The Pigeon Post into Paris 1870-1871
by J.D. Hayhurst O.B.E.
Prepared in digital format by Mark Hayhurst
Copyright ©1970 John Hayhurst
The postal history of the siege of Paris has long been a subject of intensive study; much has been written, much remains to be written. The research is mainly directed at the balloon post, occasionally at the boules de Moulins. In modern literature, references to the pigeon post are not rare but tend to include semi-fictional anecdotes or confusions of one feature of the service with another. Such distortions do not do justice to the efforts of those who were involved: the professional administrators and engineers, the pigeon fanciers who accepted the perils of flying by balloon from Paris over the Prussian lines and then of releasing the pigeons within range of the Prussian troops, the photographers with their remarkable technology. At the centenary of the siege of Paris, it is appropriate that there should be a better recognition of their performance. This account is based largely on the earlier literature and owes much to the libraries of the Assemblée Nationale and the Aero Club in Paris and to the records of the Post Office in London. Appreciation is most gratefully acknowledged of the advice of Mr. C. A. E. Osman of "The Racing Pigeon" on the handling and capabilities of pigeons. But this book could not have been prepared without the warm co-operation and assistance of the Musée Postal in Paris, and it is sincerely dedicated to that museum, to its Conservateur, Monsieur Georges Rigol, and to his staff.
The photographs on the cover and in Figures 1, 4, 5, 7, 12 and 13 are reproduced by permission of the Musée Postal; those in Figures 8 and 9 by permission of the French Army Historical Service, Vincennes; and those in Figures 15 and 16 by courtesy of the Post Office. The photograph in Figure 14 was provided by the Musée Postal; the Notice is privately owned in France and no original is in the Post Office Records.
The historical background
The purpose of this study is to describe the pigeon post which was in operation while Paris was besieged during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. Both the siege and the war have been the subjects of a vast literature which is said to exceed that of any other historical event, and to which is referred those who wish to read of the wider scene. In the present and narrower context, it is sufficient to recall that barely six weeks after the outbreak of hostilities, the Emperor Napoleon III and the French Army of Chalons surrendered at Sedan on 2nd September 1870. There were two immediate consequences: the fall of the Second Empire and the swift Prussian advance on Paris. Within days of the proclamation on 4th September of the Third Republic, it became evident to the newly formed Government of National Defence under the presidency of General Trochu that Paris was in dire peril and, on 12th September, a Delegation of the government was established at Tours under Isaac Crémieux, comprising representatives of the ministries in Paris. Among these representatives was Steenackers, Directeur- Général des Télégraphes since 4th September, who was to act both in his own right and as agent for Rampont, Directeur-Général des Postes, who remained in Paris. The double function resulted from the then separation of the Postes and the Telegraphes. Steenackers, born in Belgium in 1831, had become a naturalised French citizen in 1869 and was one of the deputies from the Haute-Marne in the Corps Legislatif, the lower house of the parliament of the Second Empire; he had played a prominent part in the expulsion of the Bonapartists. The authorities gave much thought to the maintenance of communications between Tours and Paris should the latter be besieged and a telegraph cable was hastily procured from England and secretly laid along the bed of the Seine between Paris and Rouen. As a further precaution, Steenackers took with him to Tours a number of carrier-pigeons. By 20th September, the Prussians had encircled Paris and had cut the normal channels of communications. Thereafter, the government of France and the conduct of the war fell increasingly to the Delegation, reinforced by the arrival of Gambetta, Minister of War and of the Interior, who had left Paris by the balloon Armand Barbès on 7th October. A rivalry between the Government and the Delegation grew steadily, with Favre, Minister of Foreign Affairs in Paris, seeking an accommodation with the Prussians and with Gambetta striving to organise their military defeat. This rivalry extended to the Postes and the Télégraphes. Rampont had been nominated to his post on 12th September, some days after the appointment of Steenackers who had little time for him; he never named him as the addressee of any of his messages, directing them instead to Mercadier, his own subordinate as Directeur des Télégraphes in Paris, or, if he was aiming at higher levels, either to Favre or to Picard, Minister of Finance, or even to Trochu himself. On 14th October, Gambetta told the Government in Paris "Service des postes désorganisé et très-mal fait; plaintes criantes. Celui de la télégraphe privee et militaire admirable; necessité depuis longtemps prévue de réunir dans la main ferme de Steenackers les deux administrations. Nous avons nommé Steenackers directeur-général des lignes et des postes. Avisez Rampont devenu impuissant et prévenez Picard afin que Steenackers ait tout pouvoir necessaire." In his new appointment, which dated from 12th October (although Gambetta's report did not reach Paris until 18th November), Steenackers promulgated regulations independently of Rampont who was left to issue parallel ones subsequently. If Rampont took any initiative, Steenackers contained its effects within his own jurisdiction when he so wished; in other cases he just flatly countermanded Rampont's orders. In the meantime, throughout October and November, the Prussian armies extended their areas of operations, capturing Orleans and threatening Tours, so that on 10th December the Delegation moved to Bordeaux where it remained until just after the armistice of 28th January 1871, concluded by Favre to the great chagrin of Gambetta who resigned on 6th February. In the general election of 8th February Steenackers failed to obtain a seat in the new Assemblée Nationale and on 20th February he resigned his post of Directeur-Général des Télégraphes (and des Postes, if he was in fact still that). His rival Rampont, remained Directeur-Général des Postes until August 1873.
