The Franco-Prussian war, which began in July of 1870, was a disaster for France. By September 20, 1870, an invading army of Prussians had surrounded the French capital of Paris. The leaders of the French Republic then found themselves besieged and unable to communicate with their own armies in the provinces.
A solution to the French governments communication problem was suggested by a photographer named Félix Tournachon, known as Nadar, whose studio, decorated with gaudy advertising slogans, was a Paris landmark. Nadar had made the worlds first aerial photographs from a balloon during the 1850s. He was an experienced balloonist, the veteran of many successful flights and one disastrous crash, which had broken both his legs. Now he suggested that it might be possible to operate a balloon postal service above the heads of the Prussian troops surrounding Paris.
To demonstrate the feasibility of this idea, Nadar launched his balloon from the besieged city on September 21, 1870. As he sailed over the heads of the baffled Prussians, Nadar showered the enemy troops with leaflets. Many Parisians, watching from their rooftops, cynically assumed that Nadar was dropping advertisements for his photographic studio; but in fact the leaflets were propaganda tracts accusing the Prussians of barbarism for attacking refined Paris, the capital of civilization.
Nadars successful demonstration persuaded the French government to risk sending important dispatches by balloon to their troops at Tours. Nadar, however, was unavailable for this assignment. Having departed from Paris by balloon, he could not return. His unpowered aircraft, drifting at the mercy of wayward breezes, could not be navigated back to its starting point.
At 8 a.m. on the morning of September 23, another aeronaunt named Jules Durouf took off from Montmartre in a the balloon Neptune. He carried 103 kilograms of letters and secret dispatches. The Prussians opened fire with artillery and rolling volleys of musketry as the balloon passed over their lines. Durouf was unharmed. He landed about nineteen miles from Paris, just behind the Prussian lines, and successfully delivered his dispatches to the French provincial forces.
After that the French government established balloon factories in two Paris railroad stations which had been deserted because of the siege. These factories turned out a new balloon every three or four days. The new balloons were launched as fast as they could be built. All were inflated with explosive coal gas from the city gas works.
Sailors of the French navy were trained to man the balloons. They practiced flying in wicker baskets suspended from the girders of railroad stations. For their first real flights, over enemy lines, the sailors were equipped with bottles of champagne. They would uncork these bottles when the Prussians started firing at them from the ground. Death to the invaders! the flying sailors would say, between drinks. Vive la France!
On October 7 the French Minister of the Interior, Leon Gambetta, departed from Paris by balloon to take charge of the provisional government at Tours. A large crowd came to see him off. Long live the Republic! shouted the crowd, as Gambetta, looking pale and solemn, entered the gondola. A few hours later the minister landed safely on friendly territory.
The success of the French balloonists was frustrating to the Prussians, who strove to develop a counter-weapon. Sharpshooters sent aloft in Prussian balloons failed to shoot down the French aeronauts. A special anti-balloon field gun was designed by Prussian arms manufacturer Alfred Krupp, but it proved ineffective.
On October 25, when the balloon Montgolfier departed from Paris, the Prussians tried something new. The Prussian cavalry and telegraph services worked cooperatively to keep track of the balloons movements. When the Montgolfier landed in Alsace after a three-hundred mile flight, Prussian cavalrymen surrounded and captured it.
Two days later the Prussians captured the balloon Normandie when it landed near Verdun.
To foil the Prussian cavalry the French began launching their balloons from Paris by night. Night flying added a new element of danger for the French aeronauts, who could not tell which way the wind was blowing them.
On the night of November 28 a young sailor called Prince took off from Paris in the balloon Jacquard. At dawn he found himself above the English Channel. Passing over the Lizard Light, Prince dropped his dispatches to the lighthouse keeper. He then blew out to sea, and was never seen again.
The crew of the balloon Ville dOrleans had better luck. Caught in a midnight storm, they were blown nine hundred miles north in fifteen hours. On landing, they found themselves in Norway.
While balloons allowed the French government in Paris to deliver messages to the provinces, another method of flight was needed to send return messages from the provinces to Paris. Every balloon leaving Paris carried homing pigeons that had been reared in the French capital. After the balloon landed, these birds were fitted with leg bands containing messages from provincial officials to their leaders in Paris. The pigeons were then released to fly home to Paris.
The Prussians did their best to stop these French carrier pigeons. Whenever a Prussian soldier saw a pigeon, he opened fire with small arms. The Prussians also imported hawks from Saxony to intercept the French pigeons.
During the siege of Paris, over three hundred and sixty carrier pigeons from Paris were airlifted by balloon to the provinces. Only fifty-nine of those pigeons managed to reach their dovecotes in Paris, carrying messages for the defenders of the city.
The French balloon program ended late in January of 1871, when Paris surrendered. By then the French had launched sixty-five manned balloons from Paris. Fifty-seven of those balloons had completed their missions, and only five had been captured by the enemy.
The Siege of Paris, 1870-1871. by Melvin Kranzberg. Cornell University Press. 1950.
The History of Aviation. by John W. R. Taylor and Kenneth Munson. Crown Publishers. London. 1972.
The Terrible Year. by Alistair Horne. Viking Press. New York. 1971.
OLD NEWS: 3 West Brandt Blvd. Landisville, PA 17538-1105 (717) 898-9207