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Belgian Franctireurs 1914


fritz
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When ever I read a German Regimental history of 1914 it was told about Belgian franctireurs shooting advancing German troops in the rear and fighting like guerilla-troopers. If anybody was captured as suspected he was shot. Otherwise I heart there was even a mass-execution in Dinant with 600 victims, killed by Saxon army.

Did the franctireurs really exist or only the feared fiction of people´s rebellion?

Fritz

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I have read some books and articles that mentioned this, but it seems that even though there may have been some (?) franctireurs, the reaction of the German troops was due to fear, panic, drunkenness, believing rumours, untrained men who did not know how to react in such circumstances,.... And certainly, considering the huge numbers of civilian victims, several hundreds, totally disproportinate.

Other members may know of books in which this subject was treated recently, and systematically.

Aurel

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The Germans appear to have had a geneal fear of the irregular and to have therefore over reacted (ironic given that the German states resisting Napoleon's France seem to have produced many irregulars). This can be seen in the Franco Prussian War when many innocent civilians died because they were deemed to be irregulars. German instructions on the conduct of war were very down on the franctireurs (but quite vague in defining what one was). There was a Belgian resistance but, as in WW2, mainly devoted to intelligence gathering and assisting escaping/evading allied soldiers and airmen.

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Get a book German Atrocities 1914 A History of Denial by 2 Trinity College scholars. It is qlmost entirely a myth and this is accepted by modern German scholars. As Aurel said German soldiers were trained to expect such activity and wildly overeacted to firing by their men or Belgain or French soldiers, they took huge reprisals for action that did not take place used human shields, you name it they did it except for the wild crucified soldier stories and that sort of thing. It's a terrific book. The well respected Foreign Affairs said it may be regarded as definitive, while I don't claim its reputation I completely agree. It costs about $50 but is relatively new and many libraries should have it.

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From comments mad at the time it would seem that neither OFFICERS nor men in the German army could believe that either the French or the Belgian army would have the temerity to shoot at them.

They were utterly paranoid about franc tireurs and even shot the mayor of a town who had (on their orders) collected all the guns in the town, on the grounds that he had an arsenal!

They even accused local people of being spies as they ran away when the German army approached; obviously so they said so that they could report their arrival to the appropriate army (a German officer of Dragoons recorded this in his diary).

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Don't forget too that Belgian had a large armed Garde Civique. Pic. It has been suggested that these men, quite rightly firing on the enemy, gave rise to many nervy shouts of "Francs Tireurs!".

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Get a book German Atrocities 1914 A History of Denial by 2 Trinity College scholars.

Thats the real Trinity College ie the one in Dublin (so a pro British, and therefore anti German, bias is not likely to be an issue)

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I believe King Albert formally forbade any armed resistance activity in occupied Belgium when it was realised how severe the German reprisals were.

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Even non violent resisters were often shot. There was an excellent BBC sound archive production about two years ago consisting of interviews with some survivors of the WW1 Belgian resistance.

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It all depends on the definition of franc tireur.

German forces apparently considered the Gendarmerie ( a nation wide police force) as non military and therefore liable to be shot when found bearing arms. From a Belgian point of view they were an essential part of the army so perfectly allowed to fight. franc tireur or not ?

After reading lots of Belgian (both French and Flemish) material i'm sure that there were no organised " franc - tireurs"

There are however some very rare cases of civilians firing at Germans (all of them at the very start of the German invasion) (eg local farmer firing at a cavalry patrol when they are plundering his orchard.

Later on there are Belgian units operating behind German lines (eg Armoured car patrols in a celebrated incident one of them drove from Antwerp to Bastogne. The companies divisionaires de demolition likewise operated behind german lines)

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I am going to control myself or I may write a 150 page post!

