The ‘Battle’ of Fishguard
And the Repulse of the Last Invasion of Great Britain
22-25 February 1797
A Scenario for ‘British Grenadier!’ by Mr Small & Jemima Fawr
Tate, safe behind Llanwnda rocks,
Was not afraid of Colonel Knox.
Knox, safe behind the turnpike gate,
Was not afraid of Colonel Tate.
– Popular traditional Pembrokeshire verse
Of all the many and glorious battle honours of the British Army, only one was ever awarded for an action conducted on British soil, and that honour was only bestowed on one regiment. The regiment was the Pembroke Yeomanry and the battle honour was ‘Fishguard 1797’. Queen Victoria granted the honour to the regiment in 1853 for having repulsed the last invasion of Britain (by a Republican French army). This battle honour is also notable for the fact that it is unquestionably the most bizarre British battle honour ever awarded, as there was no actual battle!
However, the events surrounding the battle honour are unquestionably interesting; not least because they might form a superb basis for a historical comedy novel. Nevertheless, the honour was well-deserved, in that the ‘Battle’ of Fishguard was won by swift and decisive action on the part of the local militia forces, determined belligerence by the local population and sheer nerve and masterful bluff on the part of the senior British officers, in the face of what were quite considerable odds arrayed against them.
As proud Pembrokeshire men, the authors take the view that if Pembrokeshire has to have a war, this is exactly the sort of war that Pembrokeshire ought to be good at: slightly shambolic, quaintly old-fashioned, people turning up late or not at all, plenty of alcohol, rampant xenophobia (though there would have been far more violence if the invaders had been from North Wales), stubborn belligerence and terrifying, matriarchal women who excel at applied violence… It’s enough to bring a proud, patriotic tear to our collective eye.
Nevertheless, the events of 1797 had every possibility of getting very nasty indeed and it is only through a few quirks of fate that events played out in such a bloodless manner. Consequently, there is plenty of scope for ‘what-if’ and the resultant possibilities are eminently wargameable. Additionally, given the small scale of the ‘battle’, the small size of the units involved and the very broken nature of the terrain, we believe that British Grenadier!, which was originally designed for fighting the battles of the American War of Independence, is an ideal set of rules to use to recreate the events of 1797.
Given the tiny size of units here, added to the desire to represent all the various contingents and personalities, we have opted for a 1:5 figure-to-man ratio (so 20 figures represents 100 men) and a 1:1.5 ratio for artillery (where 2 models represent 3 guns).
Please note that this series of articles is an expanded and amended version of the article that appears in the British Grenadier! Scenario Book #3. We have done a lot more research since writing the original article for the scenario book.
For the uninitiated, Fishguard is a port-town situated on the north coast of the county of Pembrokeshire, which forms a remote, rugged and beautiful peninsular in the far south-west corner of Wales. The port nestles in a sheltered bay in the lee of the rocky Pencaer peninsular and has throughout its history been used as a sheltered embarkation point for crossing to Ireland.
18th Century Pembrokeshire (known as ‘Little England Beyond Wales’) was one of the most impoverished counties in Great Britain and Ireland, where ‘corn-riots’ were sadly commonplace. Existing in ‘splendid isolation’, the county was frequently cut off from the rest of Britain in winter by flooding of the major rivers on the eastern approaches and as a consequence, the county was considered somewhat remote and ‘backward’. Fishguard was even considered remote and backward by Pembrokeshire standards! In 1807, when the town of Carmarthen, 35 miles to the east, was enjoying cobbled streets and gas lighting, one diarist reported that Fishguard was ‘notable only because it was so badly built’. He went on to say that the town still had dung-hills in the streets.
Fishguard in 1797, as seen from Fishguard Fort
Fishguard was briefly lifted from obscurity in 1779, when war arrived unexpectedly in the form of the American privateer Black Prince, which captured a merchantman in the bay and demanded ransom from the town. Having bombarded the town, the Black Prince was eventually driven off by accurate fire from a local smuggler using his own cannon, which was hidden with his boat in a nearby cave. The total lack of official opposition to the raid embarrassed the town fathers sufficiently that a fort was soon built on land donated by one Gwynne Vaughan (who would become the fort’s commander) and funded by the Lord Lieutenant for Pembrokeshire. The stone-built fort was fan-shaped and mounted eight 9-pounder guns, crewed by three invalided Royal Artillery gunners supported by local volunteers. The fort would become the headquarters for Thomas Knox’s Fishguard and Newport Volunteer Infantry and would play a decisive role in the events of 1797.
