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Bob Seals Articles
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MacArthur and Baseball
U.S. Army Model 1913 Cavalry Saber
Into the Special Forces: Rudi Horvath
Polo and the US Army Officer Corps
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Book Review: Lions of Kandahar
Chinese Support for Vietnam
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Bob Seals Book Reviews
Alvin York
The Last Valley

Book Review - The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam by Martin Windrow

The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam
by Martin Windrow

List Price: $30.00  Hardback: 734 Pages
Publisher: Da Capo Press
Publish Date: December 14, 2004

Book Review

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.

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