Battle of Fuzhou

Battle of Fuzhou

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of Fuzhou
partof=the Sino-French War

caption=The Battle of Fuzhou, 23 August 1884 (19th century painting)
date=23 August, 1884 – 26 August, 1884
place=Mawei Harbour, Fuzhou, China
result=Decisive French victory
strength1=22 ships
strength2=13 ships
casualties1=796 dead
150 wounded
51 missing
9 ships sunk
10+ ships damaged
casualties2=10 dead
48 wounded
2 ships damaged
The Battle of Fuzhou (Chinese: 馬江海戰), a naval battle fought on 23 August 1884, was the opening battle of the Sino-French War (August 1884–April 1885). During the battle Admiral Amédée Courbet's Far East Squadron virtually destroyed the Fujian Fleet, one of China's four regional fleets.


On 11 May 1884 French and Chinese negotiators concluded the Tientsin Accord, an agreement designed to end several months of undeclared hostilities between France and China in Tonkin. On 23 June 1884, French troops advancing to occupy Lang Son, in accordance with the terms of this agreement, clashed near the small town of Bac Le with a detachment of the Chinese Guangxi Army. The Chinese opened fire on the advancing French, precipitating a two-day battle in which the French column was seriously mauled. This incident, the Bac Le Ambush, was the proximate cause of the Sino-French War.

When news of the Bac Le Ambush reached Paris, there was fury at what was perceived as blatant Chinese treachery. Jules Ferry’s government demanded an apology, an indemnity, and the immediate implementation of the terms of the Tianjin Accord. The Chinese government agreed to negotiate, but refused to apologise or pay an indemnity. The mood in France was against compromise, and although negotiations continued throughout July, Admiral Courbet was ordered to take his squadron to Fuzhou (Foochow). He was instructed to prepare to attack the Chinese fleet in the harbour and to destroy the Foochow Navy Yard.

French and Chinese forces

Only a fraction of the Far East squadron was present off Fuzhou on the morning of 23 August. In particular, none of the Far East squadron's four ironclads was immediately available. "Bayard", Courbet's flagship, was at Sharp Peak near the island of Matsu, guarding a vital telegraph station. "Atalante" was hunting down pirate ships in the Gulf of Tonkin. Courbet had summoned the ironclads "Triomphante" from Shanghai and "La Galissonnière" from Jilong to join him off Fuzhou, but "La Galissonnière" had been detained at Jilong by bad weather, and although "Triomphante" was approaching the Min River, it was not clear whether she would be able to cross the bar at its entrance.

Courbet had under his immediate command the first-class cruisers "Duguay-Trouin", "Villars" and "d’Estaing", the third-class cruiser "Volta" (which he chose as his flagship during the engagement), the gunboats "Lynx", "Aspic" and "Vipère" and Torpedo Boats No. 45 and No. 46. The second-class cruiser "Château-Renaud" and the troopship "Saône" had been left at the Jinpai pass, at the entrance to the Min River, to stop the Chinese from laying a barrage to prevent the squadron's escape.

The Chinese Fujian fleet consisted of the wooden corvette "Yangwu" (the flagship), the scout-transports "Chenhang", "Yongbao", "Fupo", "Feiyun" and "Ji'an", the paddle steamer "Yixin", the wooden gunboats "Zhenwei" and "Fuxing", and the Rendel flatiron gunboats "Fusheng" and "Jiansheng". Twelve large junks were nearby, but did not take part in the battle. The French squadron displaced 14,500 tons and included 1,780 men, while the eleven warships in the Chinese fleet displaced 8,000 tons, and included 1,040 men. The French squadron was much better-led and better-armed than the Chinese fleet. Only a few of the Chinese ships were capable of offering serious resistance to Courbet’s attack. The Chinese defence was under the command of the imperial commissioner Zhang Peilun (張佩綸), one of the leading members of China's war party. [Lung Chang, "Yuen-nan yu Chung-fa chan-cheng", 286]

"Table 1: Composition of the Fujian fleet, August 1884"

The battle

Negotiations between France and China broke down in mid-August, and on the evening of 22 August Courbet was authorised by the French government to commence hostilities. He duly notified the foreign consuls, the governor-general of Fujian and Zhejiang, and the commanders of several neutral warships moored at the Pagoda anchorage (the British gunboats "Vigilant", "Champion" and "Sapphire" and the American corvette "Enterprise").

