Written by Senior Curator of Cultural Environments, Mark Clayton.
Can you ever imagine sending an email, knowing that there was every reasonable chance it might never reach its destination? After a day or so frustration would morph into annoyance, but after four months of this we’d probably be gripped with anxiety, if not fear. Scaling this scenario up, to a population of 600,000, perhaps affords us some insight to how metropolitan Parisians must have felt 145 years ago when their city was surrounded and put to siege by Prussian armies. For four months, beginning mid-September 1870, all usual communications were severed leaving the city’s entire population isolated from the rest of the world.
As sometimes happens though in such times of duress, necessity delivered for the citizens of Paris a partial solution in the form of the world’s first regular balloon mail service. The first of these airmail flights – on 23rd September 1870 – lasted three hours, safely delivering both the pilot and his precious cargo (125 kg of mail) eighty-three kilometres to the city’s north-west, well beyond the encircling Germans.
Sixty-six hot-air (and hydrogen) balloons were launched during the following months , mostly at night, delivering 102 passengers, 400 carrier pigeons (for return mail) and an estimated 2½ million letters. Remarkably, it’s reported that only five of these were ever captured by the Prussians. The postal charge for each balloon letter was 20 centimes, for which there was no delivery guarantee. Prevailing winds determined the direction and distance of each flight, one even landing in Norway after – accidentally – setting a world distance record of 1,408 kilometres.
Remarkably, one of these balloon monté (manned balloon) letters was gifted to the Queensland Museum in 1917 by Comte. Gontran de Tournouer who’d been invalided back to Australia that year, after serving with the 2nd Light Horse Regiment in Egypt. He later became one the State’s most respected and influential cultural figures with his funeral – in July 1929 – attracting the kind of notables one would normally expect at a state funeral.
The Museum’s letter was penned during the final weeks of the siege by a Paris-bound mother, addressed to her sons at Dieppe 151 kilometres to the north-west. The following partial translation may have also been provided by de Tournouer:
My little sons – Never, never forget the days we are going through!… Never forget that Paris was bombarded in its sleep, that women and children have been murdered by Prussian shells, that hospitals and ambulances were their targets:….They shelled the Val-de-Grace and Luxembourg Military hospitals full of wounded, and also the civilian hospitals, killing the maimed and sick. Paris is splendid! Exasperation is in every heart, nobody talks of surrender, and all of getting even. Women, children and old men all have rage in their hearts….
Good news brought yesterday from everywhere by carrier pigeons have doubled our courage and confidence. Paris may fall, but France remains to avenge us should we be destroyed. The shells haven’t reached our house yet. They may, but if you only knew how calmly we await them. Our house has become a “refugium bombardorum” in earnest….The trials we’re going tho’ have developed real brotherliness, and it’s touching to see how one helps the other, without being acquainted. We will come out better and purified from this bloody regeneration.
My cold’s better, Bleak and cold weather…Nothing new. The Champs Elysees Gardens have not been bombarded so far, but the Zoo hot houses are no more. Don’t fear for our safety: we’re alright…I kiss and love you with all the affection of a mother’s heart.