Friday, February 22, 2019

The Last Invasion of Britain - Battle of Fishguard 1797

by Richard Denning

On the 22nd of February in 1797 the UK mainland was invaded by soldiers of a foreign enemy. The attack would fall on Fishguard in Wales. This would be the last time that Britain was invaded (although British held Ireland would be invaded again a year or two later).

The Invasion Plan
After France declared war on Britain in 1793 a plan was conceived to attack Ireland. The idea was that of General Hoche. He believed that a landing by a strong force of 15,000 would lead to a widespread uprising by the Irish who had been under British rule since Cromwell's war of over 150 years before.

General Louis-Lazare Hoche 1768-1797

However it was likely that the British would react swiftly and send troops to Ireland to suppress this uprising. So to prevent this happening Hoche organised two other small expeditions. One would head to the Northeast of England and march across to Lancashire. The other would land in either south or North Wales. It was hoped that in both cases the working class would rise up in revolutionary zeal.

The Irish invasion goes wrong.
Hoche's main force set sail in December 1796 but almost at once it got into trouble. Severe storms scattered the fleet and the remnants limped back to Brest harbour. A similar fate occurred to the force destined for the North east.

But what of the third force. What of the Welsh expedition?

In Command - an American.
It was an Irish-American, Colonel William Tate, from South Carolina, who was given command of the Expeditionary Force. He was a veteran of the War of Independence but had fled to France after his involvement in a failed attempt to capture New Orleans. He commanded La Seconde Legion des Francs or "The Black Legion"named after their dark brown/black uniforms. The force consisted of 600 regular troops and another 800 men in a sort of penal regiment of deserters, convicts and Royalist prisoners of dubious loyalty.

Commodore Castagnier commanded the French Fleet which consisted of four warships of good quality. The fleet flew the British flag but this ruse was seen through as the fleet sailed up the Bristol channel and alarm was raised. The initial target of Bristol was abandoned as tides were too strong so the Fleet sailed round to their second choice at Cardigan Bay, on the west coast of Wales. 

The Landing

At first a scouting ship from the French fleet tried to sail into Fishguard Harbour but gun fire from Fishguard Fort forced the vessel to turn around. Tate ordered the landing to be at Carregwastad Head three miles from Fishguard. The landings started on the 22nd February 1797. Tate advanced inland, captured a number of farms and set up his HQ at Trehowel Farm on the Llanwnda Peninsula about a mile from their landing site as well as taking the high ground at Garnwnda and Carngelli, which gave him an unobstructed view of the surrounding countryside. Things appeared to be going well for Tate.

Carregwastad Head, the landing site for Tate's forces

However whilst his regular troops were behaving well and had a good position, the 800 men of the penal regiment deserted in droves, found wine in the various farms and got drunk and would take no part in any battle. Some of them broke into St Nicholas church away to the south and burned bibles.

The Welsh inhabitants were outraged by the French pillaging and louting and started attacking Tate's men. Tate had hoped the Welsh would rise up to throw off perceived English oppression but instead he found that his men were being picked off if they wandered about in small groups.

The British Response.
Local landowner William Knox had raised the Fishguard & Newport Volunteer Infantry in 1794 and placed his own son Thomas Knox in command of the four companies totalling 300 men. The younger Knox had bought his commission and had no combat experience. When learning of the invasion Colonel Knox ordered the  regiment to muster and set off towards Fishguard from Newport. In addition  200 men of the local Cardiganshire Militia were already mustered at Haverfordwest having been on an exercise and so their commander, Colby  also prepared to march towards Fishguard. Meanwhile word was sent to Lord Cawdor,  who commanded the Pembroke Yeomanry Cavalry which was stationed thirty miles away at Stackpole Court. On learning of the invasion Cawdor set off, linked up with Colby, assumed command and together the force moved towards Fishguard.

Knox, meanwhile had sent word to Colby of his intention to attack the French on 23 February if he was not heavily outnumbered. Unfortunately for Knox, a hundred men had still not arrived and as far as he could tell the French numbers getting on towards 1500 men (he did not know that the penal regiment was running away) and so he decided to retreat. 

