Mail by Carrier Pigeon

Using Pigeons to Deliver Mail During the 1870 Siege of Paris
Using Pigeons to Deliver Mail During the 1870 Siege of Paris

In 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War, Paris was besieged by Prussian forces and cut off from what remained of unoccupied France. In an effort to maintain communications between the capital and the rest of the country, France established an innovative system of ail delivery that made use of the latest technology of the time. A balloon was sent aloft from Paris, over Prussian lines, carrying equipment to make microfiche copies of documents. These were then attached to homing or carrier pigeons who would deliver the messages to and from Paris.

This is the story of the daring men that made the dangerous balloon flight out of beleaguered Paris and their adventures afterward.

THE MAIL by Carrier Pigeon


The balloon The Niepce left Paris, on November 12, 1870, at nine o’clock in the morning carrying

Messrs. Dagron, photographer;
Fernique, engineer of arts and manufactures;
Poisot, painter, son-in-law of Mr. Dagron;
Gnocchi, Mr. Dagron’s preparer;
Pagano, sailor, aeronaut student;

then about six hundred kilograms of aircraft belonging to Mr. Dagron.

The balloon the Daguerre left at the same time as the Niepce, [apparently named after inventor Nicéphore Niépce] carrying three travelers, the postal correspondence, pigeons and the complement of the devices of Mr. Dagron.

Mr Dagron and Mr Fernique were sent by Mr Rampont, Director-General of the Post Office, with the approval of Mr Picard, Minister of Finance, to set up in the provinces a photomicroscopic dispatch service to be sent to Paris by means of racing pigeons. This service was regulated by a decree of November 10, 1870, and was to be installed in Clermont-Ferrand. Mr Fernique had to, in addition to his collaboration with Mr Dagron’s work, take full care in the organisation of the pigeon service, and also implement a system of river correspondence which the delegation did not wish to practise.

Franco Prussian War of 1870
Franco Prussian War of 1870


At the start of the two balloons, the wind was going to the east. Nevertheless, we left accompanied by the strong expressions of sympathy of a large number of people who had come to attend our departure, the success of this postal expedition to allay so many just concerns in Paris.

Arriving above the Prussian lines, the Niepce was, along with its companion, the Daguerre,greeted by a fierce firefight. At a height of eight hundred meters the bullets whistled around us. The Daguerre was reached, and we saw it, our hearts clenched, descending vertiginously and falling on the wall of a farm a few leagues from Paris; we now know that it was near Ferrières.

A fact whose consequences could have been terrible for us, and which must have been the cause of the loss of the Daguerre,is that the bags of lest were made of damaged cotton canvas, of insufficient strength. The spectacle of the Daguerre pierced by bullets, and captured by enemy horsemen whom we saw running, made us feel the need to hasten our ascent to escape the same fate; but the bags of lest were breaking. It was necessary during the whole time of the journey to collect the sand from a plate, and thus throw it in small fraction out of the basket.

Around an hour and a half in the afternoon we had reached a height of fifteen hundred meters. We barely had the value of two bags of lest, and in the ignorance where we were of the presence or absence of the Prussians, it was decided that the descent would be done very quickly so as not to give them time to arrive. The descent was therefore at a rate of about ten meters per second. Thanks to the weight we had spared, and the two rope guides we had equipped ourselves with, the landing despite a strong wind was done without serious accidents; but the balloon lay down, and traveled about two kilometers with considerable speed, dragging with it the basket and all of us clinging in the ropes. The country had no bushes or shrubs that could be hung by the anchor and the guides-ropes; so the balloon did not stop until nets and fabrics were so tattered that the wind no longer had any hold on them. The ropes as they crossed shook the neck of M. Fernique, who emerged by a desperate effort; the same thing happened to Mr. Gnocchi, who was only cleared by a rotational movement that the nacelle undergoes. It was Mr. Poisot who was able to get out of the basket first, and come to our aid. As long as A heavy box hanging at head height was about to reach me, when, seeing the danger, I pushed it away with one hand; the backlash caused me to fall backwards with my feet in the air, almost without knowledge; it was my son-in-law who pulled me out of this critical position.

Many peasants, who had rushed in, told us that we were a few kilometers from Vitry-le-Français. They gave us their gowns and caps and put at our disposal two cars on which was placed in great haste all the equipment I carried. No sooner were the cars loaded than the Prussians arrived and seized one of them. They played the group of peasants with whom we were involved; but not distinguishing us, because of our prompt change of costume, they did not shoot. The balloon was also captured, and it was at its grip, which occupied the enemy the most, that we must have been able to escape from his hands, fortunately saving with us, across the field, the second car.

