The battle of Fishguard: the last invasion of mainland Britain
On 22 February 1797, French forces invaded the British mainland, choosing not a key English port but a tiny cove on the north Pembrokeshire coast. Why did they invade? And how were they repelled at the so-called battle of Fishguard? Ahead of the 225th anniversary of the invasion, Dr Malcolm Smith investigates the often-overlooked episode in British history…
Julius Caesar’s invasion force landed on Kentish beaches; the Normans selected the gentle slopes of Pevensey Bay, yet the French invasion of 22 February 1797 – the last invasion of the British mainland – took place in a tiny cove surrounded by high sea cliffs on the dangerously rugged north coast of Pembrokeshire in Wales. This confounded the British government, who had believed that if an attack were to be made, it would be made in the east of England, where troops had been concentrated.
Nevertheless, on that date between 1,200 and 1,400 French troops clambered up the precipitous coastal slopes under cover of darkness on to the headland above Carreg Wastad Point, near to the small market town of Fishguard. By early the following day they had all men ashore and had hauled up no less than 47 barrels of gunpowder, 50 tonnes of ammunition, grenades, and thousands of flintlock muskets. This was no lightly armed invasion force.
But they were a distinctly motley lot. Only about 600 were regular soldiers; the cream of the French army was commanded by (the then General) Napoleon Bonaparte in his Italian conquests. The rest were irregular soldiers, deserters, convicts, and Royalist prisoners that the Army – under the command of the French Revolutionary Directory – had dragooned to form a penal battalion known as La Légion Noire (so named because they used British army uniforms captured two years before in France and dyed black or dark brown).
Why did the French invade Britain in 1797?
The invasion had been concocted by Lazare Hoche, a young French Revolutionary General (he was 28 at the time). He had planned a three-pronged attack to support the Society of United Irishmen who, inspired by the principles of the French Revolution and American independence, wanted to be free of British rule. The plan would see smaller diversionary forces land near Newcastle in northeast England, and near Bristol while the main French force would land 15,000 troops in Bantry Bay in southern Ireland.
Bad weather prevented a landing near Bristol so the fleet commander, Jean Joseph Castagnier, set a course for Cardigan Bay and spotted the sheltered cove below Carreg Wastad Point. The troops who landed in Pembrokeshire were commanded by Colonel William Tate, an Irish-American who had fought against the British in the American War of Independence (1775–83), and who was a strong supporter of Irish Republicanism. Many of his officers were Irish too.
Tate’s orders were to land near and take Bristol, then Britain’s second city, march north to Liverpool and connect across country with the French troops having sacked Newcastle. The intention was to bring chaos and confusion, foment discontent and destabilise the British government. Hoche assumed that their forces would grow as the supposedly rebellious British working classes joined them. A British revolution in the making.
But Hoche’s planned attack would not bear fruit. The Irish landing failed; atrocious weather scattered and reduced the fleet. Its ships returned to France. The Newcastle landings didn’t materialise either: mutiny and poor discipline made them turn home too. Yet for some unknown reason the Pembrokeshire landing was not called off.
In the late 18th century, William Pitt the Younger’s Tory Government was concerned by the growth of revolutionary support in Britain. In the years before the invasion, it had enacted repressive laws to try to counter any likelihood of an uprising by the working classes and intellectuals. Habeas corpus (an act that ensured no one could be imprisoned unlawfully) had been suspended in 1794–5, punishments were introduced for publishing seditious views, and rights of assembly were constrained. The government also waged a propaganda campaign comparing the ordered society of Britain with what they saw as the anarchic and murderous French Revolution. So it isn’t surprising that a French invasion force landing successfully in Britain – even in Pembrokeshire, which was far from London and the seat of power by the standards of the day – gave it cause for concern. The news even started a run on sterling as account holders rushed to withdraw their deposits.
The Tory government was concerned by the growth of revolutionary support in Britain
By first light on the 23 February, the 600 regular French troops had marched two miles inland and were occupying strong defensive positions at rocky outcrops providing good surrounding visibility. Colonel Tate had set up his headquarters at nearby Trehowel Farm, and the tricolour was hoisted.
But the more rogue elements of his invasion force were otherwise engaged. They began looting local houses and villages. One group broke into nearby Llanwnda Church seeking shelter and started to burn bibles and pews to warm themselves. Others found stashes of brandy and wine in many of the scattered houses and farms, the result of a Portuguese vessel wrecked on the rocky coast thereabouts several weeks previously. Many of Tate’s irregulars became ‘irregularly’ drunk and sick, and of no use to his invading force. Some even mutinied or vanished into the night. And the local Welsh inhabitants were not (contrary to Hoche’s expectations) welcoming any idea of a grassroots revolution: they were proving seriously hostile.
A Welsh defence
With his military strength diminishing, Tate – from all accounts not a brilliant or decisive commander – dithered. He could have led an attack on Fishguard Fort located on a headland east of the town and captured its eight cannons. But he stayed put, allowing local troops to muster.
