the use of military balloons during the Napoleonic era
L'Entrepremant at the Battle of
Fleurus, June 26, 1794
French were the first to use balloons for aerial reconnaissance in 1794,
during their conflict with Austria. This reconnaissance contributed to the
French victory by providing a way for the French to observe the makeup and
activities of their enemies.
After the French Revolution had ended, one of the first acts of the
Committee of Public Safety was to appoint an advisory commission that
recommended using observation balloons to help France's armies. They set
aside an area in the Paris suburbs for conducting secret balloon
experiments. There, the world's first military observation balloon,
L'Entrepremant," was constructed in 1793 under the guidance of the
scientist Charles Coutelle and assisted by N.J. Conté.
hydrogen balloon was designed to remain tethered and thus had to be
especially strong to withstand buffeting by the wind. Two people would be
aloft in the balloon's basketùone to handle the balloon and signal to the
ground crew who controlled it, and the second to observe the area. The
observer would communicate with the ground by flag signals or by placing
written messages in sandbags fitted with rings that could be slid down the
cables. The balloon would have two cables tethering it to increase the
degree of control and to reduce the likelihood of the enemy freeing a
balloon by severing a cable. The weight of the sand ballast would equal
the weight of the occupants of the car, and as the balloon rose, the
ballast would be discharged to compensate for the increasing weight of the
two cables that tied the balloon to the ground. Conté also developed a
special impervious varnish to coat the balloon fabric so that the hydrogen
gas did not leak out.
Coutelle demonstrated the balloon in 1794. He found that when he was at
the end of the cables, he could clearly make out details as much as 18
miles (29 kilometres) away through his telescope. The members of the
Commission were so impressed that they recommended formation of an air
force, the world's first, called the Compagnie d'AΘronautiers. It was
established on March 29, 1794.
balloon corps, or Aérostiers, transported L'Entrepremant to
Mauberge where Coutelle inflated it, and the air corps was ready to face
the enemyùor at least to see the enemy. The air corps went into action
against the Austrians in June 1794. During the battle, Coutelle and Conté
successfully spied on Dutch and Austrian troops from high above Mauberge,
They provided detailed reports of the location and composition of the
Austrian and Dutch troops and directed ground fire against the forces. The
Austrians protested that the use of a balloon was against the rules of war
and attempted to shoot it down, but Coutelle had his ground crew let out
more cable, and L'Entrepremant easily rose out of range.
After Mauberge, the balloon corps moved to Charleroi. Moving the inflated
balloon required a crew of 24 men to hold the ropes attached to the middle
of L'Entrepremant and drag it across country to its new
location. Coutelle directed the effort.
French triumphed at the ensuing Battle of Fleurus, which took place on
June 26, 1794. Coutelle and General Morlot stayed aloft during the entire
10-hour engagement. They received written questions from the ground by
means of a cable, and the general sent his orders and observation reports
down the cable in a bag. Ground operations were entirely directed from the
air. In addition to providing a tactical advantage, the balloon also
demoralized the enemy troops. The Austrians feared the balloon and looked
upon it as an agent of the devil that was allied to the French Republic.
The Battle of Fleurus was the first battle in history where aerial
reconnaissance contributed significantly to the victory.
aerial reconnaissance of the Aérostiers led to further victories by the
French troops and also to the building of three more balloons, the
Celeste, the Hercule, and the Intrepide, each with its
own corps and equipment. Each balloon was used at a different front in
Subsequent balloon observations contributed to French victories, and
Coutelle persuaded Napoleon to allow the Aérostiers to accompany the
troops to Egypt in 1797. However, the skills of the Aérostiers were not
efficiently used, and at the Battle of Aboukir in 1798, the British
destroyed the equipment. Upon returning to France in 1799, Napoleon
disbanded the Aérostiers and the balloon school. With that, the dream of a
French airborne invasion of Great Britain died, and the use of balloons by
the French military was suspended for 40 years.