Partisans in the Franco-Prussian War

The war between France and Prussia began in mid-July 1870; two months later the French armies were beaten, the emperor had abdicated, Paris was under siege and Moltke, the German commander in chief, was reasonably certain that he would be back on his farm in Silesia in October in time for the hunting season. But outside Paris a government of national defense had taken over with the ringing slogan, guerre à l’outrance, and a huge new army was mobilized by Gambetta and his military deputy, Freycinet. The underlying concept was that this new army should act as a vast guerrilla force, harassing the enemy rather than engaging in frontal attack. Memories of the Vendee and of Spain were conjured up; some of the partisan units were commanded by officers who were descendants of leading Vendee rebels such as La Rochejacquelin. The guerrilla concept did not lack plausibility; the Germans had an efficiently organized fighting machine, but they might well find themselves hard pressed to adjust to an unfamiliar type of war. It was thought, furthermore, that guerrilla warfare would give the French soldier a chance to exhibit his real prowess. In the first phase of the war the soldiers had fought well, whereas the higher command had failed. Guerrilla warfare, however, demanded no staff experience and planning; it could be carried on by zealous citizens even if they had no profound knowledge of strategic theory or its practice.

The new government nevertheless decided on 29 September 1870 to put the franc tireur units under the general command of the army. In all, some fifty-seven thousand officers and men enlisted in the free corps (corps francs); some small units of perhaps two to three thousand men had been in existence even before then.64 But the original enthusiasm for a vast chouannerie did not last, for several reasons. Above all, Gambetta realized that it would take time to organize a people’s war, longer time than was available to lessen the pressure on the besieged capital. Hence, priority had of necessity to be given to the establishing of a new regular army which could be readied more quickly to help relieve Paris. Secondly, there was passive resistance on the part both of army officers and the civil administration. There were reports that the franc tireurs were misbehaving, scandalizing the population by their brigandage, and that they were none too eager to engage the enemy. New measures were proclaimed to intensify control over the free corps; each such unit was to be directly responsible to the local military command, every officer had to report twice weekly on the activities of his unit. On 14 January 1871 it was announced that no new free corps would be established.

The opposition to franc tireur operations stemmed partly from the innate conservatism of unimaginative army officers who feared that with the spread of partisan units the line between soldier and civilian would be blurred.66 But their aversion was not entirely unjustified, for the franc tireurs indeed lacked discipline, they were incapable of carrying out sustained military operations, joining or absenting themselves from their units as it suited them. Lastly, patriotic enthusiasm was strongest in the towns and weakest in the countryside. The peasants did not receive the Germans with open arms, and more often than not they refused to collaborate, but neither was there any great willingness on their part to leave home and farm to join the franc tireurs. There was a general feeling of apathy, and since the Chouans lacked enthusiasm, there could be no chouannerie.

The jranc tireurs were badly equipped, their leadership was indifferent and they missed countless opportunities. Even their two most spectacular operations were of no military significance. By the time they mined the viaduct of Fontenoy (22 January 1871), the railway line was no longer of vital importance for the Germans. And the capture of the village of Le Bourget, north of Paris (the site long since of a famous airport), by Parisian franc tireurs on 27 October 1870 provided a psychological boost but little more; the Germans took it back four days later.

And yet, uncoordinated and badly executed as partisan warfare was, it produced some startling results. As the war progressed — and as it emerged once it was over — the Germans had to deploy some hundred and twenty thousand men, a quarter of their total force, to protect their lines of communication, mainly the railways. The people’s war between the Seine and Loire caught the Germans altogether unprepared, both politically and militarily. Politically, because Bismarck feared that the longer the war lasted, the more likely the diplomatic intervention of the other European powers, which would deprive the Germans of at least some of the fruits of victory. On that count alone, Bismarck had every incentive to bring the war to a speedy end. Militarily, the Prussians were superbly prepared to fight against a regular army, but an elusive enemy was not that easy to destroy. France is a big country, the German armies combined numbered fewer than half a million soldiers and the farther they advanced, the more thinned out they became, for garrisons had to be left behind in every town and strongpoint that was occupied; not too small garrisons either since an attack or an insurrection could never be ruled out. Altogether the Germans lost more than a thousand men in franc tireur warfare, a not insubstantial figure in terms of casualties in general. Of more import was the pervasive atmosphere of insecurity generated by franc tireur operations, and German commentators freely admitted after the war that the irregulars had caused them serious problems. A people’s war conjured up the specter of a revolution. The Germans would have greatly preferred to make peace with the emperor; instead, they had to deal with a republican government, and there was the danger of further radicalization.

