The Battle of Fishguard, which took place 22-24 February 1797, was the last time a hostile foreign force landed on British soil, and is therefore often referred to as “the last invasion of Britain”.
It was, however, only one of several attacks on Ireland and Britain planned by the French in 1976/97. Before describing the events of those few days at Fishguard, let us consider the leading characters on the French side, and the other invasion plans.
General Louis Lazare Hoche (1768-1797)
Hoche was born on 24 June 1768 at Versailles, where his father worked in Louis XV’s stables. In 1784, he enlisted in the Gardes Françaises, and by the time of the fall of the Bastille in 1789 had risen to the rank of corporal. He then served if various line regiments in the Republican Army, receiving a commission in 1792.
Hoche distinguished himself during the wars of 1792-93 against Austria and Prussia, and rose rapidly in rank during 1793. In October of that year, the Committee of Public Safety – the executive body of the Jacobin regime under Maximilien Robespierre – promoted him General of Division and appointed him Commander of the Army of the Moselle. Despite losing his first battle (Kaiserlautern – November 1793), Hoche retained the confidence of the regime and after victory at Froeschwiller the following month, added the Army of the Rhine to his command for the victorious second Battle of Wissembourg.
This, however, was the time of the Reign of Terror, and France wasn’t a healthy place for anyone with enemies. General Jean-Charles Pichegru, who had commanded the Army of the Rhine until Hoche was appointed over him, denounced him as a traitor – hadn’t his father been a royal servant, who named his son Louis for the king? – with the result that in March 1794, a few days after getting married and just as he was about to assume command of the Army of Italy, Hoche was arrested and imprisoned, only narrowly escaping execution, thanks to the fall of Robespierre.
In November 1794, Hoche took command of the Armies of Brest and of the Coast of Cherbourg, later the Army of the Coasts of the Ocean, and in July 1796, succeeded in ending the wars in Brittany and the Vendée. The former had been nearly settled in February 1795, but in June of that year the British landed a royalist army at Quiberon Bay and the revolts flared again. Hoche drove the invaders back into the sea and captured over four thousand wagons of supplies, including over seventy thousand muskets, then had to return to complete his work in the Vendée. On his return to Paris a grateful government gave him two good horses and a pair of pistols, and command of the Irish expedition.
Josèphine de Beauharnais (1763-1814)
The Beauharnais connection begins with Josèphine’s husband, Alexandre, who preceded Pichegru as commander of the Army of the Rhine. He was recalled after allowing the Prussians to retake Mainz in July 1793 and was subsequently imprisoned and sentenced to death for military incompetence. Six weeks after his arrest, his wife was also imprisoned, but more because of her choice of friends (too many counter-revolutionaries!) than for her choice of husband.
He had married her to satisfy a family arrangement in 1779, when she was only 16 years old and newly arrived in Paris from Martinique, but the marriage hadn’t lasted long. He was too ashamed of her provincial ways and lack of sophistication to present her at the royal court, and although she had borne him two children, in March 1785 she obtained a separation. In 1788 she returned to her home in Martinique, but a slave rising in 1790 led her to return to Paris. Like her husband, she was held after her arrest in the Prison des Carmes, together with – among others – Lazare Hoche.
Alexandre went to the guillotine on 22 July 1794, just five days before the fall of Robespierre. The five-man Directory replaced the Committee of Public Safety, and both Hoche and Mme de Beauharnais were released. Soon afterwards, Josephine became the acknowledged mistress of Paul Barras, head of the Directory, but it was rumoured that Hoche had enjoyed her favours in prison, and might still do so. Perhaps that was one reason why he was soon sent off to sort out Brittany and the Vendée. But in any case, Josephine’s relationship with Barras cooled, and by the time Hoche returned to Paris in the summer of 1796, Josèphine had already married a certain Napoléon Buonaparte.
Wolfe Tone (1763-1798)
Theobald Wolfe Tone was a young Irish lawyer who, in the early 1790s, had formed the Society of United Irishmen with the intention of obtaining fair representation for Irishmen, both Protestant and Catholic, in the Irish Parliament. The Society soon came to realise that the British government would never give in to constitutional pressure and that they would have to resort to force to gain even a limited degree of independence. In 1795, Tone was forced to flee Ireland for America, but he later travelled to France under the name of ‘Citizen Smith’, and in July 1796 in Paris he met Lazare Hoche.
