France declared war on Prussia in July of 1870 and so began the Franco-Prussian War, 1870-71 (1). The south German states, allied with Prussia and the superior organisation and Krupp manufactured artillery pieces of the Prussian and German armies made short work of the French forces. By September the main French army was destroyed at Sedan and Napoleon III himself was captured. While in Paris the Second Empire was overthrown and replaced by the Third Republic.
Tragically, even though the French armies dissolved, Paris refused to capitulate. For over four months the French capital was surrounded and besieged. The French government was re-established in the city of Tours; the principle city of the Touraine Region on the Loire.
Communication between the Paris and Tours was vital for the functioning of the French State and for the morale of the morale of the Parisian citizens. This issue became particularly pressing with the cutting of overhead telegraph wires by Prussian troops as well as the removal of the ‘secret’ telegraph cable that ran along the bed of the Seine. A number of postmen did succeed in passing through the Prussian lines in the earliest days of the siege but others were captured and shot. Eventually communication with the outside world rested on the use of pigeon carrier post. These pigeons s carried thousands of official and private messages from the officials and citizens under siege.
The pigeons were often taken out of Paris by balloon before being released by their escorting pigeon-fancier as soon as the balloon landed over the Prussian lines. Soon a regular service was in operation, based first with Tours (200k south of Paris – as the pigeon flies) and later based at Poitiers (300k south of Paris). Once in Tours 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 their return journey. To reduce the flight distance back to Paris the pigeons were taken by train as far forward towards the capital as was safe from Prussian intervention. Before release, they were loaded with further dispatches. The first dispatch was dated 27 September and reached
Paris on 1 October. The following month the pigeon courier service was opened to the public. These private dispatches could only be sent when an official dispatch was also being sent, since the latter would have priority. However, the introduction of René Dagron microfilms eased this situation.(2) The Tours government used a micro-photography unit evacuated from Paris prior to the siege, clerks in Tours photographed paper dispatches and compressed them to microfilm, which were carried by the homing pigeons into Paris. During the four and a half months siege, 150,000 official and 1 million private communications were carried into Paris by this method
The service ended with the last pigeons being released on 3 February 1871. 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.
In the years that followed the Franco-Prussian War, military forces of the European powers established pigeon sections in their armies and for use by its navies to send inter-ship messages. The developments of wireless communication led to rising pigeon unemployment and never again were pigeons called upon to perform such a service as that which they had maintained during the siege of Paris. Nevertheless, large numbers of birds were still in use at the vast inland fortresses of France, Germany and Russia at the outbreak of World War 1.
(1) In 1870 the Otto von Bismarck ordered the Prussian Army into France. The French Army was driven out of Alsace and Helmuth von Moltke won a comprehensive victory at Sedan. The French armies were surrounded and forced to surrender. In September 1870 the Prussian forces headed for Paris.
Paris was besieged and eventually starved into surrender. By the Treaty of Frankfurt in May 1871, France lost Alsace-Lorraine, Strasburg and the important fortress of Metz to the new Germany, and had to pay an extremely large war indemnity and endure a Prussian army victory parade through the streets of Paris (a scene that was to be repeated during World War II).
The French State wanted revenge for its humiliating defeat, and in particular wanted to regain Alsace-Lorraine. This led to France building up one of the 2 alliance power blocks in Europe from the 1890s, and as a result France was as keen to go to war in 1914.
(2) For example: one tube sent during January contained 21 microfilms, of which 6 were official despatches and 15 were private, while 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 being repeated 35 times and the later private despatches were repeated on average 22 times.
Records show that from 7 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 signaled the arrival of those dispatches.
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 would certainly be true for the microfilms, but the earlier dispatches on photographic paper were read through microscopes. The transcribed messages were written out on forms and then delivered by hand.