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Capture of a Franc-Tireur, by Carl Johann Lasch

The phrase francs-tireurs (literally "free shooters") was used to describe irregular military formations deployed by France during the early stages of the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871) and from that usage it is sometimes used to refer more generally to guerrilla fighters who fight outside the laws of war[1][2]. The term was revived and used by French partisans to describe the French Resistance movements set up by the French against the Germans during World War II[3].

During the wars of the French Revolution, a franc-tireur was a member of a corps of light infantry organized separately from the regular army. The Spanish word francotirador and the Portuguese word franco-atirador, meaning sharpshooter or sniper, are derived from the word franc-tireur.


Franco-Prussian War

On September 1 of 1870, in a Bazeilles house, Ardennes, France, surrounded French soldiers fought against Prussian invaders to the very last bullets. Alphonse de Neuville painting, Les dernières cartouches (the last cartridges), 1873.

Francs-tireurs were an outgrowth of rifle clubs or unofficial military societies formed in the east of France at the time of the Luxembourg crisis of 1867 (for which, see History of Luxembourg). The members were chiefly concerned with the practice of rifle-shooting, and were expected in war to act as light troops. They wore no uniforms, were armed with the best existing rifles, and elected their own officers.

In the words of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, they "were at once a valuable asset to the armed strength of France and a possible menace to internal order under military discipline." The societies strenuously and effectively resisted all efforts to bring them under normal military discipline. The Germans executed captured francs-tireurs as irresponsible non-combatants found with arms in their hands.

In July 1870, at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, the societies were brought under the control of the minister of war and organized for field service, but it was not until November 4 by which time the levée en masse (universal conscription) was in force that they were placed under the orders of the generals in the field. After that they were sometimes organized in large bodies and incorporated in the mass of the armies, but more usually they continued to work in small bands, blowing up culverts on the invaders' lines of communication, cutting off small reconnaissance parties, surprising small posts, etc.

The 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica describes it as "now acknowledged, even by the Germans," that the francs-tireurs, by these relatively unconventional tactics, "paralysed large detachments of the enemy, contested every step of his advance (as in the Loire campaign), and prevented him from gaining information, and that their soldierly qualities improved with experience."

Francs-tireurs blew up the Moselle railway bridge at Fontenoy, January 22, 1871. The defense of Chateaudun (October 18, 1870) was conducted by francs-tireurs of Cannes and Nantes, along with Lipowski's Paris corps.

The francs-tireurs were often vilified by the German armies and popular press as murderers and highwaymen and seemed to the Germans to have an unerring sense of the most vulnerable parts of the German armies in France. An ambush by francs-tireurs often resulted in violent German reprisals against the nearest village or town. Whole regiments or divisions often took part in "pacifying actions" in areas with significant franc-tireur activity and bred a lasting enmity and hatred between the occupying German soldiers and French civilians.

World War I

The experiences of French guerrilla attacks and of asymmetric warfare in general during the Franco-Prussian War had a profound effect on the German General Staff, resulting in the unusually harsh and severe occupation of areas conquered by Germany during World War I.

After the war, General Erich Ludendorff, Germany’s chief military strategist and its commander-in-chief on the Western Front at the end of the war tried to defend German behavior in his 1919, two-volume Meine Kriegserinnerungen, 1914-1918, which was published that same year in London by Hutchinson as My War Memories, 1914–1918 and in New York by Harper as Ludendorff’s Own Story, August 1914–November 1918.

In an article in the September 13, 1919 issue of Illustrated London News G. K. Chesterton responded to Ludendorff's book by remarking:

It is astounding how clumsy Prussians are at this sort of thing. Ludendorff cannot be a fool, at any rate, at his own trade; for his military measures were often very effective. But without being a fool when he effects his measures, he becomes a most lurid and lamentable fool when he justifies them. For in fact he could not have chosen a more unfortunate example. A franc-tireur is emphatically not a person whose warfare is bound to disgust any soldier. He is emphatically not a type about which a general soldierly spirit feels any bitterness. He is not a perfidious or barbarous or fantastically fiendish foe. On the contrary, a franc-tireur is generally a man for whom any generous soldier would be sorry, as he would for an honourable prisoner of war. What is a franc-tireur? A franc-tireur is a free man, who fights to defend his own farm or family against foreign aggressors, but who does not happen to possess certain badges and articles of clothing catalogued by Prussia in 1870. In other words, a franc-tireur is you or I or any other healthy man who found himself, when attacked, in accidental possession of a gun or pistol, and not in accidental possession of a particular cap or a particular pair of trousers. The distinction is not a moral distinction at all, but a crude and recent official distinction made by the militarism of Potsdam.

World War II

Monument honouring the FTP-MOI in Père Lachaise cemetery.

