Saturday, February 22, 2014

Fishguard—Comic Battle of the Last Invasion of Britain

Jemima Nicholas, her pitchfork, and the disgraced French troops she single handedly captured.  She is wearing the traditional local costume that French scouts thought were Redcoat uniforms.  

It began as a diversion to a diversion, an ill planned and worse executed scheme to draw British troops from Continental Europe where they were engaged in the struggle with revolutionary France known as the War of the First Coalition.  But for Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen, the tawdry affair was the beginning of a collapse of a great dream of Irish Independence secured with the assistance of French Arms.
At the instigation of Tone, an Anglo-Irish idealist then serving as an officer in the French Army while trying to lead from exile the growing United Irishmen movement he had founded in his homeland, the French Directory authorized a complex and ambitious plan put forward by General Louis Lazare Hoche.  Tone had promised the French that 30, 000 United Irishmen would lead a mass popular uprising with the support of a fairly modest French invasion.  As a diversion to the main effort in Ireland, Hoche planned two more limited raids on the British home island.  The most significant would land in Wales and then march to Bristol to sack and burn the city.
Tone issued bloodthirsty manifestos smuggled into Ireland calling for the uprising and urging no quarter to British troops.  The stage was set for the great adventure.
On December 15, 1796, 43 ships carrying about 14,450 men and an arsenal war material for distribution in Ireland sailed from Brest.  Tone accompanied Hoche under the nom du guerre Adjutant General Smith, a thin disguise meant to protect him should he be captured by the British. 
The planned three prong operation had already fallen apart.  The main force for the actual invasion of Ireland arrived off of Bantry Bay on the west coast but was prevented by high winter seas from attempting a landing.  The naval forces and troop carriers were, in Tone’s acid opinion, largely incompetent.  After a heavy gale nearly destroyed the fleet, it had to limp back to France.
La Légion des Francs, under General Quantain, was instructed to attack Newcastle upon Tyne and destroy local shipping. It had set out from Dunkirk in November of 1796 but turned back in Dutch waters after bad weather had swamped several of the invasion barges.  The troops, mostly impressed convicts and even British prisoners of war, mutinied back in port and refused to re-embark for a second attempt. 
Astoundingly, the third force, now with no main effort to support, a flotilla of French warships left Brest flying Russian colors on February 16, 1797 headed for Britain.
The second diversionary force was La Légion Noire (The Black Legion), a fierce sounding name for a rag-tag brigade sized force of 1,400 men and 46 officers.  Like the ill-fated Légion des Francs, it was also made up mostly of half-trained conscripts described, charitably, as irregulars.  But it there was a core of 600 Grenadiers of the line. The unit took its name from its uniforms, which were captured English redcoats that had been poorly died to a range of colors from muddy brown to a sooty black.  The poor condition of their outfits was an indication that the French command saw them as doomed pawns.  The unit was under the command of an Irish American, chef de brigade (colonel) William Tate who could not speak French and had to communicate with his men through translators.  Several of his subordinate officers were Irish, as well.
At least the warships under the command of Commodore Castagnier were first rate.  They included the frigates La Vengeance and La Resistance on her maiden voyage, the corvette La Constance, and Le Vautour a smaller lugger.  The plan was to provide cover for and land troops near Bristol, then to dash north to rendezvous with Hoche’s shattered fleet to provide them cover and protection on the limp home.  Of course that meant that the small invasion force would be abandoned on the home island of the enemy.  What could possibly go wrong?
Apparently, a lot.  The same high seas and winds that had scattered Hoche’s fleet prevented a landing as originally planned.  Castagnier was forced to turn around and try to land secondary choice,   Cardigan Bay on the west coast of Wales.  Making its way through the Bristol Channel, the flotilla was spotted from land and despite now flying English colors was identified as hostile.  Surprise was gone.
At 2 in the morning of on February 23, 1797, the French landed 17 boatloads of troops, 47 barrels of gunpowder, 50 tons of cartridges and grenades, and 2,000 stands of arms. One rowing boat was lost in the surf and sank, with the critical loss of artillery and ammunition.
Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Knox of the 400 man local Fishguard & Newport Volunteer Infantry had already been alerted of the invasion force and was mobilizing his troops.  In addition other units in the region were rushing to the invasion site including Lord Cawdor’s Castlemartin Troop of the Pembroke Yeomanry Cavalry the along with the Pembroke Volunteers and the Cardiganshire Militia.  Lieutenant-Colonel Colby of the Pembrokeshire Militia assembled 250 men.  A Royal Navy pressgang, tough thugs usually employed in emptying sea side pubs of drunken sailors and swooping up un-alert farm lads from the fields, 150 strong landed with several pieces of artillery.  All began converging on the threat.  Lord Cawdor assumed overall command.
At dawn Tate’s after a three mile forced march from the landing site, Tate’s men looked down from the surrounding hills at the small port of Fishguard.  They observed it bustling with activity, no doubt stirred by the fast flying word of the invasion.  A good many women were assembled in the market dressed in a traditional local costume which included high black hats and scarlet shawls.  From the distance they apparently were mistaken for Redcoats in black shakos sending some of the ill trained irregulars into a near panic.
None-the-less the French began to push inland, capturing several farm houses.  Some of the irregulars broke loose and began pillaging the farmsteads and rural hamlets for loot, dashing the unrealistic hopes that the Celtic Welsh might see the invasion as liberators and rise up against English rule.
Tate was left with only a handful of his irregulars, mostly Irish exiles, and his regular Grenadiers.  He set up a headquarters and occupied strong defensive positions on the high rocky outcrops of Garnwnda and Carngelli. 
On February 23 the two hundred or so local militia at Fishguard under colonel Knox, re-enforced by an influx of angry civilian volunteers armed with scythes, pitch forks, pikes, and other odd implements, began a retreat from the port after realizing that they were facing a much larger force.  But they encounter Lord Cawdor’s hastily assembled force and turned around to join his march to meet the enemy.
As they advanced, Tate’s forces began to fall apart.  Conscripts discovered a warehouse of Portuguese wine and began drinking heavily.  Many, especially impressed English prisoners of war, simply deserted.  Most of the rest were soon drunk and or sick in farm houses scattered about.
One local farm wife, Jemima Nicholas, armed only with a pitchfork rounded up 12 of the drunken conscripts and locked them in St. Mary’s Church in the town.
That evening Cawdor and 600 men advanced from Fishguard on the French strong points, but turned back fearing ambush.  But Tate’s men saw the size of the well-armed forces against them, including artillery.  Knowing that the fleet had already abandoned them, his officers began to council surrender.
The morning of the 24 two French officers entered Cawdor’s camp under a white flag to attempt to negotiate and honorable surrender with safety guaranteed Irish officers.  Cawdor refused the terms and set a 10 am deadline for unconditional surrender or he would attack.  Part of that was bluff.  Cawdor still believed he was outnumbered and planned to await further reinforcements before an all-out assault. 
The deadline passed, but Tate realized his position was hopeless and announced his unconditional surrender at 2 pm.  Tate and his men were taken prisoner, although rounding up all of the deserters and stragglers took time.  Eventually Tate and most of the others were paroled and returned to France.  Some of the conscripts simply agreed to switch uniforms, some for the second time.
But the disaster was not over for the French.  On March 9 La Resistance, which had been crippled by the adverse weather in the Irish Sea and La Constance were captured after a short but bloody engagement with HMS St Fiorenzo and HMS Nymphe.  Both were re-fitted and commissioned in the Royal Navy.  Commodore Castagnier on board La Vengeance managed to escape to France.
As for Wolfe Tone, well he pressed for another invasion.  His ardent supporter Hoche died of tuberculosis and he found ascending French authorities, including Napoléon Bonaparte less enamored of his Irish schemes.  But when open rebellion broke out in Ireland and with Napoléon off on his Egyptian adventure, he persuaded the government to back a second expedition.
This time a force under General Humbert succeeded in landing near Killala, County Mayo and marching through the countryside gathering United Irishmen with “their pikes upon their shoulders” before it was smashed.  A second force broke up again in the raging seas, and the third, accompanied by Tone himself was intercepted by the Royal Navy.  Tone was taken prisoner.  He died of wounds of a botched suicide attempt after several days, but in time to cheat the hangman.
The pitiful and fruitless so called Battle of Fishguard is now remembered as the last invasion of Great Britain. 
In 1853 the Pembroke Yeomanry was awarded the battle honor “Fishguard” to be attached as a ribbon to their colors. It is the only regiment in the British Army, regular or territorial, that bears a battle honor for an engagement on the British mainland and the first battle honor awarded to a volunteer unit.

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