I have been studying things about Belgium 1914 for years, as my grand-father was the Id of the Generalkommando of the III. Reservekorps in the invasion of Belgium and the siege of Antwerp. I work almost exclusively in the languages of the primary sources, German, French and Flemish/Dutch, as perhaps 1% of the primary sources are in English. Presently I am completing the transliteration of the manuscript diary of a sergeant in my father's army corps that I bought on e-Bay a couple of years ago. It is written in an archaic mix of Suetterlin and Kurrent (much like my grand-father's script), fortunately in a good hand, I may have the transliteration into modern German completed today; then I have to perform the translation of the German into English, so far that is only 15% completed. This diary presents a complex and nuanced picture of the relations between the locals and the German soldiers. The sergeant observed improper behavior on the part of the German troops, and he deplored it, he admitted to his own looting (a piece of bacon he found on a kitchen table of an abandoned house), but he witnessed far worse, he reported examples of hostile or terrified Belgians, and examples of friendly welcomes by locals. (I get the impression that the friendly welcomes, or even feedings and giving of gifts, was generally by Flemish Belgians, and hostility from Walloons. He spoke of people coming out and giving the German troops water and fruit, the narrator saying: :Their language was much like ours.", i.e., almost certainly the Germanic Flemish language.)

But the sergeant, who seems balanced and candid, mentions the many times that they were fired upon from the houses, and he mentions reprisals. He describes being fired on from a house of a village, and his troops storming the house, and dragging our armed civilians, including a teen-aged boy, and a priest. (They were marched off, and I would imagine that they were shot.)

My grand-father's letters and oral history is full or accounts of being fired upon; once he had to dive out of his staff car and crawl under it for cover, which I do not think improved his mood. He gave specific accounts of atrocities by Belgians behind the lines, including raiding a German dressing station very close to where he was and killing 43 German wounded. My grand-father was not a EM/OR hearing rumors, he was a hard-headed staff officer who by his assignment had to tear about in staff cars with his staff and escort, in one case carrying out a Belgium-wide search at the orders of the Ministry of War.

If you read the French-language sources you come across multiple accounts of the Belgians and French boasting of their franc tireur activity, both in 1914 and in 1870. You can't have it both ways, boasting of it in French, and denying it in English.

The Brits, working with the French and the Belgian government in exile, probably constructed the largest organized propaganda cmpaign in history, and the centerpiece was the "Rape of Belgium". I have come across a description of a UK document which presents in great detail the nature of the program, listing over 1000 wartime propaganda books commissioned and subsidized during the war. I have studied some of these books, and there are all sorts of "odd" things about them.

This campaign was entirely a proper strategy of war, and performed great service to the war effort, but has badly poisoned the history of the war to the present day. The best of this propaganda skillfully blended some truth with doses of fiction, much of it is preposterous fabrication. As a result it is really hard to tease out what is true and not true in this area.

This Forum once had a wonderful source on this topic. Let's call him JV. He was a Belgian, a former employee of the Belgian Senate, the vice chairman of an international military archeology society, who worked well in at least six languages, and at 26 was the author of two important books on the topic. He got into an arguement with a "bully beefeater" on the "pages" of this Forum, and was so abusively handled by the Brit, who displayed not a scrap of scholarship or ability to read the primary languages, over the topic of whatever actually happened in Louvain and in its University Library, that JV has stopped participating in this Forum. I forgot to mention that JV, aside from his other qualifications, is a graduate of the University of Louvain. But what would he know about what happened in Louvain?

My primary interest and concern about Belgium 1914 is not the real and the fabricated atrocities, and I am not expert on the topic. Unfortunately as I read I have not organized my indices and time-lines on the topic, at least not until recently. But to claim that the franc tireur activity did not exist is way out. Get off your butt and read the French language material (French and Belgian) boasting of it. As I said before, you can't have it two ways.

Bob Lembke

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Horne & Kramer considred all sources and the argument that because the Germans believed there was such activity it must be true was completely rejected.

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Dear "CDR";

I was flapping my gums while you posted. A few comments.

It all depends on the definition of franc tireur.

German forces apparently considered the Gendarmerie ( a nation wide police force) as non military and therefore liable to be shot when found bearing arms. From a Belgian point of view they were an essential part of the army so perfectly allowed to fight. franc tireur or not ? I have heard of this question, but really do not understand it.

After reading lots of Belgian (both French and Flemish) material i'm sure that there were no organised " franc - tireurs" I have not seen anything suggesting that there was an organized effort, only individual or local effort, seemingly spontaneous.

There are however some very rare cases of civilians firing at Germans (all of them at the very start of the German invasion) (eg local farmer firing at a cavalry patrol when they are plundering his orchard. I agree with the mechanism, but feel, on the basis of many primary sources, that the occurances were very frequent. The franc tireur business seems to be a Belgian/North French cultural phenomen.

