The British Empire Library

Britain's Last Invasion: The Battle of Fishguard, 1797

by Phil Carradice

Many more years ago than I care to remember, there was a book called Heroic Failures by I believe Stephen Pile... In many ways the Revolutionary French almost accidental invasion of Fishguard in 1797 feels like it should have been included in the heroic failure category. However, the invasion was indeed very real and caused consternation and concern for those living in and around Fishguard and its tremors were felt all the way to London. So how on earth did a French force of nearly 1500 troops led by an American veteran of the Wars of Independence end up in such a strange corner of Britain in February 1797?

Phil Carradice explains that the enterprise was part of a far more ambitious plan to stir up Revolutionary sentiment in Ireland and gain a key toe hold at a time that the Royal Navy had lost its supremacy of the seas as the French could add the Dutch and Spanish fleets to her own not insignificant fleet of ships. With coordination, inspired leadership and trained troops the endeavour may well have had cause to hope for a successful outcome. The original masterplan was to land 15,000 French soldiers in Bantry Bay in Southern Ireland and march to join with the Society of United Irishmen and sweep the British out of Ireland once and for all. This main invasion was to be supported by two feint invasions at Bristol and Newcastle to confuse the Royal Navy and keep the British government and military guessing as to the true objective of the French Revolutionaries. The plan may well have worked if the fleet en route to Ireland had not been hit by a severe storm which scattered many of its ships including that of its commander General Hoche far into the Atlantic. Most of the ships, with the important exception of General Hoche, did manage to limp into Bantry Bay. However the second in Command, Emanuel Grouchy (who also let Napoleon down at Waterloo 18 years later), refused to disembark his troops and carry on the invasion without his commander. Had he done so, he would have discovered that there were only 30 yeomanry cavalrymen to face his thousands of troops for 200 miles. Two weeks of indecision saw the fleet eventually retire back to France somewhat in disgrace and much to the anger of the United Irishmen.

Bizarrely, despite this abject failure in December 1796, the two feint attacks still went ahead, even though the main invasion they were supporting had already been aborted. The expedition headed towards Newcastle never even made it ashore as the flat bottomed vessels suffered terribly in the North Sea and they eagerly limped back to France at the first opportunity. However, the other feint towards Bristol did land troops ashore - although nowhere near Bristol as Phil Carradice's book title intimates. Given the huge tidal variation of the Bristol Channel, the small French fleet under Admiral Castagnier was rightly worried that they had been spotted by English merchant vessels in the Bristol Channel and so resorted to plan B which was to land their 1500 troops of the Black Legion under the command of American soldier, William Tate, in Wales. They were known as the Black Legion due to their uniforms which had actually been British uniforms captured after the unsuccessful British landing at Quiberon in Brittany in 1795. The uniforms of the captured British soldiers were dyed black and given to Tate’s soldiers. The word soldiers is possibly too grand a term to use given that the vast majority of his troops were prisoners who were given the ability to fight for their freedom or remain incarcerated. There were about 200 trained Grenadiers, the rest were little more than a rabble. Admiral Castagnier successfully deposited the French force just outside of Fishguard which was an achievement of sorts. They assumed that the Welsh must surely be similarly oppressed as the Irish and just as willing to rise up in Revolution against their aristocratic overlords. Then on the back of this rapturous welcome, the Black Legion was expecting to march to Bristol to sack the port and then march through Wales to Liverpool, living off the land all the way, and destroying that port too before being picked up by a French fleet. To say it was an ambitious plan is something of an understatment. It did not help that almost as soon as they landed there followed an almost comical series of blunders and demonstrations of ineptitude on the part of the French and occasionally from the British defenders too.

This is a book with heroes and with villains but the author makes it clear that the heroes were not necessarily the generals and officers commanding and leading the troops into battle but more the local population who unlike some of the landowners did not panic and run off but steadfastly remained or volunteered to move towards the invading force from surrounding towns and the rural community at large. The most interesting of these is of course the character of Jemima Nicholas (also known as Jemima Fawr). Indeed the author is very fair in laying out and differentiating fact from fiction and acknowledging that many of the more unbelievable aspects of the story may well have had a germ of truth to them but had been embellished or through Chinese whispers and had mutated over the years and have added yet more layers of interest on top of the actual events.

It appears that William Tate and his three Irish officers and other French commanders could barely control the criminals who made up the bulk of his force. Thinking that he should put his professional Grenadiers to defend the perimeter and seize the high ground he gave the untrained soldiers the job of looking for transport and food to begin their epic trail through Wales to Bristol and beyond. Almost immediately he lost control of his rabble as they descended into looting and pillaging on a truly epic scale. It was interesting to read that a merchant ship carrying alcohol had recently run aground along the coastline and many of the farmhouses were filled with casks of booze which must have delighted the French foragers but so frustrated their commanders. This one event alone probably condemned the enterprise to abject failure. Not that there weren't some very nasty occurrences going on by these French criminals as they terrorised local farms and manor houses. Some of the locals were indeed killed and raped in addition to all the physical damage and theft that occurred.

