An old wives’ tale

The courtyard of the Nord Railway Station was lighted by oil-lamps taken from locomotives; their silvered reflectors threw dazzling rays from all sides on the under portion of the immense yellow mass of the balloon; the upper portion was swaying with gigantic ungainliness in the strong breeze. It was only a small balloon, as balloons were measured, but it seemed monstrous as it wavered over the human forms that were agitating themselves beneath it. The cordage was silhouetted against the yellow taffetas as high up as the widest diameter of the balloon, but above that all was vague and even spectators standing at a distance could not clearly separate the summit of the great sphere from the darkly moving sky. The car, held by ropes fastened by stakes, rose now and then a few inches uneasily from the ground. The sombre and severe architecture of the station buildings enclosed the balloon on every hand; it had only one way of escape.

…”Let go all!” cried the sailor, standing up and clinging to the cordage…

…One side of the car tilted up, and the sailor was nearly pitched out. Three men at the other side had failed to free the ropes. The balloon jumped, as it it were drawn by some terrific impulse from the skies…

“Bon voyage! Bon voyage!” the little crowd cheered. And then “Vive la France!”…

balloonsThis description of the departure of a hot-air balloon from the beseiged city of Paris is taken from Arnold Bennett’s very-readable novel The Old Wives’ TaleDuring the seige, balloons were used to communicate with the outside world. Here was an early – if not the earliest – air mail service. We know that Reuters in London received balloon messages from Havas, the French newsagency, because we still have some of the messages.

France declared war on Prussia on 19 July 1870. For the French, things went disastrously wrong. Bismark’s Prussian troops were quickly victorious as September saw them outside the gates of Paris. Telegraph wires to the outside world were cut. Surrounded and isolated, Paris would remain under seige until 28 January 1871.

At first, the Parisians deployed tethered balloons in order to more easily observe the enemy’s lines. They then decided to go one stage further. Under cover of darkness, they attempted to fly them over the lines. At least this way, there was some hope of sending information from the city to the rest of France and beyond.

But the top of the balloon had leaned over, destroying its pear-shape, and the whole mass swerved violently towards the wall of the station, the car swinging under it like a toy, and an anchor under the car. There was a cry of alarm. Then the great ball leapt again, and swept over the high glass roof, escaping by inches the spouting.  The cheers expired instantly. The balloon was gone. It was spirited away as if by some furious and mighty power that had grown impatient waiting for it. There remained for a few seconds on the collective retina of the spectators a vision of the inclined car swinging near the roof like the tail of a kite. And then nothing!  Already the balloon was lost to sight in the vast stormy ocean of the night, a plaything of the winds. The spectators became once more aware of the dull booming of the cannonade. The balloon was already perhaps flying unseen amid the wrack of those guns.

Sixty-six balloons left Paris between September and the end of January. It was, of course, all rather random. You cannot control where balloons go. As far as we know, none made it as far as London, although one landed in Norway after an astonishing 875 mile trip. Should a balloon succeed in flying well beyond enemy lines before crash-landing, it was then up to the ‘pilots’ to send the mail onwards – somehow.

The French government surrendered to the Prussians on 28 January 1871. That day marked the departure  of the 66th and very last balloon. Amongst the messages carried was one from Havas to Reuters giving a full account of the surrender and its terms. Addressed to Reuters office at 5 Lothbury, London, the message eventually made it to Mr Reuter’s desk.

And here it is:

balloon message