Two centuries ago, Britain experienced its last foreign invasion.
The confrontation that followed in Wales was more farcical than fatal.
Of all the illustrious Battle Honours won by the British army, perhaps the most bizarre is also the only one awarded for service on British soil--at Fishguard in 1797. It belongs to the Pembroke Yeomanry and was awarded for the defeat of the last attempted invasion of their island home. While more booze may have been expended than bullets, the final outcome was a minor masterpiece of the use of bluff over brute force, and if it appears fairly ludicrous today, the battle still stands as a tribute to Welsh pluck.
As 1794 opened, things seemed black for Great Britain. The war against revolutionary France was going poorly. Throughout the Continent the French were driving their enemies back toward their borders, and the British themselves were bogged down in the mud of Flanders. A young Captain Napoleon Buonaparte had overseen the ouster of a British fleet from Toulon, and British allies were beginning to look to their own interests, which were leading inexorably away from those of Britain. The naval threat to the British Isles loomed large. French privateers had already landed near Newcastle and carried livestock away from local farms.
The British government was deeply concerned that political agitation would lead to unrest among the working classes. In March, Prime Minister William Pitt and his secretary of war, Henry Dundas, began to think that a rapid expansion of military forces would be necessary, both as a guard against invasion and as an additional measure against insurgency at home. Consequently, in March 1794 a circular letter was sent to all the lords lieutenant, asking them to consider proposals for augmenting the militia on an entirely voluntary basis. The Royal Navy might resort to the press gang, but the idea of compulsory service in the army was abhorrent to the public.
The response was surprising. In every county, meetings were held, local gentlemen produced money, and volunteers were enrolled. In April, a meeting of Pembrokeshire notables was held in London, presided over by the lord lieutenant of the county, Lord Richard Milford. They decided to raise a force to be known as the Pembroke Company of Gentlemen and Yeomanry Cavalry. The driving force behind that body was John Campbell of Stackpole Court. Three troops were planned, but Campbell's troop, the Castlemartin Troop, was the only one that was effective when the call to arms came three years later.
The threat of foreign invasion began to take on a measure of reality in early 1796, when Theobald Wolfe Tone, a founder of the Society of United Irishmen, arrived in France to seek whatever aid might be available to establish an Irish Republic. Tone was an Irish Protestant whose hatred of the establishment caused him to seek, as he himself wrote, "to subvert the tyranny of our execrable government, to break the connection with England, the never-failing source of all our political evils and to assert the independence of my country."
Tone arrived at the invitation of the Directory governing France. The charming young Irishman enjoyed Parisian society greatly, but he worked hard at lobbying ministers and departmental officials, only to find the authorities either unwilling or unable to produce the aid he needed. Then Lazare Hoche arrived in Paris. Hoche, like Tone, was a dashing young man of action. Hoche was also an ardent republican who loathed England with a vengeance. He shared Tone's desire to liberate the downtrodden Irish--and he already had a plan and the means to achieve it.
Hoche was the commander of the Armée des Côtes de l'Océan, in effect three armies rolled into one, that was now idle, after having spent the preceding years involved in an insurrection along the western seaboard in Brittany and the Vendée. The campaign had cost some 600,000 lives and shattered families, and behind all the destruction he saw the hand of England. At Quiberon an immense booty of English-supplied equipment had been captured, and now Hoche wanted desperately to redirect it onto the heads of the hated English.
Hoche had been in the process of putting into effect some modest proposals for raids on the British coast when word arrived from the Directory that something rather more grand was being planned. Hoche's proposed raids were to become subsidiary diversions to the main effort of putting 15,000 men ashore to assist in the liberation of Ireland.
Tone's persistence had finally paid dividends. He received a brevet as Chef de Brigade, and the Directory appointed Admiral Louis Villaret Joyeuse as naval commander for the invasion. Unfortunately, Villaret Joyeuse was largely uninterested in the project. He wished to concentrate on operations around India and was convinced that an invasion of Ireland could only succeed after proper control of the sea routes had been established. Consequently, he was replaced by the less competent Admiral Justin Morard de Galles. It was not until December 16, 1796, that 17 ships of the line, together with transports and supporting frigates, left Camaret roads, the advanced anchorage at Brest. Other ships earmarked for the expedition were prevented from joining the squadron by a combination of political gamesmanship and the weather. The timid Morard de Galles, fearful of meeting a superior British squadron, adopted evasive tactics that rapidly led to the division of the force, as well as the separation of the land and sea commanders.