Later on there are Belgian units operating behind German lines (eg Armoured car patrols in a celebrated incident one of them drove from Antwerp to Bastogne. The companies divisionaires de demolition likewise operated behind german lines) The sergeant in his diary described in some detail capturing two Belgian officers in German uniforms attempting to drive thru a checkpoint at his company position with arms and explosives hidden in their automobile. I think it had a precise place and time so that possibly they could be identified.

If it seems valuable enough I may privately publish this diary, facing pages of a photcopy of the original manuscript and on the facing page my translation, with a section of notes to the rear.

My family oral history stated that the Belgian troops carried a change of civilian clothes in their pack as a matter of standard practice. I have asked this question a few times and never got a response. Do you have information on this pro or con?

Bob Lembke

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Horne & Kramer considred all sources and the argument that because the Germans believed there was such activity it must be true was completely rejected.

I have had Horne & Kramer on a shelf upstairs for say 18 months, but I have only poked thru it for say 20 minutes, as I am resisting getting deeply into this topic. (I am 69 and have had 20 cardiac procedures of one sort or another, and plan to get out about 8 books before I croak, so I am getting more stingy with my time.) On its face it is the sort of secondary source that I love, modern scholarly form, foot-notes, proper citations, but it left a bad taste in my mouth. Seemed to accept obviously (to me) fabricated atrocity stories at face value, etc.

I guess that I will have to pick it up and poke thru it and give it a fairer chance.

Bob Lembke

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Oh no, please not again . We had a most interesting thread on this topic with all facettes illuminated from several sides, called 'The Rape of Belgium'. And yet the start again. could we pursue the old thread where most arguments have been exchanged extensively.

Bob you forgot that JV alias AOK 4 my true Belgium friend even studied and graduated in history nat Leuven uni. He studied WW1 and his studies were not exepted by these certain -how do you say- bully beefeaters.

Are the UK friends finally accepting, or lets say at least ready to read the numerous German primary sources as well as French and Belgium???

Having said this and putting aside the original field letter of Grandfather where he vividly explained how and where he was fired upon by franctireurs in his supply plan waggon some 20km behind the frontlines in 1914, amen!

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Dear "CDR";

My family oral history stated that the Belgian troops carried a change of civilian clothes in their pack as a matter of standard practice. I have asked this question a few times and never got a response. Do you have information on this pro or con?

A complete change (including jacket and boots)? Must have been big packs then! Either that or they didn't carry much kit. Doesn't make sense. Any soldier from any other country found with a complete set of civvy kit in his pack would be on a charge of intended desertion!

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Dear Egbert;

Yes, I agree, I don't think that we have to dredge up the whole thing again. I simply rose to the bait of some people thinking that the idea of the franc tireurs is simply a "story" or "rumor" or Hunnish appoligetica. So your grand-father got shot up also! I also have letters from the field from my grand-father describing the annoyance of being sniped on a frequent basis. Could you share your grand-father's unit and what he hauled, ammunition or other supplies? Was he in III. Reservekorps?

No one source can be trusted out of hand, but manuscript letters and diaries, written on the day of the event, written to one's family, not to a newspaper or published in a book a year later, and never used for propaganda, is an especially trust-worthy source, although the letter-writer might not know the whole picture. (In fact, if he does not, that is better in some ways.) These letters were written before the "Rape of Belgium" issue surfaced in the War of Words.

I was reading a post-war Belgian book, and it contained a German "letter", supposedly written by a German officer to his brother, an officer on another front, in which he describes how crucifying Belgians was hard work, but that they still were cheerful, plus a lot of other awful stuff. Of course the letter in the book was in French, there was no mention of the original letter, or how the Belgians got the letter, no mention of names, or units, or places, or the date, nothing.

But you are right, we do not have to go thru this process again.

Bob

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A complete change (including jacket and boots)? Must have been big packs then! Either that or they didn't carry much kit. Doesn't make sense. Any soldier from any other country found with a complete set of civvy kit in his pack would be on a charge of intended desertion!

Exactly!

I have posted the question a few times and never got an answer. I think it would not have to be a complete change, boots, etc. The Belgian military did a lot of things in their own way.