The French began their attack at 2 p.m. on Saturday 23 August. At the outset of the battle the Chinese flagship "Yangwu" was successfully attacked with a spar torpedo by Torpedo Boat No. 46 ("lieutenant de vaisseau" Douzans) and grounded. The French torpedo boat suffered damage to her boiler during this attack. The despatch vessel "Fuxing" was attacked less successfully by Torpedo Boat No. 45 ("lieutenant de vaisseau" Latour), and was subsequently crippled by "Volta"'s torpedo launch and carried by boarding by a force of French sailors under the command of "lieutenant de vaisseau" Augustin Boué de Lapeyrère, the future French admiral. She had already been set alight by French shellfire, and was eventually abandoned by the French prize crew and sank in the middle of the Min River. "Zhenwei" was blown up by a single shell from the ironclad "Triomphante", which joined the French squadron minutes before the battle began. "Chenhang", "Yongbao", "Feiyun", "Ji'an", "Fusheng" and "Jiansheng" were either sunk or set alight by shellfire from the cruisers "Duguay-Trouin", "Villars" and "d’Estaing". Only "Fupo" and "Yixin" survived the battle without serious damage, by escaping upriver before the gunboats "Lynx", "Aspic" and "Vipère" had a chance to engage them.

Before they were put out of action the outgunned Chinese vessels concentrated their fire on the French flagship "Volta", hoping to kill Courbet and the officers of his entourage. Several sailors aboard the French cruiser were killed or wounded, and shortly after the start of the battle a roundshot ploughed through Courbet's command group on the flagship's bridge, killing the British pilot Thomas and only narrowly missing "capitaine de frégate" Gigon, "Volta"'s captain. A few minutes later splinters from an exploding Chinese shell wounded "lieutenant de vaisseau" Ravel, Courbet's aide de camp.

The fighting ended at 5 p.m., but during the night of 23 August the Chinese made a number of unsuccessful attacks with fireships on the French warships, obliging some of them to shift their anchorages to evade them.

On 24 August the French bombarded the Foochow Arsenal, damaging a number of outbuildings and holing the sloop "Henghai" ("Heng-hai", 橫海), still under construction and lying on the slips. As the Arsenal was defended by organised groups of infantry, Courbet cancelled a planned attack at the last moment. In spite of the French bombardment, the Foochow Arsenal suffered relatively light damage. [Duboc, "Trente cinq mois de campagne", 252–5; Ferrero, "Formose, vue par un marin français", 65–8; Huard, "La guerre du Tonkin", 382–403; Loir, "L’escadre de l’amiral Courbet", 124–41; Rollet de l’Isle, "Au Tonkin et dans les mers de Chine", 171–85; Thomazi, "La conquête de l’Indochine", 207–9; Wright, "The Chinese Steam Navy", 62–3]

Descent of the Min River

On 25 August, after receiving the congratulations of the captains of the neutral warships on the professionalism displayed by the French squadron during the action of 23 August, Courbet began to lead his squadron back down the Min River. On 25 and 26 August he bombarded the Tianluowan (田螺灣) and Min'an (閩安) batteries, two Chinese shore batteries covering the approach to Fuzhou through the narrow Min'an Pass. The Chinese batteries, built to fire only on enemy ships approaching from the mouth of the river, were taken in reverse and destroyed by the heavy ships "Duguay-Trouin" and "Triomphante". On 27 and 28 August the French squadron bombarded and destroyed the Chinese defences at the Jinpai pass near the entrance to the Min River. The Jinpai (金牌) and Changmen (長門) batteries, known to the French as Fort Kimpai and the White Fort (Fort Blanc), were put out of action, and the French also inflicted heavy casualties on a number of Chinese field batteries and infantry formations. However, before its guns were destroyed the White Fort was able to inflict moderate damage on the French ironclad "La Galissonnière", which had sailed up from Jilong to join Courbet's squadron and attempted unsuccessfully to fight its way into the Min River. Chinese infantry at the Jinpai pass also killed or wounded several French sailors aboard the gunboat "Vipère" on 27 August. [Duboc, "Trente cinq mois de campagne", 255–60; Loir, "L’escadre de l’amiral Courbet", 145–68; Lung Chang, "Yueh-nan yu Chung-fa chan-cheng", 280–1; Rollet de l’Isle, "Au Tonkin et dans les mers de Chine", 186–200; Thomazi, "La conquête de l’Indochine", 209–12]


The losses of the French squadron in the course of the operations before Fuzhou and in the Min River were relatively light (10 dead and 48 wounded). Most of these casualties were inflicted not by shellfire during the engagement of 23 August but by sniper fire from Chinese infantry during the squadron's descent of the Min River. With the exception of "La Galissonnière" and Torpedo Boat No. 46, none of Courbet’s vessels suffered serious damage. Courbet estimated Chinese casualties at between 2,000 and 3,000 dead. The commemorative tablets in a shrine erected shortly after the war at the Pagoda anchorage to honour the Chinese dead list the names of 831 sailors and soldiers killed on 23 August, but this list does not include the hundreds of Chinese soldiers killed by the French during their descent of the Min River.