Communication between besieged Paris and the rest of France
As had been expected, the normal channels of communication into and out of Paris were interrupted during the four-and-a-half months of the siege, and, indeed, it was not until the middle of February 1871 that the Prussians relaxed their control of the postal and telegraph services. With the encirclement of the city on 18th September, the last overhead telegraph wires were cut on the morning of 19th September, and the secret telegraph cable in the bed of the Seine was located and cut on 27th September. Although a number of postmen succeeded in passing through the Prussian lines in the earliest days of the siege, others were captured and shot, and there is no proof of any post, certainly after October, reaching Paris from the outside, apart from private letters carried by unofficial individuals. Five sheepdogs experienced in driving cattle into Paris were flown out by balloon with the intention of their returning carrying mail; after release they were never again seen. Equally a failure was the use of zinc balls (the boules de Moulins) filled with letters and floated down the Seine; not one of these balls was recovered during the siege. As was later said "Pas qu'une souris pût franchir les lignes prussiennes sans être vue." The Prussians did permit authorised emissaries from Tours and Bordeaux to pass into Paris during peace negotiations but they were forbidden to bring in private letters. Foreign legations continued to receive and send out diplomatic bags but always under strict Prussian supervision, although the American Embassy, with Washburne as Minister, was permitted to use sealed bags. Millions of letters were carried outwards from Paris by balloon but free balloons could not offer a reliable means of inwards communication since they were at the mercy of the wind and could not be directed to a pre-determined destination. The only balloon which made even a start of a return flight to Paris was the Jean Bart 1 which left Rouen on 7th November but, after a first hop which took it 20 km towards Paris, the wind changed and further attempts were abandoned. During January 1871, a fleet of free balloons was being assembled at Lille but the armistice prevented it being put into operation. Self-propelled dirigible balloons were then in their infancy and whilst, on 9th January, the Duquesne, fitted with two propellers, left Paris bound for Besancon and Switzerland, it got only as far as Reims. For an assured communication into Paris, the only successful method was by the time-honoured carrier-pigeon, and thousands of messages, official and private, were thus taken into the besieged city.
The organisation of the pigeon service
The honour of being the first advocate of the pigeon service has several claimants. La Perre de Roo wrote to Napoleon III's Minister of War Count Palikao on 2nd September 1870 suggesting that all pigeons then in Paris should be sent away to be ready to bring messages back into Paris, and that pigeons should be brought into Paris from the North of France to be ready to carry messages out of Paris. Palikao fell with the Second Empire and no government action emerged from this proposal but about 1000 pigeons were privately transferred to Paris from the area around Lille, Tourcoing, and Roubaix. The Parisian pigeon-fanciers' club L'Espérance approached the new government but its president, Cassiers, met only derision from an officier on Trochu's staff. Its secretary, Derouard, later said that its treasurer, Traclet, was the one who really succeeded in attracting serious official interest but the more influential Parisian lawyer Ségalas had already reached the higher levels of the administration. At the end of August he had had a sympathetic hearing from de Vougy, Directeur des Télégraphes until 4th September, who had agreed that a pigeon loft should be installed at the Central Telegraph Office at 103, rue de Grenelle. When Steenackers came into office, he expressed his approval with what was being done, saying that he would have suggested it himself. The loft was erected, but it could only have served as a staging post for pigeons being taken out of Paris and not one to which they would return since there would have been no opportunity to train pigeons to operate from it.
The first pigeons to leave Paris went with Ségalas who accompanied Steenackers to Tours on 10th September, and the collection of pigeons began in Paris. On 15th September, an official message from Paris to Tours reported "la famille Ségalas augmente" showing that in official circles Ségalas was being credited as the originator of the service. The recruitment and organisation of the pigeons were entrusted to L'Espérance. There was in Paris a limited number of homing pigeons; at that time, pigeon racing attracted far less interest there than in the northern areas of France which were adjacent to Belgium, the real home of pigeon racing. There were a few enthusiasts who had well trained birds but the majority of the birds that were recruited had not had a complete training. Each racing pigeon would have carried, imprinted on its wing, its owner's name and a serial number and this identification was used in the official register. The principal supplier of pigeons was Cassiers himself; of the 52 pigeons from his loft at 92, boulevard Montparnasse, only 2 survived the war. On 18th September, Cassiers, Derouard, and Traclet arrived at the Gare Montparnasse with 108 pigeons which they loaded on to a train but the stationmaster refused to let them depart without Gambetta's authority, suspecting that they might be spies. They had to unload the pigeons and, by the time they had received the correct papers, the last train had gone and the Prussians had cut the railway lines out of Paris.
Van Roosebeke, the vice-president of L'Espérance, suggested that pigeons should go out with the balloons and three were carried in the Ville de Florence on 25th September. The officers of L'Espérance now demonstrated their personal courage. Traclet left in the Louis Blanc with 8 pigeons, Van Roosebeke in the Washington with 25, both on 12th October, to be followed on 27th October by Cassiers with 23 or 24 in the Vauban. Derouard remained in Paris to continue the recruitment of pigeons (Fig 1) and to organise their reception on their return to the city. Thomas, a member of L'Espérance left in the Général Uhrich with 34 pigeons on 1 8th November escaping the fate of his fellow-member Nobécourt who had just been captured with the Daguerre. After being interrogated at the Prussian headquarters at Versailles, he was sent to Glatz in Silesia, where he spent five months in captivity.
During the course of the siege, pigeons were regularly taken out of Paris by balloon. Initially, the pigeons carried by a balloon were released as soon as the balloon landed so that Paris could be apprised of its safe passage above the Prussian lines. This was on Rampont's instructions but Steenackers issued a counter-order, arguing that the pigeons would serve a better purpose by carrying official messages from the Delegation and soon a regular service was in operation, based first at Tours and later, when the Delegation had moved to Bordeaux, at Poitiers. The pigeons were taken to their base after their arrival from Paris and when they had preened themselves, been fed and rested, they were ready for the return journey. Tours lies some 200 km from Paris and Poitiers some 300 km (distances as the crow - or pigeon - flies); to reduce the flight distance the pigeons were taken by train as far forward towards Paris as was safe from Prussian intervention. Before release, they were loaded with their despatches. The first despatch was dated 27th September and reached Paris on 1st October, but it was only from 16th October, when an official control was introduced, that a complete record was kept by Blay, a cousin of Steenackers, charged with the task of launching the pigeons on their return flight. At the launching he was assisted by one or more of the officers of L'Espérance who had come out of Paris by balloon. The party wore uniform, partly to permit an easier movement in the French military areas and partly to establish their belligerent status should they be captured by the Prussians. Blay's records show that between 16th October 1870 and 3rd February 1871 he released pigeons on 47 occasions. The map (Fig 2) shows the places from which the pigeons were released; the places became increasingly distant from Paris as the Prussians advanced during December 1870 and January 1871. Only after the armistice could he go forward to Ormes near Orleans for a final launching of a series including many when the Prussians were only narrowly evaded.
