This is a short post today, as it’s more of a musing than anything. I wanted to touch upon something that I recently came across while reading John West’s Fry the Brain: The Art of Urban Sniping and Its Role in Modern Guerrilla Warfare. Yeah, I know…long title. But in the opening chapters, Mr. West discusses the late 1800’s Francs-Tireurs, which I had not come across before.
The phrase dates back to the Franco-Prussian War between 1870-1871. Napoleon III declared war against Prussia on July 19, 1870 on the poor advice of his military advisers. On the opposing side, Otto von Bismark saw war with France as an opportunity to unify the newly-conquered German states into an empire. Bismark appointed Helmuth von Moltke, one of my favorite military generals and writers, as chief of staff.
Without going into details, General Moltke was a masterful leader and planner. His superior mobilization of force rather handily swept Napoleon’s forces aside. However, this isn’t really the point of today’s post. Instead, it’s what happened after the Prussian military entered France that I find interesting.
Depending on where you try to get a translation, this phrase has a lot of meanings in French. On one hand, describing someone as a “Franc-tireur” is more-or-less calling them a “Maverick,” someone who doesn’t play by the rules. On the other, I asked a French-speaking friend of mine what it meant, and he described it as “Free Shooters” or “Free Marksmen” where “free” meant unaffiliated. Google Translate simply says, “snipers.”
The Francs-Tireurs were effectively a band of highly-capable civilian marksmen who ground the Prussian forces to a halt through precision-fire ambush attacks and other means. In the book, John West describes the results as such:
Another site, Military History Now, describes how the Francs-Tireurs ambushed supply lines, destroyed bridges, and raided outposts. This drove the occupiers into a frenzy.
In response, the Prussian military considered this 19th century French Resistance group to be dishonorable assassins to be hunted down and killed on site. The response grew to include widespread reprisals against civilian targets and communities. Such actions only drove even more civilians into the ranks of the free shooters.
43 years later, as the German military once again marched into France as part of World War I, the prospect of the Francs-Tireurs loomed large. General Helmuth von Moltke the younger, nephew of the earlier famous general, warned that interference from the resistance would require summary executions and the indiscriminate burning down of villages.
And, once again, they faced the civilian snipers and resorted to harsh reprisals. Then again, the French Resistance made a name for itself with their exploits during WWII.
What’s this About, Matt?
You probably don’t come here to read about military history, and don’t really have much to care about a bunch of resistance fighters from over 100 years ago. I don’t blame you and my own nerdiness just can’t be contained at times.
So let me tell you why I like the story of the Francs-Tireurs. I think it speaks to the spirit of humanity. The story tells us that even in the face of numerically and technologically more capable forces, there is still room for motivated independent marksmen to make a difference. You only need the skill and fortitude to execute.
The story of the Francs-Tireurs as well as the hatred and legends they inspired should also be seen as a warning. The targets of such guerilla tactics are quickly enraged into unconscionable actions that result in yet more death and destruction. I suspect that such free riflemen are only remembered fondly precisely because history is written by the winners. Were the tables turned, then we may very well be talking about the free riflemen as a band of terrorists.
History is fickle like that.