Lefort said. “This year, due to Covid-19, the ceremony has been postponed to Oct. 13. I will be there personally.”
In July 1950 France deployed a warship, the Aviso "La Grandière," which participated in the landing of Incheon in September that year. The French Battalion arrived in Busan in November.
Throughout the war, France sent 3,421 soldiers, many of them volunteers. The battalion became the 4th Battalion in the 23rd Infantry Regiment of the United States.
The key battles of French participation include the battles of Wonju in Gangwon and Jipyeong-ri in Gyeonggi, the Battle of Heartbreak Ridge and Battle of Arrowhead Ridge in Gangwon.
A total of 269 Frenchmen died during the war, and 1,008 French soldiers were wounded in action, according to the French Embassy in Seoul. Seven soldiers remain missing.
Forty-six French soldiers have been interred at the United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Korea in Busan.
BY ESTHER CHUNG [email@example.com]
This series is a weekly publication in cooperation with the 70th Anniversary of the Korean War Commemoration Committee.