The last invasion of Britain from France in 1797 was an almost mirror image of the first in 1066: in 1066, they set out from Normandy; in 1797, from Brittany; in 1066, they landed in the east,at Hastings; in 1797, in the west, at Fishguard; in 1066, the invasion was large and well organized; the 1797 invasion was a farce, an accident that should never have happened; the 1066 invasion was a success; the 1797 invaders were being taken prisoner by women armed with farm implements.
What they had in common – perhaps the only thing – was that both were commemorated by tapestries. The Fishguard tapestry, one hundred feet long, hangs in the town hall, created by seventy-eight volunteers for the two-hundredth anniversary. It features Frenchmen getting drunk, stealing chickens, exposing themselves at the windows of cottages, shooting a clock – almost the only shots that were fired during the entire campaign, which was history within forty-eight hours. Oh yes, and the kind of Welsh bird you don’t want to mess with, brandishing a pitchfork with malice aforethought. The lettering identifies her as Jemima Nicholas.
France was still in a state of revolution, Robespierre having fallen and been replaced by the Directoire; Napoleon a mere artillery officer achieving remarkable things in Italy. Lazare Hoche, all but forgotten today, was a contemporary, another officer of great ability, having risen meteorically from corporal to general in two years, and cheated the guillotine during Robespierre’s loopier turns. Envious of Napoleon’s successes, Hoche’s response was to be a brilliant stroke to knock Britain out of the war: an invasion of Ireland to encourage them to rise up in rebellion, and two simultaneous diversionary landings in England that would prevent the British responding: one in the north-east, and one in the south-west, at the port of Bristol. They would burn England’s second-largest city, devastating her vital international trade, before landing on the Welsh side of the Severn Estuary and marching north toward Liverpool. They would release French prisoners of war, and foment chaos. Full of revolutionary fervor, nobody questioned that the British masses would throw off their shackles and rise in grateful revolution against their aristocratic oppressors.
The cream of the French army following Napoleon through Italy, Hoche’s army was recruited largely from released convicts. What could go wrong? No uniforms were to spare for them, so the Seconde Legion des Francs was equipped with captured British uniforms, although the only dye they would take was dark brown, so they were nick-named “La Legion Noir” — “the black legion.” The south-western expedition would be commanded by South Carolinian septuagenarian William Tate, who had served during the American War of Independence, but fallen out with the independent American government and fled to France to avoid arrest.
16th February, 1797, the fleet of seventeen ships left Brest. Several peeled off toward the English Channel, four more for the Bristol Channel. The bulk, including Hoche, arrived in Bantry Bay, but were scattered by bad weather and limped home. The north-eastern expedition also turned back following a mutiny. As it turned out, convicts were not full of ardour to lay down their lives for the glory of revolutionary France. Who could have foreseen that?
Flying Russian colours as Tate’s little flotilla bobbed about Lundy Island, awaiting fair winds to carry them into Bristol, fooled nobody; especially when their crews resorted to naked piracy and sank a couple of small vessels. Orders were issued to assemble local militias.
The winds to carry them into Bristol never materialised, so they sailed toward their alternative destination, Cardigan Bay. By noon on the 22nd February, the two frigates, a corvette and a lugger rounded St David’s Head, this time flying British colours, but still fooling nobody. Three dropped anchor off Carreg Wastad, a rocky headland. One more sailed three miles further up the coast into Fishguard harbour. The fort fired a cannon. In fact, it was a blank. The fort actually had only three cannon balls in its armoury, but the French ship turned sharply about and returned the message to Tate that docking in the harbour was impractical. Unloading commenced at Carreg Wastad, every man, ration, powder barrel and shot having to be manually hauled up the precipitous, jagged cliffs.
Thomas Knox, the twenty-eight year-old lieutenant colonel with no combat experience commanding the Fishguard and Newport Volunteer Infantry, was attending a dinner at Tregwynt Mansion several miles away. He did not take the first report of an enemy landing seriously, but as further messages arrived, he hurried to the fort at Fishguard and hastily issued messages for his men to assemble. The captain of the Castlemartin troop of the Pembrokeshire Yeomanry cavalry, Lord Cawdor, was thirty miles away, but fortunately, his unit was already assembled for a funeral planned the next day, so little time was lost getting on the march. From Haverfordwest, the commander of the Pembrokeshire Militia, Lieutenant Colonel Colby, galloped sixteen miles through the night to Fishguard. Before galloping back to Haverfordwest to supervise the assembly of his unit, he advised Knox to station his men on the heights above the French to discourage them venturing inland.
