A war fought between France and Prussia over the issue of Spanish succession.
On July 19, 1870, France declared war on Prussia after unsuccessful negotiations between the two nations concerning who would be the next Spanish king. The Prussians were backing a candidate in Spain friendly to them, but the French, fearful of being surrounded by a Prussian-Spanish alliance, called for negotiations. After the talks failed, the Prussian premier, Otto von Bismarck, deliberately angered the French by insulting their government in the famous Ems telegram. French emperor Napoleon III had been assured that France’s army was so powerful it could never be defeated. Early in the war, however, the French suffered massive defeats at the hands of the Prussians, and on September 1, 1870, the French army surrendered. Napoleon III, who had become ill while fighting with his troops, was taken prisoner.
In Paris, the French set up a provisional government of national defense that took away Napoleon’s power and established the Third Republic. The Prussian army then surrounded and laid siege to Paris, totally blockading the new government from the rest of France. The leaders of the Third Republic needed a way to communicate with its armies outside of Paris. On September 22, a solution was provided from above. A number of large hot-air balloons, which had been built for an international exposition in 1867, were found in a sad state of disrepair. One balloon, the Neptune, was patched together and piloted out of the city. The astonished Prussians watched, powerless to bring the balloon down. After three hours in the air, the balloon’s pilot landed in friendly territory with messages for the commanders of the remaining French army.
Over the next several days, four more balloons took off safely and reached their destinations without being shot out of the sky. A means of sending messages to the countryside had been established, and the minister of the post office officially established a regular “Balloon Post.”
It soon became apparent that balloons, at the mercy of the wind, could not be effectively steered in a desired direction. Although dirigibles, motor-powered balloons, were being tested at the time of the siege, they were not yet available for service. Balloons flew out of Paris, but, because of the wind patterns, they could not return.
Postal officials tried various solutions to the problem. They once sent five sheepdogs out of the city by balloon with the intent that the dogs could be sent back with mail tied to their backs, but none of the dogs were ever seen again. They floated hollow metal balls with messages inside down the River Seine, but none was ever recovered.
A Parisian carrier pigeon owner’s club, L’Esperance, contacted the government to suggest that urban pigeons could be sent away with messages bound to their legs and could then be sent back to Paris with new messages. Government officials initially laughed at the idea. However, the club secretary eventually found a willing listener at the Central Telegraph Offices, the wires to which had been cut by the Prussians early in the siege. A pigeon loft was built on the roof of the Telegraph Office on September 4, 1870. Before the system could work, however, pigeons would have to be taken out of Paris and trained to return to their new loft.
On September 10, the first pigeons were taken out of Paris by balloon and flown to the city of Tours in southern France. Members of L’Esperance began rounding up the limited supply of available carrier pigeons, most of which were untrained. The principal supplier of pigeons was the club’s president, Mr. Cassier, who had fifty-two birds in his loft. Of all fifty-two birds that saw service in the war, only two survived. During the remaining five months of the siege, hundreds of carrier pigeons were taken out of Paris by balloon.
Once the pigeons arrived in army headquarters at Tours, they were fed, rested, and prepared for the 130-mile return flight to Paris. Before they were released, the pigeons had messages placed in small metal containers attached to their legs. More than three hundred pigeons left Paris by balloon during the siege, but only fifty-nine successfully made the return flight to Paris. The others fell into Prussian hands or were blown off course by severe weather, particularly in the winter months of January and February, when only six of sixty-five pigeons safely made the journey back to Paris. The weather and the Prussians were not the pigeons’ only enemies, however. Hawks killed some, as did human hunters with shotguns seeking food for their families. The pigeon service was ended on February 1, 1871, after the Prussians lifted their siege.
The pigeons had an important impact on the morale of the Parisians, even though France lost the war and signed a humiliating peace treaty. The fifty-nine pigeons that successfully made the return flight carried more than 95,000 messages to Paris. The citizens of Paris even built them a monument after the war through private contributions.
One interesting result of these pigeon flights was the development of the first microfilm messages. A Parisian photographer developed a method of taking pictures of official messages and reducing them in size by using his camera. These microfilms made it easier for pigeons to carry large numbers of documents that would have been too heavy on paper. The microfilm was placed in tubes attached to one of the bird’s legs. With this method, pigeons could carry twenty or more messages at a time rather than one or two. To improve their chances of getting through Prussian lines, the same messages were sent by several pigeons at the same time. Carrier pigeon flights thus played a major role in the Franco-Prussian War and aided in the survival of the people of Paris.
Hayhurst, John D. The Pigeon Post into Paris, 1870-1871. London: privately printed, 1970. A detailed analysis of this first use of air power that includes many statistics and illustrations. Horne, Alistair. The Fall of Paris. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1965. Describes the war and the introduction of balloons and pigeons in detail. Milner, John. Art, War, and Revolution in France, 1870-1871. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. Includes several interesting illustrations of air power during the war.