French Guerrilla War & German Retaliation during the Franco-Prussian War 1870

Posted by RTH Real Time History on

Last week the Germans defeated the French at the Battle of Orléans and peace negotiations stalled. This week the new French armies and Franc-tireurs guerillas are on the march again.

After the Battle of Orleans last week, Prussian and Bavarian units moving towards Paris are mopping up resistance from French snipers and Mobile Guards. On October 18, they encounter fierce resistance at the town of Châteaudun. About 1200 irregular Franc-tireurs and National Guardsmen are entrenched in the town, even though it has officially been declared an open city – which means it shouldn’t be defended or attacked.

The two sides shell each other until nightfall, when the Germans storm Châteaudun. There is bitter house-to-house fighting in the darkness, and the Germans are furious at the civilians and Franc-tireurs. As at Bazeilles in September, German troops take revenge by shooting residents and setting fire to 235 buildings. Thuringian soldier Karl Zeitz struggles to understand the violence all around him:

"I don't know how it started: our soldiers advanced one-by-one, rifle in one hand, burning brushwood in the other. They shouted [at the French]: 'So you want to defend house-by-house? […] Light them up! Burn them out!’ Repeatedly I tore the torches out of their hands and said ‘Shoot but don’t burn!’ They answered ‘The French would burn us if they could!’ […] Civilians, even women, took part in the battle. They were found […] killed with shots to the head […] No one who fought in this battle will ever forget it. Wohl jedem, der diesen Kampf mitgekämpft hat, wird er unvergeßlich bleiben."

Zeitz is an educated man, and he recognizes these events as a break with the civilized values of the time, like reason, religious faith, and progress. Zeitz experiences a new kind of warfare at Chateaudun, one that will rear its head again in the 20th century. In fact some Nazi war criminals on trial for executing hostages later used the precedent of Chateaudun in their defense.

 The French consider the burning of Chateaudun as German revenge for the spirited night-time defense, as historian Arthur Chuquet writes later:

"To avenge the unexpected resistance [General von Wittich] burned the town. Pour se venger de cette résistance imprévue, [le General von Wittich] brûla la ville." (Chuquet 167)

As late as the 1960s, French historians will praise the Franc-tireurs’ heroism, even though their resistance has no hope of succeeding and dooms the town to destruction.

As Chateaudun burns through the night on October 18, Meanwhile German and French forces in the east are also on the move.

Prussian writer Theodor Fontane is also in Besançon, where he’s being held in the citadel awaiting trial on charges of spying. He and his fellow German prisoners fear Garibaldi’s arrival but are also worried that they might be in danger if German artillery bombards the prison. Fontane shares his concern with the Fortress commander:

"[The commander answered]: ‘Yes, these upper vaults will be blown away in five minutes.' The comfort that flowed to [German prisoners] in response was understandably small [given] the prospect of being shot to death by their own countrymen's shells." (Fontane, 93).


The fighting in the east is small scale for now, but that will change in the months to come. The main French concern is Paris, and this week the French launch another attempt to break out of their besieged capital.


Paris has been encircled for a month, and on October 21 French troops try to break the German ring again. General Ducrot’s 10,000 men advance under covering fire from the guns of Fort Mont Valerien against General Hugo von Kirchbach’s V Corps. This is one of the weaker spots in the German lines around the capital, so attacking here in conjunction with a relief assault from outside the city would make sense.

Except that there is no help coming for Ducrot from the outside, since the Armee de la Loire is still too far away. The French republic does need to demonstrate its will to fight, but the attack at Malmaison doesn’t make military sense.

Major Eugène de Sarrepont sees no point in the action:

 "Could we hope that the ten thousand men of General Ducrot, young soldiers for the most part, would be vigorous enough to break through the enemy lines and fall, like an avalanche, on the [German] headquarters at Versailles?"

The battle does, however, cost lives. At first the fighting is primarily an artillery duel, followed by a French attack. As the Germans sense the advantage, they successfully storm the castles at Malmaison and Buzenval. The French lose about 400 men, the Germans about 300. The Germans also shoot two French civilians as Franc-tireurs. Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm writes of the futility of the French effort in his diary:

"Der Feind vermochte nicht einmal unsere Vorpostenlinie zum Wanken zu bringen - The enemy was not even able to move our outpost line." (Meisner 174)

French efforts at Malmaison and Buzenval have failed, and Paris remains surrounded. Just a few kilometres away at Versailles, German leaders argue amongst themselves as to whether Paris should starve or burn.

Since the siege is dragging on, so do German discussions about whether Paris should be bombarded. Bismarck sees that the French Republic is using events like the destruction of Châteaudun for propaganda purposes, and international opinion is turning against Prussia.


He and Minister for War Albrecht von Roon argue again for a massive bombardment to end the war. Bismarck’s press secretary Moritz Busch succeeds in firing up German newspapers in support of a bombardment. He reasons the French are at fault:

“It was claimed that Paris, with its [cultural] collections, should not be bombarded [...] it was a crime against civilization. But why not? Paris is a fortress [...] If the French did not want their monuments and their collections of books and paintings to be endangered by war, they could not surround them with fortifications." (Busch, 199f.)

But the Crown Prince and Von Moltke are still against it. They think a quick peace will benefit France, and that starving Paris is a better option, as the Crown Prince notes in his diary on the 22nd:

"Today, the first work for the construction of the siege batteries began. Although I have ordered that the preparations for the siege be carried out with the greatest diligence and all possible prudence, I still hope that through hunger alone we will force Paris to open its gates to us, and that many lives will thus be spared." (Meisner, 176)

Journalist Friedrich Engels, writing in London, is also against a bombardment. He reasons that Paris is simply too large to be destroyed, since it would take 1.5 million shells fired from 2000 guns every day to bring the city to its knees. He also argues that the Germans can’t afford to fail if they try:

“If the mere bombardment of Paris did not force the city to surrender, and such a bombardment took place nonetheless, it would be a military blunder of a kind that hardly anyone would blame on Moltke's staff: one would say that Paris had been bombarded not for military but for political reasons." (Engels, 187)

This week, the war is deadlocked. The fighting at Chateaudun brings only death and destruction, as does the latest attempt by the French to break the siege of Paris. Inflexible German territorial demands and the French Republic’s ongoing will to gain political legitimacy through resistance seem to leave little chance for peace. And at Versailles, the idea of crushing Paris under a hail of German shells is becoming more and more appealing…



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