The war was conducted cruelly on both sides; the franc tireurs committed acts of individual terror, the Germans retaliated by executing hostages and burning villages. French publicists, including Victor Hugo, called blatantly for total war, the extermination of every last German; Frau Bismarck was not alone in suggesting to her husband that all Frenchmen should be shot and stabbed to death down to the smallest infant. But Bismarck and the old emperor, despite occasional expressions of violent anger, were sober and farsighted enough to reject such advice. They rightly feared the incalculable consequences for the future relations between France and Germany if these atrocities should spread and become common practice.

The franc tireur war consisted of innumerable small actions such as destroying railway lines and bridges; the French irregulars also tried to blow up tunnels but lacked the know-how and sufficient quantities of explosives. On several occasions they succeeded in freeing transports of French prisoners of war. Thus, on the road from Soissons to Chateau Thierry, between three to four hundred prisoners escaped during a franc tireur attack. Telegraph lines were cut and supply columns attacked. The scope of franc tireurs activities would have been wider but for the lack of cavalry which restricted their movements on the whole to forests and other inaccessible regions. They engaged in night attacks on small German garrisons, as at Chatillon in November 1870. In this instance the Germans lost 192 officers and men. Many of these were taken prisoner and the French threatened that they would be executed unless the Germans treated captured irregulars as prisoners of war. Auxon, near Troyes, had to be evacuated temporarily under franc tireur pressure, and a first German attempt to enter the city of St. Quentin and to arrest the local prefect was beaten back. The Bavarians and the troops of the Grand Duke of Mecklenburg ran into difficulties near Orléans, on the road to Chartres and in the Dijon area, and almost invariably in hilly or wooded country.

The franc tireur units, hastily established, were a mixed bag and it is almost impossible to generalize about their composition, political orientation and military efficiency. Some bands had only a handful of members, others several hundred. Most were set up on a local basis, with the men fighting in the vicinity of their homes, but there were also partisan units from Bretagne, from Nice and from North Africa, not to mention Garibaldi’s irregulars. They wore every kind of fantasy uniform, and some wore no uniform at all. Some were radical left wing in inspiration, a number had a conservative and monarchist bias. Some were relatively well organized and disciplined and operated to all intents and purposes as small military units would have done. Others, wandering aimlessly from village to village, showed greater proclivity for marauding than fighting the German enemy.

After all the initial enthusiasm for a people’s war, French resistance collapsed during the early months of 1871. France was not the Vendée or Spain; the great majority of Frenchmen, much as they hated the Germans, lacked the fanaticism and the stamina for the guerre à l’outrance which had been so loudly proclaimed at the start. The psychological shock of the defeat had been immense; for two centuries, if not longer, Frenchmen had believed their country to be militarily superior to all other European powers, and the surrender of their armies had destroyed their self-confidence — it was not just a crisis but a national disaster, the collapse of a whole world. To prolong resistance now, was the despondent attitude, would be but to devastate their towns and villages further, to no conceivably different end. It is idle to speculate what might have happened if resistance had continued for six more months or even a year. Moltke and the war party were only too eager to carry on the campaign, but domestic pressure on them to end it was growing. It was not only Bismarck’s apprehensions about diplomatic intervention, but the war was becoming increasingly expensive, and daily more unpopular at home. Even the front-line troops were weary and the war minister, Roon, wrote that it might take years to occupy the whole of France. But the years were not called upon: French resistance faded and died away first. Guerrilla warfare, as the average Frenchman saw it, would never bring about the liberation of his country, whereas peace would perhaps open new perspectives and possibilities for a national recovery. Which all points up the more strongly that the operations of the franc tireurs neither could nor did change anything insofar as the military results of the war or — even less — the conditions of the peace treaty were concerned. German demands certainly did not become more moderate as the people’s war continued. It was political considerations at the last, however, quite unconnected with events on the battlefield, that fairly narrowly circumscribed the terms that Germany could finally impose on her defeated neighbor.


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