The First Airmail Was Delivered During The Siege of Paris

Feb 22, 2022 0 comments

When Prussian forces had Paris under siege during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, the beleaguered Parisians had only one hope to get messages out—balloons.

The balloon named Louis Blanc, piloted by Eugène Farcot, takes off on 12 October 1870.

Balloons were used first in a military conflict in 1794 during the French Revolutionary Wars. The Committee of Public Safety established the French Aerostatic Corps which may be called the first air force where soldiers ascended on tethered balloons to observe enemy positions. These balloons were sporadically used for reconnaissance and saw action during the battles of Charleroi and Fleurus. Seventy years later, during the American Civil War, balloons were used again for similar military purposes. The Union Army had several balloons which they used to reconnoiter enemy positions or relay information using signal flags.

The use of balloons to carry mail during war was first proposed by the photographer and balloonist Felix Nadar, who became the first person to take aerial photographs. He had already established a single balloon called the Neptune to perform tethered ascents for observation purposes. However the Prussian encirclement of the city made this pointless, and on 17 September, two days before Prussian forces surrounded the French capital, Nadar wrote to the Council for the Defence of Paris proposing the use of balloons for communication with the outside world.

The proposal was quickly approved and less than a week later, the first balloon mailman took to the skies carrying 125 kg of mail. After a three-hour flight he landed at Craconville 83 km from Paris. Following this success a regular mail service was established. Two balloon-making factories were set up, one under the direction of Nadar in the Elysềe-Montmartre dance-hall (it was later moved to the Gare du Nord), and the other under the direction of notable aeronaut Eugène Godard in the Gare d'Orleans. Silk was short in supply, so a cheap cotton textile called calico was used, varnished by women who sat at long tables and worked on the coarse, unbleached cloth, while sailors made the dragging ropes, netting and baskets. Each balloon took 12 days to make.

A total of 66 balloons were launched, and together they delivered an estimated 2.5 million letters, as well as 102 passengers, most notably Léon Gambetta, the minister for War. The balloons also carried homing pigeons to bring back mail from the outside world. This was the only means by which communications from the rest of France could reach the besieged city. Homing pigeons were less successful—only one out of six came back. However, each pigeon carried multiple messages on photographic microfilm. So although only 57 of the 360 pigeons flew back to Paris, more than 60,000 of the 95,000 messages sent were delivered.

Léon Gambetta, the minister for War, prepares to depart in a balloon. Artwork by Jules Didier (1831-1892) and Jacques Guiaud (1811-1876)

Even then, the pigeons had a better chance of returning back home than the scores of aeronauts sent out with each balloon. Five were captured by the Prussians when they landed. Three were lost at sea. One drifted as far away as Norway. Several tried to catch favorable winds and fly back in. Not one succeeded.

A large number of letters delivered by balloon mail during the Siege of Paris are now at the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum in Washington.


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