The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in
by Martin Windrow
List Price: $30.00 Hardback: 734 Pages
Publisher: Da Capo Press
Publish Date: December 14, 2004
by Bob Seals
The Last Valley: Book Review
Very rarely is a book published that not only causes military historians and
professionals to significantly alter their thinking about a conflict or battle
but additionally becomes the new definitive account by which all other similar
references are judged. The recently published The Last Valley by Mr.
Martin Windrow manages to accomplish both of these considerable tasks with ease
regarding the battle of Dien Bien Phu and the First Indochina War from 1946-54.
Mr. Windrow, a name familiar to many military readers, especially those with an
interest in modern era French Military History, is the previous author of
numerous books on the French Foreign Legion and Army to include several
excellent volumes from the soft backed Osprey Military Men At Arms Series.
In The Last Valley: The Battle that doomed the French empire and led America
into Vietnam, Mr. Windrow offers a factual historical survey of the
first Vietnam War and the climatic battle of Dien Bien Phu, one of the most
significant engagements of the twenty century but one relatively unknown or
ignored by contemporary military professionals. The author faced a daunting
task, following in the footsteps of accomplished previous Dien Bien Phu
narrators to include French author Benard B. Fall, a Vietnam reporting legend,
who wrote the 1966 classic Hell in a Very Small Place , before later
dying while on patrol with U.S Marines in Vietnam. It is inevitable to judge
all Dien Bien Phu work’s by Fall’s 1960’s classic; however, Windrow’s account
must now assume the mantle of definitiveness. The author has, through a pain
staking analysis of both French and Vietnamese primary and secondary sources,
muddy boots on the remote battlefield’s ground, and aerial photograph
comparisons, produced a gold mine of new and unique material not found anywhere
else. In particular, his maps, many drawn with the aid of surviving 50 year old
aerial photographs, and surveyed using the wing span of a crashed French C-47
Dakota on the airstrip as a datum point, offer a new level of detail and
analysis. Windrow also destroys many commonly accepted myths of the battle with
considerable ease, such as the collapse of French Commander Colonel De Castries
and the drumhead “purging” of the French led 5th Vietnamese Parachute
Battalion, BPVN, during the battle. Previous accounts had this hard luck unit,
after parachuting into the besieged valley and failing in their first
counterattack, purged of hundreds of Vietnamese “stragglers and cowards” by its
Battalion Commander. This legend is just that, a legend, as the 5th BPVN
continued to fight effectively for an additional two months against their
Communist counterparts until the garrison capitulated on the 7th of May.
Additionally, his analysis of the Communist Viet Minh supply system and the
amateurish French Air Force bombing and re-supply efforts also provide insights
into why Dien Bien Phu became such a debacle for the French Expeditionary Corps
some 50 years ago.
In his preface Mr. Windrow states that “Dien Bien Phu is one of those battles
which has been so loaded down with historical significance that the actual
events are trapped behind an unusually thick distorting lens of hindsight.” The
Last Valley provides the military professional a superlative set of reading
glasses with which to penetrate the distortions and truly understand the battle
of Dien Bien Phu.
Bob Seals, USA SF Retired.
General Dynamics IT, FBNC
The Last Valley , 2004 by Martin Windrow, is published by Da Capo
Press, Cambridge, MA, 657 pages, 21 maps, 40 black and white photographs,
$30.00, hard back.
Copyright © 2006 Bob Seals.
Written by Bob Seals. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Bob Seals at:
About the author:
Bob Seals is a retired Army Special Forces officer employed by General Dynamics at the Special Operations Mission Training Center on Fort Bragg. He lives on a small horse farm with his wife, a retired Army Veterinary Corps officer, and son, who both ride polocrosse and hunt with the Moore County Hounds. His duties include Stable Sergeant, groom and horse holder for his more accomplished family.
Published online: 05/17/2006.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.