The Battle of Fishguard
Most learned scholars would say the last invasion of Britain occurred in 1066 when William of Normandy kicked the living shit out of the Anglo-Saxon King Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. This is not correct. The Norman attack was the last *successful* invasion of Britain. The *last* invasion of Britain was by the French, during the French revolutionary wars, and was led by an American (because after 700 years, only an American would look at the moat that is the English Channel and dismissively say, “Pshaw, I got this”.)
Col William Tate was an Irishman born in America, and had fought in the American Revolutionary War. An avowed Francophile, he fell out of favor with the United States when he was involved in a plot to seize New Orleans for France from one of America’s other allies in the American Revolution, Spain. In the 1790s, the Mississippi trade was booming and the new country did not want to lose the use of New Orleans’ docks and warehouses. Tate escaped to France, one step ahead of American G-Men (such as they were), before he could be made an example of for Spain. In France, he joined the revolutionary army, where he quickly rose to command a regiment because of his experience in the American Revolution. (French officers of the time were mostly aristocrats, and French aristocrats were only good for one thing: filling the baskets at the bottom of French guillotines.)
In 1796, blood soaked French revolutionary zeal hadn’t engulfed the rest of Europe only because Great Britain was the financier of France’s continental enemies. General Louis-Lazare Hoche knew the source of the bourgeois and royalist resistance had to be eliminated. He figured the best way to do that was through Britain’s nearby, and most troublesome, possession – Ireland. He eradicated Royalist opposition in Brittany, itself a Celtic nation, and then with Tate, devised a plan to export that Revolution to Ireland. He raised an army and his plan was for a large expedition to land and link up with the United Irishmen, then rebelling against British authority. Britain invaded the island 150 years ago, and was still smarting from Oliver Cromwell’s massacres of that time (among other things). It was believed the Irish proletariat (before Marx made the term sexy) would rise up against the British, and join them. Once Ireland was liberated, Franco-Irish revolution could be brought to Britain. But the British were sure to react to a French landing, so two smaller expeditions were planned to prevent them from interfering: one in Scotland, and one in Wales. It was hoped the oppressed Celtic proletarians of Wales and Scotland would also rise up to fight their hated British overlords.
In late 1796, the Royal Navy sailed south to blockade Spain (see the previous Battle of Cape St Vincent), and Houche launched the three expeditions across the Channel. Now there is a phenomenal (Ha!) reason why the English Channel is the most effective of moats: it basically has its own climate system, and the weather essentially pushes an invader back against the French coast. In the Age of Sail, this is a problem. (William of Normandy had to wait three long weeks just to cross the Channel at its narrowest part in 1066, and was still scattered and almost didn’t arrive.) The fickle Channel weather defeated the Irish and Scottish expeditions, but it didn’t defeat the Welsh one, which was led by Col William Tate. On 22 February 1797, Tate landed on the rocky headland at Carreg Wastad on the Welsh coast.
Tate unloaded his 1400 men, and sent a ship up the coast to reconnoiter the port of Fishguard, three miles away. But all it accomplished was to inform the Welsh of the invasion when the fort there fired a warning shot at the unknown ship. The ship quickly returned and surprise was lost. Soon thereafter, Tate’s squadron departed, because their captains didn’t want to be caught by the weather and stranded in Wales (There’s an omen…) This was disconcerting for many of Tate’s men, as this was their only means of escape should the expedition fail.
Tate’s army was a mixed bag. On one hand, 600 were from his own regiment, the professionals of the French 2nd Legion, known as the “Le Legion Noir”, or the Black Legion because they were clothed in captured British uniforms, whose original red would only take black dye (which turned them a sickly dark brown color, but “The Black Legion” sounds cooler). On the other were 800 Republican volunteers, mercenaries, pirates, former royalist prisoners, and convicts on parole, mostly under Irish officers who sure as shit didn’t want to be in Wales. Like all Revolutionary armies, Tate’s lacked any sort of effective logistics system and was expected to live off the land. He had unloaded a vast quantity of weapons and ammunition, much of it to arm the Welsh, but he had no rations. So that evening, he sent his men out on foraging parties to confiscate provisions for the expedition.
Now there are many famous military blunders, the most famous of which is “Never get involved in a land war in Asia”. Slightly less well-known is this: “Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!” But only slightly less well-known than that is, “Never antagonize a Welshman in Wales” (I personally learned this the hard way in Bristol, which I have since been reliably informed is not really Wales, lines on a map be damned). Many of Tate’s foraging parties that weren’t of the Black Legion weren’t exactly disciplined. One group broke into St Nicholas Church, and in a drunken rage born of sacramental wine, burned Bibles and hymnals as secular revolutionaries are wont to do. Furthermore, many had just got out of prison, and were more interested in booze and women than they were in scavenging supplies. The combined effect on the population was not one that encouraged it to rise up in one’s favor.
Once the stories spread, the population literally turned out with their farming implements to repel the French. On the morning of 23 February, the formidable cobbler Jemima Nicholas, attacked one of the drunken parties, gave them a good “what for”, captured 19, and locked them in St. Mary’s Church. Hundreds more rallied and marched on the French with pitchforks and torches. Like Mrs. Nicholas, the women wore the traditional Welsh red skirts and tall black felt hats, and to the drunk Frenchmen, they were mistakenly reported as elite “Grenadier Guards” to Tate. However, pitchforks, sickles, garden hoe’s, and those funny little hedge clippers, a contemporary army does not make. The furious Welsh farmers and townsfolk were reinforced by their husbands, sons, brothers, and cousins in the unofficial and semiofficial militia of the area.
The last Under-Secretary of State for the American Colonies, William Knox, who after being tossed out of the Thirteen Colonies in 1783 learned that to oppose a revolutionary army you needed your own loyal, and local, militia, which he formed as a result of the French Revolution. His Newport Volunteers, and Fishguard and Pembroke Militias marched and assembled at the Fishguard Fort. They in turn were reinforced by sailors from the ships in Goodwick Bay, on which Fishguard sat. They were further aided by the energetic action of LtCol Colby of the Harfordshire militia, who mobilized his men at the first reports of the French and forced marched to Fishguard. Thirty miles away, Lord Cawdor, the Baron of Pembroke, received word of the invasion and immediately set off with his men from the “Castlemartin Troop of the Pembroke Yeomanry Cavalry” whom had been assembled by Cawdor for a funeral for one of their own on the 23rd. By that evening, a thousand Welsh and English militia and sailors, dragging cannon from the ships in the harbor, backed up by a swarm of Welsh civilians, confronted Tate on the high ground outside Goodwick, a mile away, which overlooked Tate’s HQ.
Tate’s officers took one look, and got drunk. On the morning of the 24th, Tate, thinking he was facing a superior force of angry militia backed by British regulars, walked into Carford’s headquarters at the Royal Oak pub, and surrendered his disorganized force.
The Last Invasion of Britain was defeated.
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