Summer 2006

The War of Streets and Houses

The first treatise on urban combat

Thomas Bugeaud

Throughout the nineteenth century, European powers were fighting insurgencies within the urban and rural fringes of their colonial empires while protecting their expanding capital cities from home-grown rebellions and revolutions nourished by class struggles.

In 1840, a French army of 100,000 troops lead by Marshal Thomas Bugeaud was sent to Algiers to subdue Abdel Kader's Berber and Arab tribal army of 10,000 men, after the latter had surprisingly managed to destroy much of the standing French colonial army. In one of the first examples of counter-guerrilla tactics, Bugeaud dispensed with large and heavy military formations in favor of small, fast-moving task forces that he called flying columns. These flying columns terrorized the population with razzias1 in which massacres of the civilian population and the burning of whole villages and crops would routinely occur.

Bugeaud managed to regain control over Algiers's dense Kasbahs only after destroying entire neighborhoods, in reprisals for guerrilla attacks, and breaking the resistance by cutting routes through the neighborhoods where insurgents were hiding. In the process Bugeaud reshaped the city, making it more manoeuvrable for the military. This was among the first instances in which demolition was used as a means of military urban planning. Kader's resistance was broken, but the European project in Africa sought to further civilize the local population by upgrading their primitive habitat according to the rules of modern design. Through a system that would later be perfected in General Galliéni's method of progressive occupation, markets and roads were built as a means of convincing the local tribes of the benefits of modern French rule.

Bugeaud further imagined Roman-style colonization, with large estates handed out to demobilized officers that would double as military bases and as an outpost of civilization where modern services could be provided to the surrounding rural areas. But most often the population of these early colonial settlements consisted of poor European peasants and, after 1848, of urban deportees referred to as workers' battalions.

Alexis de Tocqueville may have represented the widespread sentiment of many in Paris who were disturbed by Bugeaud's tactics in Algeria. Commenting on the Marshal's proposed resignation, he wrote: When I hear that a resignation offered by Marshal Bugeaud was not accepted, I cannot help supposing that Marshal Bugeaud is being left in Africa far less for the good one expects from him there than for the evil that is feared of him here in Paris. But it was too late as Bugeaud was on his way back to France. Together with Bugeaud, the tactics of urban warfare and military urban planning skipped over the Mediterranean, from the Algerian county-side, where they were experimented with, to the streets and alleyways of Paris.

In Paris, both conservative and progressive elites considered the city congested, filthy, decadent, and, above all, dangerous. The bourgeoisie feared the revolutionary ferment that was generated around the densely populated, desperately poor, and rapidly growing workers' slums.

As a royalist who opposed the Industrial Revolution, which he thought was physically and morally toxic, Bugeaud personified the anti-urban attitudes of the French Restoration. Before leaving for Algiers, he embarked on a course of agricultural innovation aimed at reversing the migratory trend from the county-side to cities by making land cultivation more efficient and by dispersing the urban working classes in agricultural villages across the French countryside and the colonial world.

With a feeling of desperation about the state of security in cities and having retired to his estate, Bugeaud wrote what would become the first manual for the preparation and conduct of urban warfare, La Guerre des Rues et des Maison. In this text, he outlines the geography of the dangers of pre-Haussmannian Paris and proposes new urban typologies on different scales to address them.

As a preventative measure against future barricades, Bugeaud proposed a radical reorganization of the city's fabric. Having tested the tactic during his battles in Algiers, he proposed that new routes for military manoeuvres be cut through the city and military regiments positioned within it (Haussmann, his avid reader, would later implement this plan).

In opening large public spaces within the city and segregating classes and functions within it, and by further submitting the city to the logic of the efficiency of troops and supply movement, Bugeaud, the anti-urbanist or great head gardener, as he was called in Paris, had in effect drawn the blueprint for the first modern city. He has since become the inspiration for many urban-rural (one might say suburban) utopias that perfected classification, segregation, and hygiene in their attempt to merge city and countryside.
—Eyal Weizman

1  Translated into English as raids, razzias is derived from the French verb razzier, which came into usage during the French colonization of North Africa. The term can be traced further back to the Aribic term Ghazw which implies a raid for the purpose of conquest and plunder, generally against a group of non-believers.

The application of the principles of concentration and unity of action, which has been talked about so much recently, is of less importance in street warfare than in ranked battles. In ranked battle, the efforts must develop in harmony in order for the engaged troops to be properly supported on the right, the left and in the rear. It is only in this way that one can successfully overturn the formidable lines upheld by the reserves; it is only in this way that one can repair setbacks and catastrophes that befall those who make up the first line of attack.

These necessities are met only to a small degree in street warfare, where one only fights against barricades and musketry fire from houses. There is no need to be afraid of a serious and prolonged offensive from an enemy who, in fighting in or among the buildings, is clothed in obstacles; if the enemy takes cover, or wants to ambush, it is an interest in self-preservation that makes him aware of his weakness in open and mass offensives.

This type of war amounts to an intelligent war of tirailleurs.[1]

Ordinary tactics and theory cannot be applied here.