The Chinese imperial commissioner Zhang Peilun, who made no serious attempt to coordinate the resistance of the Fujian fleet, was degraded after the battle and replaced by the veteran general Zuo Zongtang (左宗棠). He Jing (何璟), the governor-general of Fujian and Zhejiang, Zhang Zhaotong (張兆棟), the governor of Fujian, and He Ruzhang (何如璋), the director-general of the Foochow Navy Yard, were also degraded. The Fujianese general Mu Tushan (穆圖善), who had directed the defence of the Jinpai pass on 27 and 28 August with skill and energy, kept his job. [Lung Chang, "Yueh-nan yu Chung-fa chan-cheng", 281]

The Cantonese naval officer Zhang Cheng (張成), a graduate of the Foochow naval college and captain of the Chinese flagship "Yangwu", abandoned ship as soon as the battle started and was later beheaded for cowardice. [Rawlinson, "China's Struggle for Naval Development", 119 and 263]

Factors in the French victory

One of the factors in the French victory at Fuzhou was that the French squadron had sailed up the Min River in time of peace. The Chinese claimed after the battle, with some justice, that the French would never have been able to ascend the river if the two countries had been at war. A second important factor was the absence from the battle of the modern battleships "Dingyuan" and "Zhenyuan", which had recently been completed in Germany for China's Beiyang Fleet (Northern Seas fleet). The Chinese battleships were more powerful than any of the ships under Courbet's command, and in December 1883, foreseeing that war with China was imminent, the French persuaded the German government to detain them in the event of hostilities. The German government invented a number of plausible excuses for keeping the three battleships in port, and they remained in Germany for the duration of the Sino-French War. They were finally released in July 1885, and joined the Northern Seas fleet in October of the same year. [Wright, "The Chinese Steam Navy", 51–4 and 66]

Disunity in the Chinese command structure was also an important factor in the Chinese defeat. Despite appeals from Zhang Peilun and direct orders from the Empress Dowager Cixi, the commanders of China's other three regional fleets declined to send ships to reinforce the Fujian Fleet. "Feiyun" and "Ji'an", two Fujian vessels which had been loaned to the Guangdong Fleet in 1882 to observe French movements in the Gulf of Tonkin, were sent back to Fuzhou in early August by Zhang Zhidong, the governor-general of the two Guangs, arriving just in time to share the fate of their comrades in the forthcoming battle. However, Zhang did not release any of his own Guangdong ships. Li Hongzhang defied an order to send two ships from the Beiyang Fleet to Fuzhou, and the Zhejiang governor Liu Bingzhang (劉秉璋) refused to release the Nanyang ship "Chaowu". [Rawlinson, "China's Struggle for Naval Development", 113–16]

hips involved in Min River actions





* Destelan, P., "Annam et Tonkin: Notes de voyage d'un marin" (Paris, 1892)
* Duboc, E., "Trente cinq mois de campagne en Chine, au Tonkin" (Paris, 1899)
* Ferrero, S., "Formose, vue par un marin français du XIXe siècle" (Paris, 2005)
* Huard, "La guerre du Tonkin" (Paris, 1887)
* Loir, M., "L'escadre de l'amiral Courbet" (Paris, 1886)
* Lung Chang [龍章] , "Yueh-nan yu Chung-fa chan-cheng" [越南與中法戰爭, Vietnam and the Sino-French War] (Taipei, 1993)
* Rawlinson, J., "China's Struggle for Naval Development, 1839–1895" (Harvard, 1967)
* Rollet de l'Isle, M., "Au Tonkin et dans les mers de Chine" (Paris, 1886)
* Thomazi, A., "La conquête de l'Indochine" (Paris, 1934)
* Vienet, R., 'Devant le champ de bataille de Mawei (Chine)', "La Géographie", 1525 (June 2007), 31–53
* Wright, R., "The Chinese Steam Navy, 1862–1945" (London, 2001)

ee also

* Fuzhou

External links

* [ Account of the battle]

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