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Leaders from History

Published on April 1st, 2012 | by Jonathan Gifford


Napoleon’s Whiff of Grapeshot


In the later phase of the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte – then a mere Brigadier General (who had, in fact, recently been struck off by the revolutionary Committee of Public Safety and was therefore technically an ex-Brigadier General) famously said that he had used ‘a whiff of grapeshot’ when he repulsed a Royalist mob who, in 1795, took to the streets of Paris in an attempt to bring down the new republican government (The Directory) that had come to power after the execution of Robespierre and the end of the Reign of Terror.

Except that Napoleon didn’t actually say, ‘A whiff of grapeshot.’ The phrase does not, if you think about it, really even work in French.

Like a blast from an extremely large and powerful shotgun

The French word for grapeshot is ‘mitraille’, which means the pieces of metal that make up the actual grapeshot: slugs of metal packed into a bag or canister that, when fired from an eighteenth-century cannon, have the same effect as would be achieved by a very large and extremely powerful shotgun.  So the French might say, for example, that Napoloen ‘laisse la mitraille tirer pendant trois-quarts d’heure’  (‘let the grapeshot be fired for three quarters of an hour’) but they are unlikely to talk about ‘whiff’s’ of grapeshot.

Napoleon's Whiff of Grapeshot

Napoleon fait tirer à Mitraille sur les sectionnaires, print of a painting by Yan’ Dargent

The phrase ‘whiff of grapeshot’ has the very Anglo-Saxon merit of downplaying something that is, in fact, quite terrible. It was the Anglo-Saxons, after all, who chose ‘sword play’ as the most appropriate term to describe hand-to-and fighting with sharp weapons: Anglo-Saxons are strong on irony.

But it is not obvious what Napoleon himself would have said in French that would translate as ‘whiff of grapeshot.’ One translation might be ‘Une bouffée de mitraille.’ ‘Bouffée’ can mean something like ‘whiff’ or ‘puff’:  a breath of fresh air, for example, is une bouffée d’air frais; une bouffée d’honte is a flush of shame. Not really the same thing, is it? And ‘whiff’ in English has strong connotations of smell, as well as puff: ‘ a whiff of gunpowder’ is a perfectly sensible phrase in English. Un parfum de mitraille, perhaps? Une odeur de mitraille?? I really don’t think do.

Europe on the brink of revolution

In fact, the phrase ‘whiff of grapeshot’ was coined by the Scottish essayist and historian, Thomas Carlyle, in his book The French Revolution: A History. The work was published in 1837, sixteen years after Napoleon’s death in exile on St Helena.

Carlyle’s book, to the distress of most historiographers, is written in a highly dramatic and poetic style which for the modern reader (certainly for this modern reader) is utterly unreadable.

It was, however, extremely popular at the time, not least because Europe was once again on the brink of revolution – a series of revolutions was to sweep through Europe in 1848 – and because Carlyle’s account of the impulses behind the French Revolution of 1789 seemed highly relevant. Dickens used the book as the historical source for A Tale of Two Cities.

There is also an excellent story associated with the writing of The French Revolution: A History. Carlyle sent the original, complete handwritten manuscript of Volume I of the book to his friend and mentor, the famous Utilitarian philosopher and Member of Parliament, John Stuart Mills, seeking his opinion on  the work in progress. Sometime after receiving the manuscript, Mills rushed round to Carlyle’s house in Great Cheyne Row, on the bank of the river Thames in London’s Chelsea, in a state of high excitement, to say that the entire manuscript had been, most unfortunately, destroyed by the Mill’s housemaid, who had used it to start a fire.

‘If you wanted to get rid of a manuscript . . .’

You may have read Bill Bryson’s book, At Home: A short history of private life, which considers this episode in more detail.

‘A servant, Mill explained,’ writes Bryson, ‘had seen [the manuscript] lying by the fender and had used it to light a fire. Now you don’t have to consider the matter too carefully,’ continues Bryson, ‘to realize that this explanation has some problems. First, a handwritten document, however disposed’ [that is to say, lying by the fender or wherever] ‘does not look inconsequential; any maid who worked in the Mill household would be used to seeing manuscripts and could not fail to have had impressed upon her their importance and value.

‘In any case, it hardly takes an entire manuscript to light a fire. Burning the whole would require patiently feeding the pages in a few at a time – the action you would take if you wanted to get rid of the manuscript, but not if all you wanted was to start a blaze. In short, it is impossible to conceive circumstances in which a maid, however dim and deficient, could accidentally but plausibly destroy such a piece of work in its entirety.

‘An alternative possibility was that Mill himself had burned the manuscript in a fit of jealousy or anger. Mill was an authority on the French Revolution and had told Carlyle that he had it in mind to write a book on the subject himself.’[1]

Well, one cannot possibly comment, but one does see Bryson’s point of view.

‘Its ragged Pythian Carmagnole-dance has transformed into a Pyrrhic . . .’  Well, we’ve all thought that

Carlyle, however, went on to rewrite the entire volume from memory – an impressive feat, which may also have helped him to develop his distinctive but idiosyncratic literary style.

Let me give you an example of this, which is on the topic of the ‘Sans Culottes’: a popular term for the rank and file of the French revolution, who chose not to wear the silk knee-breeches typical of the period (which were seen as being representative of the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy) but who wore, instead, the honest trousers (pantalons – named after the Commedia del Arte character, Pantalone) of the working classes.

We British, of course, with our famous sense of humour, have often chosen to translate ‘sans-culottes’ as ‘without trousers’, thus causing much ribaldry and mirth at the expense of French revolutionaries.

Sans et avec cullotes

Sans et avec cullotes

Anyway, here is what Carlyle has to say on the subject of ‘Sansculottism’, which he felt had been brought to an end by Napoleon’s ‘whiff of grapeshot’.