Although the streets could be compared, up to a certain point, with corridors, one must refrain from attacking them with shallow, ranked columns. This is sometimes done in ordinary war because it acts as a means of opening up the enemies' ranks and because, faced with the possibility of finding a strong enemy beyond the corridor, one must meet him with a force strong enough to clear the passage and to hold it long enough so that the troops, when their time comes, can draw in to unblock and quickly reinforce those who passed first. Thus one tightens the ranks in order that the tail approaches as close as possible to the head.

The same necessity is not met in street warfare against a riot. One should completely avoid approaching the barricade with columns; one must attack them only with the tirailleurs. The tirailleurs' conduct should be very audacious; they should convince themselves that one does not remove barricades with gunfire. To fire upon them is a fool's game, since the defenders are covered and because the assailants are visible from head-to-toe. It is by means of running and climbing that one removes barricades. When the summit of the barricade is reached, material equality is established, but the moral superiority is on the side of the assailant because he has given his adversaries a strong sense of his courage by braving their fire and by crossing the obstacle. It is thus twenty, thirty, or forty men at most (depending on the length of the street), commanded by a vigorous officer, who must launch a campaign against the barricade, but as they can receive gunshots from the windows of the houses on the right and left, they must protect themselves from behind with two ranks of tirailleurs, advancing rapidly along the houses to the left and right. The right flank fires upon the rioters who come to the windows on the left; the left flank does the same to those on the right. Past experience has shown that in this way one extinguishes or cancels out the crossfire; this strategy is easily understood if one recognizes that when the entire body can be sheltered, it is then difficult to resolve to expose any portion of that body; it is this natural feeling that makes troops battle more poorly behind entrenchments than in the open countryside. However, to maneuver the troops in the street, one must display the entire upper body. Generally this is dangerous; however, because the enemy releases their fire from the windows either without appearing or appearing only momentarily, their fire cannot be fatal. The projectiles that are dropped from the windows, such as furniture and bricks, are more to be feared than the gunfire; the tirailleurs will protect themselves from the projectiles by staying close to the walls, because the launched object can only fall a certain distance from the wall, since it can only land on the ground after having cleared the balcony or the balustrade and we must still add the force added by he who throws the projectile, which carries it even farther out. The troops who support the tirailleurs' attack should remain at a great distance from the musketry, or better still, remain covered in the adjoining streets, so as not to be exposed to their own fire.

As in the sieges, one must maintain the goal of protecting, as much as possible, the men's lives; however one must get things done quickly since one does not have spare time as in an ordinary war, as the prolongation of the fight constitutes a political danger. To move quickly and to handle the soldiers carefully are not irreconcilable tasks, as it might at first seem. To accomplish this, the proper intelligence must be given to all the officers, the non-commissioned officers and soldiers in advance.

As soon as the barricades are removed and the street is cleared of enemies, the supporting troops can advance. If there are adjoining streets that have been barricaded, the barricades can be removed in the same manner. If one sets fire to some of the houses, the houses must be entered and the defenders must be attacked and captured. Humanity demands that one recommend to the troops, in advance, that they should spare the women, the young, and the old and to fire only on those who are armed.

While the doors of the houses are broken down, by means of levers and pliers, the tirailleurs should maintain control of the windows by firing on anything that presents itself. The use of explosives in creating passageways is even faster but it is difficult to have explosives everywhere they are necessary. There must, however, be a certain amount with each column, as well as trained men entrusted with setting them off when necessary.

Once a house is taken, if there is a need to pass into the neighboring houses, one can facilitate this by piercing the thin walls of separation between them, particularly those of the higher floors. One must, however, avoid as much as possible attacking houses, since it is a loss of time and always results in casualties.

One must also neglect scattered gunners because one can be assured that as the barricades are surmounted and the majority of insurgents chased from the streets, the rioters will take care not to begin fighting again for fear of attracting the vengeance of the vanquishers; attacks should be restricted to the buildings where the gunfire has been strong enough to indicate that the building contains a large number of defenders. If one attacks many houses without a serious motive, there will be a successive reduction in troops, because a number of the soldiers would not be remaining in the compact formation.

As the columns make progress, they leave behind small garrisons in the houses that command the occupied territory to prevent the barricades from reforming behind them. Some small columns of the national guard and the ranked troops should, toward the same goal, remain behind. These detachments are easily formed if, as I stated previously, in attacking the barricades one employs only the forces that are absolutely necessary to assure possession of the occupied territory. This task falls especially to the national guard who link the moral influence of the city's men with the force of the tirailleurs.

Up until this point, I have not spoken about the cannon because I generally believe it to be of little use and sometimes even bothersome when the riot is met fast enough to prevent it from perfecting its defense; in the span of time that it would take to employ the cannon, the barricade would have already been taken by the tirailleurs. Nevertheless the columns must have a cannon, for regardless of the speed of the initial attack, obstacles can be met, which it would be imprudent to challenge and remove with a live force before first attacking them with cannon fire.

