Observation Balloons

The Film


Running Time
03 min 55 s

Canadian War Records Office, Ministry of Information

This footage shows a ground crew preparing for the ascent of an observation ballon and the observer crew preparing to board the gondola.

Images of the ascending balloon are followed by a series of aerial shots of the surrounding area, including some lower level aerial shots of a town with railway lines. The clip concludes with images of a parachute, possibly carrying an object or message, falling onto treetops, and a shot of the balloon being winched back to ground.

Balloons were used in warfare as early as 1794, when French revolutionary armies employed them for artillery observation. They were used in various 19th century conflicts, including the American Civil War: in addition to being a cavalry officer, Lt George Armstrong Custer was also a balloon observer. In 1911 the Italians used both balloons and aircraft in their invasion of Libya.

Observation balloons — oblong gas bags slung with an underhanging gondola — were used extensively throughout the First World War, when massed artillery, barbed wire and trenches resulted in extended stalemates on the ground. In these conditions, aerial observers would emerge as the most important airmen in the war effort.

Manning a balloon was a dangerous job. The crews would be suspended under giant containers of flammable hydrogen, which were highly vulnerable to enemy fire. They at least had parachutes — which was generally not case for the men who flew and crewed other types of aircraft. Balloons would always be tethered, and were not necessarily manned by trained balloonists but rather by artillery specialists.

Early descriptions of this footage identified the town seen from the air as Mons, in Belgium. However, this is unlikely, given that Mons was well behind German lines for most of the war. It was captured by the Germans in mid-August, 1914, and was not retaken by British and Canadian forces until November, 1918. During this long period, Mons might have been reconnoitered by aircraft but would not have been under balloon observation.


Observation Balloon, Vimy Front, 1917 Canadian Official Kinematographer Ready for an Ascent on a Kite Balloon, May, 1917 Aerial Photograph of the Defence of a Road as Viewed from a Balloon, [ca. 1918]

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