On Friday September 23, 1870, the first balloon mail crosses the German lines during the Siege of Paris. Called Le Neptune, this first gas balloon – soon followed by 65 more balloon mails until January 28, 1871 – carries on board 125 kilograms of official dispatches, newspapers and letters to the Château de Cracouville by Evreux. This is the debut of the air mail.
It has been three days since Paris is under yoke of the Germans. After overthrowing Queen Isabella II of Spain during the La Gloriosa – the popular Spanish revolution of 1868 – Leopold, Prince of Hohenzollern and cousin of the King of Prussia is felt to replace the queen exiled in France, despite the opposition of Napoleon III. Furthermore, on July 19, 1870, France has declared war to Prussia.
But the French armies – only including 300,000 men – are not prepared to such fights and suffer defeat after defeat with a peak on September 2, 1870, with the defeat in Sedan, when the French troops face the Prussian troops and their allies and it ends up with Napoleon III captured.
Two days later, the 3rd Republic is announced by Leon Gambetta in Paris and a Government of National Defense is created in a rush, but the situation does not improve in France and the enemies keep quickly progressing to the North of the Loire, towards the capital city, without encountering much opposition.
Paris is surrounded by the Germans from September 17, 1870 and besieged on September 19: this is the beginning of the Siege of Paris. Communications with the rest of the national territory are cut off, and the government must quickly come up with a plan to send civil and military letters out of the capital. The solution is found: as they can not go through the lands, mail is sent by the air.
Skilled balloonist, French engineer Claude Jules Dufour aka Duruof is entrusted by Germain Rampont – the post CEO – with creating balloons dedicated to air mail, with the help of Parisian photographer and engineer Félix Tournacho aka Nadar, founder of the Compagnie des Aérostiers militaires, who is fond of balloons and already creating them since the beginning of the captive balloon fight, grounded thanks to a cable, and able to operate observations of the enemy lines and shooting adjustments.
On September 19, 1870, Leon Gambetta – now Minister of the Interior – orders through a convention the construction of three aircrafts in the gare d'Austerlitz and the gare du Nord railway stations, requisitioned on the occasion, marking the debut of the aeronautic industry. But for the first flight, it is decided a balloon already existing and available in Paris will be used. Nadar’s Le Neptune balloon is chosen as it has already completed a dozen observation flights over the previous days.
On Friday September 23, 1870, at 8 a.m., Le Neptune – that has been inflated again overnight thanks to a gas pipe used to light the street lights up – takes off from the place Saint-Pierre before the eyes of the elected representatives of the Government of the National Defense and the crowd at the foot of the butte Montmartre, after Nadar shouted “let it go!” to the soldiers holding the ropes. Loaded with 125 kilograms of letters and dispatches for the members of the government withdrawn in Tours, the balloon is driven by Duruof, the only man on board, who knows the engine well since he was the first one to own it.
Le Neptune crosses the enemy lines above Versailles and heads to Le Havre, the German army not having reached Normandy yet. The aircraft completes a 104-kilometer flight without problem before landing, after spending 3 hours and 15 minutes in the air, in the park of the Château de Cracouville, near Evreux, Normandy. This is the very first flight in the world’s history of airmail. By learning this journey, Otto von Bismarck is said to have shouted: “This is not fair!”.
Then, 65 aircrafts will leave Paris until the end of the Siege of Paris and the signing of the armistice on January 28, 1871, carrying on board about a hundred passengers and between 2.5 and 3 million official and private letters, covers and more dispatches beyond the Parisian basin, out of the reach of the Prussian canons. Filled with highly inflammable lighting gas, balloons could fly by day and by night, suffering yet shootings from the enemies.
To pilot them, the government recruits volunteering gymnasts and sailors as they lack balloonists. Trained to the very basics of aerostation on the ground, they take off without much experience. Gambetta himself flies out on October 7, 1870 aboard the Barbès balloon to join the delegation of the provisional government in Tour to organize the defense of the country. Fortunately, over the months, balloon mails show they are reliable as they count only three failures in addition to the 60 flights.
And yet, trips are not easy, subject to the direction and strength of the wind. The Le Duquesne airship lands in occupied zone, the Ville de Paris lands in Germany, the Le Jacquart sinks in the sea, south of England, and the Le Daguerre is strafed by the Prussians, and the two passengers on board were made captive. But the record is held by the Ville d’Orléans balloon that covered 1,246 kilometers to finally land in Norway!
In memory of these air achievements, the Ballon des Ternes – a work of art by sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi – depicting the city of Paris with a child on her knee reaching out a pigeon bringing news from the country and topped with a huge copper balloon was erected in 1906 at the Porte des Ternes, departing point of many balloon mails’ flights. The monument has been melted by the Germans during the Second World War.
To find out more:
If you want to enjoy Paris from the sky and pretend you are a balloonist, you can get on board the Ballon de Paris set in the parc André-Citroën in the 15th arrondissement. The views are breathtaking!
75018 Paris 18
Départ du ballon Le Neptune, place Saint-Pierre-de-Montmartre