The Battle of Fishguard was a military invasion of Great Britain by Revolutionary France during the War of the First Coalition. The brief campaign, which took place between 22 February and 24 February 1797, was the most recent effort by a foreign force that was able to land on Britain, and thus is often referred to as the "last invasion of Britain". The invasion was the plan of General Lazare Hoche, who had devised a three-pronged attack on Britain in support of Irish Republicans under Wolfe Tone. Two forces would land in Britain as a diversionary effort, while the main body would land in Ireland. However, poor weather and indiscipline halted two of the forces, although the third, aimed at landing in Wales and marching on Bristol, went ahead.
The invasion force consisted of 1,400 troops from the La Legion Noire (The Black Legion) under the command of Irish American Colonel William Tate, 800 of whom were irregulars. Transported on four French warships under the command of Commodore Jean-Joseph Castagnier, Tate's forces landed at Carregwastad Head near Fishguard on 22 February, after a failed attempt to enter Fishguard harbour itself; however, upon landing, discipline broke down amongst the irregulars, many of whom deserted to loot nearby settlements. The remaining troops were met by a quickly assembled group of around 500 British reservists, militia and sailors under the command of John Campbell, 1st Baron Cawdor. After brief clashes with the local civilian population and Lord Cawdor's forces on 23 February, Tate was forced into an unconditional surrender by 24 February. Later, the British captured two of the expedition's vessels, a frigate and a corvette. Despite all this, Castagnier managed to return to France.
The invasion was the plan of General Lazare Hoche. He proposed to land 15,000 French troops in Ireland to support Theobald Wolfe Tone and the Irish Republicans at Bantry Bay. As a diversionary attack to draw away British reinforcements, two smaller forces would land at Great Britain, one in northern England near Newcastle and another in Wales. The overall aim was to start an uprising against the English using the deep-rooted patriotism and nationalist pride in the Celtic regions of Britain, and march onwards to Bristol, Chester, Liverpool and finally London.
In December 1796, Hoche's expedition arrived at Bantry Bay, but was scattered and badly hit by atrocious weather. After being unable to land a single soldier, Hoche decided to set sail and return to France. In January 1797, poor weather in the North Sea along with outbreaks of mutiny and indiscipline also stopped the attacking force on Newcastle, and they too returned to France. However, the third part of the plan went ahead, and on 16 February a force of four French warships left Brest flying Russian colours and headed for Britain.
Colonel William Tate, an Irish-American from South Carolina, was the Commander-in-Chief of the Expeditionary Force. He had fought against the British during the American War of Independence, but after a failed coup d'etat in New Orleans, he fled to Paris in 1795. Under his command was La Seconde Legion des Francs, more commonly known as La Legion Noire ("The Black Legion") due to their use of captured British uniforms dyed very dark brown/black. The force consisted of 600 regular troops that Napoleon Bonaparte had not required in his conquest of Italy, and another 800 Republicans, deserters, convicts and Royalist prisoners. They were all well-armed, and some of their officers were Irish.
The naval side of the operation was under the command of Commodore Castagnier. The four French warships were some of the newest and largest in the French fleet: the frigates La Vengeance and La Resistance (the latter being on her maiden voyage), the corvette La Constance, and a smaller lugger called Le Vautour. Castagnier's orders from the Directory were to land the force under Colonel Tate and then rendezvous with Hoche's Expedition returning from Ireland to give them assistance.
The initial plan was to land near Bristol but adverse weather and the treacherous tides of the Severn Estuary forced the fleet to turn around and land at their second choice at Cardigan Bay, on the west coast of Wales. On their way through the Bristol channel, the fleet was spotted from Ilfracombe. The fleet was spotted off the coast of Pembrokeshire near St David's by retired sailor Thomas Williams of Trelythin, and although they were flying British colours, Williams was not fooled and raised the alarm. The four French warships captured a local trading vessel, the sloop Britannia, carrying a cargo of culm bound for Fishguard, whose Captain John Owen warned the French of the dangers of trying to land at Fishguard when it was defended by infantry, cavalry and artillery in Fishguard Fort. The smallest ship, La Vautour, entered Fishguard Harbour to test the waters flying the Union Jack. A single shot from a cannon at Fishguard Fort forced the vessel to turn around and instead, under the cover of darkness, La Legion Noire landed at the secluded bay of Carregwastad, three miles west of Fishguard. By 2 a.m. on 23 February 1797, the French had landed 17 boatloads of troops, 47 barrels of gunpowder, 50 tons of cartridges and grenades, and 2,000 stands of arms. One rowing boat was lost in the surf and sank, with the loss of artillery pieces and ammunition.
