Airlift: 1870


Chancellor Otto von Bismarck

After initial successes in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, French Emperor Napoleon III had his butt handed to him at the Battle of Sedan. His capture brought down the French government and should have ended the war. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck even offered some fairly reasonable terms but the new French government was unwilling to “yield an inch of its territory nor a stone of its fortresses.” The Third Republic then renewed the declaration of war and pledged to drive the invaders out of France. Whereupon the Prussian army, without any significant opposition, marched on Paris.

Surrounded and cut off from the rest of France, government and military action hampered by the isolation and a Prussian campaign of propaganda and misinformation, it would take an unlikely collection if hobbyists and amateurs to save Paris and the country . . . balloonists and pigeon fanciers.


Ballons and pigeons to the rescue!

The first air war escalated with the French building balloons as quickly as they could (a new one every 12 days), scrounging what materials they could. Cargoed with boxes of pigeons the balloons would be launched at night hoping to avoid German guns. Hopefully landing in unoccupied areas they would endeavor to get their messages to the officials of free France and the pigeons would carry news back to the city. In a starving city living on horses, dogs, cats, rats and zoo animals, the eating of birds of any sort was outlawed to protect the pigeons. The ingenious use of early microphotography allowed many more messages to be sent, with multiple pigeons carrying the same messages and every tenth pigeon carrying all the messages of the previous nine. With redundancy included in the official post, President Trochu in Paris received five or six copies of every dispatch sent to him from Tours of Bordeaux.

To counter this, the Germans stretched their lines thin, dispersing their forces in an efforts to capture the balloons as they came down. They imported hawks to the front to bring down the French pigeons. Krupp, manufacturer of the new steel siege guns, kludged together the world’s first dedicated anti-aircraft guns in an effort to shoot down the balloons. There were rumors at the time, unsubstantiated, of French and Prussian aeronauts shooting it out above the clouds.

Between September of 1870 and January of 1871, 66 balloons were launched carrying at least 110 passengers in addition to the pilots, 400 pigeons, a ton of mail, 150 thousand official messages, and perhaps a million private letters. Two aeronauts were lost at sea, six were captured; the Germans threatened to have the shot as spies, but ended up treating them as other prisoners of war. One balloon drifted more than 800 miles to Norway.

“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. Each flight accomplished, each letter delivered, was in a sense another little victory over the great German war-machine; a defiance, a gesture made by an individual.”


World War I saw many developments in military balloons and dirigibles.

In the end, however, balloons and pigeons failed to save France. What they did accomplish was the realization that balloons had a real military utility, launching the meteoric growth in dirigible development that had stagnated through the first three quarters of the 19th Century. The siege also lead to the foundation of War Pigeon Corps in the various Western militaries and the huge expansion of a network of pigeon lofts. When unresolved Franco-Prussian hostilities again boiled over in 1914, the heirs to airlift of 1870 again took to the skies.

Reference: “Airlift: 1870” by John Fisher (1965)


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