We have alluded before to this bloody interim, led by the National Convention‘s ruthless emissaries Collot d’Herbois and Joseph Fouche — two men well aware that any appearance of undue leniency in the chastisement of Lyons might send their own heads under the guillotine back in Paris.
To accomplish such an urgent task, they dispensed with the mere guillotine and rolled out a new death-dealing technology: the mitraillades, or execution by grapeshot.*
This bizarre killing method involved lining up the prisoners to be executed — scores or hundreds at once at the height of the Lyons crackdown — before the mouths of cannon loaded with anti-infantry balls. When the cannons fired, they mowed down the victims en masse. And then, gloated the executioners’ Convention ally Barere, “the corpses of the rebellious Lyonese, floating down the Rhone, would warn the citizens of Toulon of their coming fate!”
Now, grapeshot is an outstanding weapon in the right spot, but it is not at all certain to kill its targets. On the battlefield, mangled survivors were just about as good as dead bodies when it came to mauling the soldiery.
But executioners usually aim for something a bit more predictably lethal. The mitraillades could not offer anything close to dependable, near-universal slaughter … and so the horror of the artillery discharge was followed (as one sees in the drawing above) by the horror of the many stunned and injured survivors of the cannonade being finished one by one at close quarters with muskets and bayonets. Though a single coup de grace might count as a mercy, a hundred at once made for simple butchery.
The mitraillade did such brutal work that the national government soon ordered its Lyons deputation to lay off the innovation and return to the standard device for a Republican execution — the guillotine.
* Present-day Francophones will most likely associate the word mitrailleuse with the machine gun. That term dates to a a 19th century “volley gun” capable of spitting out 25 rounds from a cluster of rifle barrel activated by a single crank; for obvious reasons, this weapon inherited its name from the French word for grapeshot, mitraillade.