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1871 __ Pigeongramme
Comment : 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. [...] 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." [...] 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. [...] 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. [...] 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. (J.D. Hayhurst)
French comment : Le pigeongramme est petite photographie microfilmée destinée à être transportée par pigeon voyageur. Le 7 Octobre 1870, Léon Gambetta, Ministre de l'Intérieur quitte Paris assiégé en ballon. Le Ministère se replie à Tours puis à Bordeaux. Dès le 4 Novembre, le transport de dépêches par pigeons voyageurs est inauguré. Trois cent deux pigeons (d'autres sources citent le nombre de 409) seront embarqués par ballons dans des paniers d'osier. La plupart de ces pigeons appartenaient à des particuliers parisiens qui, par patriotisme, les mirent au service des autorités. Arrivés à Tours (ou Bordeaux), ils étaient équipés de petits étuis contenant des "micro-films" de 3 à 4 cm sur collodion (support transparent fabriqué à base de nitrocellulose, d'éther et d'alcool). Les pigeons étaient ensuite relâchés au plus près de Paris et censés retrouver leurs points de départ parisiens. Mais seuls une cinquantaine de pigeons parviendront à destination. A l'arrivée, selon le cas, on plaçait les films de collodion entre deux plaques de verre et on projetait le tout sur grand écran à l'aide d'une lanterne magique. Les textes étaient ensuite soigneusement recopiés puis acheminés aux différents destinataires. (Musée Postal du Forez)
Urls : http://www.coppoweb.com/pigeon/pigeon.html (last visited ) http://www.cheminsdememoire.gouv.fr/page/affichepage.php?idLang=fr&idPage=7726 (last visited )

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