By 1794 the War of the First Coalition against Revolutionary France was not going well for Britain. The French Republican forces had proven themselves to be better organised than expected and not quite the pushover the old powers of Europe were anticipating. British forces were quagmired in Flanders, while Britain’s allies had been repulsed by the French and were starting to look to their own affairs, leaving Britain increasingly isolated and threatened with invasion. Indeed, French privateers had already conducted at least one successful raid on mainland Great Britain and a lot more were to be expected. This greatly concerned the British government, who realised that a rapid expansion of British military forces was urgently needed and additional militia forces would be required. The existing Militia and Fencible regiments were already fully mobilised and committed to relieving regular Army units so that they could be deployed abroad. This meant that many counties were entirely undefended, as their militias were serving well away from their homes; often defending major ports and naval bases in the south and east. The Lords Lieutenant (i.e. the Crown’s representative in each county) were consulted and the response was very enthusiastic – all over the country, new ‘Volunteer Corps’ and ‘Gentlemen Yeomanry’ were soon appearing as patriots answered the call. There was an added incentive for volunteers, as service with a volunteer corps meant that the volunteer’s name would be removed from the parish ballot that conscripted men for service in the ‘regular’ Militia.
In 1796, the invasion that Britain feared and had been preparing for began to take shape as French privateers decimated British merchant shipping and humiliated the over-stretched Royal Navy. The ‘Directory’ then governing Revolutionary France was planning a 15,000-man invasion of Ireland, which would support a general uprising by the Society of United Irishmen. The architect of this plan was one Theobald Wolf Tone, a founding member of the Society, who had lobbied hard in Paris for official French support. Finally he had that support and General Lazarre Hoche, commanding l’Armée des Côtes de l’Océan was ordered to provide the troops. Hoche was fanatically anti-British, having seen their hand behind the recent Vendée Rebellion, and had already been planning raids against the British mainland. His plans were therefore adopted as diversionary operations for the main operation against Ireland.
Hoche’s first diversionary plan involved the transportation of 5,000 men on flat barges, up the North Sea to Newcastle, where there was thought to be considerable sympathy for the Republican cause. The second diversionary force, with 1,500 men, would sail to the Bristol Channel, land and burn Bristol (then Britain’s second city), then cross the Bristol Channel and land near Cardiff, where the embarked force would raise insurrection among the dispossessed Celtic masses before marching north, burning Chester and Liverpool along the way. The plans were nothing if not ambitious!
Wolf Tone’s Ireland flotilla of fifteen ships of the line and numerous smaller vessels, set sail from Brest on 16th December 1796. While mid-winter was considered as a good time to mount an invasion is anyone’s guess. Inevitably, the weather deteriorated rapidly and the fleet only just managed to make its rendezvous at Bantry Bay on 21st December. However, they were by now in the teeth of a gale – even the British fleet defending Ireland, who knew the local waters intimately, had decided to put into the shelter of Cork harbour. The conditions were definitely not good for an invasion! The invasion flotilla was then driven out into the Atlantic by the easterly gale and was scattered. To Wolf Tone’s disgust, the fleet returned to Brest one month after setting out.
Nevertheless, the diversionary raids continued: The Newcastle flotilla, carrying General Quantin’s La Légion Franche set sail as planned, but the unseaworthy barges were totally unsuited to the conditions found in the North Sea and the flotilla was forced into Dunkirk, where the troops mutinied, putting an undignified end to that expedition!
The Bristol-bound flotilla meanwhile, set sail from Camaret on 18th February 1797. Commanded by Commodore Jean Joseph Castagnier, who had distinguished himself at Dunkirk in 1792, the squadron consisted of France’s two most modern frigates; the 40-gun Résistance and her sister-ship Vengeance, the 44-gun frigate Indefatigable (which was a cut-down 64-gun ship of the line), the 22-gun corvette Constance and the 14-gun lugger Vautour. The embarked troops consisted of La Seconde Légion des Francs (also known as La Légion Noire due to the colour of their coats), comprising some 1,400 men and commanded by Chef de Brigade William S Tate.