At this moment, M. Fernique took alone the direction of Coole where we were to join him, but the chance of the flight led us to Vessigneul.

The mayor of Vessigneul, Mr. Songy, of whom we will always remain obliged, agreed to hide us in his attic. When I arrived, I had put in the pocket ofMs. Songy, to save them, the papers and letters that had been entrusted to me. The luggage was placed under the straw of a barn. Only one crate remained to be hidden there, when the arriving Prussians took it and took it away.

Taking advantage of their departure and anticipating their prompt return in greater numbers, Mr. Songy, without wasting time, put us in his car and drove us himself to Fontaine-sur-Coole, to the home of Father Cachier. The latter, who had had the day before to house two Prussian officers, and who from one moment to the next was to receive others, also knowing the enemy in pursuit of us, hastened to make us leave from behind his house and the country, in order to avoid the meeting of the Prussians and the indiscretion of the inhabitants.

M. Cachier recommended to us in the most obliging way to his colleague M. Darcy, parish priest of Cernon, where we arrived, exhausted with fatigue and hunger, at ten o’clock in the evening.

Mr. Darcy and his mother hastened to give us the most devoted care. We also owe a token of gratitude to the mayor of this locality who put himself entirely at our disposal in the most obliging way. Mr. Darcy wanted us to rest; but at midnight there was a knock on his door. They were peasants who brought back some of the luggage left in Vessigneul, and came to warn us that the Prussians were on our trail and followed them closely. Mr. Darcy immediately made us set off for Bussy-Lettrée, where we arrived at five o’clock in the morning. Having abandoned our clothes when the balloon descended, having only a blouse on our backs, we had to suffer considerably from the cold during that freezing night.

The teacher of Bussy-Lettrée, M. Varnier, hastened in his turn, on the good recommendation of the parish priest of Cernon, to render us service. He made us a good fire, near which we could warm our icy limbs, and provided us with cars for Sompuis. We had decided that we would not all enter this small country together, so as not to arouse curiosity. Mr. Poisot, who had remained behind, was questioned by a group of residents, who told him that a stranger had gone the day before to the receiver of posts, Mr. Legrand. Supposing that this stranger might well be Mr Fernique, I went to the news, and I had the pleasure of learning from Mr Legrand himself that it was indeed our colleague, who had escaped as we had hitherto in the hands of the enemy. Mr. Legrand himself had taken him the day before to Dampierre. With the greatest kindness he offered to leave us immediately with us for the same destination. We arrived in Dampierre at one o’clock in the morning.

In this city, Dr. Mosment cordially offered us hospitality. In the hope that the journey could be made more easily, he provided us with drivers in Dampierre with Prussian passes for wine transport. One of these drivers, whose name we remember with pleasure, is Mr. Gauthier, an estimable man well known in the country. What had been saved from the material was placed in empty barrels and transported in this way for some time. We went to Nogent-le-Long, where we were, on the recommendation of Dr. Mosment, received amicably by Dr. Bertrand. In turn, Dr. Bertrand recommended us to the prefect of Aube, Mr. Lignier, who was at that time in Pougy. M. Lignier gave us the advice to go through Vandeuvre. We had been following the road for eight hours, when the locals warned us that the Prussians were requisitioning horses and carriages from this place. So we had to return to our steps and take the road to Arcis-sur-Aube, occupied by the Prussians. As we could not present our barrels for granting, we left them in a small village, and entered Arcis, where all the hotels were filled with Prussians.

French Forces During the Franco Prussian War
French Forces During the Franco Prussian War

At the Hôtel de la Poste, at the table d’hôte where we were obliged to dine with the officers, a Hanoverian veterinary doctor, who probably had some doubt about us, absolutely wanted to bet a hundred thalers with me that in fourteen days Paris would be returned. He passed me his card to confirm his bet, which seemed to ask me for mine. Needless to say, I did not accept it.

During the night, the luggage was put back in crates and baskets, and at four o’clock in the morning we left Arcis to go to Troyes, also occupied. We left to Arcis the sailor Pagano, the general security requiring this separation. Well we took us to leave at night, for we learned later that at seven o’clock in the morning all the exits of the city were guarded.

