Over 130 hot air balloons evoke amusement and wonder each year in Bristol, England during the Bristol International Balloon Festival. And that isn’t even the largest balloon festival. To commemorate the French Revolution, Mondial Air Balloons has launched balloons annually in Lorraine, France since 1989. They broke the world record in 2017 launching 456 balloons within an hour. Two hundred years before, France made a name for itself as the first nation to use balloons for military purposes during the Revolutionary Wars. But the use of the balloons didn’t achieve much success. Then all the French balloon equipment was destroyed aboard a ship when British and French forces clashed in the Battle of the Nile in 1801. Napoleon abandoned military balloons when he returned to France from the campaign.
Balloon use during the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War inspired further investigation of the balloon’s military potential to where British, French, and German engineering branches introduced balloon troops. All three nations eventually deemed Hydrogen gas the most efficient lifting force. During the Anglo-Boer War, British balloons were crafted uniquely from all other nations’ military balloons in that British balloons used Godlbeater’s skin “prepared from the membrane of the lower intestine of the ox.”
One soldier’s diary*, based on events experienced by his No. 1 Balloon Section, Royal Engineers from November 4, 1899 to February 27th, 1900 sheds more light on how these balloons were used. The balloons, at least of the No. 1 section, could carry two men in a “wickerwork basket or car.” Boer positions were photographed from balloons. Balloons would signal to field batteries to direct their fire. General Lord Paul Sanford Methuen expressed that reports transmitted from a No. 1 balloon were very “valuable.”
As one can imagine, the balloons were far from invincible. Sudden gusts of wind would not only drive the balloons off-course but sometimes into the ground causing balloon punctures. Sometimes these winds would bring landed balloons up and then crash them down to the ground causing balloon damage. However, the balloons weren’t as fragile as one might assume. Boer bullets were not fatal, but instead, the bullet holes were quite fixable.
Further reading can be done in the following Jstor article and Travel.com article:
Cormack, Andrew. “NO. 1 BALLOON SECTION, ROYAL ENGINEERS, IN THE BOER WAR.” Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research 68, no. 276 (1990): 253-61. Accessed June 15, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/44227207.
*Diary excerpts likely penned by Captain H.B. Jones, but we cannot be certain