MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 1797: THE FRENCH INVASION OF WALES
An article kindly supplied by Nick Brazil, author, film maker and photographer.
The French Plan to Invade Ireland
In 1797, the revolutionary French General Lazare Hoche devised a bold military action that, had it worked, could well have changed the shape of European politics. Hoche was a remarkable general in many ways. At the age of 29, he had risen rapidly up the ranks of the Revolutionary French army. His quick thinking, ruthlessness and tactical brilliance enabled him to decisively defeat the Royalist forces in Northern France by the summer of 1796.
After that he set upon the task of bringing down the British Government. His plan was to launch a threefold military invasion. The first prong was to invade Ireland, landing 15,000 troops in Bantry Bay to support the insurrection against British rule by the United Irishmen. They were an indigenous movement fighting for Ireland’s independence from British rule.
The invasion force off Bantry Bay
With the British Forces tied down in this fight, the French would launch their second prong which was to attack and capture Newcastle. The third force of 1400 men would land in Wales and march on Bristol with the aim of capturing it.
It was indeed a bold plan and, had it worked could well have brought down the British Government replacing it with a revolutionary regime on the lines of the one in France. But, as with so many military actions it was brought down by a combination of bad weather and bad discipline. Someone really should have warned Hoche about winter weather around the British Isles. And, come to think of it, someone really should have provided him with better troops.
When the French invasion force arrived in Bantry Bay on the West Coast of Ireland in December 1796, the weather was truly atrocious. In fact it was so bad they had to return to France without landing one soldier to support their Irish allies. A similar disaster befell the force attempting to invade the North of England. A combination of heavy seas and mutinous recruits compelled the invasion force to return to France without ever reaching Newcastle.
At least the third invading force actually made it onto British soil. On 22nd February 1797 the French invaders landed at Carregwastad Point near Fishguard. They were commanded by Colonel William Tate an Irish American mercenary with a visceral hatred of the British. He had already seen action against the British in the American War of Independence in which he served as a lieutenant in the 4th Regiment (Artillery) of the South Carolina line.
Like many men of action, the boredom of the peace following the war must have hung heavily upon him. So, when the opportunity to take part in a clandestine military adventure presented itself Tate must have jumped at it. In this case the French consul in Charleston had hatched a plan to snatch the town of Pensacola from the clutches of the Spanish Empire. No doubt the consul was delighted to have an experienced soldier on board. Now elevated to the rank of Colonel in the French Army Tate was given the task of raising the Indian tribes against the Spanish Oppressor.
The only problem was that the new American Government decided it had quite enough of war thank you and that included fighting the Spanish Empire. So in 1795 it sat firmly on the French Consul’s little military venture. At this point Tate abruptly left for Paris, probably to avoid a long term in an American prison. Not that the French capital did not suit the colonel very well, filled as it was with revolutionaries of every hue.
Tate soon fell in with fellow Irishman Wolf Tone a founder member of The Society of United Irishmen a movement dedicated to freeing Ireland from British Rule. When Lazare Hoche was putting together his campaign to invade Ireland and Britain, Colonel Tate seemed the ideal man to lead the charge.
The French landing
The French force invading Wales was heavily armed and far outnumbered the local forces of 700 men. They consisted of 300 part time soldiers, 250 militiamen and 150 sailors. With such favourable odds, the invasion should have been a pushover. But, unfortunately 800 of the invading force were made up largely of convicts whose lack of military calibre and motivation showed up as soon as they landed. Once on dry land, they broke up into small groups looting local farmsteads. They also happened upon a grounded Portuguese merchantmen with its cargo of wine. With that, the invasion force began to disintegrate into a drunken rabble.
As they moved inland towards Fishguard, the remainder of the invaders were confronted by a local force of 500 men led by a rather unlikely military general in the form of John Campbell Ist Baron of Cawdor. A keen art collector and philanthropist, Campbell was far more at home bartering for Italian antiques than on the field of battle. Nevertheless, he and his motley crew of irregulars seemed to have acquitted themselves fairly well. By the time Tate threw in the towel and surrendered a couple of days later, 33 of his men had been killed and another 1360 had been captured along with two of the French warships that had brought them.
Jemina The Great
No account of the last invasion of Britain is complete without the inclusion of a truly formidable Welsh lady called “Jemima Fawr or Jemima The Great”. As soon as she heard of the “invasion” Jemima Nicholas the 47 year old wife of a local cobbler left the village of Llanwnda armed only with a pitchfork. It was not long before she returned with a group of terrified captives who were promptly incarcerated in a local church.
Tate and his invasion force unconditionally surrendered on Goodwick Sands, near Fishguard on 24th February 1797. After a brief period of imprisonment Tate and the French force were returned to France. Tate then returned to America a disappointed man. He was last reported to be living there in 1809 but after that he disappeared off the radar of history.
As for General Lazare Hoche the originator of the invasion, he did not fare so well either. Soon after the debacle he was transferred to the Rhine Front where the French were fighting the Austrians. Under his command, the French army beat the Austrians at The Battle of Neuwied in April 1797. He was then briefly the French Minister of War before being forced out in a political stitch up. Hoche would never fulfil his potential as a brilliant military commander and died of tuberculosis on 19th September 1797.
The Battle of Fishguard was the high point in John Campbell Ist Baron of Cawdor’s life. Apart from becoming Mayor of Carmarthen in 1808, he appears to have achieved little else of public note until his death in 1821. But no doubt, he dined out many times on his account of how he beat “Boney’s Troops” at the Battle of Fishguard.
Fifty six years after the abortive invasion, in 1853 Lord Palmerston conferred the battle honour Fishguard on the Pembrokeshire Yeomanry. At a time of heightened tension between Britain and France when it looked as if the French might try another invasion, this was probably a morale boosting exercise. But the honour is still proudly held by the successor to the Yeomanry now known as 224 (Pembroke Yeomanry) Squadron of the Royal Logistical Corps. As such, it is the only battle honour held by any British Army unit for a military action on the British mainland.
From The Football War and Other Strange Conflicts by Nick Brazil
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