Hoche, still only 28 years old, was now commander of three armies and, like Tone, imbued with a violent hatred of Great Britain. Since Quiberon, he had cherished the idea of taking the war to Britain, and was impressed with Tone’s idea of an expedition to invade Ireland. He put the scheme to the Directory, and Tone convinced them that the majority of the Irish would flock to the French Colours and rise against the British. The Directory appointed Hoche himself to lead the expedition. Hoche arranged for Tone to be made a Colonel of French infantry, and the young lawyer’s dream of an independent Ireland began to materialise.
William Tate (1753- 18??)
Tate was an Irish American adventurer, a fanatical republican who had fought the British in the War of Independence. In 1778, he had been commissioned as lieutenant in an artillery regiment (the 4th South Carolina Line) and was later promoted captain. After that war, in 1793, he became involved in a French scheme to free Louisiana and Florida from Spanish control: he was commissioned to raise and train an army of frontiersmen to attack New Orleans, with the costs met by France. But the scheme was abandoned, leaving Tate not only unpaid but in bad odour with his own government, so much so that in June 1795 he sought refuge in France, in the hope of reclaiming a promised commission in the French army and of recovering the money he had lost and was owed from the Louisiana plan. He arrived in Paris in the July, with no money and but with a fanatical hatred of Britain to match that of Hoche and Tone.
The French Plans
Command of the seas had always been a prerequisite for any attack on Britain. In May 1795 the French navy had annexed the Dutch fleet, and this was joined a year later by that of Spain. For the first time, France had numerical superiority at sea and an invasion of Britain at last looked feasible.
The main attack was to be an invasion of Ireland, landing regular troops on the beaches of Bantry Bay to establish a beach-head, then reinforcing it with more troops, artillery, weapons and supplies – a total force of some forty thousand troops, led by Hoche.
Two diversionary raids were planned to distract the British: one on Newcastle and one on Bristol. The first was to be made by a fleet of transports from Dunkirk with the First Légion des Francs under the command of General Pierre Quantin (1759-1824), while the second, manned by the Second Légion des Francs, the ‘Légion Noire’, was to attack and sack Bristol, then cross to Wales and march northward, rallying the support of the poor if possible, and to sack Liverpool too, before joining forces with Quantin somewhere in Northumberland.
In the event, the force was lamentably short of the forty thousand men called for in the original plan, owing mainly to shortage of trained troops because so many were busy campaigning in Italy. The investment for the initial invasion force was 43 ships and fourteen thousand men, the elite of the three armies under Hoche’s command, all well-seasoned troops together with their artillery. They would also take weapons and ammunition to arm the Irish who, Tone assured Hoche, would be waiting for the French to arrive.
As for the diversionary raids, Hoche pointed out that he had all the uniforms, muskets and equipment he had captured at Quiberon, and that, since it was only a diversion, the men did not all have to be trained soldiers: any rabble, sufficiently stiffened by trained officers and NCOs would do. In consequence, these troops were mostly the worst elements from every French regiment, including deserters, and convicts, some still wearing the leg irons from the galleys.
Hoche had no compunction in releasing these ‘armies’ against Britain. He had witnessed the violence of British-supported Royalists in Brittany and the Vendée. Just how he expected such a force to “light the revolutionary torch and inspire the poor to insurrection” in their march across Britain is not recorded. Perhaps he wasn’t really that bothered after all. Besides which, the scheme not only rid the Republic and its armies of undesirables, it also reduced the population, improving the supply of food to those left behind.
Britain’s ally: the weather
The first diversionary expedition met with disaster almost immediately. As the flotilla of flat-bottomed barges and their escorting frigates left Dunkirk in late November 1796, the weather worsened, the sea rose and the vessels became unmanageable. The seasick ‘soldiers’ of the Légion Franche rounded on the crews and force them to turn back. In the ensuing chaos, General Quantin’s vessel was wrecked, although he did manage to swim to shore. But the raid on Newcastle had to be abandoned.
The invasion of Ireland, however, went ahead. Forty three ships sailed from Brest on 16 December 1796, even if some were without full crews. Admiral Morard de Galles (1741–1809) commanded from La Fraternité. He first decided to use the Passage du Raz, so as to avoid any British frigates lurking off Ushant, but changed his mind at the last moment and his urgent signals were not understood by all the vessels and the fleet separated, with La Fraternité swept out into the Atlantic with Hoche aboard.
