The first kill of Nadar

Post balloon, Paris, 1870

This is the story of the world's first aerial combat. It is not a true story.

It is 30 September, 1870. Revolutionary Paris is under siege by Prussian forces. But it has a secret weapon: Nadar. Nadar is famed as a photographer, a writer, and—more importantly here—an aeronaut. He has taken the lead in organising communication with the outside world by balloon; the first left a week earlier and sailed defiantly over the heads of the beseigers, landing safely 60 miles away with 125kg of letters from the beseiged. Three more balloons escaped within the week.

Now, according to the Belgian Nouvelles du Jour, Nadar has returned from Tours in his giant balloon Intrépide. At 11am he was 3000m over the fort of Charenton, when 'a second balloon was observed on the horizon'.1 Nadar 'was seen to display a streamer with the French national colours', which the other balloon then also did.2 The soldiers in the fort cried 'C’est Durouf!'—'It's Durouf!', Nadar's friend and the aeronaut who made the first flight out of Paris, in the Neptune.2 But after the balloons drew close together,

suddenly a loud report was heard in the air, followed by series of explosions. These were at first thought to be demonstrations or signals of victory, until Nadar was seen fling himself into the network of his balloon and to cling its sides. During this time the other aeronaut continued discharging shots at Nadar, which were traced in the sky by their luminous effects.2

The Intrépide plummeted earthwards, and the watchers on the ground struggled to understand what was going on. But then the French flag on the second balloon was removed, and

a black and yellow standard was observed to be floating in its place. Then all was explained. 'Treason! It is a Prussian balloon ! He has fired on the Intrépide! Nadar is lost!' were the cries that burst simultaneously from the French people.2

In fact 'Nadar was safe': although his basket nearly hit the ground, 'He cast out the ballast, and reascended, having stopped the hole made in his balloon by his adversary'.2 And then, he had his revenge:

Then shots were rapidly fired from the Intrépide into the Prussian balloon, which one, losing all power, descended to the earth with giddy velocity.2

A 'detachment of Uhlans', fortunately for the Prussian aeronaut, 'had been following the aerial combatants throughout this exciting struggle' and 'received their champion—God knows in what condition—and then all hastened off at full speed to the Prussian advanced posts'. Nadar himself landed safely at the French fort, 'where he still remains'.2

To repeat, this is not a true story; as the Morning Post said, it was a canard.3 The first paragraph is indeed true: Nadar did organise the balloon post. (Though it wasn't the first: 25 uncrewed balloons were sent out from Metz in September and October.) And Durouf, or rather Duruof, did make the first flight out of Paris; the photo above is Neptune undergoing preparations for the voyage.

But as far as I can tell Nadar did not actually fly out himself, as opposed to making captive observation ascents. And even if he did, he certainly didn't fly back in, because nobody did: balloon navigation was simply too erratic. (Instead, homing pigeons carried out by balloon were used for return communications.) Moreover, there seems little chance of the story being true in essence but with the wrong details, as it doesn't match the four balloon post flights to date. Just conceivably it might be based on the flight of Gaston Tissandier, which did take place on the same date, as he dropped ballast, or rather 'proclamations', over Versailles in order to avoid Prussian ground fire; and there is an odd claim from Versailles on what seems to be, again, that same date of 'Two balloons attached to each other [...] hovering over Paris'.4 But there is nothing in Tissandier's own account which mentions seeing another balloon, let alone one which fired on him.5

Duruof also apparently attracted ground fire during the first flight on 23 September:

Soon they unlimbered some guns, sighting them for the 'mail'. Many balls fell short, but one grazed the balloon, or least made it uncomfortably vibrate. Needle guns poured volley after volley, but without effect.6

There was also a rumour that 'the Prussians sent a balloon of their own in pursuit' of Duruof.7 The Graphic was somewhat sceptical of this story, but if an attempted interception had in fact taken place then it could be 'assumed that it will be renewed with more careful preparation', and so it followed that

A letter balloon, chased by another balloon conveying skilled sharpshooters, must necessarily carry arms, or risk the fate of the helpless buzzard when the hawk swoops down with relentless beak.8

For the Graphic, this idea of 'a balloon duel carried on at a height of two and a half miles is an idea at once novel and suggestive':

Warfare of this kind is evidently capable of extension; and it is quite possible that after-dinner orators may one day be called upon to respond to the toast of 'Her Majesty's land, sea, and aerial forces.'2

The first kill of Nadar is like the first death of Roland Garros in the next war with Germany: a logical fantasy, of not only what may come, but what has to be. Just not quite yet.

(Not yet, that is, if you are talking about martial duels. The first personal duel fought from balloons had already taken place, in 1818—over Paris. Naturellement.)

Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

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  1. Daily Telegraph (London), 7 October 1870, 3. []
  2. Ibid. [] [] [] [] [] [] [] []
  3. Morning Post (London), 7 October 1870, 6. []
  4. Morning Post, 6 October 1870, 6; Morning Advertiser (London), 7 October 1870, 6. []
  5. Morning Post, 6 October 1870, 6. []
  6. Banffshire Journal (Banff), 4 October 1870, 4. []
  7. Morning Post, 1 October 1870, 5. []
  8. Graphic (London), 8 October 1870, 2. []

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