William S Tate, as Commanding Officer of La Légion Noire, actually held the substantive rank of Colonel. However, he held the brevet rank of Chef de Brigade due to this independent mission. Tate, a 70 year-old, Irish-born native of South Carolina, had served as an officer in the Continental Artillery during the American War of Independence, but had been disgraced following accusations of embezzlement of Army funds and a subsequent court-martial. Later he was involved in a plot by French privateers to raid British settlements from bases in the USA. This plot was broken up by the US administration and Tate then exiled himself to France, where he signed up along with a number of Irish adventurers, to the Revolutionary cause. However, Tate had one major disadvantage in commanding a force of Frenchmen… he didn’t speak a word of French.
The 2e Légion des Francs meanwhile was a motley bunch of criminals, deserters, prisoners of war, rebel turncoats and other assorted reprobates, leavened by a number of American and Irish adventurers and some 400 French revolutionary volunteers. Half of the volunteers were probably massed in the Legion’s two grenadier companies, who are recorded as being about the only credible fighting forces present. The turncoat Vendéean rebels known as ‘Chouans’ (‘Owls’), numbered around 200. The rest were various assorted scum and it is recorded that many of the latter group were embarked in chains – indeed, some were taken prisoner at Fishguard still wearing shackles and chains! It is most notable that in Hoche’s lengthy and detailed orders to Tate (which had been translated by Wolf Tone, as neither Hoche nor Tate spoke each other’s language), Hoche seems to presume that the Legion comprised the finest troops in France and not the worst gang of ill-disciplined scum ever to have worn uniform!
Tate and the Black Legion
Castagnier’s squadron, flying Russian colours, entered the Bristol Channel on the morning of 19th February, having sunk a cutter that came too close. However, progress up the Channel became increasingly difficult as a stiff easterly wind blew up, just as it had done during the Bantry Bay operation. Nearing Ilfracombe, they captured and then sank two more vessels. Now the alarm was raised. The Militia was called out in North Devon and they rushed to the scene, fearing an invasion. A cutter meanwhile, landed in Swansea and reported the French squadron to the Royal Navy Regulating Captain there, who swiftly called out the local Volunteers and sent dispatches to his colleagues in Bristol, Plymouth and Milford Haven, alerting them of the danger. Castagnier meanwhile, had given up in his attempts to sail up to Bristol and the winds also ruled out landing at Cardiff as planned. Castagnier suggested Swansea Bay as an alternative landing site, but Tate insisted on Hoche’s alternative plan, which was to land on Cardigan Bay, in West Wales.
On the 22nd, Castagnier’s squadron was spotted passing St David’s Head by one Mr Williams of Trelethin, an old sailor who wasn’t fooled for one minute by the British colours that Castagnier’s ships were now flying. He knew they were French (as, apparently, did Mrs Williams)! Servants were sent galloping to raise the alarm at St David’s and Solva, while Mr Williams and some men tracked the flotilla along the coast. Meanwhile, the Revenue cutter Diligence (14 Guns), Captained by Lt William Dobbins, was being pursued by Castagnier around St David’s Head. In a valiant effort to evade pursuit, Dobbins took his ship across the lethally-dangerous reefs known as ‘The Bitches’ between St David’s Head and Ramsey Island, to avoid the French. Castagnier then broke off the pursuit and sailed on into Cardigan Bay. Dobbins then took the Diligence into Milford Haven to raise the alarm. He was later awarded a presentation sword by the Customs Board in recognition of his bravery.
By 2pm on the 22nd the squadron was anchored off the wild and remote Carregwastad Point, just to the east of Strumble Head and out of sight of Fishguard town. The Vautour, flying British colours, sailed into Fishguard Bay to reconnoitre the planned landing site at Goodwick Sands. However, the gunners at Fishguard Fort were not fooled by the friendly colours (having possibly been alerted by Mr Williams’ message) and they immediately fired a blank round to alert the local Volunteers. Alarmed, the Vautour immediately turned about and sailed back to the squadron’s anchorage; they weren’t to know that the fort held only sixteen powder charges and three rounds of ammunition!
