After the outbreak of war between Britain and France in 1793, General Lazare Hoche decided to take the war onto British soil. In 1796 he planned a full scale invasion of Ireland, which would be supported by the United Irishmen. An expedition of 15,000 men was organised and to prevent British reinforcements being sent to Ireland and to create panic on the mainland two smaller expeditions were planned.
A force would cross the North Sea, land in the northeast, win the support of the working classes and march across northern England to Lancashire. Here they would link up with a smaller expedition, which would either have attacked Bristol or, failing that, would have landed in Cardigan Bay and threatened Liverpool. It was predicted that the Welsh and English working classes, like their Irish counterparts, would rise in the name of Liberty.
In December 1796, Hoche’s expedition arrived in Bantry Bay in Ireland but was scattered by atrocious weather and limped back into Brest. A combination of poor weather and indiscipline had also put paid to the northern expedition. But what of the other expedition?
Preparations went ahead in Brest but with the failure of the Irish invasion it is difficult to see why it set sail at all. Equally strange was the choice of its leader, a little known American of Irish descent called William Tate from South Carolina. He had fought against Britain in the American War of Independence. However, after that war he became deeply embroiled in French plans to capture New Orleans and fell foul of the American authorities. In 1795 he fled to Paris, hoping to be reimbursed for his expenses and demanding confirmation of his rank. Hoche thought that Tate was the right man to lead the Bristol expedition.
Most of the soldiers were kitted out from a stock of British uniforms which had been captured earlier. But these would only take dark brown dye so La Seconde Legion des Francs became known as “La Legion Noir” or the “Black Legion.” The force of over 1,200 men consisted of a mixture of republicans, deserters, royalist prisoners and grenadiers and they were very well armed. Some of the officers were Irish.
The quality of the four ships under Commodore Castagnier was impressive. Le Vengeance and La Resistance were two of the largest and newest French frigates; the latter was on her maiden voyage. The corvette La Constance and the lugger Vautour were also new. Castagnier’s instructions were to head for Irish waters after disembarking the soldiers.
Hoche’s instructions undoubtedly asked far too much of this expedition. Having burnt Bristol, Britain’s second largest city, the force was to land on the Welsh side of the Bristol Channel or failing this, in Cardigan Bay and then make for Chester or Liverpool.
Apart from this, the working classes were to be encouraged to rebel; Britain’s trade was to be dislocated and French prisoners of war liberated, causing such chaos as to make the invasion of Britain possible. Hoche warned Tate that he should not risk battle unless it was absolutely essential, since the enemy would have superior forces.
The squadron left Brest on 16th February 1797. Flying Russian colours they lurked around Lundy, sinking a few small craft while waiting for a suitable tide to take them to Bristol. Skillfully using the tides to reach Porlock, Castagnier was finally forced to abandon the project because of adverse winds. The inhabitants of Ilfracombe sounded the alarm as they passed and the local volunteers were mobilised. Following instructions, Tate now insisted on making for Cardigan Bay. But there had been several sightings of them and the authorities had been alerted.
By noon on Wednesday 22nd February, Castagnier was spotted rounding St. David’s Head in Pembrokeshire, flying British colours. At 4 p.m. the French anchored in perfect weather off Carreg Wastad, a rocky headland three miles west of Fishguard. By 2 a.m. on Thursday 23rd February, 17 boatloads of troops, 47 barrels of powder, 50 tons of cartridges and grenades and 2,000 stands of arms had been brought ashore. This was indeed a magnificent feat. A company of grenadiers under Irishman, Lieutenant St. Leger rushed a mile inland and took over Trehowel Farm, which became Tate’s headquarters. La Seconde Legion des Francs had succeeded in making the last landing by enemy soldiers on the British mainland.
