Two old-timey duffers in a hot-air balloon

The eccentric engineer: the ups and downs of military aerial reconnaissance

Image credit: Getty Images

This edition tells the story of an unlikely asset of the military: the hot-air balloon, which had turned army battles into war games played by generals with a god-like overview.

‘When the balloon goes up’ has become a stock phrase for the beginning of a war. This got me wondering who first decided to make use of balloons in a conflict. Ballooning had begun with the Montgolfier brothers in 1783 but their interest in floating through the air was entirely peaceful. However, it did not take long for the military to realise that this engineering marvel might have other uses.

In 1792, the leaders of Revolutionary France were having difficulty getting on with their neighbouring monarchs and this animosity soon erupted into all-out war. Flash forward two years and, in June 1794, the 70,000-strong French army of the Sambre-Meuse under the command of Jean-Baptiste Jourdan had just taken the surrender of the garrison at Charleroi, much to the annoyance of Prince Frederick Josias of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, who had only recently arrived with an Austrian and Netherlands army of 52,000 men, specifically to relieve them.

The Prince immediately set about a counter-attack, splitting his army into five columns, and advancing on the enemy lines. However, what happened next caused some considerable confusion among his troops. From behind the massing lines of French infantry, a large shape began to rise into the sky – a huge balloon. The Austrian troops were unsure what this presaged and fired wildly at the monster, which some said proved that France had clearly made a pact with ‘the Evil One’.

In fact, it wasn’t the devil, it was Captain Coutelle, an aérostier in the brand-new aeronautic corps of the French army, along with a selection of adjutants and a general, whose appearance fortuitously dumbfounded the Austrians long enough for the craft to rise out of range of their rifles.

Beyond its psychological effect, which rapidly wore off, the balloon had a far more important duty. L’Entreprenant, as it was known, twice ascended some 400 metres on a tether to survey the battlefield and report Austrian and Dutch troop movements, staying aloft for four hours at a time with Coutelle relaying his findings through flag signals. Beyond providing the first aerial reconnaissance in history, Coutelle also found he now had probably the best job in the army.

As one witness put it: “Having arrived at the intended height, the observers, remote from danger, and undisturbed, viewed all the evolutions of the enemy, and, from a peaceful region of the air, commanded a distinct and comprehensive prospect of the two formidable armies engaged in the work of death.”

The result was a stunning victory for the French and preceded a full Allied withdrawal from Belgium. The balloon had turned army battles into war games played by generals with a god-like overview.

Lest we should think aerial reconnaissance would prove an unalloyed success, however, we might consider the fate of poor Lieutenant-Colonel Derby in the now largely forgotten Spanish-American War of 1898.

In April, US troops were sent to Cuba to support the Cuban independence movement, then fighting against the Spanish colonial powers. The fighting reached a climax at the battle of San Juan Hill on 1 July. With 12,000 US troops hacking their way through thick jungle and the Spanish dug in on the heights, reconnaissance was obviously vital, but the US Signals Corps seem to have forgotten that not being seen may be just as useful as seeing where the enemy are.

To get their bearings, they decided to deploy a tethered balloon, manned by Lieutenant-Colonel Derby, to spot enemy positions from their own front line. Floating high above the jungle, Derby found himself in a rather precarious situation. Not only could he not see the enemy, who were ensconced in deep cover, but he couldn’t see his own men to report back to them. Worse still, the Spanish were having no trouble locating the previously hidden American troops, who they rightly assumed were probably near the huge balloon bobbing over the trees towards them and so directed their fire in that direction.

US war correspondent Richard Harding Davis later noted: “The observation balloon hastened the end. It came blundering down the trail, and stopped the advance of the First and Tenth Cavalry, and was sent up directly over the heads of our men to observe what should have been observed a week before by scouts and reconnoitring parties... a balloon on the advance line, and only fifty feet above the tops of the trees, was merely an invitation to the enemy to kill everything beneath it. And the enemy responded to the invitation. A Spaniard might question if he could hit a man, or a number of men, hidden in the bushes, but had no doubt at all as to his ability to hit a mammoth glistening ball only six hundred yards distant and so all the trenches fired at it at once, and the men of the First and Tenth, packed together directly behind it, received the full force of the bullets.”

The result was carnage, but Derby doggedly stuck to his duty until his craft finally came down. Surviving the fall, he remarked to a passing captain: “They are firing at our troops.” The captain’s reply is not recorded.

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles