As a young Brigadier General, Napoleon once dispersed a mob of Royalists with “a whiff of grapeshot” — although it’s not quite clear how to translate that very Anglo-Saxon phrase back into French. Une bouffée de mitraille?
The phrase likely sounds so Anglo-Saxon because it was coined by Scottish essayist and historian, Thomas Carlyle, in The French Revolution: A History.
Mitraille is the French word for grapeshot, and it is also the root of the French word for machine gun, mitrailleuse, because the original French proto-machine gun was a multi-barrel affair meant to deliver a volley of rifle rounds, as a new and improved form of grapeshot, and the term stuck, even as true machine guns arrived on the scene.
`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!– …
On the whole, therefore, has it not been fulfilled what was prophesied, ex- postfacto indeed, by the Archquack Cagliostro, or another? He, as he looked in rapt vision and amazement into these things, thus spake: (Diamond Necklace, p. 35.) `Ha! What is this? Angels, Uriel, Anachiel, and the other Five; Pentagon of Rejuvenescence; Power that destroyed Original Sin; Earth, Heaven, and thou Outer Limbo, which men name Hell! Does the EMPIRE Of IMPOSTURE waver? Burst there, in starry sheen updarting, Light-rays from out its dark foundations; as it rocks and heaves, not in travail-throes, but in death-throes? Yea, Light-rays, piercing, clear, that salute the Heavens,–lo, they kindle it; their starry clearness becomes as red Hellfire!
`IMPOSTURE is burnt up: one Red-sea of Fire, wild-billowing enwraps the World; with its fire-tongue, licks at the very Stars. Thrones are hurled into it, and Dubois mitres, and Prebendal Stalls that drop fatness, and– ha! what see I?–all the Gigs of Creation; all, all! Wo is me! Never since Pharaoh`s Chariots, in the Red-sea of water, was there wreck of Wheel-vehicles like this in the Sea of Fire. Desolate, as ashes, as gases, shall they wander in the wind. Higher, higher yet flames the Fire-Sea; crackling with new dislocated timber; hissing with leather and prunella. The metal Images are molten; the marble Images become mortar-lime; the stone Mountains sulkily explode. RESPECTABILITY, with all her collected Gigs inflamed for funeral pyre, wailing, leaves the earth: not to return save under new Avatar. Imposture, how it burns, through generations: how it is burnt up; for a time. The World is black ashes; which, ah, when will they grow green? The Images all run into amorphous Corinthian brass; all Dwellings of men destroyed; the very mountains peeled and riven, the valleys black and dead: it is an empty World! Wo to them that shall be born then!–A King, a Queen (ah me!) were hurled in; did rustle once; flew aloft, crackling, like paper-scroll. Iscariot Egalite was hurled in; thou grim De Launay, with thy grim Bastille; whole kindreds and peoples; five millions of mutually destroying Men. For it is the End of the Dominion of IMPOSTURE (which is Darkness and opaque Firedamp); and the burning up, with unquenchable fire, of all the Gigs that are in the Earth.` This Prophecy, we say, has it not been fulfilled, is it not fulfilling?
The other famous usage is attributed to the Duke of Wellington: “Pour la canaille: Faut la mitraille.” For the mob, use grapeshot.