Rise of Guerrilla Warfare & Daring Balloon Escapes - The Franco-Prussian War Early October 1870

Posted by RTH Real Time History on

This week on Glory and Defeat: a French minister takes flight, Franc-tireurs ambush the Germans near Paris, and the Germans take revenge: https://youtu.be/wa44-lN3siA

Last week the Germans captured Strasbourg, famous German writer Theodor Fontane arrived in France to report on the war, and a French attack at Chevilly failed.

By this week, the beginning of October 1870, the Germans essentially see the war as having been decided: Paris and Metz are under siege, symbolically important Strasbourg has been captured, and the French Empire and its army no longer exist. The French Republic has barely any armies outside Paris, but the days of traditional battles and clear-cut German victories are over. The war is becoming a bitter series of partisan raids and revenge attacks fuelled by chauvinistic hatred.
The war could be ended, but the German demands for French territory mean the Third Republic has to continue fighting if it wants to preserve its legitimacy. Outside of Paris, the French government is building up new armies to continue the struggle, and clings to the hope that Marshal Bazaine’s forces might somehow break out of Metz – but to most the cause seems lost. Both sides’ decisions mean that this war won’t be over anytime soon.
On October 5, the Germans establish their grand headquarters at Versailles. The 3rd German Army command is already there, but now they’re joined by Moltke, King Wilhelm, Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, and of course Bismarck. It’s lesser-known Prussian politician Rudolph von Dellbrück though, who’s preparing the groundwork for the planned unification of the German Empire. The possibility of a single Kaiserreich is foreseen in the constitution of the North German Confederation:

"The relations of the Confederation with the South German states shall be regulated […] by special treaties to be submitted to the Reichstag for approval. The entry of all or any of the South German States into the Confederation shall be effected on the proposal of the Federal Presidium by way of federal legislation." (Huber, 285).

Delegations from Württemberg, Baden, Bavaria, Hesse and Saxony arrived at Versailles to discuss the terms, and to extract concessions from the northerners if they can.

Bismarck rarely has time to write to his wife Johanna, but he does manage an apology this week: "[...] so don't be angry with me, the ink-stained world of business has caught up with me on my journey, and overwhelms me such that I hate the inkwell from which it flows [...]." (N.N., 50)

While the internal German political horse-trading is going on at Versailles, on October 7 Interior French Interior Minister Léon Gambetta is charged with organizing military resistance in the provinces – and promptly takes flight.

Over the past few weeks, famous photographer Nadar oversees the manufacture of hot air balloons that can be used to observe German positions, or fly out carrier pigeons. Since the balloons fly out but not in, the pigeons’ return trips are the only way information can reach Paris from the outside world.
The balloons also fly out more than two million letters during the siege – and they often have messages for the Germans too. French balloon operators drop tens of thousands of propaganda leaflets over German lines to remind them of their fatherly duties and encourage them to desert: "In any case, the siege will last a long time, and already one sees Germany far from home for the entire winter, the flower of her people far from wife and child, wailing in misery for their breadwinners." (Cited in Tissandier, 22)
Not all balloons reach their destination though. The Germans shoot down many of the mail balloons, and letters from Paris were a coveted souvenir to send home.
The same day the leftist and nationalist Minister Gambetta becomes responsible for the war outside Paris, he uses one of Nadar’s balloons to make a spectacular escape from the blockaded capital. At eleven o'clock he takes to the air in a balloon named 'Armand-Barbès' from the Place Saint-Pierre at the foot of Montmartre, but there’s no clear plan: the group simply hopes to land where there are no Germans. His and a second balloon are fired upon as they cross over Prussian lines, including by the first-ever anti-aircraft guns used in history. Gambetta is lightly wounded on the hand, though the French press exaggerates with claims of 100,000 bullets fired.

Around 4 p.m., Gambetta's balloon lands in Épineuse, about 100 kilometers north of Paris. The mayor of the small-town guides Gambetta through the Prussian lines undetected, and Gambetta safely reaches the French-held city of Tours. Tours is the centre of the government’s plan to form new armies outside Paris, armies that are being armed mostly with weapons imported from the United States. On October 9 Gambetta issues a proclamation preparing the public for mass conscription:
"We must finally put all our immense resources to work [...] and at last inaugurate national war. [...] Let us rise en masse and die rather than suffer shame and dismemberment - Levons-nous donc en masse et mourons plutôt que de subir la honte et le démembrement." (Steenackers/Le Goff, 22f.)
Gambetta also meets Italian nationalist hero of the Risorgimento Giuseppe Garibaldi, who puts himself at the service of the French republic along with his troops. The 180 former Papal Zouaves who have fled Rome since its capture by Italy also arrive in Tours this week, under the command of the anti-Prussian arch-Catholic Comte Athanase Charles Marie de Charette de la Contrie.

