Napoleon III’s ill judged attack on Prussia led to one of the most humiliating defeats in France’s history, and saw the city surrounded and isolated, with no chance of escape. The Siege of Paris in 1870 was a tremendously testing time. Parisian showed real grit during the four months of the stand off, whilst suffering the loss of 65,000 people and at times near constant bombardment from Prussian troops. Bismark kept up the pressure, but the French overcame many of the difficulties they faced with great imagination and inventiveness.
In Paris by Plaque – Montmartre, Chapter One is devoted to the story of Interior Minister Léon Gambetta and his daring escape from the Paris by hot air balloon. You can find the ‘Histoire de Paris’ plaque outside Square Louise Michel on place Saint-Pierre at the foot of Sacré-Coeur, and the translation of it in the book. It was from here that the balloons were launched. The success of Gambetta’s escape gave a huge morale boost to those who remained trapped. After a bumpy landing, the Minister managed to jump onto a train headed for Tours, where he released a homing pigeon to take news of his success to the anxiously waiting city. Thereafter an extensive programme of siege breaking began, with the use of improvised balloons and homing pigeons, which greatly aided military communications.
The Prussians, naturally enraged by this success, did all in their power to halt the flow of messages out of Paris. They developed swivel-mounted guns so that they could shoot down the creaky balloons, which floated up out of their range. They only succeeded in shooting down two balloons – the Niepce and the Daguerre. Not to be intimidated, the French balloonists simply decided to make their flights during the night to evade detection. The balloons were powered by coal gas, as it didn’t need a flame to reheat it once the craft was airborne, making it perfect for night flights. The balloons were virtually undetectable in the dark, although the aeronauts needed all their skill and bravery to pull the journeys off. Skilled Parisian aeronauts were in short supply, not surprisingly, as ballooning was a fringe activity at best in the 1870s, and the pilots could not return to the city once they had landed. Despite this, an estimated 11,000 kg of mail was thought to have left the city during the Siege, in fifty-nine of the sixty-six balloons which made their way out of Paris during the conflict. One unintentionally set a world distance record when it was blown off course, finally touching down in Norway. The balloons were extremely hard to control, which added to the danger of the operation.
A plan to smuggle messages into the city by ‘les pigeons voyageurs’ was a resounding success. The homing pigeons were smuggled out in the balloons and once they had been delivered to army HQ they had messages attached to them by various methods. The despatches were initially rolled round their tail feathers and tied in place. Later they were secreted inside goose quills, which were similarly attached. The Prussians set hawks upon these feathery spies, but they largely battled through, gaining the respect and affection of the besieged city. The pigeons carried highly important military and government despatches as well as approximately 95,000 personal messages, raising morale considerably. They were honoured on a beautiful memorial statue erected in 1906, for the ‘Aeronauts of the Siege of Paris’, by Batholdi, which used to stand in place des Ternes. Four pedestals surrounding the monument each depicted a pair of postal pigeons. Sadly, the Germans melted down the monument in 1944.
The enemy did succeed on one occasion in capturing pigeons from the Daguerre, which was shot down over enemy lines. They switched the messages the birds were carrying, warning the Parisians of Prussian advances in order to spread ‘alarm and confusion’. When the birds arrived back in their Parisian lofts however, someone spotted that a different type of thread had been used to secure the messages. The authentic messages were always secured with waxed cotton, and the fake messages had been secured with plain cotton. The Prussians were outfoxed once again.
In the next article, we will tell the fascinating story of how a modest chemist invented microfilm technology to vastly increase the number of messages the heroic pigeons voyageurs were able to carry, as well as another slightly hare-brained postal scheme that failed utterly.
Anna Meakin  is the author of Paris by Plaque  – Montmartre Vol 1 (The Complete Guide to the Historic Plaques of Paris) and she’s now writing her next book about the Left Bank. Please click on her name to read more about her and her past stories about historic Paris of the past published by BonjourParis.
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