By sheer luck, both groups managed to come together on December 21 in the face of a rising gale off Bantry Bay. Some ships managed to get into anchorage off Bere Island, but most were kept at sea by the fierce weather for a fortnight. Their movements went unmolested by a British fleet commanded by Vice Adm. Robert Kingsmill that was sitting out the storm in Cork Harbor, but Hoche's deputy, General Emmanuel de Grouchy, was unable to get any men ashore before the gale worsened. No help appeared from the Society of United Irishmen because the invaders had not been expected. Tone, aboard Indomptable, was thoroughly disgusted. Two commanders finally decided to abandon the invasion attempt. Most of the exhausted force returned to Brest almost one month after setting out. A great opportunity had been lost.
Immediately after the return from Bantry Bay, plans for subsidiary raids on Cornwall and Wales were dusted off again. Cornwall was dropped in favor of sending a flotilla of flat barges across the North Sea to deposit 5,000 men at Newcastle to destroy local collieries and shipping. It was believed that the northern English counties were hotbeds of revolutionary Jacobinism, and there were vague notions of joining forces somewhere in Lancashire with the group to be landed in Wales. The totally unseaworthy barges set off from Dunkirk, only to be driven back ashore--after which the reluctant participants mutinied.
Concurrent with the Ireland venture, Tone had spent some of the time awaiting departure in translating orders for the American leader of a Wales expedition. Those orders were laid down in strict detail, even explaining how his men were to cross rivers. Yet the man chosen to lead the invasion of Wales was no youngster in need of careful guidance, but an adventurer from South Carolina approaching 70, William Tate.
The expedition's purpose as a diversion was no longer relevant, and it is difficult to see why it still went ahead. The naval instructions were to land Tate, then proceed to Dublin roads to interfere with British communications with Ireland. Given that the force left Brest some time after the return of the Irish expedition, it seems likely that the Directory had lost all interest in the scheme, barring the chance to rid itself of a large rabble.
The ragtag force sent to Wales--assembled from the dregs of the prisons, pressed émigrés, and a few released prisoners of war who evidently did not know what they had volunteered for--was hardly the cream of the Republican armies. The naval provision for the expedition, however, was comprised of two of the French navy's most modern frigates, Vengeance and Résistance, each mounting 40 guns, plus the 24-gun corvette Constance and the 14-gun lugger Vautour--all under the command of Commodore Jean Joseph Castagnier.
Tate's orders were to reconnoiter the Bristol Channel in daylight and, if possible, land within five miles of Bristol at dusk. After destroying the city, England's second largest, he was to cross over to the right bank of the Taff, avoiding Cardiff, and march on Chester and Liverpool. The invading troops were issued British uniforms captured at Quiberon that were dyed deep brown, earning them the title Légion Noire. Each soldier was issued only 100 rounds for the duration, and provisions were to be furnished--willingly or not--by the country through which they traveled. It was genuinely believed that the poor people of the country would rally to the "Black Legionnaires" as liberators and swell their numbers.
The invasion force left Camaret on February 18, 1797, and reached the Bristol Channel early the next morning, having sunk an inquisitive British cutter that rashly came too close along the way. After anchoring off Lundy to await the tide, the French warships set off after dark, but were once more faced by an easterly wind. They raided Ilfracombe and sank some merchant ships before pressing on, while the North Devon Volunteers, under Lt. Col. Paul Orchard of Hartland Abbey, hurried to the scene. Conditions simply would not permit the passage to Bristol, and Castagnier proposed to Tate that they land in Swansea Bay. Following an argument, Tate declared his alternative objective from Hoche as being Cardigan Bay and course was duly set. By that time, the alarm was spreading ashore, and another lugger had reported the invasion force to the customs collector of Swansea, who issued a swift dispatch.
On Wednesday, February 22, the French squadron was sighted off North Bishop Rock by Thomas Williams, a retired seafarer out for a morning constitutional. Despite the British flying colors, he was not deceived by the troops cramming the decks, and he sent a messenger to St. David's while following the ships along the shore. Meanwhile, the invasion force chased the revenue cutter Diligence into shallow water and passed Strumble Head at 4 o'clock that afternoon, anchoring off Carregwastad Point. One of the ships rounded Pen Anglas into Fishguard Bay, to be greeted by the 9-pounder ordnance of the fort there. The cannon was firing an alarm to summon the local volunteers, and the French vessel withdrew, unaware that the fort's eight 9-pounder guns had only three rounds of ammunition and 16 cartridges between them. It was the townsfolk's responsibility to keep the fort supplied, but they had never taken the threat of invasion very seriously.
The day has since been remembered as one of the most clement and pleasant of February days, in a part of the world normally blasted by winter gales sweeping in off the Atlantic. The invaders could not have asked for better weather, which was lucky since the landing site was hopelessly ill-chosen. There was a sandy beach a little to the east, below Llanwnda village, but at Carregwastad itself, the land sloped steeply to a rocky shore. Only in the very calmest of conditions would any landing have been feasible there. Had the landing been opposed at all, there would have been a bloody battle, but the local volunteers were not yet assembled.