After a few days of confusion, the remainder of the fleet came together again and arrived off Bantry Bay on 21 December 1796. But there was no sign of La Fraternité. Conditions on the day were ideal for a landing, the sea slight, the wind moderate and the beaches deserted – Tone was delighted! But Rear-Admiral Bouvet (1753-1832), commanding the fleet in the Admiral’s absence, thought it prudent to wait until they were joined by Hoche, and while they waited the weather worsened. It wasn’t until 30th December that La Fraternité limped into Bantry Bay, so badly damaged by the storm that had separated the fleet that she had almost sunk. By then the fresh storm was so severe that the French vessels had to cut their cables and make a run for home. They had not sighted a single British man-of-war during the operation, but on their return, one of the French seventy-fours was forced ashore on the coast of Brittany (by Sir Edward Pellew) with tremendous loss of life, while several other frigates and transports were lost off the Irish coast. In all, over four thousand French either lost their lives or were taken prisoner after being wrecked. The invasion of Ireland was over.
Pressing on Regardless
Nevertheless, despite the failure of the Newcastle expedition and the planned landing at Bantry Bay, the Directory decided to allow the raid on Bristol to go ahead, and Hoche allowed it to proceed, even though it could no longer have a diversionary role. There were precedents: for example, a certain Joseph Macheret had been granted a licence to lead a raiding party upon the coast of Cornwall or Wales to rape and pillage and cause as much damage as possible before being killed or escaping back to France, with the reward for survivors to be permission to keep their plunder and settle on one of the French islands in the West Indies. Macheret was one of the worst villains in France and ‘a person of whom the country might well be purged’. That plan had come to nothing, but recollecting it might have led the Directory to consider the benefits of sending other undesirables or unwanted guests on similar raids.
People, perhaps, like William Tate, whose name came up when Hoche was looking for a leader for the expedition. Not that Tate was any sort of military genius, but he was a thundering nuisance to the Directory, so William Tate became Colonel Tate, commander of the attacking force.
His ‘army’ totalled nearly fourteen hundred men, made up of some six hundred regulars and eight hundred convicts, who had been offered their freedom on condition that they joined the expedition. The name, the Légion Noire, arose because their uniforms were those captured at Quiberon but now dyed black(ish). The regular troops were a poor lot. All military commanders had been ordered to send any surplus soldiers to join the expedition, and they had sent their worst and their troublemakers. The total force was divided into two brigades and was officered by twelve captains, twelve lieutenants and twelve second lieutenants. Tate had two aides de camp and the commander of one the brigades, Jacques-Phillipe Le Brun, acted as his second-in-command. A number of the officers were conscript deserters who had been released on similar terms to the convicts, so there may well have been a certain lack of enthusiasm among them. There were also three rebel Irishmen: two captains and a young lieutenant, of whom more later.
This, then, was the force assembled to raid Bristol. Tate’s orders were very basic: 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!”
The fleet that left Brest on 16 February 1797 comprised four vessels: two 40 gun frigates, Le Vengeance and La Resistance, a 24 gun corvette, Constance, and a 14 gun lugger, Vautour. The naval commander was Commodore Jean Joseph Castagnier, a veteran privateer captain of the American War of Independence and an old friend of Hoche. He sailed in Le Vengeance, and Tate with him. By the evening of 18 February, the wind was right, the fleet weighed anchor and the four vessels left the Camaret roadstead. The expedition had begun.
The Raid on Bristol Fishguard
The old shanty tells us that “…from Ushant to Scilly is thirty-five leagues”, or roughly 105 nautical miles. By the afternoon of 19 February, Castagnier’s little fleet was off Lands End, flying Russian colours as they passed a large convoy of British merchantmen. The following morning they entered the Bristol Channel and anchored of Lundy in the early afternoon, waiting for the flood tide to carry them towards the Avon. Two small vessels from Ilfracombe were captured and sunk as they waited, then at ten in the evening they weighed anchor. But the easterly breeze had strengthened, and Castagnier soon found that the tide was not strong enough to allow him to make headway against it. To spend another day in the Bristol Channel would surely allow the alarm to be raised, so Castagnier suggested that he should land Tate and his men on a beach in Swansea Bay. Tate was adamant, however, that the force should be landed in Cardigan Bay, which was well away from normal shipping lanes, and Castagnier reluctantly agreed.
