After France lost the battle of Sedan, some of the best defenses of French territory were conducted by franc-tireurs, or what we would call snipers, operating "American Revolution" style, civilians sharp-shooting from cover (as opposed to the European formation infantry). They were originally organized as light infantry, as an "adjunct" to the military, as "irregular" troops.

When captured, franc-tireurs were summarily executed by the Germans. The reason given were that they were ununiformed troops without a chain of command. (only the first of four Geneva Conventions had been adopted by 1871). So two questions arise:

1) Why didn't the French military issue uniforms, badges, and chains of command to militia units that had been organized, and were operating as franc-tireurs in order to comply with then-existing military customs?

2) Why didn't the "regular" French military adopt "guerrilla tactics?"

Put another way, was there a genuine fear/feeling that "lack of uniform" was only an "excuse" for executing guerrillas, and that even regular soldiers performing as guerrillas would be executed?

  • 5
    "or what we would call snipers, operating "American" style, sharp-shooting from cover (as opposed to the European formation infantry)" - is there any source for that? According to what I've read on Franco-Prussian war, during it franc-tireurs operated as common guerillas, not as dedicated sharpshooters. Commented Nov 22, 2017 at 3:59
  • 1
    @DanilaSmirnov: Clarified the text by saying "American Revolution" style, which was guerrilla warfare (see the link on Lexington and Concord). By the Civil War, "American" tactics were closer to European tactics, as an answerer pointed out. But the American revolutionaries often "got away" with things that got irregular French soldiers executed.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Nov 24, 2017 at 12:44
  • I am having a hard time understanding how the French could influence the Germans after the fact of capture of these irregulars. They (the French Imperial forces) were getting their backsides handed to them. Commented Nov 25, 2017 at 0:56

1 Answer 1


In 1870-1, the most comprehensive outline for Modern Rules of War was that formulated by Francis Lieber in 1863 (the Lieber Code, Section IV), and commissioned by President Lincoln, unilaterally directed for the conduct of Union Armies. Our modern, stricter, guidelines for conduct of war between civilized nations only begins a generation after 1870-1, with the series of International Hague and Geneva Conventions that began in 1899.

Lieber attempts to clearly formulate the distinction between partisans - public enemies entitled to the full protection as prisoners of war when captured - and any other miscellaneous brigands and prowlers who were NOT public enemies and thus NOT entitled to such protections.

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 inroads 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. 84.

Armed prowlers, by whatever names they may be called, or persons of the enemy's territory, who steal within the lines of the hostile army for the purpose of robbing, killing, or of destroying bridges, roads or canals, or of robbing or destroying the mail, or of cutting the telegraph wires, are not entitled to the privileges of the prisoner of war.

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.

In order to earn the privilege of being a public enemy, and be entitled to treatment as a prisoner of war when captured, certain obligations had to be met. Along with wearing a uniform that, in some clear manner, distinguished one as a soldier it was also necessary to be "sharing continuously in the war". This is a key concept that civilians forget - as soon as one "goes home, removes one's uniform, and hides the gun in the closet" one is dis-entitled from being recognized as a partisan entitled to protection as a public enemy; even after getting up the next day and resuming the pretence of being a soldier.

One of the particular details which Lieber clearly gets right was in dealing with the lack of supplies for Confederate armies. In order to remain clothed while serving, many Confederate soldiers found it necessary to loot dead Union soldiers for their uniforms, putting them in the position of marching into combat in the uniform of their enemies. Lieber found no fault with this, provided simply that a clear, distinctive strike of some sort be worn or attached over such, to clearly mark the wearer as a hostile combatant.

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.

So no; by the best rules of engagement available at the time, the Prussians were quite entitled to treat the franc-tireurs as brigands. Their very resistance to authority and commissioning as formal troops that drove the French military command to distraction also disqualified them from consideration as partisans under the Lieber Code.

  • 1
    Sadly, the modern media doesn't know any of this. sigh Commented Nov 25, 2017 at 0:58
  • 1
    @KorvinStarmast: All we can do is write up the best possible answers to questions, and hope some avid journalist stumbles on them from time to time. Commented Nov 25, 2017 at 1:09
  • 1
    Amen, Pieter, Amen. Commented Nov 25, 2017 at 1:12
  • 1
    Your excellent answer inspired this passage in my Revolutionary War novel. "According to the rules of war, fighters who were not in uniform, and who were not full time soldiers, could be executed when captured in possession of arms... That's why the American army and state militias were careful to issue uniforms to soldiers, and to enlist them for definite periods of time, even as little as thirty days, and retrieve their weapons when they left." Thank you.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Oct 14, 2021 at 2:54

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.