Battle of Fishguard
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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 resulted from the plans of General Lazare Hoche, who had devised a three-pronged attack on Britain in support of the Society of United Irishmen. Two forces would land in Britain as a diversionary effort, while the main body would land in Ireland. While poor weather and ill-discipline halted two of the forces, the third, aimed at landing in Wales and marching on Bristol, went ahead.
The invasion force consisted of 1,400 troops from La Legion Noire (The Black Legion) under the command of Irish-American Colonel William Tate – 800 of them irregulars. Transported on four French warships under the command of Commodore Jean-Joseph Castagnier, Tate's forces landed at Carregwastad Head near Fishguard in Pembrokeshire on 22 February. (Various accounts mention a failed attempt to enter Fishguard harbour, but this scenario does not seem to have appeared in print before 1892 and probably has its origins in a misunderstanding of an early pamphlet about the invasion.) Upon landing, discipline broke down amongst the irregulars, many of whom deserted to loot nearby settlements. The remaining troops confronted 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.
General Lazare Hoche proposed to land 15,000 French troops in Ireland to support the United Irishmen at Bantry Bay. As a diversionary attack to draw away British reinforcements, two smaller forces would land in Britain, one in northern England near Newcastle and the other in the south of Wales. The overall intention was to start an uprising against the English using the deep-rooted patriotism and nationalist pride in the Celtic regions of Britain, and then to lead them to Bristol, Chester, Liverpool and finally London.
In December 1796, Hoche's expedition arrived at Bantry Bay, but it was scattered and badly hit by atrocious weather. Unable to land even a single soldier, Hoche decided to set sail and return to France. In January 1797, poor weather in the North Sea, combined with outbreaks of mutiny and poor discipline among the recruits stopped the attacking force headed for on Newcastle, and they too returned to France. However, the third invasion went ahead anyway, and on 16 February a fleet of four French warships left Brest, flying Russian colours and bound for Britain.
Colonel William Tate, an Irish-American from South Carolina, was 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 the Seconde Légion des Francs, more commonly known as Légion Noire ("The Black Legion") due to their using captured British uniforms dyed very dark brown or black. Tate's age has been misrepresented by most historians, following E. H. Stuart Jones in his The Last Invasion of Britain (1950), in which Jones claimed Tate was about 70 years old. In fact, he was only 44. Tate's force consisted of 600 regular French soldiers that Napoleon Bonaparte had not required in his conquest of Italy, as well as about 800 republicans, deserters, convicts and Royalist prisoners. All were well-armed, and some of the officers were Irish.
The naval operation was led by Commodore Castagnier. His four warships were some of the newest in the French fleet: the frigates Vengeance and Résistance (the latter on her maiden voyage), the corvette Constance, and a smaller lugger called the Vautour. Castagnier's orders from the Directory were to land Colonel Tate troops and then rendezvous with Hoche's Expedition returning from Ireland to give them any assistance they might need.
The original plan was for Tate's men to land near Bristol, but bad weather and the treacherous tides of the Severn Estuary forced the fleet to turn back and land at their alternate choice, Cardigan Bay, on the west coast of Wales. As they passed through the Bristol channel, the ships were spotted from Ilfracombe. They were seen again off the coast of Pembrokeshire, near St David's, by Thomas Williams, a retired sailor of Trelythin. They were now flying British colours, but Williams recognised the warships as French and raised the alarm. The French captured the sloop Britania, a local trading vessel carrying a cargo of culm bound for Fishguard. The sloop's captain, John Owen warned the French not to try landing at Fishguard, claiming it was defended by the infantry, cavalry and artillery stationed at Fishguard Fort. It is sometimes claimed the Vautour allegedly entered Fishguard Harbour flying the Union Jack. A single shot from a cannon at Fishguard Fort convinced them to turn around. However, this first in 1892 in The Fishguard Invasion by the French in 1797, a novel written for children by Miss M. E. James, and is almost certainly in nottrue. In reality, the Legion Noire landed under the cover of darkness at the secluded bay of Carregwastad, three miles west of Fishguard. By 2am on 23 February 1797, the French had put ashore 17 boatloads of troops, plus 47 barrels of gunpowder, 50 tons of cartridges and grenades and 2,000 stands of arms. One rowing boat was lost in the surf, taking with it several artillery pieces and their 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 totalling 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, gaining an unobstructed view of the surrounding countryside. Everything so far was going well for Tate.
Unfortunately for Knox, however, a hundred of his men had yet to arrive, and he discovered he was facing a force of nearly ten times the size of his own. Many local inhabitants were fleeing in panic, but many more were flocking into Fishguard armed with a variety of makeshift weapons, ready to fight alongside the Volunteer Infantry. Knox was faced with three choices: attack the French, defend Fishguard or retreat towards the reinforcements from Haverfordwest. He quickly decided to retreat and gave orders to spike the nine cannons in Fishguard Fort, which the Woolwich Gunners refused to do. At 9am Knox set off towards his rear, sending out scouts continuously to reconnoitre the French. Knox and his 194 men met the reinforcements led by Lord Cawdor at 1:30 pm at Treffgarne, eight miles south of Fishguard. After a short dispute over who was in charge, Cawdor assumed command and led the combined British forces towards Fishguard.