Blay reported the release of 248 pigeons whereas, according to Steenackers, 302 were released. The various statements of the numbers of pigeons employed by the service are not consistent. Steenackers said 363 pigeons were brought safely out of Paris by balloon, of which 61 either were used by the aircrews to announce their landing or died or were unfit for a return flight to Paris, but, the Mangin brothers accounted for 407 pigeons leaving Paris by balloon. Taking the Mangins' total and deducting those lost to the service by balloons falling into Prussian hands or landing where it would be quite impracticable to transport the pigeons thence to Tours or Poitiers the number supplied in this way to Steenackers could not have exceeded 300. Thus, when Steenackers referred to 363 pigeons he must have been including those brought by land before 18th September. It is probable, therefore, that Steenackers had a total of 363 pigeons available from the beginning to the end of the siege and that he used 302. Subtracting the 248 pigeons that Blay released, there must have been 54 released between 27th September and 15th October, a figure which seems plausible since Blay released 51 between 16th October and the end of the month. During November he released 83 and in December 49, most in the first part of the month. The weather was then deteriorating rapidly and, although 65 were subsequently released, 28 of them were launched in an extravagant fashion after the armistice. The severity of the weather can be judged by the fact that, of the last 61 pigeons released, only 3 ever reached Paris. Savelon has deduced the monthly statistics as:
The weather was not the only hazard facing the pigeons: there were their natural enemies the hawks and there were countrymen with their shotguns seeking food for their families. It is often said that the noise of cannonfire disturbed the pigeon's homing sense but this is false; what did happen was that the best pigeons would have been the first to be used and as time passed the birds would have been less trained and so less likely to return safely to Paris. It was therefore no mean achievement that, on 59 occasions, they did succeed in getting back to their lofts. Their achievement was commemorated in the monument by Bartholdi and Rubin at the Porte des Ternes in Paris which was unveiled on 28th January 1906 and melted down by the Germans in 1944; around the central representation of a balloon were four pedestals each bearing a pair of bronze pigeons. An earlier tribute was paid by the striking of medals (Fig 3) including the set listed in Table I. Table II tabulates the numbers of pigeons carried out of Paris by the balloons, those released by Blay, the arrival dates given by this set of medals, the arrival dates as collated by Savelon (who has commented that his dates may be varied by up to two days), and the arrival dates in an official report. The incompleteness of the evidence is very apparent; moreover, the release and arrival dates of any particular pigeon can rarely be correlated with confidence. Whilst two pigeons made their 150 km journey in some two hours (a performance to be expected in good weather of a trained pigeon), one that arrived on 6th February 1871 had been released on 18th November 1870. Some of the pigeons became seasoned travellers, both Cassiers and Van Roosebeke claiming that two of their pigeons had made three or four journeys each, and Derouard claiming that one of his had made six journeys. One of Cassiers' pigeons was, since it had been carried with Gambetta in the Armand Barbès, given the name Gambetta after reaching Paris with news of that successful flight. In the Musée Postal is a preserved pigeon; it too had belonged to Cassiers and had made at least two journeys. On its wing can be seen the postmark of Orleans, 23rd November 1870. Its photograph is on the cover of this book.
The service was formally terminated on 1st February 1871 by Steenackers "en raison des conventions qui rétablissent les communications par lettres ouvertes transitant par Versailles pendant la durée de l'armistice." In fact, the last pigeons were released on 1st and 3rd February.
If, on 59 occasions, pigeons did bring despatches into Paris and if several made repeated journeys then the successful operations must have been performed by about 50 birds only. These 50 pigeons served France well; they carried official despatches of great importance as well as an estimated 95,000 private messages which went far to keep up the morale of the besieged Parisians. The public regarded them with affection, purchasing the commemorative medals and later subscribing to the monument that has just been described. The French government was less emotional. During 1871, those whose pigeons had been acquired sought recompense at the rate of 100 francs per pigeon. Rampont finally agreed a total sum of 36,000 francs. The pigeons that were still alive were now official property and were sold at the Depot du Mobilier de l'Etat. Their value as racing pigeons was reflected by the average price of only 1 franc 50 centimes, but two pigeons, reported to have made three journeys, were purchased by an enthusiast for 26 francs. At this period, there were about 25 francs to the £ sterling, i.e. one franc was worth just under 5p.
The very last pigeon to complete its return to Paris must, if La Perre de Roo can be believed, have been one from Niepce captured in November 1870 by the Prussians and which was presented to Prince Frederick Charles of Prussia, the commander of the Second Army. He sent it home to his mother Princess Charles of Prussia who placed it in the royal pigeon cote. Two years later, tired of its Prussian lodging, it escaped and flew back to Paris.
The photographic reproduction of messages
The first pigeons each carried a single despatch which was tightly rolled and tied with a thread, and then attached to a tail feather of the pigeon, care being taken to avoid old feathers which the bird might lose when in moult. From 19th October, the despatch was protected by being inserted in the quill of a goose or crow, and it was the quill which was then attached to the tail feather. Although a pigeon could have carried more, the maximum weight it was asked to carry was about 1 gm, and, as the service developed, the aim was to get the greatest possible number of messages inside this weight. Initially, the messages were written out by hand in small characters on very thin paper, a traditional but laborious method which had the danger of the messages being distorted and incorrectly read.