With Fishguard Bay seemingly defended by the fort, Tate and Castagnier decided to land directly from their anchorage at Carregwastad Point. The 200ft cliffs there were steep and difficult, but the weather was now unseasonably calm and mild, so landing would be relatively easy, despite the difficult terrain. So as darkness fell on 22nd February 1797, the last invasion of Britain began.
In remarkably quick time, the Legion was ashore with some 1,200 to 1,400 men (sources vary), 2 women and a great store of supplies, including muskets and equipment for another 1,900 men who would be raised from local volunteers. However, things were already unraveling for Tate; even the Grenadiers, theoretically the most disciplined men in the force, were soon engaged in looting the church and village of Llanwnda. The rest of the Legion meanwhile, having been on starvation rations while at sea, went on an orgy of pillaging. Any hope of winning the local, ‘oppressed’ population to their side was lost forever. There were at least two rapes and two murders as the local farms were looted, though the local population had already started fighting back; one soldier was knocked senseless by a chair-leg swung by an indignant farmer, while another Frenchman was tipped head-first down a well by an angry farm-maid! An atrocity was also committed on a grandfather clock at Brestgarn Farm, when a French soldier shot it, mistaking the click of its mechanism to be the cocking of a firelock! Things only got even more out of hand when the Frenchmen discovered large stores of wine, which had been salvaged from a wrecked Portuguese coaster some weeks before and hidden away from the Customs men by the local population. Before long, any shreds of discipline had vanished as Tate’s men went on one of the largest alcoholic binges in Welsh history.
One of the locals shows her displeasure at French looting!
Alarm and panic was now spreading rapidly through the countryside. The locals (particularly the wealthier locals) fled for the relatively safety of the county’s towns, while farmers drove their livestock away from the ravening hordes of Frenchmen, thus denying Tate the horses he needed. At Tregwynt, a large farmhouse only a few miles west of the French landing, young militia officers were attending a dance when a breathless Volunteer arrived at the door to declare “The French are landing at Pencaer!”. Immediate panic and pandemonium reigned as the officers’ wives and families were sent on their way, while men barricaded the entrances and loaded all the available firearms. One of the officers present was Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knox, the young commander of the Fishguard and Newport Volunteer Infantry; he called for his horse and set out for his headquarters at Fishguard Fort. Taking the coastal route, he saw the ships lying at anchor offshore, but assumed them to be friendly and saw no sign of Frenchmen – he was lucky not to be captured. As he passed along Goodwick Sands, he met Ensign David Bowen hurrying in the opposite direction with 70 men, fully armed and ready to fight. Knox ordered them to return to Fishguard Fort and hurried there himself, where he found the rest of his men starting to assemble, along with a retired light infantry officer on half-pay, by the name of Thomas Nisbett, formerly of the 5th Regiment of Foot. Captain Nisbett was awaiting passage to Ireland, but was pleased to offer his services to Knox. Knox immediately took him on-strength and placed him in command of the scouts – a fortuitous decision.
In the south of the county, word of the invasion was spreading like wildfire. The arrival of the cutter Diligence at Milford Haven stirred up a hornet’s nest as dispatches sped north to Haverfordwest and east to the Lord Lieutenant for Pembrokeshire & Haverfordwest, Richard Philipps, Lord Milford at Picton Castle. Upon receipt of this report, Lord Milford instantly sent orders to John Campbell, Lord Cawdor, commander of the Pembroke Yeomanry, at Stackpole Court.
Captain Stephen Longcroft meanwhile, the Royal Navy Regulating Captain for the ports of Haverfordwest and Milford Haven, was already taking steps to fight the invasion: he ordered the crew of the revenue cutter Speedwell to dismount their guns. Eight 9-pounder guns and their naval carriages were dismounted from the Speedwell, which were then loaded into hay-carts and taken to Haverfordwest. The lugger Valiant meanwhile, was dispatched to fetch aid from Admiral Kingsmill and the fleet at Cork. Upon arrival at
Captain Stephen Longcroft RN
Haverfordwest, five of the guns, with a detachment of sailors, were positioned in the old Civil War fortifications around the town’s ruined castle. The remaining three guns (still in their carts) and the crews of Speedwell and Diligence were then joined by the local naval press-gangs and the whole Royal Navy contingent, under the command of Captain Longcroft, prepared to join the march to Fishguard.
