Ville d’Orléans: The Mail Balloon of the Franco-Prussian War

One of the mail balloons used during the Franco-Prussian War was the Ville d’Orléans. That was because on July 19, 1870, Napoleon III, the nephew of Napoleon I, declared war on Prussia and that  resulted in the siege of Paris that lasted from 18 September 1870 to 28 January 1871. During this time, it was impossible to get mail out and that was why a plan was devised to use balloons to deliver mail. These balloon flights produced some of the most interesting tales related to the history of balloons because during this 133-day siege, 64 balloons were launched and of these a few were captured and two were lost after being blown out to sea.

Napoleon III in 1868. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

One of the most interesting voyages among the mail balloons was the twenty-eighth voyage, undertaken on the 67th day of the siege (24 November 1870) by the Ville d’Orléans. It had been named for the town that had recently been liberated by the French. The balloon was captained by a young 26-year-old civil engineer named Paul Rolier who had only recently taken balloon lessons. He was carrying an urgent message from the governor of Paris to the Army of the Loire, created by the French minister, Leon Gambett. The balloon “was twenty-two metres high and eighteen metres in diameter. It was capable of containing 2000 metres of gas.”[1]

The Ville d’Orléans launched in pitch darkness at 11:00 o’clock at night with a fine mist falling but with a favorable wind. As it was released into the air, it was accompanied by shouts of “Vive la France.” Accompanying Rolier was a franc-tireur (sharpshooter) named Leonard Bezier and “three hundred kilogrammes of letters, a cage containing six carrier pigeons, and a package of government despatches.”[2]

In the air the men could see Paris and its lights below. However, as they rose farther away it became difficult for them to traverse the stratum. To gain height, they began to throw out ballast (material used to stabilize the balloon), which also produced some gunfire from below. That was because they were dropping the ballast on their Prussian enemies, but luckily they were high enough and far enough away no bullets could reach them. Having lightened their balloon, they then sped along rapidly through the cloudy night. Rolier noted certain landmarks and points along the way and from all indications it appeared as if the Ville d’Orléans was on the right course.

At about half-past three they heard “a sound, heavy and prolonged … which the voyagers took at once to be that of a train of cars along the northern line of France.”[3] The only problem was that it was not a train whistle. They thought it was because it was dark, they were hovering at a high distance, and they could not readily see the train. Still they were not concerned.

That changed when dawn began to break. At that time, they were startled to learn that the roaring noise they had been listening to for the last three hours had nothing to do with a train. Instead, they discovered ocean waves were breaking against one another and that they were drifting over the turbulent sea. Realizing they were off course and not where they were supposed to be, the aeronauts broke into a cold sweat. They feared they were lost and where unsure whether they would ever see land again as they could not get their bearings over the sea. Moreover, a new problem now presented itself.

“The barometer indicated only five hundred metres of height, and the balloon, which had lost part of its gas … by … solar heat, was loose and flabby.”[4]

Ville d'Orléans over the sea

The Ville d’Orléans over the seas. Public domain.

There was no place to land the Ville d’Orléans as they were surrounded by the sea in every direction. Rolier then realized their only option to remain in the air was to stop the gas from escaping, but he could not easily reach the valve. In order to do so, Rolier had to climb onto Bezier’s shoulders and so he “hoisted himself into the cordage, and closed the valve by means of a cord carefully tightened.”[5]

As the balloon descended, they spotted a ship on the horizon, which signaled them by cannon fire. Believing their best chance was to drop the balloon near the ship and have the ship pick them up, they aimed towards the ship, but their descent was a “giddy velocity.” Instead of landing the Ville d’Orléans near the ship, they flew past it at a speed exceeding forty leagues an hour with their guide ropes dragging in the water. They had also lost height and were now just a few yards above the sea’s angry surface and “a moment later a heavy shake produced by a wave nearly upset [the balloon].”[6]

Roiler and Bezier tried to pull in the guide ropes to stabilize the balloon, but the wind was so furious the balloon leaned to one side. Then a wave broke over them, and to gain height, the aeronauts furiously threw out more ballast bags and then cut the cord that contained the heavy mailbags of 65 kilogrammes of letters. Without a moment to spare, the balloon suddenly ascended, but now relieved of its extra weight, the gas expanded, and, so, to stave off an explosion, Rolier once again had to reach the valve. This time he let the excess gas escape and in a matter of moments found they had “attained an altitude of 5200 metres”[7] and the Ville d’Orléans then plunged through a mist that became denser and denser as the balloon moved along. 

