French Emperor Napoleon I and his La Grande Armee of over 600,000 French, Polish, Italian, German, Prussian, Austrian, Swiss and Spanish troops, crossed the Nieman River into Russia on 24 June 1812. Napoleon officially wanted to protect Polish lands from Russian invasion but actually wanted to incorporate Russia into his Continental System and prevent Russian trade with Great Britain. Napoleon would eventually capture Moscow, but in accordance with their scorched earth practices, the Russians would burn it to the ground. Without winter quarters and no way to supply himself, Napoleon retreated. Six months after the invasion began, horrific losses in attritional battles with the Czar’s armies, Cossack raiders, lack of supply, and winter weather reduced the La Grande Armee to a shadow of its former self. On 14 December 1812, only 27,000 French troops would recross the Nieman. It was the beginning of the end of the Napoleonic era.
In 1812, the Peninsular War was going in Napoleon’s favor despite fierce resistance from Spanish guerrillas and the Duke of Wellington’s Anglo Portuguese Army. For his imminent invasion of Russia, Napoleon pulled out most of the French troops from Spain which breathed new life into Wellington’s campaign. In the beginning of March, Wellington besieged the strategically important and well fortified town of Badajoz. On 6 April 1812, he assaulted the town before the Army of French Marshall Nicolas de Soult could arrive and bottle up his army. In some of the most savage fighting of the Napoleonic era, Wellington’s redcoats managed to take the town but with extremely heavy casualties.
Although the British were victorious, the British troops suffered horribly and Wellington lost control of his soldiers. They began to loot, rape and terrorize the the Spanish citizens of Badajoz. Without the garrison of Badajoz and with most of his troops sent to Russia, Soult could not take advantage of the situation and attack Wellington in the confusion. Only on 9 April did Wellington manage to restore order. Although the Peninsular War would go on for three more years, Badajoz was the last chance the French had to win in Spain, a campaign Napoleon would refer to as his “Bleeding Ulcer.”
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.
In 1797, the Spanish Empire allied itself with Revolutionary France against Great Britain, just as it did with America twenty years before. The British sent a fleet under Sir John Jervis to blockade the Spanish ports and intercept an important convoy of mercury, which was necessary for gold and silver production.
In the early morning mist of 14 February, 1797, lookouts spotted the convoy off of Cape St Vincent along the Portuguese coast. Jervis ordered his 14 ships to close with the enemy. As the Spanish men of war emerged from the mist, one dutiful midshipman kept a count. When the young man reached 24, Jervis said “Enough, sir, no more of that; the die is cast, and if there are fifty sail I will go through them.” Jervis drove straight into the Spanish line.
Jervis’ confidence was not foolhardy – He knew the quality of the British ships, sailors, and marines were far and above that of the Spanish, who were mostly untrained landsmen and soldiers, with only a few professional sailors to watch over them (part time vs full time). British gunners could fire three rounds for every one the Spanish fired. After less than an hour, and before most of the Jervis’ fleet got into action, the Spanish broke. This wasn’t acceptable to a young up and coming commodore far to the rear in the British line. Commodore Horatio Nelson spotted six Spanish men of war sailing away, so he ordered his ship, the HMS Captain, to break formation and prevent their escape.
The six Spaniards couldn’t flee without going straight past the Captain, so they all attacked. At one point, Nelson was engaged in a broadsides with four ships simultaneously. In the span of 30 minutes, the Captain was a disaster and rudderless, but the destruction and confusion brought on by Nelson’s charge allowed time for other British ships to join the action. The two Spanish ships nearest to the Captain, the San Jose and San Nicolas, had “luffed up and ran afoul” of each other in the confusion (I have no idea what that means, but I’m guessing it’s bad) which locked them together tight. Nelson ordered the closest, the San Nicolas, to be boarded.
Nelson’s sailors and soldiers (He had no Royal Marines, his ship’s company was augmented with soldiers from the 69th Regiment of Foot to act as marines) swarmed the San Nicolas. In a desperate fight, Nelson’s men captured the ship, and pushed the survivors onto the San Jose, a much larger ship. Nelson quickly reorganized his men into a defensive line closer to the Captain as he expected the San Jose’ crew to try and recapture the San Nicolas. When that didn’t happen, Nelson ordered his men to cross over the San Nicolas, and board the San Jose. With Nelson in the van, the British jumped and swung from the San Nicolas and stormed onto the San Jose. After another mass melee of pistols, cutlasses, bayonets, sabers, and boarding pikes, Nelson received another Spanish’s captain’s sword, this time on the forecastle of the San Jose.
The tactic of using an enemy ship to board another enemy ship became known as “Nelson’s Patented Bridge for Boarding”.