The Francs-tireurs partisans (FTP, "Partisan irregular riflemen") were fighting formations of the French Resistance during World War II, which had as political front the Front National movement, created by French Communist Party (PCF) members Jacques Duclos and Pierre Villon.

They took their name from French irregular light infantry and saboteurs, first employed in the Franco-Prussian War.

Initially called Organisation Spéciale (OS), they were created by the Communist Party of France (PCF). A number of their leaders had served in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War (for instance, "Colonel" Henri Rol-Tanguy).

Although individual communists had opposed the German occupation, prior to the German invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 (see Great Patriotic War) the official communist position was not to offer resistance.

FTP became the first resistance group in France to deliberately kill a German. The FTP were integrated in the Forces Françaises de l'Intérieur in February 1944. Called the "party of 80,000 executed people" (le parti des 80 000 fusillés), the PCF's electoral success after World War II was, to a large extent, due to its prestige as a centre of resistance.

The foreign workers' section, FTP-MOI (Franc Tireurs Partisans-Main d'Oeuvre Immigrée; see French-language article FTP MOI) became especially famous when the Missak Manouchian Group was captured, its members executed, and the execution publicly advertised in the infamous Affiche Rouge. Another FTP-MOI member was Alter Mojze Goldman, father of Pierre Goldman and Jean-Jacques Goldman.

Prisoner status

The term Francs-tireurs has been used for an armed fighter who, if captured, is not necessarily entitled to prisoner of war status. This issue was a point of disagreement at the 1899 Hague Conference and was the genesis for the Martens Clause. The Martens Clause was introduced as a compromise wording for the dispute between the Great Powers who considered francs-tireurs to be unlawful combatants subject to execution on capture and smaller states who maintained that they should be considered lawful combatants[4][5].

In the Hostages Trial (or, officially, 'The United States of America vs. Wilhelm List, et al.), the seventh of the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials, the tribunal found that on the question of partisans, the then current laws of war (the Hague Convention No. IV from 1907), the partisan fighters in southeast Europe could not be considered lawful belligerents under Article 1 of said convention[6]. On Wilhelm List, the tribunal stated

"We are obliged to hold that such guerrillas were francs tireurs who, upon capture, could be subjected to the death penalty. Consequently, no criminal responsibility attaches to the defendant List because of the execution of captured partisans..."[6]

With the Geneva Conventions, namely Article 4 of the Third Geneva Convention of 1949, francs-tireurs were entitled to prisoner of war status provided that they are commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates, have a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance, carry arms openly and conduct their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war.


Le Franc-Tireur was the name of an underground French Resistance newspaper.




  1. ^ Rupert Ticehurst The Martens Clause and the Laws of Armed Conflict 30 April 1997, International Review of the Red Cross no 317, p.125-134
  2. ^ See the sections in this article Franco-Prussian War and Prisoner status and the article Hostages Trial
  3. ^ French Partisans
  4. ^ Rupert Ticehurst The Martens Clause and the Laws of Armed Conflict 30 April 1997, International Review of the Red Cross no 317, p.125-134. In hist footnote 1 cites The life and works of Martens are detailed by V. Pustogarov, "Fyodor Fyodorovich Martens (1845-1909) — A Humanist of Modern Times", International Review of the Red Cross (IRRC), No. 312, May-June 1996, pp. 300-314.
  5. ^ Rupert Ticehurst The Martens Clause and the Laws of Armed Conflict 30 April 1997, International Review of the Red Cross no 317, p.125-134. In hist footnote 2 cites F. Kalshoven, Constraints on the Waging of War, Martinus Nijhoff, Dordrecht, 1987, p. 14.
  6. ^ a b The hostages trial, trial of Wilhelm List and others: Notes held at University of the West of England original source: United Nations War Crimes Commission. Law Reports of Trials of War Criminals. Volume VIII, 1949


  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
  • The 1911 EB references Les Chasseurs des Vosges by Lt. Colonel St. Etienne, Toul, 1906, about the blowing up of the Moselle railway bridge.
  • Audoin-Rouzeau, Stéphane. 1870: La France dans la guerre. Paris: Armand Colin, 1989.
  • Horne, John and Alan Kramer. German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.
  • Howard, Michael. The Franco Prussian War: The German Invasion of France, 1870-1871. 1961. London and New York: Routledge, 1988.
  • Stoneman, Mark R. “The Bavarian Army and French Civilians in the War of 1870-1871: A Cultural Interpretation.” In: War in History 8.3 (2001): 271-93. Reprinted in Peter H. Wilson, ed., Warfare in Europe 1825-1914. The International Library of Essays on Military History, ed. Jeremy Black. Ashgate Publishing, 2006. 135-58. abstract

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