Roiler soon realized there was another new problem. Because of the cold, the balloon was gradually losing gas, and to prevent this, he once again climbed onto Bezier’s shoulders and closed the valve. Soon the temperature became extremely cold, which then caused the balloon and its cords to be covered in frost. Even the “garments of the unfortunate voyagers were frozen; their faces and hair were covered with hoar-frost and they suffered an intense thirst from the rarefaction of the air.”[8] Moreover, they were unsure where they were and despite their best attempts to close the valve, the balloon continued to descend. Soon they saw black spots that then changed to green spots and then to fir trees. Realizing they were over land, they opened the valve, and the balloon landed by dashing against the ground and burying itself in snow.

Rolier leapt from the balloon, but when Bezier attempted to leap, he got tangled in some cords. With Roiler out of the Ville d’Orléans, the balloon began to rise. To keep it on the ground, Rolier quickly grabbed one of the bags containing the dispatches and hanging on to it, he ascended with the balloon as it continued to rise upward. Fortunately, Bezier was able to disentangle his leg and then both men jumped “from a height of fifteen or eighteen yards.”[9]

Ville d'Orléans floating away in Norway.

The balloon floating away in Norway. Public domain.

They landed in a thick pile of snow, which protected them from injury. Rolier quickly jumped up and grabbed a guide rope hoping to keep the balloon on the ground, but his hands were so frozen the cord slipped from his fingers. So, in moments the Ville d’Orléans disappeared with the “cage of carrier-pigeons, the letters and their edibles.”[10] The only good news was that at least the men were safely on the ground. However, they were in an immense forest thick with trees and blanketed by snow.

It was also impossible for them to know where they had landed. Nonetheless, they decided to proceed south and walked for some time in snow that was almost to the depth of their knees. “They advanced painfully, stumbling along and clinging to the branches of the fir trees.”[11] Along the way, their progress was interrupted but once. It occurred when they unexpectedly ran into a pack of three wolves. Fortunately, the wolves did nothing more than glance at the men before proceeding on without disturbing them.

After three grueling hours of wading through knee-high snow, Rolier and Bezier were exhausted and hungry. They had nothing to eat and all they could do was hollow out a bed in the snow and take turns sleeping, while the other one watched. At dawn they were off again, this time they were aided by walking-sticks provided from the forest. After some time, they found a cabin and two woodsmen and realized they had landed in Norway:

“According to all probability, the balloon had quitted France above Dunkirk; had crossed England, turning afterwards to the east, and taking the open sea as far as the heights of Sandal Norway; thence inclining to the northeast, it crossed a space of about 160 miles passing above uninhabited provinces of Norway.”[12]

With the help of the two woodsmen the aeronauts were given a sledge ride to Christiania, known today as Oslo. As they passed through each sleepy village, tales of their daring deeds preceded them, so that when they arrived in each new village, they were greeted as heroes and acclaimed for their deeds. When at last the aeronautic heroes reached Oslo, they could think of nothing more than heading directly to the French consulate where “Rolier’s first care … was to send the despatch … by telegram in cipher to Tours.”[13] The message was sent on 24 November, but it did not arrive for six days.

The Ville d’Orléans balloon was retrieved on the 27th by fishermen as was the carrier pigeons and the mailbag with its 65 kilogrammes of letters. It was located about 80 kilometers from where the aeronauts had first landed. The balloon was soon donated to the “university at Christiana, on the condition that it should be exhibited for the profit of victims of the war.”[14] Rolier also authorized the sale of his picture and the grappling-irons of the balloons were made into commemorative medals and sold. Thus, in the end, “Rolier brought back from Norway to France [for the wounded] more than 47,000 francs.”[15]

References:

  • [1] Wise, John, Through the Air, 1873, p. 233.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 234.
  • [4] Ibid., p. 234-235.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 235.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] The Balloon, 1879, p. 44-45.
  • [9] Wise, John, p. 237.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] The Balloon, 1879, p. 48.
  • [13] Wise, John, p. 240.
  • [14] Ibid.
  • [15] The Leisure Hour, Vol. 30, 1881, p. 435.

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