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The Last Invasion of Britain That France Would Like to Forget

Fact is stranger than fiction. Never mess with the Welsh, a lesson that the French learned much to their embarrassment.

Welsh women in national costume.

Welsh women in national costume.

The French Invasion Plot

The last invasion of Britain was a far more recent event than many people realise.

It was Britain's old adversary France that claimed the dubious honour of invaders, albeit rather unsuccessful ones.

Bristol in the late 1700s was England’s second busiest city, situated in the southwest of England. The ambitious post-revolution French government, known as the “Directory” and the French military had a plan to launch two decoy attacks and a real one in February 1797. With one fleet of ships landing in Bristol and another to sail to the northeast city of Newcastle, these incursions were intended to keep the English occupied as an invasion of Ireland was carried out.

After landing in Bristol, the French troops under the command of Chef de Brigade William Tate, an Irish-American rumoured septuagenarian, but probably in his forties, were to disembark, cross the England-Wales border into Wales and march north to Liverpool and Chester.

What could be simpler the French powers thought, presumably congratulating themselves with a glass or two of vin rouge.

The Legion Noire Sets Sail for Angleterre

Tate and his 1400 soldiers set sail from Camaret in northwest France on the 18th February 1797. Napoleon Bonaparte had commandeered the better soldiers for his other European campaigns so of the 1400 onboard the ships destined for Bristol there were countless jailbirds, deserters, French royalists and reprobates who were added to a mass of poorly trained and inadequate soldiers. A great number of the men were attired in British army uniforms from the captured and dead of previous battles that had been dyed black. This earned them the name Legion Noire.

The good old British weather made docking and disembarkation at Bristol harbour impossible because it was far too windy. Tate revised the plan and travelled on towards southwest Wales.

Fishguard in Wales in relation to Bristol.

Fishguard in Wales in relation to Bristol.

A Successful Invasion of Britain?

On the 22nd February Tate and his soldiers found themselves at Carregwasted Point near the village of Llanwnda approximately three miles from Fishguard in Pembrokeshire. Tate decided to launch the invasion and late on the 22nd and in the early hours of the next day his soldiers disembarked and were given their weapons. Tate sent the fleet of warships back to France with great news for the Directory that the invasion was a success. A pronouncement made too early and to his great regret.

A depiction of the French army landing at Carregwastad Point near Fishguard.

A depiction of the French army landing at Carregwastad Point near Fishguard.

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Profiter de la vie! Eat, Drink and be Merry!

Many of the soldiers were not keen on discipline and deserted as they were more interested in the fine food and wine from a Portuguese ship that had been grounded nearby in the days prior to the invasion and they looted in the villages in the area. Sumptuous spoils were devoured by men accustomed to prison and army rations. Of course, the feast of food was accompanied by alcohol. Soon the soldiers were far too drunk to contemplate any sort of campaign, not that they cared.

Welshwoman Jemima Nicholas: Jemima Fawr

The hero of the Battle of Fishguard, as it became known, was a feisty 47-year-old cobblers wife named Jemima Nicholas or Jemima Fawr – Jemima the Great. Using her pitchfork she rounded up twelve French soldiers and was able to lock them in St. Mary’s Church before going in search of more invaders to incarcerate. Her bravery earned her a pension for the rest of her life. When she died aged 82 in 1832 a plaque was commissioned to record her actions of February 1797.

Heroic Jemima Nicholas was commemorated with this plaque.

Heroic Jemima Nicholas was commemorated with this plaque.

Redcoats or Welsh Women in National Costume?

There’s a tale that still gets told, but sadly has been long considered just a tale by historians, that it was not British soldiers who the French faced inebriated or sober, but a large group of Welsh women who were compelled to wait and watch any battles play out. The women were predominantly dressed in the Welsh national dress of black hats and red jackets and shawls that from a distance and under the influence of alcohol looked very similar to the “Redcoats” British army uniforms. According to author Phil Carradice, the truth was less spectacular, the French soldiers' lack of interest in the invasion led Tate to decide to surrender hours before the women arrived at the scene.

British Army Infantry uniforms in the 18th-19th centuries.

British Army Infantry uniforms in the 18th-19th centuries.

Surrender. Ooh la la!

Since the start of the debacle of an invasion, there had been a few skirmishes and tragically 33 deaths but the conflict ended at the Royal Oak Public House (it still exists) on the 25th February 1797 when Chef de Brigade Tate formally surrendered to the local militia commanded by John Campbell, Lord Cawdor. Tate was made a prisoner of war. His hollow proclamation of a successful invasion rang in his ears one assumes. He was transported back to France in 1798.

The other diversionary invasion set to land in Newcastle only made it as far as the French territories in the Netherlands. The Irish invasion floundered thanks to the inclement weather and poor planning. The French have never tried to invade Britain again, nor has any other country thankfully.

In 1997 a tapestry was produced to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the failed Welsh landing.

John Campbell, 1st Lord Cawdor. The Battle of Fishguard was surely the easiest of his career.

John Campbell, 1st Lord Cawdor. The Battle of Fishguard was surely the easiest of his career.

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Joanne Hayle

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