It is just a scrape on the map of history, a bit of hyped-up folklore that has grown with the telling. Perhaps. When just 1,400 men, mostly brigands and former jailbirds under a renegade Irish-American commander, scrambled ashore on the rocky coast of Pembrokeshire in February 1797, only to surrender just three days later with hardly a shot fired, it would be easy to dismiss the whole affair.
But, if it was just a chimera, why was there a rush on sterling, and why were the recruitment of Volunteers for the home-defence forces and the expensive coastal-defence programme pushed forwards with such energy?
Even more significantly, when the invaders threw down their weapons on Goodwick Sands outside Fishguard, why did the revolutionary zealots of the French Directory curse so bitterly? Perhaps it was because their latest dream of humbling Britain had failed so miserably.
It is all too easy to look at the Allied triumphs of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic period and think that victories like the Nile, Trafalgar, Salamanca, and Waterloo were the norm: they were not. The years 1789-1815 were the greatest military crisis Britain had faced since the 11th century, with the first decade of that period especially short on good news.
On the other hand, it is difficult to know how quickly news spread in the late 18th century. Why, for instance, was the Fishguard operation allowed to go ahead when all the other dominoes in France’s invasion strategy had failed to fall as planned? Was it simply because news travelled too slowly to inform decisions?
The Irish connection
To help to answer the question, the events leading up to February 1797 must be untangled. France’s plans rested on a substantial invasion of Ireland. Theobald Wolfe Tone, the Irish revolutionary, had fled to Paris, where he had eventually persuaded the government that French intervention would be the catalyst for a widespread uprising against the British Crown.
With Ireland in uproar and enemy troops in Dublin and Belfast, Britain and her Allied coalition might be fatally weakened in the face of a French invasion of the British mainland.
To distract the Royal Navy and confuse Westminster, two prior amphibious operations were planned. A raid on Cornwall was in fact cancelled, but a larger operation set sail from Dunkirk in late November 1796 headed for Newcastle. There it would seize the port, destroy shipping, and infuse the oppressed working population with revolutionary fervour.
Unfortunately, when the flat-bottomed troop carriers proved unmanageable in the autumn seas, the soldiers on board forced the crews to turn back, and the whole venture collapsed.
Undaunted, in late December, Tone, with 15,000 troops supported by artillery and some cavalry, set sail for Bantry Bay. But the mission, under the command of General Hoche, met with a succession of misfortunes.
Most notable was a ‘Protestant Wind’, which did the Royal Navy’s job for it by dispersing the fleet and sending the battered ships and crestfallen troops straggling back to Brest.
Then, on 1 February 1797, a Spanish fleet left Cartagena with a view to escorting a vital convoy into Cadiz before joining a French fleet off Brest and dominating the English Channel, along with the approaches to Ireland and Bristol.
While that would have allowed Hoche to be more easily reinforced, and further expeditions to be launched against the mainland, it was too late, for Hoche’s expedition had already failed.
In any case, it is not clear exactly what the combined Spanish and French fleet’s plan was. But it came to naught, as the Spaniards were smashed by Admiral Jervis off Cape St Vincent in Portugal on 14 February.
Logically, these setbacks should have caused any further operations to be cancelled. Yet Commodore Castagnier ventured out of Brest on 16 February. Two frigates, a corvette, and a lugger carrying General Tate and 1,400 men of the 2nd Légion de Francs – the so-called ‘Légion Noire’ – weighed anchor, probably knowing nothing of the defeat at St Vincent, but presumably with Hoche’s failure at the front of their minds.
Tate’s orders were to raid Bristol. He was ‘to bring as much chaos and confusion to the heart of Britain as was possible; to recommend and facilitate a rising of the British poor against the government; but whenever and wherever possible, to wage war against the castle, not the cottage.’
Once Bristol had been sacked, they were to march on Liverpool and do the same there. The original expectation had been that they would then traverse the country from west to east and link up with the force that was supposed to have taken Newcastle. All the while, it was assumed, their numbers would grow as the rebellious poor flocked to join them.
In fact, the wind and the possibility of the Royal Navy’s intervention made a landing near Bristol impractical. Instead, Castagnier – flying Russian colours – told Tate that he would be landed in Swansea Bay.
The soldier insisted that they should press north towards Cardigan Bay, with the lugger Vautour scouting before them. A quick survey of what looked like an ideal harbour at Fishguard on 22 February was greeted by a blank shot from one of the guns in the fort there. This sent the little vessel flying back and caused the Commodore to order a speedy disembarkation.
Several fishing boats and other craft had been seized and scuttled by the French in an attempt to stop news of their arrival spreading. Castagnier knew, however, that time was short and put his men ashore in the steep-sided bay of Carregwastad Point, taking advantage of the unseasonal calm.
By dawn on 23 February, Tate’s little force had landed without incident and the ships were preparing to leave the troops to their own devices. But what a host was ashore! Divided into two brigades, one of 600 Regulars and the other made up of the Légion Noire, most of whose men were ne’er-do-wells.