At 5 p.m., boatloads of uniformed cutthroats and brigands began to disembark. One of the boats capsized, resulting in the drowning of a few men and the loss of the 4-pounder guns accompanying the expedition. Forty-seven barrels of gunpowder and 2,000 stands of arms for the planned uprising were successfully landed. The last invasion of Britain was completed by 2 o'clock on the morning of Thursday, February 23.
Following a conference with Tate, and after signing an agreement attesting to the successful completion of his part of the task, Castagnier set sail shortly after 5 that afternoon. Tate was left alone with his dubious crew on a hostile shore. The lugger Vautour was dispatched and made a swift passage to Brest with a glowing report that was sent to Paris, detailing the success of the landing. It was premature in the extreme.
The locals had by now had ample time to react. Apart from the Castlemartin Yeomanry, there were two regiments of infantry in the immediate vicinity, the Pembroke Fencibles and the Fishguard Fencibles. Technically, fencibles were regular troops enlisted for home service for the duration of the war only, although the term was applied loosely and there were volunteer units. The Royal Pembrokeshire Militia was serving in Norfolk, but a detachment of the Carmarthenshire Militia was nearby guarding prisoners of war. No more than 500 troops were available in the area.
The commander closest to the invasion was Thomas Knox, a local gentleman who, in spite of a complete lack of prior experience, had become a lieutenant colonel within two years of his being placed in command of the 270-man Fishguard Fencibles. He was summoned from a ball by a garbled message from one of his privates on the night of the 22nd. Knox passed by the farm of Trehowel on his way, but saw nothing apart from the ships and hurried on to Fishguard. On Goodwick Sands he met 70 of his men marching to meet the enemy, but Knox estimated the enemy strength at 800 or 900, so he led his men back to the fort to await the others. Arriving at the fort, he learned that an express had already gone to Lord Milford, who, as the lord lieutenant, was in charge of the county's defenses. A wounded man who had been captured by the French but escaped confirmed the identity of the invaders at 8:20 that evening. Knox then sent a small party to scout the enemy's positions.
In Haverfordwest, the mayor set up a command post in the Castle Inn, where he received assistance from Lt. Col. John Colby of the Pembrokeshire Militia, who was there in charge of his regiment's depot and recruits. He quickly sent for forces from the southern and eastern parts of the county, including John Campbell--now Lord Cawdor--and the Castlemartin Yeomanry Cavalry. Royal Navy Captain Stephen Longcroft assisted by sending the lugger Valiant to Admiral Kingsmill in Cork, and by collecting all the available sailors, including the crews of the revenue cutters Speedwell and Diligence, together with the eight 9-pounders they mounted. Six of those guns were mounted in the fort and two in carts to accompany the 150 matelots to the front. Colby then set off for Fishguard, where he conferred with Knox at around midnight, suggesting that Knox make a show to fix the French until reinforcements could arrive. Knox replied that he intended to attack if the odds were reasonable. After having assured Knox of his utmost urgency to return, Colby departed, reaching Haverfordwest at daybreak on the 23rd.
At 9 a.m., Knox, with only half his men assembled, began to move into the town. As he was marching his force into Fishguard, he received reports that fixed the true numbers of French at about 1,400. Having no inkling of their quality, Knox decided that he had no choice, given the numerical odds, but to retire and seek reinforcements. Soon, he received a message from the invasion committee instructing him to do just that.
South of Fishguard, Lord Cawdor had received the news of invasion around 11 p.m. on the 22nd and immediately set about assembling all the troops in south Pembrokeshire. The Yeomanry were already assembled for the funeral of one of their comrades. Once across Pembroke Ferry, Cawdor conferred with Lord Milford, who agreed that Cawdor, being younger and a student of military affairs, should lead operations in the field.
While the local militia was mobilizing, the French had hardly moved. They had made some dispositions around the Pencaer Peninsula and had attempted to lure the inhabitants into joining them. The majority of them began to forage the surrounding countryside. With the effects of rich food and Portuguese wine--which the locals had recently recovered from a grounded ship--after months or years of prison or ship's rations, the foraging quickly degenerated into looting. Nothing was spared from the looters' attention, including the local parish church. An officer was later caught in Pembroke trying to sell the stolen plate.
The locals who had initially dispersed on Wednesday began to reappear on Thursday armed with guns, swords and farm implements. Lead was stripped from the roof of St. David's Cathedral to be melted into shot. The protests of the clergy were brushed aside when a loyal Welshman pointed out that it was for the defense of the church, too.
