Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.

Prussian Francs-Tireurs

Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, December 9, 1870;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

For some time past the reports of village-burning by the Prussians in France had pretty nearly disappeared from the press. We began to hope that the Prussian authorities had discovered their mistake and stopped such proceedings in the interest of their own troops. We were mistaken. The papers again teem with news about the shooting of prisoners and the destroying of villages. The Berlin Borsen Courier reports, under date Versailles, Nov. 20: —

Yesterday the first wounded and prisoners arrived from the action near Dreux on the 17th. Short work was made with the francs-tireurs, and an example was made of them; they were placed in a row, and one after the other got a bullet through his head. A general order for the whole army has been published forbidding most expressly to bring them in as prisoners, and ordering to shoot them down by drumhead court-martial wherever they show themselves. Against these disgracefully cowardly brigands and ragamuffins [Lumpengesindel] such a proceeding has become an absolute necessity.

Again, the Vienna Tages-Presse says, under the same date: —

“In the forest of Villeneuve you could have seen, for the last week, four francs-tireurs strung up for shooting at our Uhlans from the woods.”

An official report dated Versailles, the 26th of November, states that the country people all around Orléans, instigated to fight by the priests, who have been ordered by Bishop Dupanloup to preach a crusade, have begun a guerilla warfare against the Germans; patrols are fired at, officers carrying orders shot down by labourers seemingly working in the field: to avenge which assassinations all non-soldiers carrying arms are immediately executed. Not a few priests are now awaiting trial — seventy-seven.

These are but a few instances, which might be multiplied almost infinitely, so that it appears a settled purpose with the Prussians to carry on these brutalities up to the end of the war. Under these circumstances, it may be as well to call their attention once more to some facts in modern Prussian history.

The present King of Prussia can perfectly recollect the time of his country’s deepest degradation, the Battle of Jena, the long flight to the Oder, the successive capitulations of almost the whole of the Prussian troops, the retreat of the remainder behind the Vistula, the complete downbreak of the whole military and political system of the country. Then it was that, under the shelter of a Pomeranian coast fortress, private initiative, private patriotism, commenced a new active resistance against the enemy. A simple cornet of dragoons, Schill, began at Kolberg to form a free corps (Gallice, francs-tireurs), with which, assisted by the inhabitants, he surprised patrols, detachments, and field-posts, secured public moneys, provisions, war Matériel, took the French General Victor prisoner, prepared a general insurrection of the country in the rear of the French and on their line of communication, and generally did all those things which are now laid to the charge of the French francs-tireurs, and which are visited on the part of the Prussians by the titles of brigands and ragamuffins, and by a “bullet through the head” of disarmed prisoners. But the father of the present King of Prussia d sanctioned them expressly and promoted Schill. It is well known that this same Schill in 1809, when Prussia was at peace but Austria at war with France, led his regiment out on a campaign of his own against Napoleon, quite Garibaldi-like; that he was killed at Stralsund and his men taken prisoner. Out of these, all of whom Napoleon, according to Prussian war rules, had a perfect right to shoot, he merely had eleven officers shot at Wesel. Over the graves of these eleven francs-tireurs the father of the present King of Prussia, much against his will, but compelled by public feeling in the army and out of it, had to erect a memorial in their honour.

No sooner had there been a practical beginning of freeshooting among the Prussians than they, as becomes a nation of thinkers, proceeded to bring the thing into a system and work out the theory of it. The theorist of freeshooting, the great philosophical franc-tireur among them, was no other than Anton Neithardt von Gneisenau, some time field marshal in the service of his Prussian Majesty. Gneisenau had defended Kolberg in 1807; he had had some of Schill’s francs-tireurs under him; he had been assisted vigorously in his defence by the inhabitants of the place, who could not even lay claim to the title of national guards, mobile or sedentary, and who therefore, according to recent Prussian notions, clearly deserved to be “immediately executed.” But Gneisenau was so impressed by the greatness of the resources which an invaded country possessed in an energetic popular resistance that he made it his study for a series of years how this resistance could be best organized. The guerilla war in Spain, the rising of the Russian peasants on the line of the French retreat from Moscow, gave him fresh examples; and in 1813 he could proceed to put his theory in practice.

