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Britain’s last invasion: Fishguard 1797


With the French Revolution raging across the channel, there was much alarm in Britain in 1797. The newly formed French revolutionary government devised a plan that involved harnessing the poor country folk of Britain to rally in support of the French liberators. When the French invading force landed at Fishguard in Pembrokeshire on 22 February, the last invasion of mainland Britain had begun.

Although the instructions to the Irish-American Colonel William Tate were clear, the actual purpose of the attack on Pembrokeshire is hardly so. French General Louis Lazare Hoche had devised a three-pronged attack on Britain aimed to help liberate Ireland – two forces would land in Britain as a diversionary effort, while the main body would land in Ireland. Adverse weather and ill-discipline halted two of the forces (Bantry Bay, Ireland in December 1796 and another abandoned expedition), but the third, aimed at attacking Bristol, or failing that, landing in Cardigan Bay in order to march to Liverpool, went ahead.

Yet, although the expedition may appear in retrospect to have been foolhardy, even suicidal, within the terms of reference set out, the objectives were clear. It was to cause as much damage to installations of various kinds as possible, and thus to draw valuable resources away from other areas where they were needed. Indeed this process had begun with military units from other parts of the country being sent to Pembrokeshire when the news broke of the invasion. 

When the invasion finally took place, it came as a complete surprise to the British government. The belief, and the policy based on that belief, had always been that if an attack were to be made, it would be made in the east of England. It had always seemed obvious that any invasion must be directed at the East Coast, and it was there that defensive installations and troops were concentrated including, a minor paradox - the Pembrokeshire militia being amongst them. The government minister Henry Dundas, Secretary of War, made this policy clear in a Memorandum on the Coasts and Bays of Great Britain and Ireland and their General Defence: ‘The coast of the Bristol Channel, St. George’s Channel & the North of Scotland demand such peculiar and great arrangements to attack them, that they probably do not enter into the contemplation of an Enemy, who has greater objects to aim at nearer at hand.’

What do we know about the invasion?

1. The French force was conveyed in four ships: two frigates La Vengeance and La Resistance, a corvette La Constance and a lugger Le Vatour. The commander was Commodore Jean Joseph Castagnier, and his log gives details of the voyage.

2. There were several sightings of the fleet as they made their journey. The ships had been seen on their journey off Lundy Island by the master of a sloop, and he reported the sighting to Samuel Hancorne, the collector of the port of Swansea. He duly reported to the Duke of Portland on 22 February that the master of the sloop St Ives had seen the French ships. On 23 February news arrived in a letter from Barnstaple which stated that the ‘Coast and Neighbourhood had been greatly alarmed by the appearance of three French frigates and a luggar’.

3. According to another report, from the commanding officer of the North Devon Regiment of volunteers, the French had ‘scuttled several merchantmen, and were attempting to destroy shipping in the harbour’. Although he does concede that ‘this affair may be misrepresented and exaggerated’, he nevertheless called out his volunteers to defend their king and country. On the other hand, the French commander, Castagnier, seems to confirm that he had been active, when he writes that he had to leave Dublin, whither he had gone when he left Cardigan Bay, in part because of bad weather but also because he was ‘cumbered with prisoners taken from the fourteen vessels we had sunk’. He also records that because of unfavourable weather he decided to leave the Bristol Channel and make for Cardigan Bay, ‘the second place assigned to me for landing the troops’. On Wednesday 22 February 1797 at noon, he saw St David’s Head, and at 4 p.m. he anchored in Cardigan Bay. 

4. At 5 p.m. the disembarkation began, in sixteen boats according to Williams, and by 4 a.m. on 23 February the French force had been landed with all their equipment at Carreg Wastad bay. 

5. The weather on 22 February was remarkably warm and clear with a calm sea. Having arrived in the bay, the force scaled the cliff, though they lost about eight men. This initial action was reported, via the Vatour, which had returned to Brest, and the army commander there, to the Minister of War. The latter was told that Tate had met no opposition and the arrival of the force had terrified the area. He advocated a follow up invasion. 

6. Having reached the top of the cliff, Lieutenant Barry St Leger, a native born Irishman, was sent on by Tate to establish a headquarters with some of the grenadiers. They did so at Trehowel Farm, just under a mile inland. The farmer, John Mortimer, and his staff had already escaped, and the house was locked. According to St Leger, against his orders the grenadiers smashed their way in. But, in what was to prove something of a disaster for the French, and a considerable advantage for the local defenders, John Mortimer had stocked his house, mostly with alcohol, in preparation for his wedding. Incidentally, the availability of drink was increased by the recent wrecking of a Portuguese ship carrying wine, from which many of the locals had stocked up, and which was then drunk by what were to become marauding groups. After a short absence, St Leger returned to Trehowel to find the party already drunk and threatening to burn the hay ricks. He claimed he managed to stop them. When Mortimer returned to his farm he discovered a considerable amount of damage, much of it wanton. For example, the window frames had been burnt, mattresses had been cut up and made into trousers, and a clock had been stolen. Mortimer was recompensed for his losses by the government.