“So dies Sansculottism, the body of Sansculottism, or is changed. Its ragged Pythian Carmagnole-dance has transformed itself into a Pyrrhic, into a dance of Cabarus Balls. Sansculottism is dead; extinguished by new isms of that kind, which were its own natural progeny; and is buried, we may say, with such deafening jubilation and disharmony of funeral-knell on their part, that only after some half century or so does one begin to learn clearly why it ever was alive.”[2]

Uhhh – thank you, Mr Carlyle. Have you taken your medication today?  I started researching what Carlyle might have been be referring to with the phrase ‘a dance of Cabarus Balls’, but I began to lose the will to live. (If you have any idea, please do leave a comment on this blog.)

The Whiff of Grapeshot

A page or two later in the book, Carlyle moves on to refer to the famous ‘whiff of grapeshot’. You will see from the following extract that Carlyle is not ashamed to invent dialogue for Napoleon (as he did for other significant figures in the vast cast of characters portrayed in his book).

`It is false,` says Napoleon, `that we fired first with blank charge; it had been a waste of life to do that.`

Funnily enough, that sounds rather like the real Napoleon: to have fired a round of blank shot, he might have argued, would have been to waste more human lives (i.e. the lives of the soldiers on his side of the barricades). So far as I can tell, however, Napoleon never actually said that, either.

Carlyle continues.

`It is false, ‘says Napoleon, `that we fired first with blank charge; it had been a waste of life to do that. Most false: the firing was with sharp and sharpest shot: to all men it was plain that here was no sport; the rabbets and plinths of Saint-Roch Church show splintered by it, to this hour. Singular: in old Broglie`s time, six years ago, this Whiff of Grapeshot was promised; but it could not be given then, could not have profited then. Now, however, the time is come for it, and the man; and behold, you have it; and the thing we specifically call French Revolution is blown into space by it, and become a thing that was!’

So, there we have it.

The reference to ‘old Broglie’ is presumably a reference to Victor François, the 2nd Duke of Broglie, a marshal in the army of Louis XV and, subsequently, of Louis XVI. Carlyle’s reference to ‘six years’ before the Whiff of Grapeshot in 1795 places us in 1789, the year that saw the storming of the Bastille and the march on the royal residence at Versaille,  which resulted in King Louis and his Queen, Marie Antoinette, being forcibly relocated to the Tuileries palace in central Paris), but I cannot find any reference that would put ‘old Broglie’ in a position where he might have fired a whiff of grapeshot of his own in a way that would have had an influence on the course of the revolution.

‘Sweep away for or five hundred of them with the cannon’

It is well-known, however, that Napoleon, though a supporter of the Revolution, was horrified by the actions of the mob that stormed the Tuileries, massacring and mutilating the Swiss Guards who were defending the  palace. According to one account, written by a man who had attended military college with Napoleon and who witnessed the storming of the Tuileries, Napoleon was horrified by the Royal Guard’s lack of decisive action.

‘What madness! How could they allow that rabble to enter? Why do they not sweep away four or five hundred of them with the cannon? The rest would take themselves off very quickly.’[3]

The assacre of the Swiss Guards: La Mise des Tuileries, Henri-Paul Motte

The massacre of the Swiss guard; Les Mise des Tuileries by Henri Motte

The gruesome massacre at the Tuileries may well have been on Napoleon’s mind when he gave the order to use grapeshot against the insurrectionaries in 1795.  The dramatic and long-lasting effect of this brutal action, as Carlyle implies, was to bring an end to the power of the Paris mob – a force that had driven so many of the key episodes of the French Revolution. With Napoleon’s ruthless action, the Revolution was, in many ways, at an end – though Napoleon would continue to argue that he was preserving and protecting the goals of the Revolution, even as he had himself crowned Emperor in 1804.

Carlyle is entirely right in saying that the walls of Saint Roch church in the Rue Saint-Honoré are still pock-marked by the effects of Napoleon’s ‘whiff of grapeshot.’

‘Wall’, however, was obviously far too prosaic a word for Carlyle to use when ‘rabbets and plinths’ was an available alternative. ‘Rabbet’ is a obscure term for a groove in a piece of wood that allows a joint to be made with a another piece of wood – what we might now call a ‘rebate’ (from the French rabattre), and the meaning of ‘plinth’ used by Carlyle in this context is presumably ‘continuous course of stones supporting a wall’.

‘It is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grudge and a ray of sunshine’

I’m still not sure where the ‘rabbets’ come in, but Carlyle must have like the ring of the phrase, in the same way that he liked ‘whiff of grapeshot’, and, indeed, ‘a Dance of Cabarus Balls’.

Carlyle was a dour and irascible Scottish Calvinist who had lost his faith: an unnerving combination which might explain why few of Carlyle’s contemporaries found him to be congenial company: brilliant, certainly, but not necessarily the sort of chap one might hope to run into down at the coffee house.

I am reminded of one P. G. Wodehouse’s quietly perfect comic sentences: ‘It is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grudge and a ray of sunshine.’

Maybe John Stuart Mills was not jealous of Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution after, all – perhaps he was just trying to save the world from Carlyle’s prose-poetry.


Napoleon Bonaparte features in History Lessons, ‘Doing the Planning’


[1] Biil Bryson, At Home: A short history of private life, Black Swan, 2011, p 110

[2] Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution: a History, Book 3. VII Chapter 3.7.VI. http://carlyle.classicauthors.net/FrenchRevolution/FrenchRevolution157.html

[3] M. de Bourienne, Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, London, 1836, Vol 1 p 5, quoted in David Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon, Scribner, New York, 1966, p 14.

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