Knox came across Cawdor and Colby eight miles south of Fishguard at 1:30 p.m. Despite Knox's protests Cawdor assumed command and led the combined force back towards Fishguard.

Tate surrenders

Cawdor set up his HQ in this pub.

Cawdor arrived in Fishguard during the afternoon and set up his headquarters on Fishguard Square. Despite the French desertions Tate still had over 800 men and cannons at his disposal and actually still outnumbered Cawdor's men. But Tate could see that the situation was not good for him.  He had now recieved word that his naval support had withdrawn (having themesleves become aware of Royal Navy vessels closing in. With half his force deserting and a substantial body of enemy getting ready to engage him AND with the hoped for Welsh uprising not having materialised, it was clear that this expedition was ultimately doomed.

Tate sent two officers to negotiate with Cawdor, hoping to be allowed to withdraw.  Cawdor bluffed that his forces were superior and  demanded  unconditional surrender of the French forces. He ordered Tate to assemble on Goodwick Sands by 10 a.m. on the 24th or he would attack.

Welsh Headgear plays its part

The following morning the British lined up on the sands whilst above them the local townsfolk assembled, many wearing their national dress of tall black hats. It is possible that some of the French thought that the Welsh Women were in fact Grenadier guards as from a distance that mistake might be made. Indeed a local woman, Jemima Nicholas became famous that day as she advanced down to the sands with a pitch fork and persuaded 19 French soldiers to surrender!

Tate tried to delay but eventually accepted the terms of the unconditional surrender and ordered his men to march in and pile their weapons. By 4pm it was all over and the French were being marched away to captivity.

Two of the four French ships were captured in an engagement with the Royal navy and the other two made it back to France. Tate's captivity was brief as in 1798 he and most of his little army was exchanged with British prisoners and sent back to France.

In 1853 the Pembroke Yeomanry, despite the almost non existant battle, gained the battle honour 'Fishguard.' and is unique in being the only regiment in the British Army, that bears the name of an engagement on British soil.

After her death a memorial was raised for Jemima Nicholas, the lady who confronted the French invader armed only with  a pitchfork!

In my time travel novel Yesterday's Treasures, Tom sees an alternate version of history where the invasion is a success and North Wales is in French hands.

Bringing his camera with him he had strolled along the battlements stopping every so often to take a photo of a cannon, the fort, Anglesey across the bay in one direction and the distant mountains in the other. On the top of the fort a Union Flag fluttered in the breeze and he snapped that. Then he checked the image in the small screen on the back.

What he saw when it came into view made him stare in amazement.

"Uh?" he muttered as he studied the picture, which clearly showed a flagpole with a flag hanging on the top. However, this was not the familiar red and blue crosses on a white background that he expected to see, but an altogether different flag: one with three broad stripes of red, white and blue. It was the tricolour of France!

He peered up at the standard that flapped about in the gentle wind coming in off the Irish Sea. It was, without a doubt, still the Union Flag. Baffled, he turned his head to glance around the fort, but he could not see a second flagpole anywhere nearby.

"That's stupid!" he muttered. Then he slapped his forehead and smiled. This image was obviously an earlier photo left on the memory card from another day. He checked the image date and time and then frowned when he saw that the date it recorded was today and it had been taken only a few minutes before.

Shaking his head, he looked back at the flagpole and gaped as he now saw the French flag up there, where moments before he was certain it had been the British one. Behind him he heard footsteps coming closer, so he looked around but there was no one in sight. As he stood and stared at the empty battlements he felt something brush past his right arm and heard the footsteps pass on by.


An Editor's Choice from the EHFA Archives. Originally published on February 21, 2012. 
Richard Denning is an historical fiction author whose main period of interest is the Early Anglo-Saxon Era. His Northern Crown series explores the late 6th and early 7th centuries through the eyes of a young Saxon lord. Explore the darkest years of the dark ages with Cerdic.


  1. First time reading this part of history. Fascinating!

  2. Let's hear it for Jemima Nicholas! We need more Welsh women armed with pitch forks! I hope she gets a big memorial somewhere significant.

  3. Useful background for my WIP, thank you.


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