The Francs-tireur

Are defined as “Francs-tireurs” those irregular combatants who, without uniform, make disruptive actions against a regular army. They are civilians, or disbanded soldiers, to whom the law of war does not recognize the status of fighter. Already in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 French civilians had taken up arms to attack the Prussian troops behind or so considered not suited to military traditions. The mobilization of French civilians was the result of the revolutionary tradition and republican. The commands Prussians considered the “Francs-tireurs” as a serious danger because unpredictable and unrecognizable.The experience of the war of 1870-71 left a deep mark in Germany, leading to a widespread fear - almost paranoid - of any reaction of civilians in Belgium. Every minimal threat to the smooth running of military operations was perceived as a very serious threat, causing reactions completely disproportionate: fires of entire villages, reprisals on civilians.

By an order of General von Moltke, August 12, 1914

[From] now on every non-uniformed person, if he is not designated as being justified in participating of fighting by clearly recognizable insignia, is to be treated as someone standing outside international law, if he takes part in the fighting, interferes with German communications with the rear, cuts telegraph lines, causes explosions, in short participates in any way in the act of war without permission. He will be treated as a franc-tireur and immediately shot according the martial law."

From the diary of a German soldier, August 19, 1914

“ Our cavalry patrols, we hear, are being shot at in the villages again and again. Several poor fellows have already lost their lives. Disgraceful! An honest bullet in honest battle – yes, then one has shed one's blood for the Fatherland. But to be sot from ambush, from the window of a house, the gun barrel hidden behind flowers posts, no, that is not a nice soldierly death.

Herr Otto Hahn

“ The Battalion I joined as offizierstellvertreter was soon moved to the Western Front. Time and time again, particularly in the first half of August, the men's nervousness manifested itself in alarms about Belgian snipers. The sight of windmill was enough to start a rumour that the Belgians were transmitting messages by code by means of the positions of the sails. Catholic priests were favourite suspects as transmitters of such secret messages. During our entirely peaceful advance behind the front line I once saw a non commissioned officer of my platoon training his rifle on a man running at some distance. I asked him why he was doing that, and his answer was: “It's one of those  Belgian snipers, he's thrown away his uniform and is trying to get away.” As evidence he showed me a tunic lying in a wet ditch where it had undoubtedly been for days.

A Dutch journalist of the newspaper "De Tijd" writes from Liege

“The mad fury was also intensified considerably by the accusations about gruesome mutilations committed on German soldiers by Belgians who where said to have cut off the noses, ears, genitals and so on of their enemies. Those rumours were so persistent that in the end it was generally believed in neutral countries that these things had happened frequently."

From the letter of an officer, published on the "Deutsche Tageszeitung"

“ We have to shoot practically every town and village to smithereens, as we did yesterday, for civilians, above all women, shoot at the troops as they past. Yesterday civilians shot at the infantry from the church tower in X. and wiped out half a company of brave soldiers. The civilians were fetched down and executed and the village was shot in flames.  A woman chopped off the head of an injured Uhlan. She was caught and had to carry the had to Y., where she was killed. My great men are full of courage. They are ardent of vengeance. They protect their officers, and whenever they catch franc-tireurs etc, they string them up from the roadside trees.

From a despatch sent by Major von Bassewitz relative to a gunfight in the Alsatian village of Freiburg. Presumably German friendly fire induced by fear of francs-tireurs

“Last night shoots were fired. It has not been proved that the citizens of the town still have weapons in their possession. Nor has it been proved that the population took part in the firing. On the contrary, the impression is unavoidable that German soldiers, under the influence of alcohol, in quiet incomprehensible fear of enemy attack, opened fire. The conduct of the soldiers last night, with few exceptions, has made a completely shameful impression. It is most regrettable when officers or NCOs set fire to houses and incite the men to burn and pillage by their conduct without permission or order of the most superior officer."


The tracks (with the exception of the third) are taken from the book of J. Horne and A. Kramer, German Atrocities 1914. A History of Denial, New Haven – London, 2001, pp. 94ss.

For the testimony of Otto Hahn: Lyn Macdonald, 1914-1918: Voices & Images of the Great War, Michael Joseph, London, 1988