Mail balloons of Lille

We can find letters to PARIS handled by the LILLE post office during the 2nd fortnight of February 1871. Some letters are even marked "par ballon monté" ("by mail balloon"). Most of these letters were written at the end of 1870 and came from places a long way from LILLE.

Little is known about the history of LILLE's mail balloons.

Mail balloons of Lille
Mail balloons of Lille

Letter written in DRUCOURT (Eure) on 12 November 1870. Processed in LILLE on 23 February 1871.

During the siege of PARIS in 1870-1871, it was relatively easy to get mail out of the capital via mail balloons. In all, between 23 September 1870 and 28 January 1871, 55 balloons were able to take mail with them. In the other direction, towards PARIS, things were much more complicated, even if the Administration did everything it could to create postal links to the capital.

Moniteur Universel of 27 October 1870.

The telegraph first, but the cables to PARIS were cut by the Germans and various attempts to reconnect them failed.

The carrier pigeon service carrying microphotographic dispatches was opened to the public by the decree of 4 November 1870 (Monthly Bulletin no. 28, July 1871). However, the number of pigeons capable of travelling long distances was limited. In addition, winter and the reduction in daylight hours had an impact on the pigeons' performance.

Finally, the idea of using the balloons coming from PARIS to send them back there came up. However, as the balloons of the time were not yet dirigible, the return to the capital was subject to the whims of the winds.

Moreover, the German-occupied zones around Paris were getting larger by the day, making departure from a town close enough to PARIS less and less feasible. Added to this was the fact that this town had to have a gas plant powerful enough to fill a balloon quickly.

Nevertheless, on November 9, the Post Office published the following notice in the Moniteur Universel.

Postage due letter written in MARSEILLE on 16 November 1870. Processed in LILLE on 25 February, it arrived in PARIS on 27 February.

Mail balloons of Lille
Mail balloons of Lille

Extract from the notice published in the Moniteur Universel of Bordeaux on 21 December 1870 (Monthly Bulletin no. 28 July 1871).

In fact, this notice did not put an end to attempts to return to Paris, as other means were subsequently tested, such as the Moulins balls. It is even possible that this notice was also intended to misinform the enemy. Indeed, the Germans were aware of the attempts being made to re-establish communications with Paris. François-Frédéric Steenackers (Director General of Telegraphs and Posts) tells us in his book [1] “This second notice [that of 27 October] was a matter of order, a sort of recommendation for discretion to inventors and the press. Alas! I was preaching in the wilderness. The newspapers - with no bad intention, I am sure - gave accounts of the balloon journeys, the return tests, etc., etc., and those who had the greatest interest in keeping silent. In spite of all our prayers, they divulged the secret to anyone who would listen.".

A large quantity of mail had accumulated, following the notices of 27 October and 9 November, and no effective means had been able to send it to the capital.

In PARIS, the Minister of Public Works, Dorian, instructed Bunelle and De Fonvielle to organise, with the government delegation in TOURS, an attempt to return to PARIS[2].

De Fonvielle and Bunelle knew each other well. Bunelle, who during the siege had set up a private company chartering balloons for private individuals, had recruited De Fonvielle. They had both left Paris on 24 November 1870 aboard the Egalité balloon with 3 passengers and a letter from Minister Dorian to Steenackers. From LOUVAIN (Belgium), where the balloon had landed, Bunelle headed for TOURS, while De Fonvielle went to England.

When he arrived in TOURS, Bunelle telegraphed one of his friends in Paris on 1 December: “well, rough journey, received important aeronautical mission […]”. [3]

This significant mission was to create an aerostatics station, of which he would become the head. This station was set up in LILLE at the beginning of January 1871 in buildings made available by the LILLE Town Hall.

Extract from the newspaper La Liberté (Montpellier) of 13 January 1871. Bunelle is referred to as Brunel.

Initially, it was equipped with 3 balloons brought back from BORDEAUX after a long sea voyage. Later, all the balloons that fell near the Nord and in Belgium, including the Duquesne (a balloon with a propeller gondola), were integrated into the LILLE fleet. According to De Fonvielle, the aim of this station was to put the Armée du Nord (whose headquarters were in LILLE) in touch with PARIS.

No communication was made to the public about this initiative. The Administration simply directed to LILLE part of the stock of letters bound for PARIS that had been collected at TOURS. This is why some letters processed in LILLE are marked "par ballon" or "ballon monté" (following the notice of 9 November 1870).

Staff at the LILLE aeronautical station were unable to attempt a balloon launch, as the winds in January were unfavourable. Conditions improved at the end of January, but the Armistice signed on 28 January rendered the LILLE station and its balloons useless.

Bunelle remained in LILLE for some time and made a few charity ascents, but had to close the station on 22 February 1871.

The mail collected at LILLE was forwarded to Paris between 14 and 28 February 1871 (dates recorded on LILLE date stamps).

[1] Les télégraphes et les postes pendant la guerre de 1870-1871, page 491. François-Frédéric Steenackers, 1883.

[2] Le spectateur militaire. Henri Noirot, page 162. 1890.

[3] Recueil des dépêches télégraphiques reproduites par la photographie et adressées à Paris au moyen de pigeons voyageurs, Volume IV.

However, several attempts from CHARTRES on 20 October and from ROUEN on 7 and 8 November with the Jean-Bart did not work. Another balloon made attempts from AMIENS in the first ten days of November, but again without success.

Faced with the evidence, the Administration published the following notice in the Moniteur Universel of 21 December 1870 announcing that experiments in returning to PARIS by balloon were ended.