Falling upwards, p.28
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       Falling Upwards, p.28

           Richard Holmes

  Astonishingly, each collodion roll contained enough negatives to record well over a thousand two-page letters. As each goose quill could take four or five collodion films, one rolled tightly inside the other, a single pigeon could carry up to five thousand letters. Moreover, each roll could be reproduced scores of times, so that many copies could be sent by many different pigeons. Thus the chance of at least one safe home-run was greatly increased.46

  It was Nadar who first heard about Dagron’s work, and introduced him to his old contact Monsieur Rampont-Lechin, head of the Bureau de Poste. Nadar wrote Rampont a beautifully clear, technical letter describing the whole process, as precise and detailed as a patent claim, and recommending Dagron to lead the project. He was undoubtedly shocked when Dagron negotiated a large fee with the government, and, when asked to fly out to Tours, added twenty-five thousand francs of danger money. This was hardly in the spirit of the Aérostiers.47

  On 12 November, four days after the failure of the Jean-Bart expedition, Dagron flew out of Paris aboard Le Niepce, carrying a precious cargo of cameras and microfilm equipment, weighing six hundred kilos. His secret mission was to explain and install this top-secret message system at Tours, and then at Clermont-Ferrand, well clear of the Prussians. The balloon had a difficult flight, descending over the Marne, and Dagron and his weighty photographic kit barely escaped capture after a rough landing and cross-country pursuit. But by the end of November the first microfilm pigeon posts were flying in.

  Meanwhile, the Bureau de Poste in Paris had organised a mass-distribution system. Whenever a pigeon returned to a rooftop roost anywhere in the city, it was inspected by a duty pigeon officer. Certain pigeon roosts or colombiers became famous for their successes, but all roosts were manned twenty-four hours a day. The precious rolls of collodion film were immediately extracted from the pigeon’s quill, and rushed over to the Bureau within minutes of their arrival. Here the films were carefully unwound and cleaned, by soaking them in a mild ammonia solution. They were then cut up into separate strips of negatives, and slipped into a battery of magic lanterns. These projected the negatives onto large screens, permanently installed in a series of darkened transcription rooms. Once magnified through the lanterns’ special lenses, the individual letters and despatches became as large as posters, and were easily legible.

  A team of clerks, also on continuous twenty-four-hour duty, sat in front of the large, luminous screens, transcribing the letters and despatches back onto paper. This, of course, was the slowest, most exhausting and least reliable stage of the process. The hot, dark, smoke-filled transcription rooms were places of tension and high drama. The clerks saw fragments of history in the making, but were also privy to intimate family business, passionate lovers’ letters, and the endless heartbreaking private tragedies of war. There seems to have been little censorship. Government despatches got priority, but all post was eventually sorted and delivered to its destination throughout Paris, usually within a week. By this technique a single pigeon could carry enough written material to fill the pages of an average-size novel. (Indeed, it is odd that these exceptional circumstances did not actually produce a novel.)

  The Prussians naturally took counter-measures, including regular shooting patrols using buckshot cartridges, and, most effectively, teams of hunting hawks and trained falcons. But probably the winter weather took the greatest toll. Between September 1870 and February 1871 around 360 carrier pigeons were released, but only fifty-seven made it home to Paris, a success rate of about one in six. But because of the system of microfilm and pigeon duplication, the actual success rate for message delivery was far higher. Some ninety-five thousand individual letters and despatches were sent from Tour and Clermont-Ferrand. Of these it is estimated that more than sixty thousand items were finally delivered to their addressees in the besieged city, a success rate of more than one in two.48