One of the prisoners from the Ilfracombe boats was ‘pressed’ to pilot them around the Pembrokeshire coast and St David’s Head. At mid-morning on 22 February, the French were sighted off the North Bishop Rock by a Mr Thomas Williams of Trelethin. Williams had been a sailor in his youth and recognised the vessels as French, even though they were flying British colours. He therefore sent a servant to Fishguard Fort to raise the alarm.
By two in the afternoon, closely watched by Thomas Williams and some associates, the four French vessels were at anchor off Carregwastad Point on Pencaer Peninsula, some two miles northwest of Fishguard. The weather was fine, and the ships easily rode the gentle off-shore swell.
Castagnier sent the lugger to reconnoitre the port of Fishguard, just around the next headland. But no sooner had it rounded Pen Anglas Head into the port approaches than a cannon round from the Fort caused her to go about and return to her anchorage. There, her commander, Enseigne de Vaisseau Chosel, reported to Castagnier that Fishguard was well defended.
Meanwhile, a small sloop, Britannia, heading for her home port of Fishguard, had been captured by the French, and Castagnier and Tate questioned her captain, a local man called John Owen. He confirmed Chosel’s report by simply almost doubling the actual strength of the garrison – the Fishguard Fencibles – to five hundred men, rather than its actual two hundred and eighty part-time soldiers and officers. Coincidentally, his vessel’s cargo of coal dust was for the garrison commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Knox. The French later looted Britannia and scuttled her.
Another coincidence occurred when Owen, mounting the deck of Le Vengeance, immediately recognised a local man named James Bowen, who had been a servant at the farm of Trehowel on the Pencaer Peninsular until the farm owner, John Mortimer, had dismissed him for horse stealing. Bowen had been sentenced to transportation, but had either escaped or possibly the prison transport had been taken by a French privateer. It was evident to Owen that Bowen was part of the French force, and it was almost certainly Bowen who guided them after the landing and persuaded Tate to choose Trehowel Farm as his headquarters.
Castagnier, now aware that their presence and identity were known and anxious for the safety of his small fleet, lowered the British colours he had been flying and raised the French tricolour, urging Tate to land his men and supplies without further delay. Had they realised, they could have done so with no opposition and found Pembrokeshire undefended for several hours. According to Gwynne Vaughan, Governor of Fishguard Fort, there were only three rounds of live ammunition in the fort, and the round they had fired at Vautour had been a blank. (It has even been suggested that it was fired as a salute to the British colours the lugger was carrying!)
Moreover, the fort’s guns – eight nine-pounders – had only a limited range, not long enough to reach Goodwick, just across the south end of the bay. Had the French attacked promptly they would have certainly obliterated Fishguard’s meagre defences and might have landed unopposed on Goodwick Sands, an easy, shelving beach. As it was, Tate waited until darkness was falling before sending an advance guard ashore of twenty-five men under the young Irish lieutenant, Barry St Leger. They scrambled ashore, secured their landing place and scrambled up the cliffs of Carregwastad Point before moving inland towards Trehowel Farm while the rest of the force and the stores were landed behind them. By daybreak on 23 February, all 1400 men and their supplies were on British soil.
When St Leger and his advance party arrived at Trehowel Farm, they found it deserted – most people had fled on learning of the French arrival. As it happened, John Mortimer was about to be married, and the farmhouse was therefore well stocked with food and liquor, all of which had been left behind. The soldiers promptly seized the opportunity to plunder and loot the house. St Leger, unable to assert any authority over them, reluctantly left them to it and returned to report to Tate. By the time the rest of the party arrived at Trehowel during the night of 22-23 February, the advance guard were paralytic drunk. St Leger was then ordered to take a fresh group of grenadiers to occupy the heights at Garnwnda, while others held Carngelli. These were the highest points on that part of the Pencaer peninsula, and it would take a very determined force to dislodge them.
Preparing to Repel the Invaders
Lt-Col Thomas Knox of the Fishguard Fencibles, had no military experience. His family were comparative newcomers to Pembrokeshire and not much liked by the locals, but when war broke out in 1793, Thomas’s father, William Knox, had offered to raise a regiment of volunteers at his own expense, provided that his son should command them.