There were defenders too - and more than would have greeted the French at Bantry Bay in Ireland had they got off their ships just a few months earlier. Having said that, there were not nearly as many local defenders as the French had put ashore.. The author explains the various militias, volunteers and yeomanry groups who were responsible for defence in Pembrokeshire and who had not expected to find themselves on the front line of the French Revolution. There was not a single regular British soldier available and the Royal Navy had completely missed the opportunity to intercept the invaders en route (although they would eventually capture some of the ships as they returned home which is also detailed by the author). The most senior officer immediately on the scene was Thomas Knox who in charge of the Fishguard Fencibles. At first he was keen to push the French back in the sea but delayed too long until they were fully ashore. The author believes that had he struck immediately even with his small force, he may well have unnerved the French as they made their way up the steep cliffs where they had landed. By delaying, he gave the French time to get everyone ashore and consolidiate their position. It also gave the French time to lose control of their soldiers as explained above - so it may not have been such a bad move after all. Knox seems to have then gone to the other extreme and felt that the best course of action was to retreat and join up with reinforcements being sent from across the county and beyond - there was some confusion as to whether he was later ordered to do this or not and it was the cause of serious accusation later down the line, which once again the author clearly lays out and follows. Eventually, Lord Cawdor with the able support of John Colby arrived with more militia and yeomanry and joined with Knox's troops and yet more leadership confusion which was eventually resolved although not without putting Lord Cawdor and Thomas Knox onto that later collision course. This enlarged force also nearly courted disaster as they countenanced a night attack unaware that they were marching straight towards Tate's Grenadiers who lay in ambush. By good fortune, and through confusion of their own in the night time movements, they called off the proposed attack and retreated to consolidate their position. Potential disaster was averted although not appreciated at the time. This withdrawal also gave Tate more time to become frustrated at his own lack of command and control. He witnessed a single clash from Welsh workers from St. David who killed a French soldier, wounded two more and saw the rest retreat and his heart must have sunk as he realised that he was not in charge of soldiers at all. Within hours of the French ships which had delivered them to the Welsh coastline sailing off, Tate had already decided to surrender.

Lord Cawdor had to tread very carefully when the French asked for surrender terms. He was still outnumbered by the French and his own troops were hardly trained regulars. It was possible that the French were unfamiliar with the brightly coloured yeomanry uniforms and assumed that these cavalry were actually just the headquarters staff of a far larger formation rather than being the formation itself! Had they realised that they outnumbered the British two to one then they may well have reconsidered surrendering. It is also interesting to note that the Pembroke Yeomanry is the only unit in the entire British Army that has a British battle on its Battle Honours. The surrender process is possibly the origin of another legend that has built up around the invasion in that the women of the area turned up in their red shawls and convinced the French that there were many more British troops than there actually were. It does seem as if Lord Cawdor choreographed the surrender to ensure that his troops claimed the high ground overlooking the beach where the French were to hand over their arms. Local people were all interested to see the defeated invader and certainly swelled the numbers which must surely have helped convince the French that there were many more soldiers than there actually were. But of course, as the author makes clear, much of the resistance had indeed come from the local Welsh and so their presence did indeed confirm that the French were operating in hostile territory and that revolutionary fervour was definitely absent. Again the author makes some interesting observations on just why the local population were so steadfast and resolute in a time of real political churn and in a part of the country which was undergoing its own upheavals and radicalism although largely peacefully through non-conformism. The French Revolution had burnt too brightly by 1797 with the Terror having turned many peopl against the idea of Revolution and of course all the pillaging and looting going on outside of Fishguard hardly enamoured the invaders to the local population. The Black Legion did not appear to be liberating anyone from anything.

There was one more surprising consequence of the invasion and that is of the introduction of paper money by the Bank of England. The country was already in a perilous financial position thanks to Britain bank rolling other European nations in their fight against Revolutionary France. The news of a French invasion seemed to have sent the markets into turmoil and set off runs on a number of banks, especially regional ones. The fact that the invasion only lasted three days was neither here nor there, financial panic had already set in and the damage was done even as the French were already handing over their arms to their captors. The Bank of England took the unusual step of suspending all coin and precious metal payments and issued notes promising to pay the bearer instead. These notes would last for the duration of the Napoleonic Wars and fortunately, there was enough confidence in the system that they were honoured and treated as if they were indeed coins, silver or gold. It is interesting to appreciate what was the straw on the camel's back that led to what was a fundamental change in the way the British economy functioned. Now, thanks to the author, I know.

Phil Carradice has put together a well considered and approachable book on a somewhat obscure and little known event in British history. It is the kind of book that anyone who has visited or knows the area or who just has a general interest in British history can quickly appreciate even without knowing about the Revolutionary era in detail. He gives more than enough for you to understand the context of the events but without weighing down the reader with too much superfluous information. It is definitely not a chore to read this book, the language is clear, concise and he communicates the core concepts in a non-condescending manner. He does a good job at weaving local legends in and out of the story and giving context to why they may have arisen in the first place and why they have continued to enchant and be part of the story ever since. It almost feels like a Napoleonic version of Dad's Army with the invaders not being expected to land and the locals doing the job on the behalf of the authorities. It also throws a fascinating light on this small corner of rural Wales with its cast of characters that otherwise almost certainly would have avoided the spotlight of history. It is interesting to hear about the local social structures, economy, religious beliefs, local characters and the every day goings on that occur in every part of every nation but do not always get noticed. The Black Legion's strange choice for an invasion landing area brought Fishguard and the surrounding peninsular into world events in an unexpectedly rude but fascinating manner. It is something of an irony that French Revolutionary zeal that was supposed to give power back to the people was stopped by the very people that it sought to revolutionise! The people in and around Fishguard appreciated that they were indeed in control of their own destinies and did not need a violent revolution to prove it. This was certainly not a heroic failure for the local population at all as they saw off their invaders and regained control of their livelihoods and their tiny corner of the nation. They gave themselves time and space to change their own lives but at a timetable that suited themselves and not one imposed from abroad. Pembroke and Wales would indeed see enormous changes in the coming Nineteenth Century but it was on their own terms. Phil Carradice has shone his torch on this three day invasion of a corner of Wales but has lit up so much more in the process.

British Empire Book
Phil Carradice
Pen and Sword


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