7. When the invasion occurred, Colonel Thomas Knox, commanding officer of the Fishguard Volunteers, was at a ball at a prosperous farmhouse Tregwynt, some four miles from where the landing took place. Tregwynt was then occupied by a well-known, indeed distinguished, Pembrokeshire family called Harries. When news of the landing broke, the hostess and guests immediately took to their carriages and horses, grabbing what valuables they could and fled. To discover what was happening Knox went to Trehowel. Seeing the French ships and people fleeing Fishguard, he sent a message to Major Bowen to bring the Newport Division of the Volunteers to the village of Dinas, between Fishguard and Newport. A message had already been sent to the Lord Lieutenant, Lord Milford at Picton. This was followed by a message from Knox telling Milford that he intended to attack in the morning, if he judged that the numbers justified the risk.

8. News reached Haverfordwest  where a committee met in the Castle Inn to decide what to do. The commanding officer of the Pembrokeshire Militia was Lieutenant Colonel Colby. Although the Militia were on duty in Harwich, the Cardiganshire Militia were ordered from Pembroke where they had been guarding prisoners of war. The Pembroke Volunteers, led by Commanding Officer James Ackland, and the Pembrokeshire (Castlemartin) Yeomanry, led by Lord Cawdor, were ordered to join them. Captain Longcroft managed to draw on some small ships, as well as his own press gang, and reinforced Haverfordwest with cannons from naval vessels. Apart from the small contingent of seamen, none of the defenders were professional or experienced seamen – regular army units were on duty overseas – and so relied on locally raised units. It is believed the total force numbered almost 600, whereas the invading force was generally accepted to be around 1,225 in number.

9. When Lord Cawdor heard the news late on the evening of the 22 February, he immediately started mobilising the troops in the district. After crossing Pembroke by ferry he spoke to Lord Milford, suggesting that he (Cawdor) should take overall command. As he was in poor health, Milford initially agreed. However, he later changed his mind on the basis that Colby was the most senior Lieutenant Colonel in the country. The latter then told Knox about his appointment who was very much surprised because he thought he was in command. After much discussion Colby agreed to submit to Cawdor and Knox agreed to do the same.

10. In the meantime, there was movement in the French camp. Tate had ordered the disposition of troops on some of the commanding heights, such as Carnwnda, and they also prepared an ambush below Carn Gelli. Many of the troops were sent out ostensibly to forage and get horses, but this degenerated into plundering, looting and doing physical damage. The French also tried to enter Manorowen, the home of Rev. David Jones, the rector of Llangan in Glamorgan. Not succeeding there, they went to a farmhouse nearby called Trellewelyn, but fear of an ambush eventually drove the French away and they were later captured by the local militia.

11. St. Gwyndaf’s church in the tiny village of LLanwnda, which was very to near to the landing place, was vandalised. The invaders destroyed the church documentation and records, possibly to light fires. The silver communion set was also stolen, later turning up in Camarthen. It is commonly claimed that a French officer tried to pawn the cup and plate, and was immediately consigned to gaol. The communion set was returned to the Church wardens.

12. By nightfall on the evening of Thursday 23 February the local troops had arrived and were settled in Fishguard. Later that evening, Tate decided to try and negotiate a conditional surrender. He sent his second in command, Baron de Rochemure, and his aide-de-camp Francois L’Hanhard who could speak English, to find Knox whom he assumed to be in command. Tate offered to surrender on the condition that the entire force should be returned to France. They were guided to a house in Fishguard which in later years would become a public house called the Royal Oak by Thomas Williams of Caerlem. They met Knox and handed him a letter explaining their mission. A discussion took place between the senior officers who decided to reject the approach and insist on unconditional surrender. Tate had until 10 a.m. on 24 February to suurender on Goodwick Sands, otherwise the French would be attacked.

13. By 8 a.m. on 24 February the British forces were lined up in battle order on Goodwick Sands. As these local troops were being deployed, Cawdor rode over to Trehowel where Tate agreed to the unconditional surrender. According to reports, Tate was confused and frightened when he gave up his sword to Cawdor. The scene on Goodwick Sands was just as pathetic. Having stacked their arms, the prisoners waited until there were boats to carry them round to Fishguard. Furthermore, some accounts claim that many of the men were ‘very ill of a flux’ which they had brought over with them and that some even died.

14. The officers, having being separated from the men for reasons of mutual safety as well as security, marched the French prisoners through Fishguard and a further fifteen miles to Haverfordwest. The French officers went by a different route, the most senior on horseback. Upon arrival in Haverfordwest the officers, including Tate, were confined in the Castle Inn. The next day, 25 February, the majority went on to Camarthen, where upon arrival on 26 February they stayed at the historic Ivy Bush Inn, the best hotel in town. Here they remained until 28 February, when they were put in prison.

After brief imprisonment, Tate was returned to France in a prisoner exchange in 1798, along with most of his invasion force. In 1997, a magnificent 30 metre tapestry was produced to mark the bicentenary of the 1797 invasion.

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