On the afternoon of 22 February, Lt-Col Knox was attending a dinner and ball at Tregwynt, a country house some four miles southwest of Fishguard. The guests had barely sat down to dine when a messenger rode into the courtyard of the house with the news that the French had anchored off Carregwastad Point and were preparing to disembark. Panic was inevitable: the guests summoned their carriages and hurried back to their homes around Fishguard to collect their valuables before fleeing south towards Haverfordwest.
Knox also headed for Fishguard, but for him duty called. He must have been painfully aware that the fate of the town and its defenders, if not of the whole of the county – even the country! – lay on his shoulders. But was it an invasion or not?
The Fishguard Fencibles were divided into two sections, one based in the town under Knox himself and the other – known as the Newport Division – at Llwyngwair, eight miles away, under the command of Major Bowen. Knox returned to Fishguard from Tregwynt by the coastal path, from which he was able to view the French fleet. He could see Britannia – which had already been captured – lying quietly at anchor, and may have thought there was nothing to worry about. But he soon met groups of people fleeing the town who assured him that the French had indeed landed. As he crossed Goodwick Sands he met seventy of his Fencibles marching out to confront the enemy. With them was Thomas Nesbitt, a retired, half-pay officer who was in Fishguard awaiting passage to Ireland. Nesbitt offered to take charge of a group of scouts and later established a network of lookouts and guides which kept the town’s defenders well informed of French movements.
Knox then led the remaining Fencibles back into Fishguard Fort. There he had the guns fired to warn Major Bowen, that something was afoot, and followed it with a letter ordering him to bring his division to Fishguard as he had decided to attack the invaders in the morning. He felt it would be foolhardy to attack the French with only a small force he already had to hand, unaware that, if he had led them against the first parties to scrambled ashore he might well have driven them off and covered himself with glory. But he thought it wiser to wait until he had all of the Fencibles together.
Knox also sent a despatch to Lord Milford, Lord Lieutenant of Pembrokeshire, at Picton Castle. This was received at around 1030 that evening, but Milford immediately wrote to John Campbell, Lord Cawdor, Commanding Officer of the Pembroke Yeomanry Cavalry, as well as to Colonel Colby of the Cardigan Militia and Captain Ackland of the Pembroke Volunteers, ordering them all to concentrate at Haverfordwest.
Rumours of the invasion had already reached that town, and a delegation of principle citizens had met that evening at the Castle Inn to decide what to do. A committee was formed! Captain Longcroft, Naval Regulating Officer for the town had sent messengers to round up any sailors who were available, and a total of 150 men were recruited from the officers and crews of various gunboats and the revenue cutters Speedwell and Diligence. These marched to Haverfordwest, taking with them eight nine-pounders from the cutters, six of which were installed in Haverfordwest Castle, while the others would be taken on towards Fishguard with the relieving force.
Col. Colby of the Militia, who had also attended the meeting at the Castle Inn, immediately set off with a Captain Edwards to go to Fishguard, fifteen miles to the north, and see the situation there for themselves: they were at the fort when Bowen and his division arrived from Llwyngwair. Knox told Colby of his plan to attack the French at dawn. Knox later claimed that Colby advised him to retreat if necessary, but to keep the committee at Haverfordwest informed of his actions. Colby and Edwards then returned to Haverfordwest, arriving in time to meet a body of troops coming up from the south.
Although Lord Milford was nominally in charge of the defence of the county, he was suffering from gout and readily delegated is responsibilities to Cawdor. The latter was at Stackpole, on the south cost of Pembrokeshire, when he received Milford’s orders at about midnight, but he had already heard of the invasion from the committee at Haverfordwest. He collected his Yeomanry and set off for Pembroke, where they were joined by the Militia and the Volunteers, and before midday on 23 February, the whole of the relieving force assembled in front of the Castle Inn, where they were given a meal of bread, cheese and beer, before marching out on the Fishguard road.
The combined British force, including the Fishguard Fencibles, was less than six hundred men. They were armed with muskets, pistols and cutlasses, as well as the two nine-pounders which were brought along in a couple of farm carts. The safety of the country depended on them, but they would be outnumbered two to one by Tate’s Légion Noire.
