Siege of Paris: Pigeon post and balloon mail

6 April 2011

A post-war souvenir.  La Poste par Pigeons Voyageurs souvenir du siege de paris.  Translated as: The pigeon post remember the siege of Paris

A post-war souvenir. La Poste par Pigeons Voyageurs souvenir du siege de paris. Translated as: The pigeon post remember the siege of Paris

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.

Post office notice, 'Open Letters for Paris.  Transmission of by Carrier Pigeons, 1870.

Post office notice, 'Open Letters for Paris. Transmission of by Carrier Pigeons, 1870.

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.

Balloon mail

Balloon mail was used to overcome the communications blockade. Letters were photographically reduced by René Dagron‎ to save weight.

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.

One of the balloons ready for departure, made in a deserted railroad station in Paris.  Every 3 or 4 days a new balloon was made and inflated with explosive coal gas from the city gas works.

One of the balloons ready for departure, made in a deserted railroad station in Paris. Every 3 or 4 days a new balloon was made and inflated with explosive coal gas from the city gas works.

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.

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About Lucy Stevens

Lucy Stevens is an artist whose environmental soundscapes and visual art investigates the relationship between humanity and nature.
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4 Responses to Siege of Paris: Pigeon post and balloon mail

  1. Thank you for this extremely interesting account of communications during the Siege. It is very enlightening. May I have your permission to use one or two images in a book I am writing? This involves my Moroccan-born Grandfather, who was a butler to Sir David Baird, Baronet. Grandfather Mohamed WELD SILMON, was at the Siege, and was ordered to catch, skin and arrange the cooking of rats, which at that stage of the Siege, was apparently all that there was left in the City in the way of meat. I think that this must have been at the very end of the Siege, since the people had gone through the ‘viande des chiens et chats’ stage, and were only left with rats. Am I right? Could this have been December 1871-January 1871?
    My book (part of a 3-volume work), in this case Vol. 1, will be called “A SECRET SON” [there is a strapline involving my Grandfather – yet to be established. The series will be called “A SECRET LIFE OF THE EARL ST. MAUR (1835-1869)”. There is a connection between Baird, the Earl and my Grandfather. The Earl brought my Grandfather to Britain as his “servant” aged 11 or 12, in 1868. The Earl died in September 1869; Baird and other military friends of the Earl from his time in the Indian Mutiny, agreed to employ Mohamed U’LED SLIMANE (later anglicised to William Osman de WELD SILMON), should anything happen to the Earl. Their word was their bond, and William survived several years in domestic service after the Earl’s untimely death at age 34. Later William O. de Weld Silmon,made the transition to Head Waiter at the prestigious Grand Hotel, Scarborough, Yorkshire, UK, and later still to Multi-lingual Translator/Interpreter for Armstrong-Whitworth shipyards in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and to the Law Courts, mainly Durham Assizes. He was possibly the first of the Earl’s three illegitimate children.
    I look forward to hearing from you, if you have the time and if you are willing to grant me permission to use any of the graphics displayed here for my eventual book. I had already written the story in a large, single volume, but the publisher in America has not done anything about selling it after charging a fortune to publish my 3-decade-long project. I recently terminated the contract signed five years ago, and am now in search of a more honest publisher.
    Yours sincerely,
    Joseph (“Joe”) A A Silmon-Monerri
    in Manchester, United Kingdom

    • Lucy Stevens says:

      Hi Joe

      Sorry for the delay in responding.

      The images that I have used in this post were taken from Google and a book called: The Pigeon Post into Paris 1870 – 1871 by J.D. Hayhurst.

      Your story sounds fascinating, fingers crossed you find an ‘honest’ publisher.

      • Dear Lucy,

        Many thanks for your kind reply and comments. I’d better get in touch with Google and J. D. Dayhurst for permissions to use the images referred to.

        I very much enjoyed reading your compilations and wish you every success for the future, as well as a Merry Christmas and roaring successes in 2013.

        Yours sincerely,
        Joe A A Silmon-Monerri,
        Manchester, UK. Christmas 2012.

  2. Sorry, a small correction: at the end of my first paragraph, above, I meant to write December 1870, and not December 1871.

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