In August, 1811, already Gneisenau had formed a plan for the preparation of a popular insurrection. A militia is to be organized which is to have no uniform but a military cap (Gallice, képi) and black and white belt, perhaps a military great-coat; in short, as near as can be, the uniform of the present French francs-tireurs.

“If the enemy should appear in superior strength, the arms, caps, and belt, are bid, and the militiamen appear as simple inhabitants of the country.”

The very thing which the Prussians now consider a crime to be punished by a bullet or a rope. These militia troops are to harass the enemy, to interrupt his communications, to take or destroy his convoys of supplies, to avoid regular attacks, and to retire into woods or bogs before masses of regular soldiers.

“The clergy of all denominations me to be ordered, as soon as the war breaks out, to preach insurrection, to paint French oppression in the blackest colours, to remind the people of the Jews under the Maccabees, and to tall upon them to follow their example. ... Every clergyman is to administer an oath to fits parishioners that they will not surrender any provisions, arms, &c., to the enemy until compelled by actual force”

in fact, they are to preach the same crusade which the Bishop of Orleans has ordered his priests to preach, and for which not a few French priests are now awaiting their trial.

Whoever will take up the second volume of Professor Pertz’s “Life of Gneisenau,” will find, facing the title-page of the second volume, a reproduction of part of the above passage as a facsimile of Gneisenau’s handwriting. Facing it is the facsimile of King Frederick William’s marginal note to it: —

“As soon as one clergyman shall have been shot this will come to an end.”

Evidently the King had no great faith in the heroism of his clergy. But this did not prevent him from expressly sanctioning Gneisenau’s plans; nor did it prevent, a few years later, when the very men who had driven out the French were arrested and prosecuted as “demagogues,” one of the intelligent demagogue-hunters of the time, into whose hands the original document had fallen, from instituting proceedings against the unknown author of this attempt to excite people to the shooting of the clergy!

Up to 1813 Gneisenau never tired in preparing not only the regular army but also popular insurrection as a means to shake off the French yoke. When at last the war came, it was at once accompanied by insurrection, peasant resistance, and francs-tireurs. The country between the Weser and Elbe rose to arms in April; a little later on the people about Magdeburg rose; Gneisenau himself wrote to friends in Franconia — the letter is published by Pertz — calling on them to rise upon the enemy’s line of communications. Then at last came the official recognition of this popular warfare, the Landsturm-Ordnung of the 21st of April, 1813 (published in July only), in which every able-bodied man who is not in the ranks of either line or landwehr is called upon to join his landsturm battalion, to prepare for the sacred struggle of self-defence which sanctions every means. The landsturm is to harass both the advance and the retreat of the enemy, to keep him constantly on the alert, to fall upon his trains of ammunition and provisions, his couriers, recruits, and hospitals, to surprise him at nights, to annihilate his stragglers and detachments, to lame and to bring insecurity into his every movement; on the other hand, to assist the Prussian army, to escort money, provisions, ammunition, prisoners, &c. In fact, this law may be called a complete vade-mecum for the franc-tireur, and, drawn up as it is by no mean strategist, it is as applicable to-day in France as it was at that time in Germany.

Fortunately for Napoleon, it was but very imperfectly carried out. The King was frightened by his own handiwork. To allow the people to fight for themselves, without the King’s command, was too anti-Prussian. Thus the landsturm was suspended until the King was to call upon it, which he never did. Gneisenau chafed, but managed finally to do without the landsturm. If he were alive now, with all his Prussian after-experiences, perhaps he would see his beau-ideal of popular resistance approached, if not realized, in the French francs-tireurs. For Gneisenau was a man — and a man of genius.