Meanwhile in Fishguard Fort, Nesbitt’s scouts had brought in some French prisoners, captured during the night. One was an Irish deserter, from whom Knox learned that his 200 part-time soldiers were facing around 1,500, possibly elite men, and Nesbitt later confirmed that he had seen something like 800 men grouped around camp fires. Knox considered the situation, and decided to retreat. He ordered the gunners in the fort to spike their guns, which the three invalid ex-Woolwich artillery men refused to do. Instead, they stacked the little ammunition they had on a handcart and brought up the rear of the column that marched out towards Haverfordwest.
By noon it had reached Treffgarne, about five miles from its destination, and Knox called a halt for food and rest. At half past one, Cawdor met them with the relieving troops, and an hour later the combined column started back towards Fishguard. As they marched, Cawdor had word spread that “…a superior force to the enemy…” was advancing on Pencaer, and that the people should arm themselves as best they could and join the defenders.
But by the time the column was within two miles of the French, it still amounted to less than 700 men.
Let Battle Commence
The first brush with the French occurred at about five in the afternoon. Seeing a small group of them in the grounds of Manorowen farmhouse, about a mile and a half from Goodwick, Cawdor quickly sent in a troop of cavalry, but although some shots were exchanged, it was already quite dark and the French were able to get away. No casualties were reported.
Cawdor was anxious to prevent the invaders breaking out of the Pencaer peninsula, where it would be easier to contain them until regular troops arrived. He decided to attack, and with drums rolling, the order was given to advance. The night was pitch black, and the only way onto Pencaer was by steep, narrow lanes, only three or four men wide at best. But, dragging their two guns behind them, the British got to within half a mile of the French advance guard before climbing out of the lanes and beginning to deploy on a wider front.
St Leger, commanding the French picket in front of Garnwnda, heard the drums and men advancing, but had no idea as to the quality or quantity of troops who were approaching. He ordered his grenadiers to lie on the ground and, when the time came, to fire by platoons, gradually retreating on their main body in the rocks of Garnwnda itself, firing as they retreated.
But his plan was not needed. At the last moment, Cawdor decided to abandon the attack and the British retired to Fishguard, where he established his headquarters in a building which is now the Royal Oak public house.
All this came at the end of a depressing day for William Tate. He knew he had to find transport quickly: horses and carts to carry the ammunition and supplies they had brought with them, as well as any food they could collect from the surrounding countryside. Only then could they attempt to break out and advance towards Liverpool. Speed was essential, but Tate also had to cover his front. He deployed his best troops as an advanced guard, then sent out unsupervised parties of others – mainly freed convicts – on foraging missions.
He could hardly have made a worse mistake. A week or so earlier, a Portuguese vessel carrying a cargo of wine had been wrecked nearby, and almost every house and farm on the peninsula had a plentiful supply of the spoils. The French foragers helped themselves and, once again, many were hopelessly drunk and incapable within a few hours. The expedition had become a drunken shambles.
There were various encounters between the French troops and the local people. While the wealthier farmers had fled, the local people – having less to lose – stayed to defend the little they had, and to fight back. Twelve miles away, the lead was stripped from the roof of St David’s cathedral to make bullets, while a Mr Whitesides, an engineer who had been involved in building the Smalls lighthouse, gathered a party of sailors from Solva, armed them with sporting guns, and marched them towards Fishguard. At Carngerwil farm, below Carngelli, they met a party of five French soldiers and opened fire, killing one and severely wounding two others while the other two fled. Tate saw the whole incident from the rocks at Carngelli and must have experienced further misgivings.
There are many other tales of local heroes, but without question, the heroine of the day was Fishguard’s town cobbler, Jemima Nicholas. She marched out to Pencaer and singlehandedly captured twelve Frenchmen, marched them back into Fishguard and then, it is said, went back for more! She was awarded a pension of £50 a year as a reward and collected it until her death in 1832 at the age of 82. Her deeds are commemorated on her tombstone in St Mary’s churchyard, Fishguard, which was effected by public subscription in 1897, on the centenary of the invasion.
Castagnier’s orders had been to land Tate, his men and supplies, then to patrol off the Irish coast: the Légion Noire was expendable, but frigates were not. With the departure of the four ships, Tate and his troops must have felt very much alone, with no way back from Britain. The majority of the French troops were not aware that this had always been part of the plan. To them it seemed that they had been abandoned, to kill or be killed on British soil, and they became increasingly angry, depressed, mutinous and uncontrollable, as such discipline as there had been broke down completely.