At Troyes, our position was not improved; we had great difficulty in obtaining carriages and horses. We are pleased to recognize that the help of Mr. Joffroy, a merchant of this city, was of great help to us in this regard. We left Troyes on the 17th, at three o’clock in the morning, by road from Saint-Florentin to Auxerre. A considerable body of the army of Prince Frederick Charles preceded us by twelve hours on this road, which thus became bristling with obstacles for us. Arrived at Avrol, which the Prussians had just occupied, they did not want to let us out. M. Poisot went to the Prussian major, lodged at the castle of M. de la Bourdonnaye, and asked for permission to continue our way. The major replied that avrol could not be left until the next morning at eight o’clock, after the Prussians had left.

While I was, with my trainer, stopped by the Prussian sentries and waiting for the major’s response, gunshots were heard from some distance. Sentinels, taking us for snipers, were about to make us a bad party; I had difficulty making them wait for the arrival of my son-in-law, who came very timely to make known the orders of the major. We were allowed to turn the car over, with which we were able to reach a farm in the village. As it rained pouring, we entered a barn with the intention of spending the night there; but the Prussians were quick to dislodge us, making threats.

The material car having remained in the courtyard, the Prussians wanted to visit it, saying that surely we were arriving from Paris. I said I was coming from Troyes, and an officer was asked to ascertain the fact. The soldiers demanded, while waiting for his coming, that the crates remain open. It is to this unfortunate measure that I must attribute a new loss of several aircraft important for the work of my mission. Time passed, and the officer, busy having dinner fortunately, did not come. Meanwhile, the driver of the car, who had left his lantern in the barn, returned to take it. The Prussians, seeing this barn open again, think that we have returned despite their defense. They order the owners to take lights to illuminate them, and look for us to shoot us.

Fortunately, in the dark we were able to reach the exit door of the farm, cross the path and enter an inn where there were still many other Prussians. We sat down in front of the fire. The officers who came out of the table of a room next door looked at us with suspicion and passed by us with a revolver in their hands. We had to stay all night in this inn, whose masters were panicked by the demands of the invaders, and all of us lost hope of getting out of trouble.

On the morning of the 18th, the Prussians moved away to Joigny; but the vanguard had not made three kilometers that it encountered at Brinon an organized defense of the national guard. The fight made the path impossible for us; it was necessary with our luggage car to take across fields by a torrential rain, advancing very painfully on ploughed and soggy land, pushing or supporting in turn ourselves the car. We often found the deep traces of the horses of the uhlans who had just explored in all directions before us this part of the countryside.

Arriving at the French lines at Mont-Saint-Sulpice, a difficulty that we hardly expected arose. It was the authority of the place that did not want to believe that we could travel with impunity all this occupied country, found nothing better than to recommend us derogatory on the rest of the way we still had to go to Auxerre where we knew the prefect instructed of our mission. In Seignelay, this bad recommendation caused us serious trouble and a significant loss of time; our luggage was visited and the poorly warned crowd was hostile. We left this country escorted by a detachment of the National Guard who took us to Monéteau, where a new escort was waiting for us. We must say, however, in praise of the captain of the National Guard of Monéteau, whose name we regret not knowing, that not only did he give us protection, but also that he put at our disposal his car and blankets to guarantee us an awful time, and drove us with his men to the prefect of Auxerre, where we arrived at eleven o’clock in the evening broken by fatigue and emotions. The prefect let us know that he had just received from the delegation of Tours the order to send us there. In Nevers, another telegram from Minister Gambetta, enjoining us to arrive without delay and urgently.

On November 21, we finally arrived in Tours at eight o’clock in the morning, and we immediately presented ourselves to Mr. Gambetta’s house. M. Fernique, who had been able to reach Tours before us, was immediately asked to do so. We took note of our treaty of 10 November, with Mr Rampont, Director-General of posts, signed by Mr Picard, Minister of Finance. The Delegation on the advice of Mr. Barreswil, the eminent chemist, had also had the idea of reducing photographic dispatches by ordinary processes. In that view, the delegation had decreed on 4 November the organization of a similar service.

Mr. Blaise, a photographer in Tours, had started this work, but on paper. He reproduced two pages of printing on each side of the sheet. The finesse of the text was limited by the grain and pulp of the paper. This service started in Tours by the delegation did not give all satisfaction, since from October 26 to November 12, the day of my departure, Paris had not received any message by pigeon.

Given notice by Mr. Stéenackers, director of telegraphs and posts of the delegation, to provide a specimen of my photomicroscopy on film, the copy I produced was found quite satisfactory and the photograph on paper was abandoned for dispatches. My film, in addition to its extreme lightness, had the immense advantage of laying on average only two seconds, while the paper required more than two hours, given the bad season; in addition, its transparency gave an excellent result to the expansion that was done in Paris by means of electric light.

