Tuesday 6 July 2021

Week 27: a strange machine in the Paris sky

100 years ago this week: Week 27

In the early 1920s, Parisians were becoming used to seeing strange flying machines in the sky above the city, but the passage over Paris of a gigantic air balloon one sunny July evening was still a remarkable event, As well as being physically impressive, it was also a sign of victory, and the pointer towards a future that would never really happen.

Pull out your spyglass and read on.

(L'Intransigeant, 09/07/1921)

All Parisians had their eyes fixed on the sky yesterday afternoon between six and seven o'clock. The Nordstern - why not call it l'Etoile du Nord? - flew over Paris. And from balconies, windows and on the pavements, people armed with spyglasses and binoculars, watched this 'zeppelin' for tourism roll past.

In the faintly pink light of the sun, this gigantic purple flying fish seemed to move extremely slowly, giving the impression that at any moment it was about to plunge to the ground.

Not a bit of it.

At this precise moment and to the delight of children, the red ballon sellers at the Place de Clichy blew immense but light soap bubbles that flew away on the wind. 


Of all the newspapers and all the columns that I sift through for this series, the 'On Dit Que' section from L'Intransigeant is my favourite. Included each day in the paper, it provides little snapshots of life from the period with lightness and poetry. Towards the end of the column it also segues into advertising vignettes, but even these give a unique perspective on shops, restaurants and the tastes of Parisians at the time.

This week 100 years ago, the Parisians who hadn't moved out of the city for the summer were surprised to see an immense air balloon pass overhead. What was this airship though and where was it going? An article published the previous day in L'Intransigeant clarifies the event.

(L'Intransigeant, 09/07/1921)

I will not translate this full article, but just paint the broad lines. The airship that the Parisians saw was the Nordstern - later given a more French name, the Méditerranée - and was destined for a role in the commerce and tourism industries (find out more about this airship here). The interesting thing about the ship - and perhaps the reason for its passage over Paris - was that it was given to the French by Germany as part of the post-WW1 reparations package.

The French had already received another airship, the L72 (quickly renamed Dixmude), which was a military machine, but neither ship would experience the glorious future predicted in the article.

The journalist of the piece imagined flights across the Mediterranean for prices that would be comparable to the passage on a ship, then perhaps even flights to New York and Rio de Janeiro. In reality, the Nordstern/Méditerranée never left France, and was only ever used for tests and training.

The destiny of the L72/Dixmude was more tragic. In December 1923, during test flights around North Africa and across the Mediterranean, the airship ran into a storm and exploded near the coast of Sicily with all those on board losing their lives.

Parisians would not have to get used to gigantic airships in the sky above the city, but the golden age of air travel was only just beginning, and they would have plenty more reasons to look up into the sky in the coming years.

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