There is always a temptation for the winners of easy victories to deprecate their foes, and British accounts suggest that the French invaders were little better than criminals, men who had accepted military service in preference to further imprisonment. Even allowing for exaggeration, however, their conduct was appalling.
Plundered brandy and a smoke-filled church
The weather was cold but unusually dry for February, and Tate decided to establish his headquarters at a spacious farm called Trehowel, not far from his landing point, while hoisting a tricolour amidst the bulk of his forces on the high ground nearby.
Patrols were thrown out and, almost at once, discipline began to break down. A nearby farm still has the long-case clock that was shot by jumpy Frenchmen when it struck the hour. The invaders were looking for drink – of which there was plenty as a result of a recent wreck whose cargo of brandy had been distributed across every local dwelling. Soon, the would-be conquerors were themselves overwhelmed.
Daniel Rowlands, a theological student who happened to see the French ships and followed them up the coast, left an account. He talks about helping a maid to escape from Trehowel and, with her, seeking refuge in the tiny chapel at Llanwnda a couple of miles away towards Fishguard. But, to his horror, a French patrol followed them in, forcing him and the girl to hide in a priest hole.
Then he watched, appalled, as the French stole a chalice and the communion plate, broke up the pews for firewood, and ripped pages out of bibles to get a fire going. Salvation came only when they threw a cushion on the blaze, causing burning feathers to fill the church with acrid smoke. Rowlands and his companion tumbled out after the coughing Frenchmen and pelted towards the town.
Perhaps Tate could have seized the moment and marched rapidly on Fishguard Fort, whose garrison could easily have been taken from landward. Without guns and cavalry, he stalled, however, and waited for events to develop.
In his late sixties, with some combat experience in the American Revolution, this Irishman was filled more with hatred of the Crown than with tactical acumen; he had won his place at the head of his scratch force by virtue of making a nuisance of himself with the Directory. Most of his officers were Irish emigrés and Jacobins of much the same stamp.
Interestingly, remains of rammers and other gunners’ tools have been found, causing modern historians to speculate that some guns were landed but later lost. I suspect, though, that the French were relying on captured guns for fire support and were carrying tools in the expectation that local ones would have been broken up. It mattered little, though, for the French were soused and supine among their crags and cottages while the local garrison gathered itself.
The British mobilise
Almost every account of the Crown’s forces mentions Pembrokeshire Yeomanry Cavalry and Fishguard Fencibles. The former sent two troops to the scene almost immediately (one reacted so fast because they were all at a comrade’s funeral) and they subsequently were awarded the unique battle honour of ‘Fishguard’ for their troubles. But there were no Fencibles present at all. Such units were ‘hostilities only’ Regulars and of high quality, while the only infantry available in Fishguard were local Volunteers.
The illustration shows an officer of the Fishguard and Newport Volunteer Infantry as he would have appeared in 1797, but, while the Volunteers were usually well turned out and tolerably armed, they lived at home, their training was indifferent, and there was no foolproof way of turning them out beyond the ringing of parish bells. This explains the often chaotic accounts of getting what troops there were around the county into some sort of order.
First off the blocks was Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Knox, a gentleman of no military experience, but the commander of the Fishguard Volunteers. He had been attending a dinner and ball about five miles outside Fishguard when news of the landing arrived at the party, brought by a breathless messenger.
Knox had enough sense to take the coastal path back to his headquarters at Fishguard Fort, and was able to see the enemy for himself before he bumped into a body of his own Volunteers who had stood-to and were marching to deal with their foes on their own initiative. It was now mid-afternoon, and Knox decided to take his men back to the fort and wait for the rest to fall in.
Meanwhile, Knox composed a dispatch to Lord Milford, Lord Lieutenant of Pembrokeshire, at Picton Castle, which was received at around 10.30 that evening. Milford immediately wrote to John Campbell, Lord Cawdor, Commanding Officer of the Pembrokeshire Yeomanry, as well as to Colonel Colby of the Cardigan Militia and Captain Ackland of the Pembroke Volunteers, ordering them all to concentrate at Haverfordwest.
The British advance
News had already arrived at that town and a naval force of about 150 men was mustering, along with eight 9-pdr guns, which were to be carried in carts. The ageing Milford delegated command to Cawdor and, by mid-morning on 23 February, Yeomanry, Volunteers, Militia, and seaman were converging on Fishguard. The whole force numbered no more than 600, but there was no clear estimate of French numbers, quality, or, crucially, discipline.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant-Colonel Knox’s patrols had brought in a handful of prisoners and reported on the enemy campfires on the Pencaer Hills that they had seen sputtering in the dark. Alarmed, Knox ordered the Royal Artillery veterans who manned the fort’s guns to spike them (which, to their credit, they refused to do), and the whole of his Volunteers abandoned the place, scrapped any plans they had to attack the French, and decamped towards Haverfordwest. At a stroke, a counter-attacking force lost any secure base that they might have had in Fishguard.