A great step forward was taken in early October from the idea of Barreswil (or Barreswill) a chemist of Tours who had been the co-author in 1854 with Davanne of "La chimie photographique". He proposed the application of photographic methods with prints of a much reduced size and of which an unlimited number of copies could be taken. His death in late November robbed him of the satisfaction of seeing his proposals accepted and extensively applied. There was already at Tours an official organisation under Godeaux, chef du service de correspondences extraordinaires, who as an ex-protegé of Napoleon III was soon displaced by Feillet, a friend of Steenackers and normally a history teacher, who had found himself in the provinces cut off from Paris by the siege. Within this group, the officer directly charged with the pigeon service was de Lafollye, Inspecteur des lignes télégraphiques in the department of Indre et Loire, an amateur photographer himself, and assisted by Blaise, a professional photographer of Tours. The messages were written, still by hand, but in big characters on large sheets of card which were pinned side by side and photographically reduced. The prints were on photographic paper and varied in size, but with one side not significantly exceeding 40 mm to permit insertion in the quill; there were minor differences depending on the way in which a particular print was trimmed. A further improvement occurred when Blaise succeeded in printing messages on both sides of the photographic paper, thereby doubling the potential content of each quill or tube; the first despatch so produced appearing about 8th November followed by those up to 18th December. Blaise was responsible for the first 13 of these double-sided prints but the last 4 were produced by Terpereau at Bordeaux after the Delegation had moved there. Yet another improvement was the introduction of letter-press as a partial replacement of manuscript. Blaise had inserted in his earlier photographs extracts from the Moniteur, printed by the Mame company at Tours, which served as the official newspaper of the Delegation. It was noticeable how much clearer in the reduced size letter-press was, compared with manuscript, and, when, later, the service was opened to the public, it was intended that all private messages should be in letter-press. The full-scale message was printed on one side only of paper for its eventual photography but, at the same time, copies were made for record purposes, being printed on both sides of the paper; a set of these records is in the Musée Postal. The service flourished and the demands of the public nearly overwhelmed it by the quantity of messages that were handed in for transmission. De Lafollye was extremely proud of its success and foresaw further triumphs. He was unaware that in Paris the Government was negotiating for a competitive - and better - system.
At the Exposition Universelle of 1867 in Paris, a photographer, Dagron, had demonstrated a remarkable standard of microphotography which he had described in "Traite de Photographie Microscopique" published in Paris in 1864. He now proposed to Rampont that his process should be applied to pigeon messages and a contract was concluded on 11th November. By the terms of this contract, Dagron was to receive 15 francs for every 1000 characters he photographed; not only was he to be paid so generously but a clause signed by Picard himself declared "M. Dagron a le titre de chef de service des correspondences postales photomicroscopiques. Il relève directement du Directeur Général des Postes." It must be remembered that at this time microphotographs produced by Blaise and of a good standard were already reaching Paris but Rampont could not miss an opportunity of challenging Steenackers. Dagron was instructed to operate at Clermont Ferrand, thereby underlining his independence of any organisation at Tours. Arrangements were made for him to leave Paris by balloon, accompanied by two colleagues, Fernique and Poisot, the latter being his son-in-law. For making the journey by balloon, Dagron was to receive 25,000 francs (to be paid by the Delegation at Tours) and Fernique 15,000 francs (to be paid before he left Paris). in the event of their deaths during the journey, their widows would each have an annual pension of 3,000 francs for life. They departed on 12th November in the appropriately named balloons Niepce and Daguerre, but the latter, with the equipment and pigeons in it, was shot down, fell within the Prussian lines and was lost. The Niepce was also shot down and landed in Prussian-held territory, but Dagron and his companions just escaped capture, losing still more of their equipment and becoming separated. It was Fernique who first reached Tours on 18th November; on his arrival he reported to Gambetta who sent him to Steenackers. Steenackers refused to recognise the authority coming from Rampont and told Fernique to keep away from the pigeon service with the threat of a court-martial and being shot if he disobeyed. On 21st November, Dagron reached Tours, the provincial authorities having been ordered to send him there and not to allow him to go to Clermont Ferrand. He too saw Gambetta and Steenackers and it took eight days to work out a compromise. Dagron and his companions were to serve under de Lafollye, using Dagron's superior technique, if it were found to be practical, and the financial conditions of his contract were to be reviewed. Shorn of his equipment and finding unsatisfactory replacements at Tours, Dagron failed to achieve what he had promised by way of what de Lafollye described as images "prenant le nom du point", in other words: microdots. Dagron had sought to reproduce a page of the Moniteur in 1 sq mm; to do so required laboratory equipment and processes and these were unobtainable at Tours. He therefore lowered his sights and settled for the level of microphotography which was subsequently used. By 4th December he was able to offer results to Steenackers who praised but was not fully satisfied. Dagron finally attained success on 11th December, but by that time, the Delegation was moving to Bordeaux, where, on 15th December, he was able to start work in earnest. Thereafter, all the despatches were on microfilm, with a reduction of rather more than 40 diameters, a performance that even today evokes admiration and yet he was achieving it a century ago. These later microfilms weighed about 0.05 gm and a pigeon would carry up to 20 of them. All his products were ordered by (Fig 4) and subject to the inspection of de Lafollye, who, whilst paying tribute to their excellence, continued to object to the fee Dagron was demanding. A new contract was negotiated in which the original 15 francs per 1000 characters was recognised as equivalent to 180 francs per page of letter-press, which was retrospectively reduced to 150 francs payable for work done in December, to 90 francs for work to be done in the first half of January, and to 60 francs for work done thereafter. Even so, it was calculated that Dagron received a total payment of 52,000 francs of which one-tenth went to Fernique. This was much more than would have cost a service such as was being provided by Blaise, but, whilst Blaise contained a page of letter-press in about 37 by 23 mm, Dagron put the same information in about 11 by 6 mm, a better than three-fold improvement in lineal measure.