Knox hesitated. His scouts had verified the French numbers at over a thousand. Knox’ weekend warriors were still not up to full strength, and were trained as skirmishers, venturing ahead of the front lines to harry the enemy and pick off the officers. To face the French, they had no cannons, little knowledge of constructing defences, no training, and they certainly hadn’t the numbers.
He need not have worried. Over at Carreg Wastad, by two in the morning, the French had heaved up the craggy escarpment — in the dark — forty-seven barrels of powder, fifty tons of cartridges and two thousand stands of arms. A farm was seized as Tate’s headquarters. Two defensive positions were prepared on rocky outcrops providing excellent fields of fire. An ambush had been set up. But as the convicts in their dyed British uniforms ventured inland, they discovered to their surprise and pleasure that a Portuguese ship had run aground a few days earlier, and the district was rich in delicacies they hadn’t seen in many years of prison rations, and wine. Lots and lots of wine.
The following morning, many of the French were having a wonderful holiday, many having thrown off all discipline and in some cases, threatening officers who tried to maintain a semblance of order. But alcohol, as we know, is a depressant; breaking down inhibitions to provoke an initial sense of euphoria, but then despondency. Despondency set in when the French saw their ships departing over the horizon, taking back the message to France of the landing’s success. They needed to sail together. One ship alone would have been vulnerable to the Royal Navy’s patrols. But Tate had inadequately explained this to the men, who saw only that they had been marooned in a hostile land, where the natives hadn’t the slightest intention of rebelling against their aristocratic oppressors or anybody else. Rising up they certainly were, with all manner of rusty flintlocks and billhooks, but to seek out grim vengeance upon any French they could lay their hands on. The French convicts largely reconciled themselves to going back to jail shortly, and enjoying what sweet freedoms they could until then.
So when the feisty Fishguard shoe maker, Jemima Nicholas, found twelve of them staggering about her field, she threatened to stab them with a pitchfork until they humbly submitted to being locked in a church. In Italy, Napoleon was declaring to his soldiers: “You are naked, malnourished…I wish to lead you into the most fertile plains in the world.” In Wales, French soldiers were surrendering by the dozen to a single woman waving a farm implement.
By evening, the British forces had assembled at Fishguard. Lord Cawdor had set up a headquarters at the Royal Oak Inn, which still exists. As he discussed his plans for February 24th, a French messenger arrived with a white flag and a note from William Tate:
“The Circumstances under which the Body of the French Troops under my Command were landed at this Place renders it unnecessary to attempt any military operations, as they would only tend to Bloodshed and Pillage. We therefore desire to enter into a Negotiation upon Principles of Humanity for a surrender. If you are influenced by similar Considerations you may signify the same and, in the meantime, Hostilities shall cease. Health and Respect. Tate.”
The unflappable Cawdor’s reply was masterful. The lies tripped smoothly from his tongue as he emphasised to the messenger the enormity of his forces, increasing by the hour. He would only accept an unconditional surrender before ten the following morning; otherwise, he would attack. He packed the messenger back to Tate, and prayed through the night that nobody would call his bluff.
Yet as the grey dawn broke, the mournful French saw rows upon rows of figures in red; hundreds of redcoats as far as their blurry eyes could see. Not Cawdor’s men, who numbered a few hundred at most, but, furious at the French depredations of the day before, the local inhabitants, including the women in their red shawls and black hats, had arrived to stand side by side with the militia men, farm implements to the fore, ready for action. Tate delayed, but few of the French were in any condition to fight in any case. Hungover, cold and wet, fed up with hanging around on a blustery, damp clifftop in winter, they heaved a collective Gallic shrug, threw down their weapons, and calmly marched back into jail, in Haverfordwest castle.
They returned to France in an exchange of prisoners two years later. Most probably ended up being eventually conscripted back into the army, and many probably froze to death in the Russian winter of 1812. William Tate was stung by the criticism he received on his return to France. An old man, he disappeared into retirement and died sometime after 1809. Lazare Hoche avoided the dishonour and commanded French troops victoriously again against the Austrians before dying of tuberculosis, clearing the path to power for Napoleon.
For the British, Cawdor, Colby and Knox all received awards from the king, and the Pembrokeshire Yeomanry the battle honour of “Fishguard,” the first ever awarded to an irregular unit, and the only one ever relating to an engagement on British soil.
And Jemima Nicholas? She got a memorial stone erected in Fishguard in her memory, and every year, townsfolk assemble to watch the school children re-enact the story for the annual carnival, a local woman elected to the privilege of playing the role of Jemima. After all, it’s the best story that ever came out of a fishing village.