Gambetta is leading French efforts at re-arming for an all-out war. What this guerre à outrance actually means in practice is experienced first-hand by German soldiers and French civilians this week at Ablis.
Block 3: Attack at Ablis
One element of Gambetta’s “national war to the extreme” are the irregular Franc-tireurs, or free shooters, who only wear partial uniforms and sometimes none at all. They operate in small units to engage in partisan-style attacks, and are able to melt into the familiar terrain and civilian surroundings.

The Germans do not recognize them as regular combatants and execute any they capture. Villages or towns where Franc-tireurs attack German troops are forced to pay large fines, and if they refuse the Germans set them on fire. From the German point of view, these are legitimate wartime measures, but others consider it targeted terror. The difficulty in identifying irregular troops means that German authorities also execute some innocent Frenchmen. These policies lead to criticisms of Germany abroad, and increasing hatred in France.

Journalist Friedrich Engels paints a stark picture for British readers of the Pall Mall Gazette: "A Bavarian officer writes from the vicinity of Orléans that his unit had burned five villages in twelve days. It is no exaggeration: wherever the German flying columns march into the heart of France, their path is all too often marked with fire and blood. (Engels, 222)

Even if the Franc-tireurs pose a serious threat to the German army, which is far from clear, there is a legitimate debate about whether German retaliatory acts can be considered war crimes. On the other hand, although the Hague Land Warfare Regulations are not in force in 1870, Franc-tireur guerilla warfare is also problematic.

On the night of October 7-8, at Ablis, Franc-tireurs ambush a unit of hussars from Schleswig-Holstein in their sleep. The French then execute at least one of the surviving prisoners. According to German reports, Prussian infantry swiftly takes revenge:

"[...] the order was given to loot and demolish, all food and provisions were taken out, as well as livestock, and then the whole place was set on fire and turned into a pile of ashes. The women, children and old people were [given time] to leave. Men were […] mercilessly shot or cut down. Männer wurden [...] erbarmungslos erschossen oder niedergehauen." (Kürschner, Sp. 857)

The German report gives the impression all the men are killed, but the Ablis memorial plaque only lists 6 civilian men who were shot. It’s not clear whether the Germans have evidence that these men are Franc-tireurs: if they do, it’s arguably justifiable according to the thinking at the time; if they don’t it’s pure terror. Burning villages was common in the American Civil War just a few years ago, but is no longer customary in western Europe in 1870.
One German hussar, at least, is uncomfortable with retribution:
"Although the population deserved this punishment for their hostile attitude, the scene that met the eyes was cast in a ghastly light. The wailing of the women beside their men who’d been shot [...] created such an embarrassing impression that one wished never again to be forced to order a similar execution." (Schneider 197)

This week the German states continue discussions on forming a German Empire, Léon Gambetta floats out of Paris to organize a people’s war, and Franc-tireurs ambush the Germans at Ablis. The attack at Ablis and the resulting German retribution are the consequence of the Gambetta’s fanatical determination to exhaust all the intellectual, material, and propaganda resources of the nation to fight on. The Germans refuse to recognize this new kind of war and find no other response than brutal retaliation – a pattern that will continue next week and beyond.


  • Arand, Tobias: 1870/71. Die Geschichte des Deutsch-Französische Krieg erzählt in Einzelschicksalen. Hamburg 2018
  • Arand, Tobias: Gestorben für ‚Vaterland‘ und ‚Patrie‘ – Die toten Krieger aus dem Feldzug von 1870/71 auf dem ‚Alten Friedhof‘ in Ludwigsburg. Ludwigsburg 2012
  • Hahn, Joachim: Jüdisches Leben in Ludwigsburg. Geschichte, Quellen, Dokumentation. Karlsruhe 1998
  • Schneider, Fernand Thiébaut: Der Krieg in französischer Sicht, in: Entscheidung 1870. Der deutsch-französische Krieg, hrsg. v. Wolfgang von Groote und Ursula von Gersdorff. Stuttgart 1970. S. 165-203


  • Engels, Friedrich: Der Deutsch-Französische Krieg. Sechzig Artikel aus der ‚Pall Mall Gazette‘. Berlin (Ost) 1957
  • Huber, Rudolf (Hrsg.): Dokumente zur deutschen Verfassungsgeschichte. Bd. 2. 1851-1900. Stuttgart 1964
  • Kürschner, Joseph (Hrsg.): Der große Krieg 1870-71 in Zeitzeugenberichten. Leipzig o.J. (1895)
  • N.N. (Hrsg.): Bismarcks Briefe an seine Gattin aus dem Kriege 1870/71. Stuttgart, Berlin 1903
  • Philippson, G.: Jom Kippur 1870 vor Metz, in: Wegweiser für die Jugendliteratur, Heft 4, 6 (1910). S. 26-27
  • Steenackers, François-Frédéric/Le Goff, F.: Histoire du gouvernement de la Défense nationale en province, 4 Septembre 1870 – 8 Février 1871. Bd. II. Paris 1884
  • Tissandier, Gaston: Souvenirs et récits d’un aérostier militaire de l’armée de la Loire. Paris 1891
1870 Glory & Defeat

← Older Post Newer Post →