With the help of my collaborators I immediately organized the work of reproducing official and private dispatches, which was to be so useful to national defense and families. From that moment on, I was the only one to execute them under the enlightened supervision of M. de Lafollye, inspector of telegraphs, charged by the delegation of the service of dispatches by carrier pigeons. On his advice the original work was modified, and the result, given the little material we had been able to save, was faster and more economical production.

Since the newspapers had made it known that the Prussians had seized a large part of my equipment, I am pleased to say here that Mr Delezenne, and Mr Dreux, a stockbroker in Bordeaux, both distinguished amateurs of photography, eagerly offered to the administration devices similar to those I possessed, and they were made available to me.

The stock of dispatches was quickly exhausted. I am pleased to be able to say that actively assisted by my collaborators, no delays have occurred in my work; but the movement of the delegation and especially the intense cold that paralyzed the pigeons created serious difficulties.

Lorsque rien n’entravait le vol de ces intéressants messagers, la rapidité de la correspondance était vraiment merveilleuse. Je puis pour ma part en citer un exemple.

Lacking certain chemicals, in particular azotic cotton which I could not obtain in Bordeaux, I asked for them by pigeon dispatch on 18 January from Mr Poullenc and Mr Wittmann in Paris, asking them to send them to me by the first departing balloon. On January 24th the products were returned to my workshops in Bordeaux. The pigeon had taken only twelve hours to cross the space of Poitiers in Paris. Ordinary telegraphy and the railway would not have done better.

The official dispatches were executed with surprising speed. M. de Lafollye gave them to us himself at noon, and the same day at five o’clock in the evening, despite an exceptionally bad winter season, ten copies were finished and handed over to the administration. We did thirteen series without being late once. Private dispatches were executed under the same conditions. The work was considerable, because, with the exception of a small number of films that were sent only six times, because they arrived promptly, most were sent on average twenty times, and a few thirty-five and thirty-eight times. We also reproduced a large number of mandates in photomicroscopy. The recipients were able to receive their money in Paris as in ordinary times.

Each film was the reproduction of twelve or sixteen folio pages of printing, containing on average, depending on the type used, three thousand dispatches. The lightness of these films allowed the administration to put on a single pigeon up to eighteen copies giving a total of more than fifty thousand dispatches weighing together less than a gram. The whole series of official and private dispatches that we made during the investment of Paris, numbering about one hundred and fifteen thousand, weighed in total two grams. A single pigeon could have easily carried them. If we now want to multiply the number of dispatches by the number of copies provided, we find a result of more than two million five hundred thousand dispatches that we made during the two worst months of the year.

The films were rolled in a feather pipe that administrative agents attached to the pigeon’s tail. Their extreme flexibility and complete impermeability made them quite suitable for this purpose.

In addition, my dry preparation has the triple advantage: to be prepared in one go, not to give any bubbles, and not to detach from the glass when the image comes; it gives complete safety in the work and does not expose to setbacks like ordinary processes.

I think I will please many people by attaching here a specimen of a film, identical reproduction of what I did for the post by pigeons during the sitting of Paris. To give it more authenticity, the administration kindly put on its stamp, to which I attached my signature. In order not to affect any susceptibility, the names alone have been changed.

P.S. Returning seriously ill from Bordeaux, delayed by the unfortunate events in Paris, my report was about to go to the printing press, when I was put in front of me newspaper articles published by various people, including Mr. Lévy de Paris, giving himself as having made the government’s dispatches by carrier pigeon. These gentlemen were very wrong to let the public be misled. They put me in the need to protest against these false articles and to claim my right through the press.

I have had the pleasure of succeeding in my task, to the great satisfaction of the government, which can attest to this. Leaving Paris to make the photomicroscopic dispatches by pigeons, provided with a treaty of the postal administration, signed by the Minister of Finance, this treaty was exchanged with another of the delegation granting me the reproduction of all the official and private dispatches without exception. It is therefore sovereignly unfair that others who have done nothing seek to claim the benefit of my work.

11,732—Paris. Typography Lahure, rue de Fleurus, 9

.Translated from the French work entitled LA POSTE PAR PIGEONS VOYAGEURS: SOUVENIR DU SIÉGE DE PARIS

By Translator Mike



Why learn another language when we can bring you lousy translations!