At Stackpole Court, Lord Milford’s orders arrived at 11pm on the 22nd: ‘To the Commanding Officer of the Loyal Pembroke Yeomanry Cavalry – These are to direct you on Receipt hereof or as soon as you may be to march the men under your command to Haverfordwest.’ By sheer luck, Lord Cawdor’s own Castlemartin Troop of the Pembroke Yeomanry Cavalry was already assembled at Stackpole Court with full kit, ready to march to Haverfordwest for a funeral that was to be held on the 23rd. Lord Cawdor set out immediately, meeting Lieutenant Edward Cole’s company of the Cardiganshire Militia at Pembroke and collecting Captain James Ackland’s company of the Pembroke Volunteer Infantry at Pembroke Ferry. There were now some 400 men marching to Knox’s aid.
John Campbell, 1st Baron Cawdor
At Haverfordwest, the town’s mayor and Lieutenant Colonel John Colby of the Pembrokeshire Militia had established a headquarters and ‘Defence Committee’ at the Castle Inn, in an attempt to co-ordinate the response to the invasion. In order to ascertain the exact military situation (or maybe to escape the machinations of the Committee) Colby and his aide, Captain Edwardes, galloped through the pitch darkness, the fifteen miles to Fishguard Fort. Upon arrival at the fort, Colby witnessed the reassuring sight of Major William Bowen’s Newport Division of the Fishguard & Newport Volunteers, marching in to reinforce the garrison. Upon finding Knox, Colby was assured by the young Colonel that the French force numbered no more than a few hundred and that with his full regiment, Knox would attack the French position at first light on the 23rd. Colby was not so easily convinced and counseled caution, recommending that Knox retire towards Haverfordwest to meet the relief column that would be marching up the turnpike road. Nevertheless, Knox was determined and Colby and Edwardes took their leave of him just after midnight, arriving back at the Castle Inn, Haverfordwest just after dawn.
Captain Longcroft and Lord Milford were also now at the Castle Inn and had sent orders and dispatches flying to all corners of the country. Lord Cawdor’s column also arrived in the early morning and there was a brief conference as the chain of command was established. Despite being the senior officer present, the gouty Lord Milford declined command and instead appointed Lord Cawdor due to his youth, dynamism and interest in military affairs. Lieutenant Colonel Colby and Captain Longcroft were actually far more senior to Cawdor, though both deferred to Cawdor’s command. With the chain of command decided, the column marched north to meet the French.
With daybreak, Knox marched his regiment out of the fort and began to form his men for the planned attack – 190 Volunteers out of Knox’s full strength of 270 had mustered thus far. The growing light also brought a flurry of fresh reports from the indefatigable Captain Nisbett and his chain of scouts. To Knox’s utter horror, Nisbett reported a total French strength of 1,400 men landed at Carregwastad, with at least 600 of them having taken up strong positions on the rocky heights of Carnwnda and Carn Gelli. Knox now realised the full scale of his situation: he was outnumbered by odds of around 8:1! Knox was now faced with a dilemma: to attack would be heroic but suicidal, but the alternative was to retreat, which would expose the town and population of Fishguard to French attack. Having already declared his intention to attack to Colby, he would also now lose face by retreating. Nevertheless, Colby’s advice was sound and Nisbett’s intelligence was reliable. With this in mind, Knox finally decided that discretion was the better part of valour. He ordered the fort’s guns to be spiked (something the three disgusted professional gunners at the fort actually refused to do) and marched his regiment south to meet the relief force, leaving Fishguard to the mercy of the French.
