The Infernal Machine

We live in an age of terrorism, perhaps the age of terrorism. But when did it begin? It rather depends on where you live. Iraq, Egypt, Somalia, Thailand can point to recent events as the beginning of their own particular tribulations. Europe is more complicated. Italy had the Bologna massacre in 1980. France had to cope with Action Directe in the 1980s as well as with a wave of atrocities linked to the Middle East or North Africa, whilst Corsica had its fair share of officials killed in targeted assassinations. The United Kingdom suffered attacks by the IRA, and Spain by ETA. Eastern Europe had been calmer, but terrorism had been a feature of Bulgarian life in the 1920s. For example, in 1925, the Sveta Nedelya Church in Sofia was blown up in an attempt to kill government ministers.

But many historians trace the origins of terrorism in Europe further back. Some point to the anarchists who marked leaders of the oppression as suitable targets for assassination, regardless of collateral damage. A spate of Anarchist bombings and shootings in the 1880s and 1890s saw crowned heads and prime ministers murdered as they went about their everyday business. Among the victims was Pyotr Stolypin who was, like Abraham Lincoln, gunned down at the theatre. Auguste Vaillant even managed to throw a homemade bomb in the French Chamber of Deputies, wounding 20 deputies. The origins of those attacks can be traced back to events such as when Felice Orsini had attempted to kill Napoleon III by throwing bombs at his carriage, or when Giuseppe Fieschi had tried to shoot King Louis Philippe in 1835 with a multi-barrelled gun, quickly dubbed the infernal machine.

And that phrase infernal machine brings us to the first act of terrorism using a vehicle-borne device, or VBIED. And, indeed, to one of the first acts of terrorism in European history.

That Infernal Machine, mounted on a cart, was the device designed to kill Napoleon in December 1800.

On Christmas Eve 1800 a bomb went off in the streets of Paris. It had been designed to kill Napoleon Bonaparte as he travelled from the Tuileries Paris to the opera house. His coach had been driven down his usual route, exiting the Tuileries courtyard into The Carrousel then passing down the badly paved Rue Saint-Nicaise and turning right into the Rue de Malte towards the Théâtre des Arts et de la République in the Rue de la Loi. But, on the fateful evening, at around a quarter past eight, a cart stood at the corner of Saint-Nicaise and Malte, and a hackney carriage was blocking the only way through. The First Consul’s driver reined in his horses whilst the Consular Guard escort, riding ahead, forced the hired cab out of the way. The coach then continued on its way but, as just after it had turned the corner, a huge explosion engulfed Saint-Nicaise, scattering body parts, glass, roof tiles and timber in every direction. The cart, the first vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED), the first car bomb if you will, had found its way onto the streets of Paris and into the history of Europe.

Napoleon, who had made himself First Consul of France just over a year ago, survived but the atrocity sparked a hunt for those who had been behind a crime which, whilst failing to behead the government, had killed and wounded scores of innocent Parisians. It presented a baffling case for the police of Paris, under Prefect Dubois, and for the political police of Minister Fouché, but it also presented an opportunity for the young, insecure new regime of Napoleon. He made full use of it, swooping against his political opponents from the days of Revolution, whilst simultaneously discrediting the agents of the exiled king as being the hired hands of perfidious Albion. As the witch-hunt continued the detectives also set to work and they were soon on the trail of a radicalised network of assassins who, whilst they had failed this time, were quite prepared to strike again and to rid France of her new usurper.

It was one of the great crimes, and the greatest of stories, in French history. And today, the act itself, and the divisive aftermath, resonate strongly in a Europe where peoples and governments are coming to terms with a new age of terror.

This is the scene of the crime:

bomb Napoleon