Francs-tireurs - Encyclopedia

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FRANCS - TIREURS (" Free-Shooters"), irregular troops, almost exclusively infantry, employed by the French in the war of 1870-1871. They were originally rifle clubs or unofficial military societies formed in the east of France at the time of the Luxemburg crisis of 1867. The members were chiefly concerned with the practice of rifle-shooting, and were expected in war to act as light troops. As under the then system of conscription the greater part of the nation's military energy was allowed to run to waste, the francs-tireurs were not only popular, but efficient workers in their sphere of action. As they wore no uniforms, were armed with the best existing rifles and elected their own officers, the government made repeated attempts to bring the societies, which were at once a valuable asset to the armed strength of France and a possible menace to internal order, under military discipline. This was strenuously resisted by the societies, to their sorrow as it turned out, for the Germans treated captured francs-tireurs as irresponsible non-combatants found with arms in their hands and usually exacted the death penalty. In July 1870, at the outbreak of the war, the societies were brought under the control of the minister of war and organized for field service, but it was not until the 4th of November - by which time the levee en masse 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 reconnoitring parties, surprising small posts, &c. It is now acknowledged, even by the Germans, that though the francs-tireurs did relatively little active mischief, they 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 inproved with experience. Their most celebrated feats were the blowing up of the Moselle railway bridge at Fontenoy on the 22nd of January 1871 '(see' Les Chasseurs des Vosges by Lieut.-Colonel St Etienne, Toul, 1906), and the heroic defence of Chateaudun by Lipowski's Paris corps and the francs-tireurs of Cannes and Nantes (October 18, 1870). It cannot be denied that the original members of the rifle clubs were joined by many bad characters, but the patriotism of the majority was unquestionable, for little mercy was shown by the Germans to those francs-tireurs who fell into their hands. The severity of the German reprisals is itself the best testimony to the fear and anxiety inspired by the presence of active bands of francs-tireurs on the flanks and in rear of the invaders.

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