The carriage of despatches
The pigeons carried two kinds of despatch: official and private, both of which are later described in detail. As has already been mentioned, the service was put into operation for the transmission of information from the Delegation to Paris and was opened to the public in early November. The private despatches were sent only when an official despatch was being sent, since the latter would have absolute priority. However, the introduction of the Dagron microfilms eased any problems there might have been in claims for transport since their volumetric requirements were very small. For example: one tube sent during January contained 21 microfilms, of which 6 were official despatches and 15 were private, whilst a later tube contained 16 private despatches and 2 official ones. In order to improve the chances of the despatches successfully reaching Paris, the same despatch was sent by several pigeons, one official despatch was repeated 35 times and the later private despatches were repeated on average 22 times. The records show that from 7th January to the end, 61 tubes were sent off, containing 246 official and 671 private despatches. The practice was to send off the despatches not only by pigeons of the same release but also of successive releases until Paris signalled the arrival of those despatches. When the pigeon reached its particular loft in Paris, its arrival was announced by a bell in the trap in the loft. Immediately, a watchman relieved it of its tube which was taken to the Central Telegraph Office where the content was carefully unpacked and placed between two thin sheets of glass. The photographs are said to have been projected by magic lantern on to a screen where the enlargement could be easily read and written down by a team of clerks. This should certainly be true for the microfilms but the earlier despatches on photographic paper were read through microscopes. The transcribed messages were written out on forms (telegraph forms for private messages, with or without the special annotation "pigeon") and so delivered. The interval between sending a private message and its receipt by the addressee depended on many factors: the density of telegraphic traffic to and from the sender's town, the time taken to register the message, to pass it to the printers where it was assembled with its 3000 companions into a single page and then to assemble the pages into nines or twelves or sixteens. De Lafollye observed that these stages rarely took less than a fortnight and only then could photography begin. It was then necessary to wait for a pigeon launch and final success hinged upon a safe arrival of a pigeon in Paris. There was one message handed in at Blois on 14th November, passing through Tours the same day and reaching Paris on 26th November. But there was also a message (Fig 5) handed in at Pontarlier on 2nd December which passed through Bordeaux on 9th December and did not reach Paris until 5th February (Fig 6). The popular impression that it was an instantaneous service is false; what really occurred was that the first private messages got to their destinations fairly quickly, but with the increasing volume of traffic during and after November and the deterioration of the weather from mid-December, from handing in to delivery could easily span two months. There were exceptions: Dagron himself records that he was running short of photographic materials in mid-January; he sent on 18th January a message to Paris asking for fresh supplies, the message reached Paris on 20th January, the supplies were flown out by balloon (probably the Général Daumesnil) and reached Bordeaux on 27th January. Such a performance was rare.
The content of nearly every despatch, official and private, which was photographed is known today. As has already been said, the letterpress of each set of private despatches was used to provide a permanent printed record and a total of 580 pages were bound together in six volumes, a set of which is in the Musée Postal. A foreword dated 3rd February 1871 by de Lafollye gives a succinct account of the service even though it is a partisan statement which puts the name of de Lafollye in print larger than that used for the name of Dagron. In a footnote to this foreword, it is stated that a formal report would be prepared by Feillet, the professional historian, but tragedy intervened. At the end of February, Feillet carried a complete set of the documents relating to the pigeon post and to other war-time postal services to his house at Neuilly. During the fighting at the time of the Commune between March and May 1871 the house was shelled and, with its contents, totally destroyed. Feillet died a year later, reputedly of a broken heart. The official messages survive in the Report of an Enquiry by the Assemblée Nationale "Enquête sur les actes du gouvernement de la défense nationale" published twice, once in 1875 and again in 1876. For many of the later official despatches, the original sheets of card on which the messages were written in manuscript and then photographed have also survived and are in the Musée Postal; Fig 7 is a modern photograph of a convenient size of one such sheet. A further source of information on the content of the despatches comes from their microphotography whether on photographic paper or on film. It is highly improbable that any despatch, and particularly one on microfilm, now in private hands was ever carried by a pigeon. Remembering their delicacy and the handling they would receive before and during their projection at the Central Telegraph Office, the originals were probably so damaged that it is unlikely that any survived. But, as will be recalled, it was possible to make numerous copies, some of which were sent off by pigeons both of the same and succeeding launches. The remaining copies were retained by de Lafollye and many were bound together as a collection in a book published by Mame, with a foreword by de Lafollye again dated February 1871 and with an introductory note:
Copies of this book are still extant, one in the Musée Postal and others in private hands, but the rest have probably been broken down and the pigeongrams they contained disposed of separately. The copy in the Musée Postal is in its original binding and appears to be just as it was when it was first published. Nevertheless, there are missing more despatches than would appear from de Lafollye's note. In particular, several of the numbered official despatches comprised more than one sheet but de Lafollye included only the first sheet; private messages subsequent to the last in his book may have been sent by pigeon; and he omitted the composite private despatches, made up of previous messages which either had never reached Paris or had become distorted or illegible in transit. These last are unevenly assembled as distinct from the uniformly assembled duplicates which are in the book. The foreword to the book later became de Lafollye's formal report and is repeated, together with a detailed account by Blay of the releases of pigeons for their return flights to Paris in "Les Télégraphes et Les Postes 1870-71" published in 1883 by Steenackers, himself an amateur historian of some repute.