Bob

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Exactly!

I have posted the question a few times and never got an answer.

Possibly because it didn't happen and therefore there is no evidence. Proving a negative is very difficult (which is why many family stories, myths etc persist). My late mother had stories told to her by her father about the Somme and I'm sure they were just that - stories (probably told her to avoid talking about really nasty stuff). I've never been able to find a shred of evidence to support them (but of course absolutely nothing to refute them) so she believed them to her dying day.

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re the question of civilian clothes.

At the start of the war the Belgian army was in a pretty bad state regarding supplies (eg no field kitchens. Belgian soldiers frequently went to the local pub for and drink (belgian beer can be quite potent). It was for instance impossible to give the many volunteers the regulation shako. Most of them ended up with the infantry bonnet de police which however closely resembled the German feldmutze (links between the german and belgian armies were strong before the war)and was therefore unpopular. I'm sure that civilian caps were frequently worn. It is also possible that other pieces of civilian clothing were carried.

Another option : Members of the garde civique rurale wore their ordinary clothes with only an armband in the Belgian colours. Now for Belgian authorities they are proper members of the Garde civique. For German authorities I think it's another matter.

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re the Gendarmerie

I'm thinking of the village of Visé in particular. This village on the border with Germany had a small Gendarmerie post. The only Belgian forces in the village were two members of the Gendarmerie. They were killed in action and part of the village was put to the torch because of the action of Franc tireurs. The rest of the village was destroyed a few days later.

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re the Gendarmerie

I'm thinking of the village of Visé in particular. This village on the border with Germany had a small Gendarmerie post. The only Belgian forces in the village were two members of the Gendarmerie. They were killed in action and part of the village was put to the torch because of the action of Franc tireurs. The rest of the village was destroyed a few days later.

The diary I am translating gives a very complex picture of the situation. He repeatedly observes that houses from which Germans were fired on from, or perhaps even suspected, were torched. And his accounts of these problems were mostly in the first few days of the invasion and occupation. He gave repeated instances of, in some places, of Belgian civilians being very friendly, giving fruit and water voluntarily, and if the troops halted people would cook excellent meals for them, or big pots of coffee, for very reasonable prices, which he gave. He cites an experience of German soldiers borrowing an accordion from the Belgian dealer who sold them their coal, and then having an evening of singing (one of the troops there was supposedly an exceptional singer), and at first the Belgian civilians were afraid, but some of the children came outside and sang with the Germans, and then one by one the adults lost their fear and came out and sang along with the soldiers and the children. And in the morning the belgian hurdy-gurdy players were playing the popular songs that had been sung by the troops the night before. But he also described belgians absolutely traumatized by the Germans, in complete fear. He mentions civilians greeting them very warmly, but in a way that indicated that other people were hardly as friendly. Also, of course the Belgians civilians must have been either wary or quite afraid of the German troops, and felt that the friendly greeting was good policy. All in all this diary paints a very complex and varied situation. I will make sure that it will not be lost to the historical record.

My grand-father wrote, when his headquarters left Brussels and the urban area, moving north towards Antwerp, his great relief, due to frequency of being shot at from houses in a built-up area. He wrote (from memory): "What a relief! The place was a powder-barrel! You could be fired upon at any moment. Half of these people are absolutely crazy." He also mentioned the incident in which a Belgian burgomeister invited the local German commander (a colonel or general) to dinner, and at dinner the burgomeister's son shot the German officer to death. I have seen this event also mentioned by Allied/Belgian sources, although I am sure the interpretation or details may differ. I almost get the sense that there was a wide cultural difference here.

Bob Lembke

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Re Visé

Part of the village was torched in the very first hours of the invasion which to me suggests a prepared approach to a situation. The rest of the village (all 600 houses) was destroyed on august 15. (male population was interned, female population was sent towards the Netherlands.(the front was already miles away)

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The Germans really missed a trick, they could have built a camp on an island in the Baltic (preferably one already owned by Denmark or Sweden0 and then shipped off all those enemy combatants to it. Surprised no one's ever come up with the idea.

One has to be amazed at the sheet arrogance of the German approach - you invade a country that has no quarrel with you, purely for your own military convenience and then get upset if the population takes shots at you - its like a burglar getting upset at the housholder that fights back.

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