Landowner William Knox had raised the Fishguard & Newport Volunteer Infantry in 1794 in response to the British government's call to arms. By 1797, there were four companies totaling nearly 300 men, and the unit was the largest in the County of Pembrokeshire. To command this regiment, William Knox appointed his 28-year-old son, Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Knox, a man who had bought his commission and had no combat experience.
On the night of 22 February, there was a social event at Tregwynt Mansion, and the young Thomas Knox was in attendance when a messenger on horseback arrived from the Fishguard & Newport Volunteer Infantry to instruct the Commanding Officer of the invasion. The import of this news was slow to dawn on Knox, but, upon returning to Fishguard Fort, he sent instructions that the Newport Division of the Regiment was to march the seven miles to Fishguard with all haste. Lord Cawdor, Captain of the Castlemartin Troop of the Pembroke Yeomanry Cavalry, was stationed thirty miles away at Stackpole Court in the far south of the county, where the troop had massed in preparation for a funeral the following day. He immediately assembled all the troops at his disposal and set off for the county town of Haverfordwest along with the Pembroke Volunteers and the Cardiganshire Militia, who were on routine exercises at the time. At Haverfordwest, Lieutenant-Colonel Colby of the Pembrokeshire Militia had summoned together a force of 250 soldiers, along with Captain Longcroft who had brought up the press gangs and crews of two revenue vessels based in Milford Haven, totalling 150 sailors. Nine cannons were also brought ashore, of which six were placed inside Haverfordwest Castle and the other three prepared for transit to Fishguard with the local forces. Cawdor arrived, and in consultation with the Lord Lieutenant of the County, Lord Milford, and the other officers present, Lord Cawdor was delegated full authority and overall command.
The French had already begun to move inland and secure outlying farmhouses. A company of French grenadiers under Lieutenant St.Leger took possession of Trehowel Farm on the Llanwnda Peninsula about a mile from their landing site, and it was here that Colonel Tate decided to set up his headquarters. The French forces were instructed to live off the land, and as soon as the convicts landed on British soil, they deserted the invasion force and began to loot the local villages and hamlets. One group broke into Llanwnda Church to shelter from the cold, and set about lighting a fire inside using a Bible as kindling and the pews as firewood. However, the 600 regulars remained loyal to their officers and orders.
Knox had declared to Colby his intention to attack the French on 23 February if he was not heavily outnumbered. He then sent out scouting parties to assess the strength of the enemy.
By the morning of 23 February, the French had moved two miles inland and occupied strong defensive positions on the high rocky outcrops of Garnwnda and Carngelli, obtaining an unobstructed view of the surrounding countryside. Things were going well for Tate.
Unfortunately for Knox, a hundred men had still not arrived and he learned he was facing a force of nearly ten times his size. Although many inhabitants of the local areas were fleeing with panic, many more were flocking into Fishguard armed with a variety of crude weaponry, ready to fight alongside the Volunteer Infantry. Knox had three choices - to attack the French, to defend Fishguard or to retreat towards the oncoming reinforcements from Haverfordwest. He decided to retreat and gave orders for the nine cannons in Fishguard Fort to be spiked (which the Woolwich Gunners refused to do) and at 9 a.m. he set off, sending out scouts continuously to reconnoitre the French. Knox and his 194 men met the reinforcements led by Lord Cawdor at Treffgarne, eight miles south of Fishguard at 1:30 p.m. After a short dispute between the two men, Cawdor assumed command and led the British forces back towards Fishguard.