The official despatches
The official despatches can be divided into three groups: the manuscript despatches sent between 27th September 1870 and 15th October, those on photographic paper sent between 16th October and 13th December, and the subsequent microfilms up to 3rd February 1871. Survivors of the first group are in the archives of the French Army and commence with the despatch of 27th September which reached Paris on 1st October (Figs 8 and 9). These messages, and most that followed, were in a mixture of numerical cipher and clear language, but their texts, when of sufficient importance, were tabled before the Enquête and are of major interest in a study of the conduct of the war. In the present context may be recalled the messages about the journey of Gambetta who left Paris on 7th October accompanied by pigeons who were to signal his safe arrival. On the same day, Favre was told 'Pigeon de Gambetta arrive mais plume avec dépêche disparue, les autres pigeons arriveront surement demain matin' but it was not until about 10th October that there did arrive a repeated message from Tours dated 10th October 'Gambetta arrive à bon port. Excellentes nouvelles!".
With the advent of photographic methods, the number of messages that could be contained in a single despatch increased considerably and the opportunity was taken of adding personal messages from officials to their friends in Paris. On several occasions, messages were addressed to the British Embassy in Paris as, for instance, one (Fig 10) in late October in a numerical cipher and concluding with 'Tours 23rd October Lyons'; Lord Lyons the British Ambassador to France had left Paris for Tours on 18th September. The French civil servants transmitted their departmental instructions, for example (Fig 10) that in the middle of November which laid down the uniform and insignia of workers on the telegraph lines (in order that the workers should be protected against accusations by the Prussians that they were francs-tireurs). There were many trivial messages which contrast strongly with the importance of the ministerial messages for which the service had been intended as a reliable means of communication between the Delegation and the Government in Paris. In a message of 24th October, the numerical part is followed by 'Je vous prie de faire tous vos efforts pour arriver me faire connaître l'opinion du gouvernement sur la presente dépêche - Leon Gambetta!' The service also provided a means of informing Paris what was happening outside Paris and the Government released to the Paris newspapers whatever news it thought appropriate to publish. There was Gambetta's proclamation of 31st October to the French people in which the fall of Metz was announced and Marshal Bazaine declared a traitor. This proclamation was written in manuscript even though a week earlier a despatch had contained in letterpress extracts from the Moniteur. In fact, the greater part of all the official despatches was in manuscript; messages in manuscript could be produced more quickly than in letterpress and, in theory at least, official despatches were urgent.
It is not possible accurately to ascertain the number of despatches sent before photography was employed but it was probably in the region of ten. With the introduction of photography, the official despatches were neither explicitly dated nor, for the first 17 according to de Lafollye, but probably 18, numbered. These first 18 can only be approximately ordered by reference to the dated messages they contain; the order in Table III follows that of the Musée Postal copy of de Lafollye's book. At the beginning of November, a second series of despatches was begun and the despatches were thereafter numbered, sometimes using recto and verso to denote each side of those printed on both sides of the paper. Despatch No. 8 of this series contains a message dated 10th November from Steenackers to Mercadier "La tournente de ces jours passés a perdu tous nos pigeons. Je vous envois beaucoup de pigeons. Les recevez vous. Je n'ai aujourd'hui que 25 pigeons en cages. Vos aéronautes n'en ammenent pas assez. Chacun d'eux devrait en apporter au moins vingt. Tenez la main ferme à celà et expediez à moi par des hommes sûrs." Despatch No. 10 was the first to carry a printed heading which was subsequently used on all despatches, official and private; it, too, sought pigeons: "Presque plus de pigeons. Envoyez en." Despatch No. 34 was the last to be on photographic paper and contained a message "Crémieux aux membres du Gouvernement. Vous voyez, mes bons amis, que nous sommes à Bordeaux."
Despatch No. 35, the first on film, has a message to Favre dated 21st December from Bordeaux. The last despatch, No. 47, consisted of a message to Favre from Simon, who had been sent to Bordeaux to convert the Delegation to an acceptance of the terms of the armistice, reporting that the Delegation had decreed (as recorded in Despatch No. 46) the exclusion from the new Assemblée Nationale of all who had held office under Napoleon III, a political move which foreshadowed the further tragedy about to descend on France with the civil war between the Commune of Paris and the Government at Versailles.
Before leaving the official despatches, it is appropriate to mention two bogus official despatches sent by the Prussians. When the Daguerre fell inside the enemy lines on 12th November, 6 pigeons were saved from the Prussians and used to notify Paris of the loss of the balloon. The remaining pigeons were caught by the Prussians who later released 6 of them with messages calculated to dismay Paris. One message was: "Rouen 7 décembre. A gouvernement Paris - Rouen occupé par Prussiens, qui marchent sur Cherbourg. Population rurale les acclame; délibérez. Orléans repris par ces diables. Bourges et Tours menacés. Armée de la Loire complètement défaite. Resistance n'offre plus aucune chance de salut. A. Lavertujon." The pigeons reached Paris on 9th December going to the loft of Nobécourt, whose father carried the message to Rampont. The fraud was apparent; it was known that Nobécourt had been captured and Lavertujon, a French official, was actually in Paris. Another message in similar terms arrived addressed to the Editor of Figaro. These messages were tied to the pigeons with ordinary thread, whereas the French always used waxed thread: further evidence of the attempt at deception. The conclusion that the message had come from the enemy was, however, scant consolation for the bitterness of learning almost immediately that they were partly true: Rouen and Orleans were in Prussian hands.
The private despatches
The success that Blaise was having in the photography of official despatches prompted Steenackers and de Lafollye to propose the extension of the service to the public. On 4th November, there was a decree that the Delegation
On the same day, Steenackers issued his regulations:
The conditions of the service were published in the Moniteur on 7th November and were reported to Paris in an official despatch (2nd series No. 37). The response of the public was immediate and the first messages were dated 8th November. The very first was addressed to Monsieur Berger at 6, rue Ménars: "Albert (Rouen), Tous autres votres (Agen), Delorme (Laval), Faure (Loire), parfaite sante. Aussi tous les miens - Paul." Soon the service was inundated. Mame could not cope with the printing and had to be assisted by Joliot, and, even then, soldiers who were skilled in typesetting had to be recalled from the armies. The situation became worse with the move of the Delegation to Bordeaux and, although a contingent of Mame staff had been transferred with the Delegation, the backlog demanded the use of other printers: Lanefranque and Metreau at Bordeaux and Sirven at Toulouse. Still the printing bottleneck was not cleared and 18 pages had to be written out in manuscript. Towards the end of January the service had regained control and was geared to the demand of the public. On 14th January, the cost of a private message was reduced to 20 centimes per word.