When one of the French ships entered Fishguard Bay to reconnoitre, Fishguard Fort fired a blank shot. Whether this was the customary signal to a visiting British vessel or the alarm for the Fishguard Volunteers, it saved Fishguard! The ship promptly hoisted the French tricolour and sailed away to rejoin the others. Although Fishguard Fort had eight nine-pounders, there were only three rounds in the magazine and the small port could have easily been taken.
With the loss of the American colonies in 1783, the last Under-Secretary of State, William Knox, decided in 1784 to purchase estates in Pembrokeshire and his mansion at Llanstinan was only 4 miles from Fishguard. When the Government called for volunteers in the war against the French, Knox raised the Fishguard and Newport Volunteer Infantry in 1794, one of the earliest in the kingdom. Having raised four companies, totalling nearly three hundred men, it was the largest force in the county and his son, Thomas Knox, was appointed Lieutenant Colonel. At the time of the French landing, Knox was 28 years old with no combat experience. He was attending a social function at Tregwynt Mansion when news of a suspected enemy landing was brought to him. Initially he gave it little credence but as the seriousness of the situation dawned on him he instructed his Newport Division to march the seven miles to his headquarters at Fishguard Fort.
Lord Cawdor was 30 miles away at Stackpole Court in the far south of the county when he received the news. He had been commissioned captain of the Castlemartin Troop of the Pembroke Yeomanry Cavalry, which fortunately was assembled for a funeral on the following day. He immediately mobilised all the troops at his disposal and crossed the Pembroke Ferry with the Pembroke Volunteers and the Cardiganshire Militia. Once across, Cawdor went ahead and met Lord Milford, the Lord Lieutenant of the county, who delegated full authority to him.
Most of the credit for gathering about 400 soldiers and sailors at Haverfordwest was due to the energy of Lieutenant Colonel Colby of the Pembrokeshire Militia. Having summoned the troops to Haverfordwest, he had galloped the sixteen miles to Fishguard to assess Knox’s situation. Satisfied that Knox was taking appropriate measures, he returned to Haverfordwest to supervise the arrival of the local forces. Captain Longcroft of the navy brought in the press gangs and the crews of two revenue cutters at Milford, totalling about 150 sailors. Nine cannons were brought ashore, of which six were placed in Haverfordwest castle, and the others brought along. Due to Colby’s exertions the force under Cawdor set off at noon, 23rd February from the Castle Inn, Haverfordwest to reinforce Knox, who was facing the French at Fishguard with his Fishguard Volunteers.
Knox had declared his intention of attacking the following day if he was not heavily outnumbered. Colby wrote later that he had suggested placing troops on the heights opposite the French to discourage them from moving until reinforcements arrived. Knox denied this but had sent out scouting parties to assess the French strength.
The French had moved a further two miles inland and occupied two strong defensive positions at Garnwnda and Garngelli, high rocky outcrops giving an unobstructed view of the surrounding countryside. Thus far all had gone well for Tate and his force.
On the morning of 23rd February, a hundred of Knox’s men had still not arrived and he soon learned that he was facing an enemy of over 1200 men, who could have been seasoned veterans. This was a different proposition to the skirmishing role of their training. Although many inhabitants were fleeing the area in panic, hundreds of civilians were flocking into the area armed with a variety of crude weaponry.
Poor Knox faced a dilemma – to attack, to defend Fishguard, or to retreat towards his reinforcements, which he knew would be moving towards him from Haverfordwest. He decided to retreat slowly towards Haverfordwest. He gave orders to spike the Fort’s cannons (which the Woolwich Bombadiers refused to carry out) and at about 9 a.m. he set off, sending out scouts to keep watch on the French. The Defence Committee at Haverfordwest agreed with this decision, which was to have grave repercussions for Knox later. Fishguard was now completely at Tate’s mercy.
Knox and his 194 men met the reinforcements led by Lord Cawdor and Colby at Trefgarne, 8 miles from Fishguard at 1.30 p.m. Colby was surprised to see him. After a short dispute Cawdor was accepted as Commander-in-Chief and he led the British forces back towards Fishguard.