Throughout the day, a series of confrontations between the French and local citizens erupted in Pencaer. A Liverpool engineer named Whitesides building the Smalls lighthouse gathered a group of seamen together at Solva, then marched on a French outpost. Five French troops fired without effect and five of the sailors, taking careful aim, returned fire, killing one invader, badly wounding two, and setting the others to flight. The dead man was later buried there, and the field is still known as Parc Y French. Tate witnessed the incident from his vantage point on Carn Gelli and it dismayed him. What would British soldiers do if this was the result of a skirmish with untrained levies?
Near Garnwnda, two local men attacked another party of enemy foragers. Both the former were killed, as was one of the Frenchmen. At Brestgarn, a drunken soldier in a fit of panic fired at the ticking of a clock--the bullet hole can still be seen today. There were many other instances of local people rounding up the French in ones and twos, but none outshone the exploits of "Jemima Fawr" (Jemima the Great). Jemima Nicholas was 47 years old and a cobbler in Fishguard. Upon learning of the invasion, she marched resolutely out to Llanwnda, armed with a pitchfork, and promptly rounded up 12 Frenchmen who no doubt felt the force of her tongue in the process. These she brought into town before departing to look for more.
Lord Cawdor's force arrived as the evening drew on. After initially planning an immediate attack, he decided that his troops could not maneuver their improvised artillery through the narrow lanes, and halted to await the morning. Meanwhile, Tate was beginning to realize that the ill-disciplined rabble he commanded was not going to go far--he decided to seek terms. At 8 p.m., he sent his second-in-command, Baron Jacques Phillipe de Rochemure, and his English-speaking aide-de-camp to deliver a message: "Sir, The Circumstances under which the Body of French troops under my Command were landed at this place renders it unnecessary to attempt any military operations, as they would tend only to Bloodshed and Pillage. The Officers of the whole Corps have therefore intimated to me their desire of entering into a Negotiation upon Principles of Humanity for a surrender. If you are influenced by similar Considerations you may signify the same by the bearer and, in the mean Time, Hostilities shall cease."
Shortly afterward, de Rochmure announced the only detail requiring agreement was the repatriation of the French at the British government's expense. But Cawdor refused to even contemplate that request. Cleverly disguising his weakness, he sent Tate the following grandiloquent reply:
"Sir, The Superiority of the Force under my command, which is hourly
increasing, must prevent my treating upon any Terms short of your
surrendering your whole Force Prisoners of War. I enter fully into your
Wish of preventing an unnecessary Effusion of Blood, which your speedy
Surrender can alone prevent, and which will entitle you to that
Consideration it is ever the Wish of British Troops to show an Enemy whose
numbers are inferior.
"My Major will deliver you this letter and I shall expect your Determination by Ten o'clock, by your Officer, whom I have furnished with an Escort, that will conduct him to me without Molestation."
It was an outrageous bluff, but it prompted Tate to communicate the following morning that he would surrender under any terms, and articles were duly prepared. Tate's willingness to capitulate to an ad hoc force he outnumbered 2-to-1 can only be explained by a combination of his own lack of confidence and the deception wrought upon him not only by Lord Cawdor but by local women. Soon after signaling Castagnier to withdraw, Tate must have seen, from his position in the heights of Cam Gelli, Lord Cawdor's small force--none of whom were regulars, and at least one-fifth of whom were volunteer civilians--approaching along the turnpike. Yet in an agreement drawn up by Tate's officers on February 25, and signed by him, they referred to the British coming at them "with troops of the line to the number of several thousand."
Thousands of people had indeed gathered to witness the Légion Noire lay down its arms on Goodwick Sands at low tide. Among the crowd were hundreds--perhaps thousands--of Welsh women clad in then fashionable scarlet mantles and low-crowned, round felt hats. Thus dressed, those women may well have looked like British army Redcoats to the French from a distance. By Thursday afternoon, fear of the French had largely given way to curiosity, and one can picture a crowd of women who had come to view the proceedings being asked by "Squier Cambel" if they were come to fight, and being eager to take a hand. The deception may not have been intentional, but its effect was the same.
The Pembroke Yeomanry were awarded their Battle Honour in 1853, at a time when it was widely believed that the threat of invasion was once again quite real and many more volunteer units were being raised. In the meantime, if the French Directory had hoped to see the last of a gang of reprobates, it was disappointed. Most of the prisoners captured at Fishguard were returned in exchanges within two years. Among them was their American commander, William Tate, of whom little more was heard. He had, however, at least achieved something that Napoleon himself had never managed--he had invaded Britain.
As a British army reserve officer, Swansea-based author Jon Latimer met members of the present-day Pembroke Yeomanry, who inspired his story on Fishguard. For further reading, he suggests: The Last Invasion of Britain, by E.H. Stewart-James; and Fishguard Fiasco, by John Kinross.
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