Whilst the Delegation had taken the initiative in opening the service to the public, the Government in Paris was also demonstrating its interest in helping the public. On 10th November, the eve of its contract with Dagron, it passed a decree introducing three new facilities associated with the pigeon post. One, of letter-messages of up to 40 words at 50 centimes per word, was so similar to that started by the Delegation that it never had a separate existence. The two others were acceptable to the Delegation which authorised them in its own decree on 25th November. The second facility permitted the transmission of postal orders with a maximum value of 300 francs each subject to a supplementary fee of 3 francs; during its currency 1,370 orders to a total value of 190,000 francs were sent by pigeon. The third facility was the use of dépêches réponses. The method of operation was announced to the public inside and outside Paris in a special supplement to No. 7 of the Gazette des Absents (one of the miniature newspapers published for carriage out of Paris by balloon) and again in No. 8. In a letter written in Paris and addressed outside, a Correspondent could ask four questions, each capable of being answered 'yes' or 'no'. With the letter would go a card purchased at a post office for the price of the 5 centimes postage stamp affixed to it. The recipient of the letter then entered in four columns his answers as oui or non on the card, taking care to get the order right, affixed a 1 franc postage stamp to the card, and sent it to the designated post office. Since this facility was introduced contemporarily with the appearance of Dagron, the authorities in Paris designated Clermont Ferrand as the destination of the completed card, but, in the event, it was to Tours, and later to Bordeaux, that Dagron - and the cards - went. The message, consisting of the address, the oui's and non's transcribed as o's and n's, and the replier's name, was included in a page among messages in clear language, and the whole photographed and, in due course, formed part of a despatch. Once the content of a card had been set up in type, the card was, in theory, destroyed but, in fact, a few escaped and are still in existence, although most apparently used cards that are exhibited are forgeries. There were about 30,000 messages so abridged, representing about one-quarter of all the private messages.
Also included in the private despatches were messages under the heading 'Services et Autorisations' which were intended to be official messages not sufficiently important to warrant their inclusion in an official despatch but enough to demand a priority of treatment on their arrival in Paris. There were many abuses and numerous messages which were so sent were personal messages from officials with access to the service. Dagron himself sent many messages on behalf of others; these can be recognised by the real sender's name being followed by that of Dagron.
The collection of the letterpress of the private despatches well illustrates how this section of the service developed. The first two pages (which formed the first despatch) (Fig 11) were headed 'Dépêches Privées Tours 8 Novembre', 'Feuille No 1' and 'Feuille No 2' but the ones that followed were headed 'Dépêches privées à distribuer aux destinaires', 'N.3', 'N.4' up to 'N.64' dated at Tours from 9th November to 18th November, with the first volume completed by 'No 1 bis' to 'No 14 bis' dated at Tours from 15th November to 22nd November. These pages were each 415 mm by 260 mm with the messages set out in three columns. It will be seen that the dates are not in strict concordance with the page numbering, an inconsistency which applies throughout and is explained by the fact that pages were made up in parallel and that the messages were inserted not always in the order in which they arrived at the printers. All these pages appear in despatches on photographic paper, with pages 15 and 16 and pages 17 and 18 as the first to be printed on both sides but fifty-four duplicates were subsequently sent on microfilm (Fig 11). The second volume opens with 56 pages set up in a way to permit Dagron to produce microdots (even though the experiment was not successful), each page being divided into twelve sub-pages each 80 mm by 112 mm ( Fig 12). The sub-pages have a heading of D.S. for dépêche du service, D.P. for dépêche privée, and so on. The first two sub-pages contained de Lafollye's announcement of the new service:
The sub-pages are not complete in themselves, and messages run over from one to the next. The pages are numbered 2e série from 1 onwards. The sub-pages were sent on microfilm, five containing 144 and one containing 96 plus 6 ordinary pages. The first dépêches mandats (postal orders) appear on page 69 dated at Bordeaux 28th November, and the first dépêches réponses on page 91 dated at Bordeaux 3rd December (Fig 13). Volume 2 closes with page 100. Volume 3 also contains 100 pages. 101 to 200. In this volume, and in the three later ones, all the ordinary messages are in letter-press, but most of the dépêches réponses are in manuscript. Volumes 4 and 5 also each contain 100 pages: 201 to 300, and 301 to 400 respectively, whilst Volume 6 has 180 pages but, according to a manuscript note, only the first 112 (401 to 512) were sent by pigeon. Page 512 is dated Bordeaux 29th January 1871. All these pages were sent on microfilm in groups of 9 or 16; the microfilm carrying pages 311 to 326 was the first to carry the first and last page numbers in its top corners. The microfilm carrying pages 409 to 424 is the last in de Lafollye's book so that it cannot firmly be established whether page 512 or page 424 or neither was the last to be sent by pigeon. After the closure of the pigeon post, the remaining messages were sent to Paris by conventional means.
