The German military invades France and within a matter of weeks it cuts off, encircles and captures almost the whole of the French army. Following up on the lighting-fast victory, Paris is surrounded. Soon the capital is in the invaders’ hands. The German occupiers, believing the war already won, suddenly find themselves confronting an unexpected threat – a vast underground resistance movement that’s hell bent on ambush, sabotage and terror. Overwhelmed by the persistence of these shadowy guerrilla units, the occupiers retaliate by savaging civilian populations and burning whole towns and villages to the ground. In spite of the reprisals, the insurgent raids continue until the day the foreign invaders withdraw from France completely.
Although this may sound a lot like a description of the French Underground in the Second World War, it’s also the story of the francs-tireurs or “free shooters” of the Franco Prussian War of 1870 and 1871. While the exploits of the resistance of World War Two have become the stuff of legend, history often forgets that French guerrillas mounted their own campaign against German occupiers a full 70 years before the Nazi Blitzkrieg.
The francs-tireurs, which excelled at harassing the Prussian army during the invasion of the Second French Empire, evolved from recreational shooting clubs and patriotic organizations that sprang up across France during the 1860s. Towards the end of that decade, France and Prussia were growing increasingly hostile. Paris eyed the machinations of the Prussian leader Otto Von Bismarck with mounting suspicion, as the famous statesman worked to fuse the disparate patchwork of Germanic duchies, kingdoms and principalities into a single geopolitical juggernaut. As the 1860s wore on, war between the two powers seem inevitable. While the French army and forces of the Prussian coalition were, for the most part, evenly matched, France’s paramilitary societies began stockpiling small arms and training for a possible invasion. By the outbreak of war in 1870, there were as many as 57,000 citizen francs-tireurs ready to take up arms in an emergency. It wasn’t too long before they would be called into action.
In July 1870, Napoleon III finally declared war on Prussia. The emperor was furious with Bismarck for trying to foist a German prince onto the empty throne of Spain. The Prussian statesman, who was thrilled at the prospect of war, marched his 1.2-million-man army into action. The Prussians and their allies from Bavaria, Baden, Wurttemberg and Hesse-Darmstadt used the new German rail system to mobilize their troops with unprecedented speed. Within days of Paris’ inauguration of hostilities, the Germans were pouring west across the border. The French, caught flat footed by the astonishing speed of the enemy deployment, fell back in disarray. Throughout August, the Prussians and their allies hammered the French at Wissembourg, Forbach, Wörth and Mars-La-Tour. Reeling from the defeats, the defenders withdrew to the fortress of Metz. More than 150,000 Prussians laid seige to the city. Napoleon III took control of the newly formed French Army of Châlons and marched to his the city’s relief. But the Prussian commander, Helmuth von Moltke (the elder), handily intercepted and outmaneuvered his opponent at the Battle of Sedan on Sept. 1. By the end of the day, 3,000 French soldiers lay dead, another 14,000 were wounded and a staggering 100,000 were prisoners of war. Among those captured was Emperor Napoleon III himself! Three days later, disheartened French republicans launched a coup d’etat that toppled the national regime and immediately sued Berlin for peace. The Germans accepted but demanded territories in Africa and Alsace and Lorraine as compensation for France’s declaration of war. Paris refused to cede an inch of native French soil and the fighting soon resumed.
On Sept. 19, the Prussians reached the enemy capital and besieged the city.
Preserving a Nation’s Honour?
Perhaps the only bright spot in France’s largely regrettable prosecution of the war with Prussia came from the francs-tireurs.
As soon as war was declared, the French war ministry took steps to integrate the francs-tireurs into the regular army. Some units were brought into the fold and were routed along with the main force of French troops. Other francs-tireurs resisted calls to join the national army. They waited for the Prussian army to roll past and then emerged to harass and confound the occupiers. Considered bandits and terrorists by the Prussians, the francs-tireurs ambushed German supply columns, destroyed vital bridges, and raided Prussian outposts. In one action, a combined force of three columns of partisans even prevented the capture of the town of Chateaudun north of Paris.
The Prussians responded to the francs-tireurs with the same sort of ruthlessness that would be seen in the World Wars. In addition to ordering murderous reprisals against civilians in the vicinity of any attack, any free-shooters the Germans did capture were summarily executed. Despite this, whole Prussian battalions that might have served on the frontlines, were forced into anti-partisan sweeps of regions in which the francs-tireurs were known to operate. Undeterred, the guerrillas continued to assail the Prussians until the end of the war.
With the fall of Napoleon III’s regime and the rise of the republic, the French government ordered full conscription. The order brought most of the remaining francs-tireurs into the regular army. Some units did continue to wage guerrilla war in the Prussian rear echelon however until early 1871 when the German siege of Paris led to the surrender of the starving city.
By February, the republic and Berlin agreed to an armistice – the newly established German Empire would take the border region of Alsace and Lorraine and vacate the rest of France. Those regions wouldn’t be restored to France until the 1919 Treaty of Versailles.
The Future Francs-tireurs
The end of the Franco Prussian War. Francs-tireurs of a different sort would emerge in Belgium 43 years later. As the Germans invaded the neutral country as part of the notorious Von Schlieffen Plan of 1914, they would once again face free shooters. After the Belgian national army was routed, patriotic citizen rifle corps would continue the fight against the Kaiser’s troops. Guerrillas sniped and harassed the invading German’s, who then retaliated against the civilian population. In one such reprisal the entire city of Leuven was put to the torch and 250 men, women and children were killed. In other instances, hundreds of civilians at Aarschot, Andenne Dinant and Tamines were executed in revenge for attacks against German troops by Francs-tireurs. It became known as the Rape of Belgium. During the Second World War, Nazi occupiers would once again tangle with francs-tireurs, which was the name many of the various French Underground organizations that operated between 1940 and 1944 used to describe themselves.