6 April 2011
The pigeon post was in operation while Paris was besieged during the Franco- Prussian War of 1870 – 71.
The normal channels of communication into and out of Paris were interrupted during the four-and-a-half-months of the siege. With the encirclement of the city on 18 September, the last overhead telegraph wires were cut on the morning of 19 September, and the secret telegraph cable in the bed of the Seine was located and cut on 27 September. Although a number of postmen succeeded in passing through the Prussian lines in the earliest days of the siege, others were captured and shot.
Five sheepdogs experienced in driving cattle into Paris were flown out by balloon with the intention of their returning carrying mail; after release they were never again seen. Equally a failure was the use of zinc balls (the boules de Moulins) filled with letters and floated down the Seine; not one of these balls was recovered during the siege. As was later said “Pas qu’une souris pût franchir les lignes prussiennes sans être vue.” Translated as: “Not a mouse could cross the Prussian lines without being seen.” The only successful method was by the carrier-pigeon, and thousands of messages, official and private were taken into the besieged city.
During the course of the siege, pigeons were regularly taken out of Paris by balloon. Soon a regular service was in operation, based first at Tours and later at Poitiers. The pigeons carried two kinds of despatch: official and private. The service was opened to the public in early November.
The introduction of the Dagron microfilms eased any problems there might have been in claims for transport since their volumetric requirements were very small. To improve the chances of the despatches successfully reaching Paris, the same despatch was sent by several pigeons, one official despatch being repeated 35 times and the later private despatches were repeated on average 22 times.
When the pigeon reached its particular loft in Paris, its arrival was announced by a bell in the trap in the loft. Immediately, a watchman relieved it of its tube which was taken to the Central Telegraph Office where the content was carefully unpacked and placed between two thin sheets of glass. The photographs are said to have been projected by magic lantern on to a screen where the enlargement could be easily read and written down by a team of clerks.
During the siege, 150,000 official and 1 million private communications were carried into Paris by this method. The service was formally terminated on 1 February 1871.
Sixty-five unguided mail balloons were released in besieged Paris to communicate with the world beyond the besieging forces, of which only two went missing.
A photographer named Félix Tournachon, known as “Nadar,” (responsible for making the world’s first aerial photographs from a balloon during the 1850s), suggested that it might be possible to operate a balloon postal service above the heads of the Prussian troops surrounding Paris.
Nadar’s 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.
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.
Sailors of the French navy were trained to man the balloons. 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!”
John Fisher writes in his 1965 book Airlift 1870, “As the siege went on, as ascent followed ascent, the balloons, in the eyes of Parisians and in the eyes of the world, came to be regarded not merely as useful carriers but as symbols of French daring and enterprise and success.”
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.