Tate was now having serious problems of his own. Discipline had collapsed amongst the convicts when they had discovered the locals' supply of wine (a Portuguese ship had been shipwrecked on the nearby coast a few weeks previously) and morale in general was low. The invasion was beginning to lose its momentum. The convicts began to rebel and mutiny against their officers and others had simply vanished during the night. Those left loyal were the regular troops, such as the Grenadiers. In farmhouses all over the Llanwnda Peninsula, the French lay drunk and sick. The Welsh people were now obviously hostile to the French, and already six Welshmen and French soldiers had been killed in clashes. Many of the Irish and French officers began to counsel surrender, and the departure of Castagnier and the naval squadron that morning meant there was no escape route open.
By 5 p.m., the British had arrived back in Fishguard, and Cawdor decided to attack before dusk. The 600 men, dragging their three cannons behind them, marched up the narrow Trefwrgi Lane from Goodwick towards the French position on Garngelli. Lieutenant St.Leger and the Grenadiers had made their way down from Garngelli and prepared an ambush behind the high hedges of Trefwrgi Lane. A volley of musketry and grenades poured into a tightly compressed column at point blank range would have been devastating and resulted in heavy casualties on the British side. Luckily for Cawdor, he decided to turn around and head back to Fishguard due to the failing light and he avoided the ambush a few hundred yards ahead.
That evening, two French officers arrived at the Royal Oak where Cawdor had set up his headquarters on Fishguard Square. They wished to negotiate a conditional surrender. Cawdor bluffed and replied that with his superior force he would only accept the unconditional surrender of the French forces and issued an ultimatum to Colonel Tate. He had until 10 a.m. on 24 February to surrender on Goodwick Sands, otherwise the French would be attacked.
The following morning, at 8 a.m. on 24 February 1797, the British forces lined up in battle order on Goodwick Sands. Up above them on the cliffs, the inhabitants of the town came to watch and await Tate's response to the ultimatum. Tate tried to delay it but eventually accepted the terms of the unconditional surrender, and at 2 p.m., the sounds of the French drums could be heard leading the column down to Goodwick. The French piled their weapons and by 4 p.m., the French prisoners were marched through Fishguard on their way to temporary imprisonment at Haverfordwest. Meanwhile, Cawdor had ridden out with a party of his Pembroke Yeomanry Cavalry to Trehowel Farm to receive Tate's official surrender. Unfortunately the actual document has been lost.
After brief imprisonment, Tate was returned to France in a prisoner exchange in 1798, along with most of his invasion force.
On 9 March 1797, HMS St Fiorenzo, under the command of Sir Harry Neale, was sailing in company with Captain John Cooke's HMS Nymphe, when they encountered La Resistance, which had been crippled by the adverse weather in the Irish Sea en-route to Ireland, along with La Constance. Cooke and Neale chased after them, engaging them for half an hour, after which both French ships surrendered. There were no casualties or damage on either of the British ships, while the two French ships lost 18 killed and 15 wounded between them. La Resistance was re-fitted and renamed HMS Fisgard and La Constance became HMS Constance. Castagnier, on board Le Vengeance, made it safely back to France.
In 1853, amidst fears of another invasion by the French, Lord Palmerston conferred upon the Pembroke Yeomanry the battle honour "Fishguard". This regiment has the unique honour of being the only regiment in the British Army, regular or territorial, that bears a battle honour for an engagement on the British mainland. It was also the first battle honour awarded to a volunteer unit.
The heroine of the hour was Jemima Nicholas, who, with her pitchfork, went out single-handedly into the fields around Fishguard and rounded up 12 French soldiers and 'persuaded' them to return with her to town where she locked them inside St. Mary's Church.
It is thought the French troops may have mistaken local women like her, in their traditional tall black hats and red cloaks, for British Grenadiers when they stood on the cliffs above the British force lined up on Goodwick Sands at the surrender.
The wreck of a rowing boat believed to belong to the invasion fleet was found in 2003 and lies off Strumble Head.
In August of the following year, another French force landed in County Mayo. In contrast to the debacle at Fishguard, this expedition saw some bloody fighting in which hundreds were killed in the Battle of Castlebar.