Aerial Espionage In the Napoleonic Wars
By Lyndsay Constable, author of An Excellent Walker
There, in the sky above the clearing, were floating boats held aloft by giant inflated bags of blue fabric attached by an interwoven net of thick rope. Elizabeth stared, dumbfounded, as the flying carriages appeared to race rapidly through the sky, driven by the unusually strong winds from the east.
“Good God!” Mr Darcy exclaimed. “Elizabeth, come!” He shot to his feet and extended a hand to her.
Unable to tear her eyes away from such an extraordinary sight, Elizabeth cried, “Mr Darcy! What are those things? Are they machine or beast?”
One of my favorite movies, St Ives, based on the novel of the same name by Robert Louis Stevenson and set during the Napoleonic war, has some of the characters accidentally going up in a hot air balloon at a demonstration and taking off for a long, uncontrolled flight through the skies. Flight by air balloon was still novel in the late 1700s and early 1800s and attracted amazed spectators during these demonstrations.
The use of flight during war is all too common nowadays, but during Jane Austen’s time, when the Napoleonic war was in full swing, it was just beginning to develop as a useful tool. In 1793, the French military employed the world’s first 'spy satellite' to observe enemy troop positions. A hydrogen balloon, with a pilot and an observer in the attached basket, was tethered to the ground by ropes. It allowed an expansive view--from as far as 18 miles--of the movements of Austrian and Dutch troops. These armies considered the balloons an infraction of the rules of war and shot at them, prompting the French to raise their balloons higher and out of range of the era’s guns.
At the Battle of Fleurus in 1794, a spy balloon remained aloft for 10 hours, and questions and messages about enemy movements were sent back and forth via cable to the ground. This contributed significantly to the French victory. One can imagine the psychological effect this may have had on enemy troops unaccustomed to seeing anything in the air. Austrian troops believed it was an instrument of the devil.
Even though balloons contributed to other victories, for reasons that baffle a modern person, the French balloon corps, or Aeurostiers, was disbanded in 1799. Napoleon’s interest in a possible air invasion of England remained strong. But invading England was incredibly difficult: How would one get troops and arms across the English Channel? In my fiirst novel, Never Inconstant, I write about how vital the navy was and how essential officers such as Captain Wentworth were to maintaining English dominance over the seas. It must have seemed impossible to get troops across the channel from France to England, even though the distance was relatively short in some spots, just about 20 miles because France could not gain control of the waterway.
Napoleon had a flotilla of troop transports built to carry 100,000 to 200,000 soldiers across to England if they could gain control of the English Channel. From Dover, it was possible to see the French soldiers camped and ready to attempt a crossing on a clear day. But the opportunity never came. One attempt to test out new French troop transports built to cross the Channel resulted in the unnecessary deaths of many French soldiers. The vessels constructed for ferrying troops did not withstand the Channel’s notoriously sudden, violent conditions. The weather was not ideal on the day of the planned crossing; the choppy waters prompted Napoleon’s naval commanders to advise him the crossing was too dangerous. But he would not be deterred and ordered the test to proceed. But no one likes to gainsay a dictator. Napoleon may have been a genius in battle, but his knowledge of the seas and their dangers were limited. The frustration he must have felt at not being able to ferry his army over the short distance is one of the reasons he was so motivated to explore other options, such as hot air balloons.
Sophie Blanchard, the fearless female aeronaut, was appointed by Napoleon to work on methods of invading England by air with balloons. As Chief Air Minister of Ballooning, she was charged with creating ways to invade England by air. That is where the primary plot device of my novel, An Excellent Walker, originates. Balloons were being actively discussed as a means to transport French troops across the Channel. Blanchard eventually tried to discourage the idea once she realized the prevailing wind patterns and danger made the strategy too risky. Her husband had a heart attack and plummeted to his death during a balloon demonstration over the Hague in 1809. Blanchard is an interesting historical figure, known to be fearless in the air and timid on the ground. Her penchant for using fireworks for the sake of showmanship contributed to her death in 1819 when her balloon caught fire. She probably would have made a successful emergency landing, but her basket caught on a roof and fell to the ground. The Aeronauts, a 2019 film loosely based on Blanchard, stars our beloved Felicity Jones, who also starred as Catherine Morland in the 2007 film version of Northanger Abbey. However, I recommend it only if you are not afraid of heights!
The French had another wild scheme to get their forces to England across the Channel: digging a tunnel under it! In previous centuries, an excellent way to invade a castle under siege was to dig a tunnel under the walls and pop up within the castle’s defenses. Or perhaps the tunnels would cause the castle walls to collapse. I have never read of any real-world attempts at the tunnel-under-the-channel idea, but who knows what may have been lost to history. It would be challenging, not to mention a dangerous and time-consuming plan to execute, and compared with the somewhat known idea of balloon travel, it may have never gotten off the drawing board.
I have always wondered what could have happened if someone in England during Austen’s time had seen a balloon with a basket filled with soldiers suddenly appear in the sky, in the middle of some rural area, having never seen or heard of anything like it before. As Darcy and Elizabeth discover in An Excellent Walker, it would have been surreal and horrifying.
A famous quote about the perpetual threat of the French is attributed to the Earl of St Vincent, the First Lord of the Admiralty: “I do not say they cannot come; I only say they cannot come by sea.”
If the winds had blown the other way (literally), they might have come by air!
King, Gilbert. Smithsonian Magazine 2012, Sophie Blanchard – The High Flying Frenchwoman Who Revealed the Thrill and Danger of Ballooning.
Military Use of Balloons During the Napoleonic Era. centenialofflight.net
Napoleon’s planned invasion of the United Kingdom