Franco-Prussian War

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The Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871) was a territorial conflict between France and Prussia.

The English balloonist Henry Tracey Coxwell assisted the Prussians in preparing two balloon detachments, which were not used to much effect, and were retired before the Germans could use them at Paris.[1]

Siege of Paris

During the siege of Paris, balloons enabled messages and people to escape from the city. These included astronomer Jules Janssen who escaped Paris on 2 December 1870 in order to prepare for viewing the solar eclipse of 22 December 1870.[2] Minister Leon Gambetta and scientist Wilfrid de Fonvielle also left the city in balloons.[3][4] Later some of these escapees formed the Société des aéronautes du siège de Paris.

Of the sixty-five balloons launched, two were lost at sea and five fell into enemy hands.[5] One set a record for speed.[6]

Captive balloons were set up in Paris for reconnaissance.[7][8]

Gaston Tissandier used a balloon to deliver a propganda message to the German soldiers.[4]

In Metz, also surrounded by the Prussian army, the Chief Pharmacist, Doctor Julien F. Jeannel (1814–1896), organized outgoing mail to be sent by small unmanned balloons. There's a plaque in Metz commemorating Jeannel's inauguration of the first air mail service on 5 September 1870.[9]

The war is often cited as a momentous event for the French military consciousness, motivating the research program at Chalais-Meudon which produced La France fourteen years later.

Ferdinand von Zeppelin and Charles Renard were each working for their respective governments during this war.

During the siege of Paris, in 1870, when the Parisians were cut off from all means of escape, there were only a few balloons in Paris; but the successful escape of some aëronauts in them was considered encouraging enough to establish an aërial highway involving a more wholesale manufacture of balloons than had been accomplished before. The disused railway stations were converted into balloon factories and training schools for aëronauts. In four months sixty-six balloons left Paris, fifty-four being adapted to the administration of post and telegraph; 160 persons were carried over the Prussian lines; three million letters reached their destination; 360 pigeons were taken up, of which only fifty-seven came back, but these brought 100,000 messages, by means of microphotographical despatches. In these a film 38 by 50 mm. contained 2,500 messages. The pigeons usually carried eighteen films, with 40,000 messages.[10]

During the same time, Krupp created the first anti-balloon gun.[10] It was not judged a great success.[4]

In generalized terms, it was the Franco-Prussian War, and reflections taking place during its aftermath, that brought balloons back into prominence within overall French military capacity.[11]

Effect on the scientific world

In March 1871 the editors of L'Aéronaute announced that they were breaking off relations with German researchers.[12]



  1. Hildebrandt, 1908, Airships Past and Present, pp. 141–142. "The march to Paris was a laborious operation. All available vans were placed at the disposal of the commissariat department, and so none were left for the balloonists. As soon as they arrived in the neighbourhood of Paris it was found to be impossible to refill the balloon, and the company was therefore disbanded on October 10th, 1870, the balloon being sent back to Germany."
  2. Wise, 1873, Through the Air, p. 34. "The noted astronomer Janssen, who happened to be in Paris at the time of its investment by the Prussian army, preparing the necessary instruments for his observations to be made on the then approaching solar eclipse, would have been deprived of opportunities for conducting his experiments had it not been for the balloon facilities which he emergency of the war brought into play. The minister of public information furnished him the balloon 'La Volta,' of 72,000 cubic feet capacity, and a seaman as aëronaut; and on the morning of the 2d of December, 1870, and landed safely beyond the Prussian war lines at St. Nazaire the same day. He was thus enabled to view the eclipse in proper style on the 22d day of December following."
  3. Karl Blind, "The Siege of Paris and the Air-Ships"; North American Review 166(497), April 1898.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Hildebrandt, 1908, Airships Past and Present, p. 144. "On September 30th Gaston Tissandier threw down 10,000 copies of a proclamation, addressed to the German soldiers. It contained a demand for peace, stating at the same time that France was prepared to fight to the bitter end."
  5. Banet-Rivet, 1898, L'Aéronautique, p. 252.
  6. Hildebrandt, 1908, Airships Past and Present, pp. 202. "The fastest journey in a balloon was made from Paris at the time of the siege. The distance from Paris to the Zuyder Zee, amounting to 285 miles, was covered in three hours, at an average speed of ninety-five miles an hour"
  7. Bruce, 1914, Aircraft in War, pp. 2–3. "During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, three captive balloons were installed in Paris, the 'Nadar' on the Place St. Pierre; the 'Neptune,' manned by Wilfred de Fonvielle, at the gasworks at Vaugirard; and the 'Celeste' on the Boulevard des Italiens."
  8. Hildebrandt, 1908, Airships Past and Present, p. 142. "During the battle of Valenton, on Septmeber 17th, 1870, four balloons were sent up. Several captive balloons were used in Paris, but they did little good, owing to the winter fogs."
  9. Allaz, 1998, p. 14.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Bruce, 1914, Aircraft in War, pp. 11–12.
  11. Chadeau, Emmanuel, 1985, État, Entreprise & Développement Économique : L’Industrie Aéronautique en France (1900-1940) Thése pour le Doctorat, unpublished version
  12. L'Aéronaute 4(3), Mars 1871, "Rupture des relations scientifiques avec l'Allemagne", pp. 33–34.