But Cawdor intercepted Knox and his gunners, reminded them of their duty, and by early afternoon of the 23 February, his columns were converging on Fishguard. A quick decision was made: the French must be contained near their landing point on the high ground before they ventured down towards the village of Goodwick and the port of Fishguard.
As light was fading, about 5pm, British patrols made first contact. The village of Manorowen lay just above Goodwick, where good roads gave way to rough tracks leading up towards the high ground. Here, some French scouts were seen by a Yeomanry vedette (mounted patrol), shots were exchanged, the enemy disappeared into the brush, and the troopers excitedly reported their sighting.
British blood was up: led by the Volunteers, Cawdor planned a night attack to dislodge his enemies. I have walked those sunken, muddy lanes, and they are still lined with tall hedges and tussocky fields beyond, making it impossible to move in anything beyond a long straggle no more than three or four men wide. On top of this, it was nighttime, when operations were difficult enough for seasoned troops. Yet, with drums beating and fifes shrilling, Cawdor’s part-timers stumbled up the track.
The French reaction
The French reaction was entirely predictable. Young Captain St Leger was pushed out into ambush positions with a company of grenadiers, who planned to thump the column hard with a volley and then fall back, firing, into the dark crags behind them, where Tate’s main body would take up the fight.
Hands must have nervously cupped flintlocks to keep the priming dry, before fingers curled on triggers as the drummers approached. But Cawdor abruptly saw reason: night-fighting with raw troops against superior numbers in a prepared position? That way lay bloody defeat.
Back down the hill came the troops towards Goodwick. Then, with extraordinary irony, the torch of war was seized by the very people whom the French hoped to suborn. It was the Welsh ‘poor’ from ‘the cottage not the castle’ who now took the battle to the enemy.
In a meadow not far from the ambush site, some of Tate’s Regulars were killed with scythes as dawn broke: to this day, it is known as ‘Frenchman’s Field’. The commander watched a party of civilians take on and best some of his men, killing at least one, at Carngelli. Elsewhere, little groups of doughty Welshmen gave much better than they got, harrying, stabbing, pelting, and shooting the invaders.
Stories abound of Welsh women in tall black hats and red shawls pretending to be reinforcements, but the real heroine of the piece was the town’s cobbler, Jemima Nicholas. All the illustrations of her suggest a redoubtable woman, while the dozen or so prisoners she brought back at the point of her pitchfork confirm that she was more than a match for the Légion Noire.
In short order, Tate’s resolve was dissolving along with his command. The ships had gone; he had been unable to commandeer transport for his stores and ammunition; fresh rations were running out; he had failed to exploit his initial successes; his men were being attacked by the very folk whom he expected to help him; and discipline evaporated with every drop of grog they guzzled. However simple the prospect of loot and rapine all the way to Liverpool must have looked on a map, the military reality on the bleak outcrops of Pembrokeshire was very different.
Soon, the Irish officers made it clear to Tate that they wanted no further part in his plans: presumably, they could almost feel the hemp around their necks. Soldiers were now openly disobeying what officers remained. So, at 9.00 in the evening on 23 February, under a flag of truce, Tate’s second in command, Jacques Le Brun, and an aide-de-camp who could speak English, walked into Fishguard with a message that was passed to Lord Cawdor. It read:
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 only lead to bloodshed and pillage. The officers of the whole corps therefore intimated 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 to the bearer. In the meantime, hostilities shall cease.
Health and respect,
Tate, Chef de Brigade
Cawdor sent a message back demanding unconditional surrender or he would attack. Early next morning, 24 February, the French capitulated, and a few hours later the whole sorry expedition filed down on to the sands of Goodwick, laid down their drums, colours, and weapons, and shambled away into captivity.
So what of the consequences? The effects on sterling and home defences have already been mentioned, but there is little doubt that French boldness in Wales jolted Whitehall into realising that further attempts to invade Ireland were only a matter of time.
They came, of course, on the back of the bloody rebellion in Ireland the following year, but, once again, the Jacobins miscalculated. Wolfe Tone eventually got ashore in October 1798, but only after the rebellion had been bloodily crushed, a small French force had been defeated in September at Ballinamuck, and another flotilla had come to grief off Donegal. Tone’s arrival was as a prisoner of the Royal Navy. He was tried, condemned to death, and committed suicide.
Back in Wales, some enterprising French prisoners escaped from Pembroke Gaol and made a home run to their own country, having stolen Lord Cawdor’s yacht. Also, the building where the surrender was signed in Fishguard eventually became a pub and was unkindly named The Royal Oak after a prison hulk in Portsmouth where many of the prisoners had mouldered.
Just next door to the pub, though, is the sternest warning of all to any tyrant who might choose to take on the Welsh. A handsome tombstone stands in St Mary’s churchyard: under it lies Jemima Nicholas, who was awarded a pension of £50 a year for her pluck and enterprise. She collected it until her death in 1832 aged 82, and was worth every penny! •
Patrick Mercer is a former soldier, journalist, and MP. He is interested in any action of the British Army or Royal Navy, but has made a special study of the Italian campaign of the Second World War.
Reconstructions: Patrick Mercer.