  The arrival of pigeons became as significant to Parisians as the departure of balloons. Both became part of the psychology of the city’s resistance, and eventually its mythology. Just as the named balloon launches were announced beforehand, so the news of the latest pigeon-post arrivals would be officially advertised in the press. The pigeons too were given names: Gladiator, Vermouth, Fille d’air. Households all over Paris would wait in anticipation for their arrival. International news was vital to morale, and was quickly printed in the wartime editions of Le Moniteur, Le Journal des débats and other Paris papers. But family news – health, money, food, children, domestic animals, gardens – was at a premium. And there was always the shadow of the Prussians. ‘In all history, there will never have been a more beautiful or more touching legend than that of these saviour birds,’ wrote the journalist Paul de Saint-Victor. ‘They brought back to Paris the promise of distant France, the love and memories of so many separated families.’49 Once again Puvis de Chavannes produced a poignant picture, The Pigeon, showing the now emaciated figure of Marianne on the Paris ramparts. This time she is shielding a carrier pigeon, and warding off a Prussian hawk, with the belfries of Notre Dame symbolically in the background.

  Letters between wartime lovers were particularly important and intense. Even the ageing Théophile Gautier tried to keep in touch with his mistress, the beautiful dancer Carlotta Grisi, who was safely ensconced in her manor house in Geneva. Like so many others, he despatched a fortnightly stream of duplicated letters, faithfully sent by each departing balloon post. He numbered each of the letters (over seventeen are known) so that lost ones could be identified. He also dated them, like many correspondents, according to the number of siege days that had elapsed.

  On 30 November 1870 Gautier wrote duplicated letter No. 7, ‘on 74th day of Siege’:

  Darling Carlotta … This morning I regaled myself with a rat pâté which wasn’t at all bad. You will understand the sadness of our life. The rest of the world no longer exists for us … Ah! My poor Carlotta, what a wretched year, this 1870. What events, what catastrophes! And all without the solace and sweetness of your friendship … I imagine that my dear ones might be ill, unhappy, or what would be far worse, forgetful. A balloon is leaving tonight: will it be more fortunate than the earlier ones that were captured? … Be assured that if I do not come and see you, it is merely the fault of 300,000 Prussian soldiers.50

  Victor Hugo put both the balloons and the pigeons into many of the forty-five poems collected in his remarkable month-by-month verse journal of the Paris siege and the Commune, L’Année terrible. They became explicit, airborne symbols of Parisian resistance to the Prussians. Again and again Hugo uses the lyrical image of the dawn light in the east, with the silhouette of a departing balloon or the tiny flicker of an incoming pigeon: ‘the ineffable dawn where fly the doves’.51

  Perhaps the most unusual of these resistance poems is his ‘Lettre à une Femme’ – ‘Letter to an Unknown Woman’. It is dramatically subtitled ‘Par Ballon Monté, 10 Janvier’.52 January 1871 was the final month of the siege, and this is central to the bravado of Hugo’s poem ‘sent by manned balloon’ (probably the Gambetta, which left at 3 a.m. on 10 January). By this time General von Moltke had finally overcome Bismarck’s scruples, and the Prussians had begun to bombard the centre of Paris five days before, on 5 January. This was the first time in modern history that a great European capital, and its overwhelmingly civilian population, had been bombarded. It caused profound shock. Over twelve thousand shells fell without discrimination, mostly on the Left Bank, striking the Panthéon, the Salpêtrière hospital, the Montparnasse cemetery and the Sorbonne.53

  Ignoring these horrors, Hugo summons up, with a surprisingly light touch, the more banal daily discomforts of the siege. He refers to the sight of the raw tree stumps all along the Champs-Elysées, the icy chill of the unheated apartments, the huge queues outside the food shops, the constant thump of incoming Prussian shells, the drunken, desperate soldiers singing in the streets at night, and the awful massacre of the animals (‘We consume horse, rat, bear, donkey … our stomachs are like
Noah’s ark’). There are also the small, insidious, personal privations: no clean shirts, no gaslight to work by, no white bread, the reduced diet of vegetables (‘Onions are worshipped like gods in ancient Egypt’). Above all, there is the awful gloom of the early-night-time blackout in the erstwhile City of Light: ‘at six in the evening descends the dark’.