By now, Tate was having serious problems of his own. Discipline among the convict recruits had collapsed once they discovered the locals' supply of wine. (A Portuguese ship had been wrecked on the coast several weeks previously.) Moreover, morale overall was low, and the invasion was beginning to lose its momentum. Many convicts rebelled and mutinied against their officers, and many other men had simply vanished during the night. Those troops left to him were the French regulars, including his Grenadiers. The rest mainly lay drunk and sick in farm houses all over the Llanwnda Peninsula. Instead of welcoming Tate's invaders, the Welsh had turned out to be hostile, and at least six Welsh and French had already been killed in clashes. Tate's Irish and French officers counselled surrender, since the departure of Castagnier and his naval ships that morning meant there was no way to escape.
By 5pm, the British forces had reached Fishguard. Cawdor decided to attack before dusk. His 600 men, dragging their three cannons behind them, marched up narrow Trefwrgi Lane from Goodwick toward the French position on Garngelli. Unknown to him, Lieutenant St.Leger and the French Grenadiers had made their way down from Garngelli and prepared an ambush behind the high hedges of the lane. A volley of muskets and grenades poured at close into the tightly compressed column would have resulted in heavy casualties to Cawdor's men. Fortunatley, Cawdor decided to call off his attack and returned to Fishguard because to the failing light.
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 10am on 24 February to surrender on Goodwick Sands, otherwise the French would be attacked.
At 8am on the 24th, 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 2pm, the sounds of the French drums could be heard leading the column down to Goodwick. The French piled their weapons and by 4pm, 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.
One lasting consequence of the invasion was, when the news hit London a few days later, a run on the Bank of England by holders of banknotes, attempting to convert them into gold (a right enshrined in the wording that still exists on English notes of "I promise to pay the bearer on demand..."). However, owing to the Gold standard, and the fact that the total face value of the notes in circulation was almost exactly twice the actual gold reserves held (£10,865,050 of notes, compared to £5,322,010 in bullion), on 27 February 1797, Parliament passed the Bank Restriction Act 1797 (37 Geo. III. c. 45). This act, which turned all banknotes from "convertible" to "incovertible" notes, suspended these so-called 'specie payments' until 1821. Although given the taxation levels in place to fund the Napoleonic Wars this move was perhaps inevitable, arguably, it was the Battle of Fishguard that led directly to the first occasion when banknotes issued by a Central Bank could not be redeemed for the underlying wealth that it represented, a precedent that has defined the modern use of banknotes ever since.
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 story sounds legendary and improbable but a written version of it was in existence as early as 25 February, the day after the surrender, and so the story may contain an element of truth.
In August of the following year, another French force landed in County Mayo, Connaught, in the west of Ireland. In contrast to the debacle at Fishguard, this expedition saw some bloody fighting in which hundreds were killed in the Battle of Castlebar.
In 1853, amidst fears of another invasion by the French, Lord Palmerston conferred upon the Pembroke Yeomanry the battle honour "Fishguard". This regiment, still in existence in the modern era as 224 (Pembroke Yeomanry) Squadron of the Royal Logistic Corps, has the unique honour of being the only unit 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 ever awarded to a volunteer unit.
The continued use of the name "Fisgard" by the Royal Navy to refer to Engineering Training is due to the name HMS Fisgard being used for various shore establishments used for the training of Engineering Artificers, from 1848 until 1983. The first HMS Fisgard was a frigate so named after Battle of Fishguard, in which she took part under the French flag, as the Résistance, but was seized in Cardigan Bay immediately afterwards by the HMS St Fiorenzo and Nymphe.
It has been suggested that the wreck of an unidentified ship found in 2003 off Strumble Head may have had something to do with the invasion but this seems highly unlikely since none of the French vessels were sunk near the site of the landing.
- James. James' Naval History. pp. 95–6.
- Rose & Richard p. 78.
- Rose & Richard pp. 76–77
- Rose & Richard pp. 78, 86
- "WAR FINANCE IN ENGLAND; The Bank Restriction Act of 1797 - Suspension of Specie Payments for Twenty-four Years - How to Prevent Depreciation of the Currency" - article in New York Times dated 27 Jan 1862, available at http://www.nytimes.com/1862/01/27/news/war-finance-england-bank-restriction-act-1797-suspension-specie-payments-for.html (accessed 22 April 2016)
- "The Bank of England Restriction. 1797-1821" The North American Review, Vol 105, No 217, Oct 1867 - JStor http://www.jstor.org/stable/25108102 (accessed 22 April 2016)(subscription needed)
- Rose & Richard pp. 93–101
- Johnson, Ben. "The Last Invasion of Britain". Historic UK. Retrieved 15 February 2016.
- Latimer, Jon (12 July 2003). "The Battle of Fishguard: The Last Invasion of Great Britain". Archived from the original on 27 April 2009. Retrieved 7 May 2009.
- Latimer, Jon (2001). Deception in War. London: Overlook Press. pp. 21–33.
- Kinross, John (1974). Fishguard Fiasco. London: H. G. Walters (Publishers) Ltd.
- McLynn, Frank (1987). Invasion: From the Armada to Hitler. London: Routledge. pp. 84–89.
- Rose; Richard (2003). "The French at Fishguard: Fact, Fiction and Folklore". Transactions of the Hon. Society of Cymmrodorion 9.
- Stuart-Jones, Edwyn Henry (1950). The Last Invasion of Britain. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.
- "Divers find French invasion wreck". BBC News. 10 November 2004. Archived from the original on 30 May 2009. Retrieved 15 February 2016.