You are here
Home > Cambodia > The pacification columns
A- A+ Print

CAMBODIA

The pacification columns

In January and February 1885, Pavie set out to restore the telegraph lines that had been destroyed between Kratie and Sambor. On 14th March he followed the Silvani column and the protectorate’s representative, Fourès, who were tasked with quelling the insurrection in the province of Banam. "40 French soldiers, 150 infantrymen… 200 Cambodians armed with sticks and spears." The French troops killed and destroyed as they went. Pavie suffered at the sight of the burned villages and pagodas and all of the dead. On 21st March, at Prey Veng, the column discovered a pit containing twenty corpses: "1800 metres of huts reduced to ashes, the trees are all reddish brown and the ground is completely black and it is a thousand times sadder than the semi-dried up beach that stretches in front..." En route to Pra Sre, the ruined pagoda gave Pavie the opportunity to express his anger: "The water is beautiful in the pagoda’s lake, but this too has been burned by us, everything is ruined, deserted… we find ourselves in a country that has been ruined by our soldiers. Every chance that I have had, I have said what I think of this way of making war. Now I no longer need to say anything; they understand me and often they apologise."

Listen to the audio extract

Télécharger l'extrait sonore

"The sailor who, to punish the rebel troop that surprised Sandret and his 70 men one night on the river bank, believing no doubt that he was doing right, set fire to the fine village that witnessed this disaster, and caused a thousand Chinese and two hundred Annamites to flee into the woods, did a stupid thing, and no-one can either deny or excuse it in any way. The rebels may well have laughed to see their ranks swelled by these desperate people. What has become of the inhabitants driven from their homes by fear? If they have destroyed our homes, it is because they consider us guilty, therefore we mustn’t show ourselves to the French; and so they are gone, young and old alike. They are in the forests trembling at the thought of being found, no doubt saying to themselves as they eat their dry rice, that they would not have believed that the war made by Europeans would have been so ill judged [...]. How will all of these people in the woods live when their provisions are exhausted…?"

"Oh! What one could say about the officers, three quarters of them destined never to rise above their current rank, who were transformed all at once into little generals, operating as they wished in any region! What a curious collection of dispatches and reports they would make with their war prose! In 3 months sixty battles fought, sixty victories, all counted, one hundred dead on the losing side there, and here 42 piled up; we took an empty straw hut by storm, the enemy only fled when they saw us close by. Reading all this, one would be frightened if one had not been warned. 110 thousand bullets spent and how many of ours have we had thrown to the ground? None. To read this would be instructive for the other officers. It would be good if we were to make them do so. It shows our temperament in such a deplorable light that everything is desirable to remedy it and this is a sure way of doing it. Certainly when giving an account of a crushing victory no general would dare put his name at the bottom of another of these grand-sounding reports. Otherwise it is another type, a representative of the country, inferior in his role who sets out in a column as if to something good, absolutely certain that the course that he is taking will have a happy outcome for him. What his personal qualities have until now not enabled him to achieve, will now be his, he believes. He only forgets one thing, that is that one must have success when one goes to war, and to return empty-handed, having all the trump cards in one’s hands does not establish the reputation of a man; that one must know how to keep one’s feelings to oneself when they are childish, and above all to fear ridicule, and that not even having the ability of sparing one’s pen the unfortunate words that will be regretted tomorrow is enough to categorise one."

The disarray of the young, poorly equipped French soldiers in this war did not escape Pavie’s notice. "The king [Sisowath] requires them to go to Sopreachan without stopping. The captain interrogates the soldiers, they are promised good lodgings if they march one more hour, marching in the water, just like last night. They wear shoes with hardened leather, full of earth (sand or mud) and water, half of them have already taken them off and are hobbling bare-foot, not being used to walking without shoes, their feet injured either by chippings, bamboo, the dry grasses, or by their inadequate footwear […]. The captain says: That’s it, let us go straight to our destination, it will only be another hour, it's not much to speak of and we will avoid the rain that is sure to fall tonight. And off we go again, and see how the column extends because the soldiers cannot march close together when their feet hurt and their legs are stiff and aching, and the captain arrives at the stopping place much put out because he has heard some unpleasant words that he cannot reply to because they are sincere and he has a good heart... Some still speak as they are marching; there are others who no longer say anything but who have big hearts and are making an effort to follow the captain, others stop, can go no longer, they salute the king as he passes by, which they know is very good for a soldier, attempting to maintain a military bearing in spite of their exhaustion, and the Khmer king feels pity for their misery and we are disconcerted to see our troops falling behind the Cambodians who march as they are accustomed to, being simply hungry. It must be said that these soldiers are young men and that the fault lies with their leaders who make them leave without a change of clothing to march in the rain and the water […]"