  But the message of Hugo’s resistance poem is that the old pleasure-loving Paris has been transformed, just as Nadar had claimed in that very first balloon letter to The Times. Paris has learned to accept all these hardships, without complaints, in the name of France. She will never surrender. Paris can take it. This image of Paris as a beautiful, stoic, unconquerable woman is the one that Hugo most wants to project. But she is also male in her determination – ‘un héros … une femme’. While Moltke bombards the Parisians, and Bismarck starves them, this strange, smiling, symbolic figure stands defiant on the ramparts. She – or he – gazes upwards, ‘at the balloon that sails away, at the pigeon that flutters back’.

  Soit. Moltke nous cannone et Bismarcke nous affame.

  Paris est un héros, Paris est une femme!

  Il sait être vaillant et charmant; ses yeux vont

  Souriants et pensifs, dans le grand ciel profond,

  Du pigeon qui revient au ballon qui s’envole!

  C’est beau – le formidable est sorti du frivole.54 fn38

  In fact Paris was bombarded into submission within three weeks. The city capitulated on 28 January 1871, in the nineteenth week of the siege. The Prussians marched briefly down a deserted Champs-Elysées on 1 March, exacted enormous punitive reparations, and the Commune of Paris erupted in April. The penultimate siege balloon, Le Richard Wallace, named after the British philanthropist who paid for the municipal fountains of Paris, had left from the Gare du Nord at 3.30 a.m. on 27 January. Manned by the last of Nadar’s original Aérostiers, Emile Lacaze, it flew fast and sure, almost due west, covering over 350 miles and reaching the large naval port of La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast in the late afternoon.

  Sailors spotted Lacaze, flying low, and shouted for him to valve gas and come down. Witnesses later said that he waved to people on the quayside, and then unaccountably threw out sacks of ballast, gained height and sailed on over the bay of Arcachon, and out into the open Atlantic. He also threw out his mailbags, since several of them were later washed up on the shore.56 No one knows exactly what Emile Lacaze had in mind. Perhaps his release valve had jammed, like Major Money’s long ago. Perhaps, like Alexandre Prince, he deliberately sacrificed his own life for the mail. Or perhaps he simply could not bear the thought of Paris surrendering. Perhaps the last of the Aérostiers was determined to head on out to America, the land of the free, three thousand miles away. At all events, neither Lacaze nor Le Richard Wallace was ever seen again.


  What was truly significant about the Paris siege balloons can never be reduced to statistics. Nonetheless, the bare statistics are astonishing. Between 20 September 1870 and 28 January 1871, a period of 130 days, a total of seventy-one free-flight balloons were organised within central Paris. Of these, sixty-seven were successfully launched and overflew the Prussian siege lines, at various heights and at various times of day or night. Several of them flew as far afield as Bordeaux, Brittany, Cornwall, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway and Germany, although, despite rumours to the contrary, none ever crossed the Alps.57

  Amazingly, only five balloons were ever captured. Two were trapped on the ground just south of Paris (near Chartres and Melun), brought down by a combination of bad weather and Prussian musketfire. The other three were caught helplessly in powerful easterly air streams, and flew several hundred miles into Germany or German-occupied territory. They landed outside Metz, Koblenz and Stuttgart (a distance of three hundred miles), their crews still believing they were in French territory. The fate of these men is not certain: some were imprisoned and later released, others disappeared and were probably shot out of hand.

  Although not captured, several balloonists were badly hurt on landing, and the pilot of the Fulton was killed. Three were missing presumed drowned – two over the Atlantic, one over the Irish Sea. It is extraordinary that there were not more casualties. No balloon was ever brought down by the much-feared Krupps field gun, and no counter-attacking Prussian balloon corps ever materialised – though it is an interesting indication of English attitudes that the aeronaut Henry Coxwell volunteered to organise one.58

  All the balloons carried mailbags and baskets of carrier pigeons, but some had other types of cargo. The Niepce carried photographic equipment, the Steenackers boxes of dynamite, the Armand Barbès Léon Gambetta, the Victor Hugo several thousand propaganda pamphlets, the Général Faidherbe messenger dogs, and La Volta – with magnificent insouciance – special telescopes and the astronomer Pierre Janssen from the Académie des Sciences, to observe a rare eclipse in the clear skies of the south of France. Many later balloons also carried the first airmail newspaper, Le Ballon-poste, pioneered by Le Figaro.59

