L'Entrepremant at the Battle of Fleurus, June 26, 1794.
Military Use of Balloons During the Napoleonic Era
The 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. Cont‚.
The 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 basket—one 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. Cont‚ 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 kilometers) 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'Aéronautiers. It was established on March 29, 1794.
The balloon corps, or Aérostiers, transported L'Entrepremant to Mauberge where Coutelle inflated it, and the air corps was ready to face the enemy—or at least to see the enemy. The air corps went into action against the Austrians in June 1794. During the battle, Coutelle and Cont‚ 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.
The 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.
The 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 1796.
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.
Ege, Lennart A. T. Balloons and Airships. Editor of the English edition, Kenneth Munson from translation by Erik Hildesheim. New York: Macmillan. 1974
Gibbs-Smith, C.H. Flight Through the Ages. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., Inc. 1974.
Jackson, Donald D. and the editors of Time-Life Books. The Aeronauts. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1980.
Macmillan, Norman. Great Flights and Air Adventures, From Balloons to Spacecraft. London: G. Bell, 1964.
Rolt, L.T.C. The Aeronauts: A History of Ballooning - 1783-1903. New York: Walker and Company, 1966.