‘Jemima Fawr’ and friends bring in a prisoner
The French meanwhile were already feeling the wrath of the local populace who, having scattered during the initial panic, were now starting to get angry and get armed! In the fishing village of Solva, a famous lighthouse engineer by the name of Henry Whiteside raised a small band of volunteers from armed sailors and, after borrowing a horse, led his brave little band to fight the French. Another party of volunteers similarly set out from the tiny City of St David’s, having first earned the ire of the Dean by melting down the cathedral roof’s lead to make musket-balls. Nearing Carn Gelli, Whiteside’s men encountered a group of Frenchmen who fired at them without effect. The ‘Solva Volunteers’ then returned fire, killing one, wounding two and setting the rest to flight. It is said that Tate, watching from the peak of Carn Gelli as Whiteside’s volunteers skirmished aggressively with his men, realised at that point that the Welsh were definitely not ripe for Revolution! Near Carnwnda, two local men attacked a group of looters and were successful in killing one, but both were then killed by the other French looters. Numerous other skirmishes were taking place all over the area, with soldiers and civilians alike being wounded and a number of Frenchmen being captured by indignant locals. None was more indignant than one Jemima Nicholas, a formidable 41 year-old cobbler from Fishguard, who went out with her pitchfork and brought in twelve prisoners before going back out to find more!
To add to Tate’s problems, Castagnier’s squadron, having fulfilled its orders to land Tate’s force on British soil, weighed anchor and set sail for Dublin in accordance with its orders, which were to interdict British reinforcements heading for Ireland (these orders assumed that the Bantry Bay landings had been successful, which they had not). In this mission Castagnier successfully intercepted a fleet of 12 transports, taking 400 prisoners. However, the squadron ran into trouble on the journey home, suffering severe damage during a storm and then being intercepted by the British frigates La Nymphe and St. Fiorenzo. After a sharp battle, the Résistance and the Constance were taken as prizes by the British and were towed into Plymouth. The Résistance in Royal Navy service was renamed HMS Fisgard (‘Fisgard’ being the original, Norse spelling of Fishguard).
Lord Cawdor’s column, proceeding north from Haverfordwest, encountered Knox’s retiring force at Treffgarne at around mid-day on the 23rd. Knox in the meantime, had been vindicated in his decision to retreat, as a dispatch had been since received from Lord Milford, ordering Knox to retire toward Haverfordwest, to meet the relief force. However, there was no love lost between the two commanders and Knox, being militarily senior to Cawdor, was firmly of the opinion that he should be in command of the expedition. In retort, Cawdor made cutting remarks regarding Knox’s retreat and the discussion began to get ugly (so ugly that it resulted in a duel some months later). However, Colby and Longcroft made it quite clear to Knox that Cawdor was in command and Knox grudgingly submitted himself to Cawdor’s authority. Nevertheless, Cawdor managed to get in the final insult, ordering Knox’s regiment to fall in at the rear of the column. The column now numbered 594 men: the French still outnumbered them by more than 2:1.
Lt Col Colby deploys the column to face the French
The first French troops were encountered at 5pm; a detachment of Yeomanry spotted them breaking into the summer house at Manorowen House, some 2 miles south of the French position at Llanwnda. Shots were exchanged, though no casualties were suffered by either side and the French troops escaped to warn Tate of the approaching column. Tate had by now gathered the bulk of his forces on the steep, rocky hilltop of Carnwnda, which stands just to the south of Llanwnda village and dominates the surrounding landscape. Despite the gathering darkness, Cawdor was determined to put an immediate attack in against the invader and his column continued winding its way up narrow lanes, past the village of Goodwick, to Carnwnda.As darkness fell, Tate, now fully aware of the approaching danger, ordered the 200 men of his two grenadier companies forward to a hedge-line that bordered the road from Goodwick and afforded an excellent ambush position. According to the account of Irish Grenadier Lieutenant Barry St Leger, the 200 men waited behind the hedgerow, grenades in hand, ready to pour death into the British column. However, the light infantry veteran Captain Thomas Nisbett was earning his half-pay on this night; operating well-forward with the scouts, he sniffed out the grenadiers’ ambush and quickly warned the column of the danger ahead. The French grenadiers, having realised that their ambush had been discovered, fell back in an orderly manner to the safety of the rocky heights of Carn Gelli, firing rolling platoon volleys into the darkness to discourage pursuit. Lord Cawdor was already having difficulty in bringing the naval guns on their hay carts, up the narrow lanes to Carnwnda and the warning of ambush prompted him to call off the attack. The British force made its way instead to Fishguard and formed up in battle order on the heights to the south of the town, facing across the valley toward the French positions.