The first to act in resistance was the very young Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Knox, commanding officer of the Fishguard Volunteers, a local militia. He had no combat experience and had bought his army commission, but when he received news that the French were nearby, he left the ball he was attending and headed for the fort. There he gathered more troops, albeit mostly volunteers, and by mid morning on the 23 February, around 600 yeomanry (local volunteer regiments that were previously created because of the general French threat), conscripted militia and some sailors were converging on Fishguard.
But Knox lost his nerve, perhaps because he had no battle experience, and marched his force back to Haverfordwest from where most had arrived. By chance, they met Lord Cawdor and his Pembrokeshire Yeomanry. Cawdor assumed overall command, reminded Knox of his duty, and the combined force headed north to Fishguard where Cawdor was determined to contain the French still encamped on the coastal headlands.
With daylight fading, their drums beating and fifes shrilling, Cawdor’s volunteers headed uphill towards the French. Correctly predicting an imminent French ambush with musket fire and grenades, Cawdor withdrew. It had been an impetuous attack against seasoned French soldiers holding prepared positions.
Jemima Nicholas and local resistance
But earlier that day, it seems that a number of local people had more success. Accounts vary, but most have locals armed with makeshift weapons such as scythes and old guns. They set upon some of the French troops, injuring and killing a few. Stories abound, too, that local women in their traditional dress of red shawl and tall black hats were mistaken by some of the invaders – maybe in an alcohol-induced haze – for British regular troops in red coats and black shakos, their black, military caps.
Among them was Jemima Nicholas, a Fishguard cobbler and shoemaker who is said to have single-handedly captured a dozen French soldiers at the point of her pitchfork and marched them into the town where she locked them in St Mary’s Church. She has rightly been venerated in the town as a heroine ever since, and her story has become something of a Welsh legend.
Meanwhile, Tate’s resolve was waning. His soldiers were disobeying orders; many had disappeared while others were drunk; his transport ships had returned to France giving him no retreat; his rations were running out; and the local inhabitants he hoped would join his revolutionary ranks were attacking him. At 9pm on 23 February, Tate sent two senior officers to Lord Cawdor’s Fishguard HQ (which can still be visited today, now the Royal Oak pub) to discuss the terms of a surrender.
Cawdor bluffed and demanded an unconditional surrender of all French troops on Goodwick Sands below Fishguard the following day. Otherwise, he said, he would attack. On the 24 February, he rode to Trehowel Farm to receive Tate’s surrender. At 2pm that day the French drums led Tate’s remaining troops down to the sands where they were disarmed and marched through Fishguard to be held in Haverfordwest, the county town.
Jemima Nicholas was awarded a pension of £50 a year as an award; she collected it until her death aged 82. But it wasn’t until 1853 that the Pembroke Yeomanry were awarded the battle honour, Fishguard. By then, most of the participants had died. It is the only unit in the British Army to bear a battle honour for an engagement on the British mainland.
The Directory, the five-member committee that was then governing revolutionary France, had failed to humble Britain. The last invasion of mainland Britain was over. It had lasted just two days.
Dr Malcolm Smith is a Member of The National Lottery Heritage Fund’s Wales Committee
VISIT: You can also pay a visit to a commemorative tapestry which was designed and sewn by around 80 local women, and was unveiled in 1997 to commemorate the events of 1797
French invasion plans: a timeline
Dr Malcolm Smith tracks six decades of invasion attempts by France1744 | A large French invasion force intending to install the Jacobite James Edward Stuart in Britain (as James III) plans to land in Essex, but is partly wrecked and driven back into harbour by storms.
1745 | A smaller French force lands in Scotland to support the Jacobite rising led by Charles Edward Stuart. The rebellion ends with the battle of Culloden in 1746.
1759 | An invasion fleet of fast, flat-bottomed ships built to outrun Britain’s superior navy is planned to land 100,000 troops on the southern English coast. It is called off when the French decide they need the troops elsewhere, Germany especially.
1779 | A combined Franco-Spanish naval force is to invade Britain during the American Revolutionary War, landing on the Isle of Wight. It never materializes, partly the result of extensive crew sickness and storms.
1796/7 | French attempts to invade Ireland to assist the outlawed Society of United Irishmen and destabilise Britain, or as a stepping-stone to invade England, are thwarted by storms and the British Navy (the parallel invasion on the Pembrokeshire coast in 1797 was part of this strategy).
1798 | Two small French invasions of Ireland, intended to support the United Irishmen, fail and surrender. In the same year, the first French Army of England gathers on the Channel coast but the invasion is cancelled by Napoleon's concentration on campaigns in Egypt and Austria.
1803 to 1805 | A new army of 200,000 men is gathered and a large flotilla of invasion barges is built. Plans are called off in 1805 because the French could not gain naval control of the Channel.