When the object upon which the artillery should fire is in close range, as is often the case in narrow streets, one must not place the cannon at the bottom of the street, as ordinary procedure dictates; the cannoneers and the horses would be killed by the fire from the barricades and houses; under these circumstances, the cannons are loaded in hiding and then pushed by hand as quickly as possible into a position within sight of the barricade or house that must be attacked. The aimer should be very agile, firing his weapon accurately, because the cannon is not fired simply to make noise it is needed to produce an effect.

The means that I indicated above are sufficient when the riot has not had more than two or three hours to prepare itself. If, on the contrary, one lets it organize, gain manpower, and fortify itself at leisure, I will not say that one must work with more method, for the method is the art of action conforming to circumstances, but with more precautions, meaning one must move less quickly. It is then a type of siege that one must carry out.

One can be sure that the more the insurgents are fortified, the more difficult it is for them to rise and take the offensive; they reduce themselves behind the fortification to a defensive position. All the moral advantages are thus on the side of the defenders of the law and of society. They will advance less rapidly in the initial system but they will make constant, safe progress that will gradually throw the insurgents into despair. It is necessary to proceed with the cannon in order to bring the action into the interior of the houses; this action is more powerful than that of the cannon. The cannon will not produce a great effect on barricades constructed with ten or twelve layers of brick.

The shells will be effective if the streets behind the barricades are filled with insurgents; however, with the first blast of shells, the insurgents will disperse to take shelter in the houses and cross streets. Thus one must not assign too much importance to the effect of the artillery; the effect is rather moral than material. It would be instructive to find the number of dead and wounded in the June Campaign[2]; I would dare to venture that it was not more than 50 that died for that cause. In war fought inside villages, the cannon cannot be very efficient when the enemy emerges in mass from the boulevards, the public squares, the docks and the avenues; outside of the villages, it is the sappers[3] and the soldiers fighting on foot who make up the infantry, and who do the majority of the work through their daring intelligence.

What is to be done if the barricades are too strong to be broken down by the tirailleurs? Under such circumstances, one enters into the first houses that line either side of the street, and it is here that the troop's detonator is a great advantage because he quickly achieves the goal. He climbs up to the top floor and systematically blasts through all the walls, finally managing to pass the barricade. As soon as he has succeeded in this task, the barricades are taken, because the infantry, situated in the houses that look onto the barricades from behind, can gun down the defenders, or throw furniture, tiles and other projectiles at the their heads.

To the ranks of these most efficient techniques, we should add grenades, as much because of the effect produced by their explosions as because of how easy it is to use them from windows, allowing the troops to remain unexposed to the enemy stationed in the street.

In speaking on this subject we should also note the great and widely acknowledged service of the firemen, whose rapid advance along the rooftops allows them to pass the barricades with the greatest promptness.

As soon as the barricades are evacuated, the reserve troops advance, taking possession of the streets that are still occupied by rioters (the columns' commanders make new formations to seize them).

The troops' commanders should carefully regulate the detachment force called upon to enter the houses; if the process is not carefully regulated, more men will be used than are necessary, causing clustering, confusion, and making the work progress less quickly and less well. In this war of details and allotment, if the typical tactics, as we have described above, do not apply, one must nevertheless maintain rules. Organization and discipline play a strong role; it is by these grand means that one brings order upon disorder. Without order, great confusion will quickly be established and the heads, no longer knowing where their soldiers are, will be exposed because they are almost completely alone in the streets.

We do not think more than twenty-five or thirty men, plus one officer, are needed to move to the top floor of a row of houses. It is clear that few people are needed since only two or three men can make holes in each wall. One needs only the number absolutely necessary to relieve the tired workers and protect them against attacks, which can befall them from the insurgent's house into which they have bored.

Several similar attacks directed in the same way, or nearly the same way, within the same district should soon bring good results; these attacks through the houses progress more quickly than one might initially think, provided that the assailants have good tools and that within the detachment there are men well-versed in the proper tactics.

The direction of diverse attacks of this nature should come from above, that is to say from the superior commanders of the troops who are given the task of invading the district; without the proper direction, the efforts would be divergent, incoherent, and might not produce, or produce to a lesser extent, the desired result. Properly giving orders allows one to bring order to disorder, or, perhaps to speak more accurately, order to the scattered state of the means.

This rule should still allow for great initiative among the diverse troop detachments; given that accidents will occur, it is necessary for lower ranked officers and even foot soldiers to know how to handle these setbacks. The unexpected plays a great role in this war. It is for this reason that one must rely on many intelligent and courageous individuals. And it is advisable to provide even the last ranks with detailed instructions. Providing men with the details of the battle at the moment of combat would be an impossible option.

Translation by Eric Nylund

  1. Dating from the Napoleonic period, tirailleurs is a term used to define the group of light infantrymen fighting ahead of the main columns. In French colonial campaigns, these troops were often drawn from Algerian and sub-Saharan African populations.
  2. A revolt lead by the Parisian working classes in 1848. The resistance was quickly overcome by the Parisian National Guard and the Mobile Guard.
  3. A soldier working to undermine enemy fortifications.
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