The situation was now unravelling for Tate. A precipitous British attack on his strong position on Carnwnda might have brought about a French victory, but now he was faced with the prospect of having to break out of his bridgehead; a task that now seemed impossible, given the ill-discipline of his men. His officers were also now on the verge of mutiny and were demanding that terms for surrender be sought from the British. At 8pm on the 23rd, Tate’s second-in-command, Chef de Bataillon Le Brun, set out for Fishguard to seek terms from Lord Cawdor.
In a piece of masterful bluff, Lord Cawdor contemptuously refused to accept Tate’s suggested terms, telling Le Brun that the British forces arrayed at Fishguard were superior to Tate’s own forces and that nothing short of unconditional surrender would be acceptable. This of course, was far from the truth: Cawdor was outnumbered by more than 2:1, with little hope of rapid reinforcement, and the quality of his troops, exhausted by a hard force-march on the 23rd, was in many cases, little better than the French!
Legend records that hundreds of local women, wearing the Welsh fashion of red woollen shawl and tall, brimmed stovepipe hat, were organised by Cawdor into marching back and forth, giving the impression from a distance of massed British infantry. However, this is almost certainly myth. Nevertheless, Cawdor did record that around 400 women turned out to fight the French, having armed themselves with various weapons. However, this seems to have happened after the French surrender.
Whatever the truth of the ‘Welsh Warrior Women’ legend, a thoroughly demoralised Tate submitted to Cawdor’s terms and the articles of surrender were signed on the 24th at Cawdor’s headquarters in the Royal Oak Inn at Fishguard. Had he not surrendered Tate’s problems would only have increased, as by now around 5,000 troops were on the move to oppose him: Lieutenant General James Rooke, commander of the Severn District and Bristol Garrison, was already sailing to take control of the situation, while Volunteers were marching from Cardigan, Towyn, Brecon and Merthyr Tydfil. The Carmarthenshire Yeomanry Cavalry were already less than a single day’s march away. Most remarkably, the New Romney Fencible Light Dragoons had marched the 61 miles from Worcester to Llandovery in only 15 hours and were only a few days’ march away and the Staffordshire Militia were a day or two behind them. The garrison of Bristol meanwhile, consisting of the Royal Buckinghamshire Militia, the Suffolk Provisional Cavalry and the 13th (1st Somerset) Regiment of Foot, was readying itself to sail to Pembrokeshire. As the word spread further across the country, an unrecorded multitude of Volunteers, Militia, Fencibles and simple civilians took up arms and rushed to the scene.
Armed civilians rush to meet the invaders
On the 25th Tate’s entire force was marched down to Goodwick Sands, where they paraded in front of Cawdor’s force, which had now (according to the diary of one witness) been reinforced by approximately 40,000 spectators and 2,000 armed locals. There, the Légion Noire laid down their arms. The Last Invasion of Great Britain was ended.
The French surrender on Goodwick Sands
In Military Terms the expedition was pure comic opera and had achieved nothing, while diverting French military resources and squandering nearly two-thousand men and two ships. However, the consequences for the Government in London were not at all funny. The news that French troops were ashore on the British mainland caused a run on the banks. Gold was already short, mainly because so much had been exported to subsidise Britain’s allies, or spent on importing grain after the bad harvest of 1795-96, and the Bank of England was forced to suspend the convertibility of its notes and also issued the first £1 note as a cheaper replacement for coinage. This ‘temporary’ measure lasted until 1821 and the £1 note stayed in use until the 1980s!
Ironically, the same people of Pembrokeshire who had stood fast for King & Country against the invader in 1797 were in open insurrection some four decades later, as the ‘Rebecca Riots’ erupted in the county and spread like wildfire across Wales. The Pembroke Yeomanry were once again in action then – this time against their own people. Nevertheless, the memory of 1797 runs deep in Pembrokeshire, even though it is now remembered largely as the time the Welsh matriarchs single-handedly scared off the French! In 1997, on the occasion of the 200th Anniversary of the invasion, Colonel Tate once again handed over his sword on Goodwick Sands; only this time, the Colonel Tate in question was the direct descendant of the unfortunate Chef de Brigade, was wearing the uniform of the US Army and was entirely happy to be there!
In the next instalments we will take a closer look at the military units and personages involved, as well as their uniforms and what models we used to recreate them on the tabletop. We will also post a number of wargame scenarios based on the events of 1797, as well as some ideas for fighting the invasion as a wider campaign across Wales.