This was not confined to the ranks: the Irish officers, finding themselves part of an invading army that was quickly disintegrating and realising that defeat and capture were suddenly very close, went to Tate and told him they had decided to leave the Legion.
Tate himself was totally confused. Most of his troops were in drunken disarray and mutinous and the whole countryside was in arms against him. Hoche had told him that Wales was a hotbed of revolution, where the peasant would willingly flock to his republic banner, but the very opposite had happened. Tate had wanted to advance on Fishguard, but rather than face a British army, his soldiers had turned their muskets on their officers and refused to move. There was no transport available – no horses, no cattle – and any livestock that there had been on Pencaer had been slaughtered by his hungry men. There seemed to be only one solution: Tate decided to surrender.
At nine in the evening on 23 February, under a flag of truce, Tate’s second in command, Jacques Le Brun, accompanied by one of the aides de camp who could speak English, walked into Fishguard’s town square. The message he carried was eventually 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’s response was that he would accept nothing less than unconditional surrender, adding that he had vastly superior forces at his command and that unless his demands were agreed to by ten the following morning, he would attack.
Le Brun carried this message back to Tate, and at nine on the morning of 24 February his ADC Lieutenant Faucon handed this reply to Lord Cawdor in Fishguard:
The idea of the officers of the French Corps is the same which you have expressed in your letter. I therefore authorise Lt-Col Le Brun and Lt Faucon, my ADC, to meet such officers as you will appoint to treat in the subject of the surrender of the troops in the usual form.
Salut et respect,
The three-day invasion of Britain – from 22 to 24 February 1797 – was over.
Later that day, the Légion Noire assembled into a sort of order and, with drums beating, marched down from Pencaer to the beach of Goodwick Sands, the same beach on which – had they known – they could have stepped ashore unopposed. There they began to pile their arms and, after a hurried meal of bread and cheese, and guarded by the victorious Fencibles under Major Bowen, they began the long, slow march to Haverfordwest and captivity.
In September 1791, a section of the army led by Lazare Hoche helped Buonaparte to expel the last of the Royalists from the Government of the Directory in Paris. Soon afterwards, Hoche, possibly of pneumonia or of consumption, at his military headquarters in Germany. He was only 29 and had risen to be one of the most respected and powerful Generals in the Army of the French Republic. Had he lived, there would no doubt have been a power struggle between him and Buonaparte.
Wolfe Tone continued with his campaign for a united Ireland but was eventually captured in Donegal. He was sent for trial in Dublin on 10 November 1798 and was sentenced to be hanged, despite his plea that he was an officer in the French army. On 12 November, the day he was due to be executed, he cut his wrists with a penknife. He died seven days later.
William Tate and several of his officer were eventually imprisoned on the Royal Oak, a prison hulk in Portsmouth harbour. (They were released in a prisoner exchange in 1797 and returned to France. The last record of Tate is of his returning to the United States in 1809 – hch) In the inn of the same name in Fishguard there are several relics of the invasion, including a musket taken from a drunken French soldier, a French officer’s water bottle, and the table – now converted into a settle-type bench – on which the terms of surrender were signed. There are also several paintings of 1797-style military personnel gathered outside the inn, even though records indicate that Cawdor’s headquarters was a private house at the time.
Pencaer peninsula is still comparatively isolated and difficult of access. It is possible to walk across the headland to Carregwastad Point, where a memorial stone erected in 1897 marks the spon where the French landed. Llanwnda church, which was sacked by French soldiers, still stands, as do the ruins of Fishguard Fort (which are open to the public), with several of the cannon still there. Tregwynt manor house, where Lt-Col Knox didn’t get either his dinner or a chance to dance, also survives, and the ballroom, with its sprung floor, is intact and let for functions.
Cheltenham, July 1995
Phil Carradice, The Last Invasion, Village Publishing 1992
Pamela Horn, History of the French Invasion of Fishguard, 1797, Presell Printers, Fishguard 1980
Commander E H Stuart-Jones, The Last Invasion of Britain, University of Wales Press, Cardiff 1947
David Williams, A History of Modern Wales, John Murray, London 1950