  Fantastic efforts were made to deliver the mail safely. The two balloonists Rolier and Bézier, who made the landing on the snow-covered Norwegian mountainside, walked for two days through freezing drifts until rescued. They only knew where they were when a Norwegian forester showed them a box of matches with a picture of Christiana on it. They then discovered that the remnants of their balloon had been blown into the next valley, where three of the four mailbags – the third split open – were recovered by Norwegian farmers, and brought back to the capital. Even more remarkably, the farmers faithfully restored to them their two telescopes, a Scottish plaid, a cooked goose, two baguettes and a bottle of brandy. Travelling back by train and boat via London and Saint-Malo, Rolier and Bézier delivered the mail to Tours on 8 December, a mere two weeks late.60

  The final balloon statistics can never be certain, and may always owe something to French propaganda against the Germans (just like the Battle of Britain statistics seventy years later). But it is generally agreed that between sixty-four and sixty-seven balloons were successfully launched; that fifty-eight or fifty-nine landed safely in friendly territory; that 102 passengers (not including the aeronauts) were safely transported, together with four hundred pigeons and five dogs; and that not thousands, but millions of letters were successfully delivered.fn39 And not necessarily in France: one of the Norwegian mailbags contained a letter sent to Africa, while others were delivered to addresses in Sydney, Australia, and San Francisco, USA.

  At all events, it was the first great and successful airlift in European history. If it did not win a war, it saved the morale and even the soul of a nation. It was the finest hour of the free-flight gas balloon, and the final justification of the Montgolfiers and Dr Alexander Charles.


  Yet, surprisingly, there was no immediate official recognition of what this handful of balloonists had achieved. Perhaps this was because of the subsequent Commune, and the terrible divisions produced by its bloody suppression, when over twenty thousand people were killed on the barricades or subsequently executed by the Thiers government. There was little inclination to revisit recent Parisian history. Instead, various heroic but apocryphal stories began to circulate after the war, forming a kind of aeronautical folklore. With some justification, one of the best concerned Nadar himself.

  The encampment at the place Saint-Pierre had long since been abandoned, and the No. 1 Aérostiers disbanded – though not without murmurings and ‘a certain bitterness’ that the Godards had stolen Nadar’s thunder. Nevertheless, as Nadar himself wrote, no one could take away from him ‘the honour of having first created the balloon-post service’, or of having successfully despatched Léon Gambetta by air to Tours in the Armand Barbès.62

  This was perhaps the most significant single balloon flight of the whole siege, and it was around this flight that several legends formed. It began to be said that Nadar had not merely organised the Armand Barbès, but had actually accompanied Gambetta in the balloon. Having
assured Gambetta’s safe arrival at Tours, Nadar then immediately commandeered another balloon and – so the story went – daringly flew back into the besieged city. In fact, despite Gaston Tissandier’s efforts, no balloon ever succeeded in flying back into Paris. But this account was widely believed, and was even reprinted in a popular history of ballooning by Fulgence Marion published three years later in Paris and New York, in 1874. According to the report, Nadar not only heroically returned, but actually engaged in an aerial dogfight with a Prussian balloon ‘above the Fort of Charenton’.

  The tall tale went like this. Nadar’s mythical balloon was called (perhaps with a nod to Thaddeus Lowe) L’Intrépide. It was sighted just after dawn one late-October morning, floating in low from the west. As it approached the Charenton fort, a second balloon, also carrying a tricolour, rose from a nearby wood and rapidly drew alongside L’Intrépide, apparently intending to guide Nadar safely into Paris. (Such a manoeuvre, given the navigation limitations of a balloon, would in fact have been virtually impossible to perform.) But once close enough, in a piratical gesture worthy of Jules Verne, the helmeted pilot of the second balloon suddenly lowered its tricolour, hoisted a Prussian flag, and treacherously opened fire with a musket, puncturing the top of Nadar’s canopy.

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