Immediately prior to the battle of Sedan, the German soldiers who captured the town of Bazeilles executed a number of armed civilians who had been firing on German troops that day. This happened in the context of the more long running bands of the Francs-tireurs, who had been harrying German movement during the Franco-Prussian war.

  1. What was the standard of the law of war regarding irregular combatants, with or without device, with or without military discipline, at this time

    a. In the Germanies

    b. In France

    c. In neighbouring European countries?

  2. What cultural phenomena governed the morality of lawful and unlawful warfare in Europe amongst Europeans in the late 19th century?

  3. How did German and French states and cultures

    a. Characterise the actions of their armed forces, armed civilians and opponents forces in cultural terms?

    b. Produce or justify these characterisations to the satisfaction of a large body of their citizen or subject population in Europe?

  • 5
    If something is morally correct or not can perhaps be discussed at philosophy.SE. But it certainly is not a question of history. Commented Feb 8, 2014 at 8:23
  • 1
    Close - ditto to LR.
    – user2590
    Commented Feb 8, 2014 at 8:35
  • 2
    This question could be saved by discussing comparative law of war of the 19th century, comparative morality of war of the 19th century, historical concepts of civilian, or the historical reciprocal national imaginaries of France and Germany. Commented Feb 8, 2014 at 9:59
  • 1
    I have reworded the question to ask for its (19th century) CONTEXT, and wonder if it can be re-opened in its current form.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Feb 8, 2014 at 18:23
  • 1
    I think these questions -as edited - can now be properly answered. Commented Feb 9, 2014 at 6:25

1 Answer 1


Prior to the Franco Prussian War of 1870, the only formal international treaties on the conduct of war were:

  1. 1856 Paris Declaration Respecting Maritime Law, which Privateering
  2. 1864 Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field which codified the treatment of wounded in the field and the protection of medical personnel wearing the Red Cross.

However the Lieber Code (Instructions for the Government of the Armies of the United States in the Field), which would form the basis of future Geneva Convention on the conduct of warfare, had been declared and signed by President Lincoln 24 April, 1863.

Lieber argued that three functional factors distinguished a soldier, who was entitled to all the protections of the laws of war, from a guerrilla, who was not: the presence of uniforms, an organized command structure and the capacity to manage prisoners of war. Such factors trumped the more traditional consideration of a formal commission from one of the belligerent parties. - NY Times 24 Apr, 2013

Art. 52. No belligerent has the right to declare that he will treat every captured man in arms of a levy ' en masse ' as a brigand or bandit. If, however, the people of a country, or any portion of the same, already occupied by an army, rise against it, they are violators of the laws of war, and are not entitled to their protection.

Art. 60. It is against the usage of modern war to resolve, in hatred and revenge, to give no quarter. No body of troops has the right to declare that it will not give, and therefore will not expect, quarter; but a commander is permitted to direct his troops to give no quarter, in great straits, when his own salvation makes it impossible to cumber himself with prisoners.

Art. 61. Troops that give no quarter have no right to kill enemies already disabled on the ground, or prisoners captured by other troops.

Art. 62. All troops of the enemy known or discovered to give no quarter in general, or to any portion of the army, receive none.

Art. 63. Troops who fight in the uniform of their enemies, without any plain, striking, and uniform mark of distinction of their own, can expect no quarter.

Art. 81. Partisans are soldiers armed and wearing the uniform of their army, but belonging to a corps which acts detached from the main body for the purpose of making in roads into the territory occupied by the enemy. If captured, they are entitled to all the privileges of the prisoner of war.

Art. 82. Men, or squads of men, who commit hostilities, whether by fighting, or inroads for destruction or plunder, or by raids of any kind, without commission, without being part and portion of the organized hostile army, and without sharing continuously in the war, but who do so with intermitting returns to their homes and avocations, or with the occasional assumption of the semblance of peaceful pursuits, divesting themselves of the character or appearance of soldiers -- such men, or squads of men, are not public enemies, and, therefore, if captured, are not entitled to the privileges of prisoners of war, but shall be treated summarily as highway robbers or pirates.

Art. 85. War-rebels are persons within an occupied territory who rise in arms against the occupying or conquering army, or against the authorities established by the same. If captured, they may suffer death, whether they rise singly, in small or large bands, and whether called upon to do so by their own, but expelled, government or not. They are not prisoners of war; nor are they if discovered and secured before their conspiracy has matured to an actual rising or armed violence.

Art. 112. If the bearer of a flag of truce offer himself during an engagement, he can be admitted as a very rare exception only. It is no breach of good faith to retain such flag of truce, if admitted during the engagement. Firing is not required to cease on the appearance of a flag of truce in battle.

It would seem from the above that the summary execution of civilians firing upon Bavarian troops without being properly commissioned and uniformed as partisans, would have been allowable under the Lieber Code.

  • Excellent partial answer, and the core answer required to move onto the cultural issues of whether people thought this was moral and how they described and coloured its moral status. Commented Feb 9, 2014 at 22:06
  • @SamuelRussell: How astute; I wasn't feeling well and got tired for the day. Commented Feb 9, 2014 at 22:17
  • (It was meant to be high praise, I apologise if it appeared to be anything else.) Commented Feb 10, 2014 at 2:40
  • Art. 2. "The inhabitants of a territory which has not been occupied, who, on the approach of the enemy, spontaneously take up arms to resist the invading troops without having had time to organize themselves in accordance with Article 1, shall be regarded as belligerents if they carry arms openly and if they respect the laws and customs of war." -hague conventions 1907/1899 later but significant
    – pugsville
    Commented Apr 7, 2016 at 3:24
  • It's that "if they carry arms openly and if they respect the laws and customs of war" which is tricky for a citizen to wrap his mind around. Hide the gun in your closet and you are not carrying it openly, and become a common criminal. Commented Apr 7, 2016 at 3:27

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