By 5 p.m. the force had arrived within a mile of Fishguard and Cawdor decided to attack. Considering the darkness, this was indeed risky to say the least. The 600 men, dragging their cannons, marched up the narrow Trefwrgi Lane, with its high hedges, towards the French position on Garngelli. But a French advance party, under Irishman Lieutenant St. Leger, had prepared an ambush. A volley poured into the tightly compressed column at point blank range would have resulted in heavy casualties. Boxed into the lane, the force was in a potential death trap. Seemingly oblivious to this, Cawdor decided to withdraw to Fishguard, since they were losing their bearings in the darkness, and avoided the ambush awaiting him by a few hundred yards. So the force prepared to spend the night in Fishguard and the officers were based in today’s Royal Oak Inn.
However, Tate’s fortunes had changed. Many of his foraging parties had resorted to pillaging the local farms and Llanwnda Church. Indiscipline was getting out of hand with examples of mutinous men threatening their officers. It became obvious to Tate that the local Welsh peasants were hostile to his force of ‘liberators’ and six peasants and soldiers had been killed in clashes. Many of the Irish officers were counselling surrender, realising what would be in store for them if hostilities continued. The departure of Castagnier’s squadron as planned for Ireland had shocked and demoralised the men who had seen their escape route vanish over the horizon.
There is strong evidence that the French were deceived by the appearance in the neighbourhood of large numbers of local womenfolk wearing the traditional dress of red shawls and black hats, which at a distance resembled infantry uniforms. It is certain that inhabitants over a wide area were flocking towards Fishguard to attack the enemy. The formidable local cobbler, Jemima Nicholas, (pictured) captured a dozen demoralised French soldiers and secured them in St. Mary’s Church.
That evening, two French delegates arrived at the Royal Oak to negotiate a conditional surrender and Tate wrote: To the Officer commanding His Britannic Majesty’s Troops. 5th. year of the Republic. 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 tend only 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.
But Cawdor with magnificent bluff replied that with the superior numbers at his command, which were increasing hourly, he would only accept an unconditional surrender and gave an ultimatum of 10 a.m. the following morning, otherwise the French would be attacked.
On the following morning the British force was lined up in battle-order on the high ground overlooking Goodwick, reinforced by hundreds of civilians from all parts of the county, to await Tate’s response. Tate, however, accepted the terms and finally after some delay, at 2 p.m. Friday 24th. February 1797, with drums beating but without their banners, the French marched down to Goodwick Beach where they stacked their weapons. At 4 p.m. the French prisoners were marched through Fishguard on their way to temporary imprisonment in Haverfordwest. Later a group of prisoners made a daring escape from the Golden Prison in Pembroke by stealing Cawdor’s yacht!
Meanwhile, Cawdor had ridden to Trehowel Farm and received Tate’s surrender, although the document has been lost. After his surrender and brief imprisonment in Portsmouth, Tate was returned to France in a prisoner exchange in 1798. He was involved in bitter wrangling with the French authorities and was last mentioned in 1809 when he probably sailed back to America.
Castagnier had sent Vautour back to France with his dispatches. En route to Ireland the squadron sank eleven ships but they dallied too long in Irish waters and La Constance, helping La Resistance, crippled by storm damage were intercepted by two British frigates and were captured. La Resistance was renamed H.M.S. Fisgard. Castagnier, aboard Le Vengeance, made it safely into Brest.
Undoubtedly Cawdor was the hero of the hour. He, Knox and others were congratulated, received the royal gratitude from George III and countless local honours. However, a whispering campaign started against Knox. Accused of cowardice and poor judgement his name was ruined and eventually he challenged his accuser, Cawdor, to a duel, which was probably not fought.
In 1853 Lord Palmerston conferred upon the Pembroke Yeomanry the battle honour ‘Fishguard.’ This regiment has the unique honour of being the only one in the British Army, regular or territorial, that bears the name of an engagement on British soil and it was the first battle honour to be awarded to any volunteer unit.