Messages from England
The opening of the service to the public by the decree of 4th November attracted messages not only from inside France but also from outside. The decree had been published in the Moniteur which Lord Lyons, the British Ambassador at Tours sent to the Foreign Office which, in turn, forwarded the appropriate extract to the G.P.O. on 10th November. Prior information must, however, already have reached England since, on 11th November Steenackers sent the following telegram to the "Directeur Général Postes et Télégraphes Londres"
The G.P.O. considered this to be for the British telegraph service and passed the telegram on to its associate, the Submarine Telegraph Company, which replied on 12th November:
Steenackers answered by telegram on 13th November, quoting the conditions of the decree of 4th November and emphasising that the messages had to be "en français intelligible". He went on to say:
On receiving this, the Submarine Telegraph Company agreed with the G.P.O. that it was for the latter to operate the service and a Post Office Notice, No 64 of 1870, was drafted. Although it was not approved by the Postmaster-General until 17th November, it was dated 16th November (Fig 14). At the same time, special envelopes (Fig 15) and letter-bills (Fig 16) were printed, and the service was opened to the British public but only for letters, a decision being taken on 9th December that dépêches-mandats could not be handled. When, in January, the French internal tariff was reduced, the G.P.O. sought confirmation that this applied also to messages from England; de Lafollye's affirmative reply was dated 30th January, the eve of the closure of the service. By then, the last English despatch had, on 28th January, left for France.
"The Times" had also publicised the service. Its issue of 19th November carried a report from its correspondent in Tours:
In the records of the private messages is a group emanating from London on 22nd November and being set up in type at Bordeaux on 2nd January. There is an earlier message from London but with no date of origin but set up in type at Bordeaux on 30th November; the difficulties previously mentioned of putting messages in an accurate order preclude positive identification of this as the first message from England. There can be no doubt of the authenticity of these English messages since a balloon letter exists which reached England asking for questions to be answered in the form required of a dépêche-réponse. Nevertheless, this participation by the G.P.O. did not avert an accusation by de Fonveille, writing in 1871, that the G.P.O. had openly declared its lack of confidence in the effectiveness of the service and he wondered whether this was due to jealousy or to its subversion by Prussian agents.
The post-war souvenirs
It has been seen that, no sooner was the armistice signed, de Lafollye commenced the publication of the records of his service by the issue of the collection of the copies of the despatches. He was quickly followed by Dagron who, on 7th February 1871, formally sought permission to publish a microfilm of the same size and having the appearance of those sent during the war. The text of his submission was:
On 8th February 1871, de Lafollye made his recommendation to Steenackers on Dagron's submission:
Steenackers accepted the recommendation of de Lafollye which ensured that their own names and deeds would be well publicised but Steenackers was soon to lose his post and Dagron was to have Rampont once again as his patron. He did produce a simulacre, with no reference to Steenackers and de Lafollye, having the general appearance of the last that were sent by pigeon, that is to say: with the range of page numbers inserted at the top. He selected the page numbers 627 and 642, which were fictitious, and purported to have the sixteen pages on the microfilm. The content was, however, one title page which declared that this was a simulacre, and fifteen pages of which two numbers were twice repeated and the whole an invention of letter-press private messages. This simulacre was available to the public in three ways. It was bound between the centre pages of a booklet written by Dagron "La Poste par Pigeons Voyageurs - Notice sur le voyage du ballon Le Niepce emportant M. Dagron et ses collaborateurs et détails sur la mission qu'ils avaient à remplir" printed in Paris by Typographie Lahure. It was also sold as part of a souvenir card 105 mm by 64 mm (Fig 17) which could be bought either from Dagron's company or from bookshops. The card repeated what was on the cover of the booklet: that Dagron was the only official photographer of official and private despatches on microfilm. The third issue of the simulacre was from March 1903 to October 1905 when the Aero Club was collecting funds for the Bartholdi monument; donors of from 5 to 20 francs received a souvenir sheet 240 mm by 160 mm with the simulacre in the centre around which was the inscription "La poste par pigeons voyageurs - spécimen identique aux pellicules du siège contenant la valeur d'une page de journal". Donors of from 20 to 100 francs also received a copy, together with an engraving of the monument. This late reprint of his pellicule would have pleased Dagron who had died in Paris on 13th June 1900 at the age of 81.
It is not known whether Dagron fabricated other souvenir pellicules but the Photographic Journal of 14th December 1871 records in the Transactions of the Photographic Society in London that "The President proposed a vote of thanks to M. Dagron for his communication (On the preparation of microphotographic despatches on film by M. Dagron's process) and the valuable specimens that accompanied it." These specimens could have been additional souvenir pellicules or microfilms which he had kept when the service at Bordeaux closed.
But it is exceedingly probable that others, less so entitled, produced simulacres since there are currently in existence far more so-called pigeongrams than could have come from dismembered copies of de Lafollye's collection. The Parisian stamp dealer Maury is suspected of being one such producer and it is significant that his price list of 1894 offers microfilms at 1 franc 25 centimes each. Some of the glass photographic plates used either for the prints or for the microfilms could have been "borrowed" from official sources and more copies run off. There exist, for despatches originally printed on both sides of photographic paper, copies in which the despatches are separately printed on one side only, quite contrary to the purpose of this method. If an authentic pigeongram is defined as one produced during the war by the official service at Tours or Bordeaux, then a pigeongram can usually be certified as authentic only if it is still attached to a page from de Lafollye's collection and preferably if that page is still bound inside the book.
One of the best known souvenirs (Fig 18) is that produced by the London Stereoscopic and Photographic Company which carries the front page of "The Times" of 19th January 1871. On 30th January 1871 "The Times" contained a report that this had been sent to Gambetta at Bordeaux and thence by pigeon to Paris. The report has since been widely quoted in histories of the siege of Paris, in histories of photography, and in the "History of the Times". Recently, it has been argued that the story is unlikely to be true and on 4th February 1970 "The Times" acknowledged that its report of 99 years before was probably false.
There is also a "Souvenir of the Franco-Prussian War - A pigeon despatch", 45 mm x 35 mm, reproducing on photographic paper extracts from columns of "The Times" in issues between 14th and 18th November 1870.
The success of the pigeon post, both for official and for private messages, did not pass unnoticed by the military forces of the European powers and in the years that followed the Franco-Prussian War pigeon sections were established in their armies. The advent of wireless communication led to a diminution of their employment although in certain particular applications Pigeons provided the only method of communication. But never again were pigeons called upon to perform such a great public service as that which they had maintained during the siege of Paris.