The Day when Leon Gambetta escaped the Siege of Paris in a balloon

In 1870 Paris is besieged by the Prussians. 400,000 Prussian soldiers surround the capital. No one can leave Paris by road or by the river. The only solution: flee through the air. Gambetta,  the Minister of Home Affairs, wants to lead the resistance and will therefore choose to escape Paris in a hot air balloon.

In this article, I will tell you the story of the departure of Leon Gambetta. This article focuses on the following elements:

If you’d like to listen to me telling this story in French, the audio recording is freely available at the end of this article.

Gambetta leaving Paris Hot Air Balloon

Preparing the escape

During the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, the French were being routed and by September the Prussians had laid siege to Paris. Gambetta believed that the government must be moved to another city in order to function effectively. That’s why he decided to escape the besieged city and deliver himself to Tours. Other colleagues have fear of another revolution in Paris and decided not to leave the city.

Gambetta probably had his idea of ​​the ball from two sources:

  • on the one hand, Jules Verne‘s novel entitled Five Weeks in a Balloon (1863),
  • on the other hand, in the recent Civil War in the United States (1861-1865), the northern General Ulysse Grant successfully used this technology, notably at the battle of Wilderness.

Gambetta has to build the balloon with the Parisians:

  • seamen and gendarmes make and tie the ropes,
  • workers make the wicker baskets to accommodate three people,
  • Nadar lends its workshops in Montmartre to ensure the weaving of balloon envelopes,
  • the Clichy and La Villette gasworks ensure the filling of the vehicles.

The balloon was named Armand Barbés, in reference to the famous revolutionary and republican activist of the years 1830-1840, who died in June 1870.

The departure of Leon Gambetta

By chance, Victor Hugo attended the scene and wrote down everything he saw in his “things seen” notebooks.

the memoirs of victor hugo "choses vues" 1870
The memoirs of Victor Hugo “choses vues” – 7 octobre 1870

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The events after 1870

Arrived at Tours, Gambetta displayed prodigious energy and intelligence and quickly organized an army “with a completely incredible speed” (according to the word of his enemy, the Prussian General Moltke). In four months, he built up armies of several hundred thousand men.

  • Inexperienced in the military field, Gambetta hesitates, wastes time, and makes mistakes.
  • His troops are eaten away by epidemics, badly trained, and badly supplied.

Success was impossible.

The siege of Paris ended on 28 January 1871 with the establishment of both the German Empire and the Paris Commune.

Listen to the Audio recording

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