The Battle of Fishguard was a military invasion of Great Britain by Revolutionary France during the War of the First Coalition – the first major effort of multiple European monarchies to contain Revolutionary France. The brief campaign, which took place between the 22nd of February and 24th of February 1797 near Fishguard, a coastal town in Pembrokeshire, south-west Wales. It was the most recent effort by a foreign force that was able to land on Britain, and thus is often referred to as the last invasion of Britain.
The invasion was the plan of General Lazare Hoche. He proposed to land 15,000 French troops in Ireland to support Theobald Wolfe Tone and the Irish Republicans at Bantry Bay. As a diversionary attack to draw away British reinforcements, two smaller forces would land at Great Britain, one in northern England near Newcastle and another in Wales.
The overall aim was to start an uprising against the English using the deep-rooted patriotism and nationalist pride in the Celtic regions of Britain, and march onwards to Bristol, Chester, Liverpool and finally London.
General Lazare Hoche had devised a three-pronged attack on Britain in support of Irish Republicans under Wolfe Tone. Two forces would land in Britain as a diversionary effort, while the main body would land in Ireland. However, poor weather and indiscipline halted two of the forces, although the third, aimed at landing in Wales and marching on Bristol, went ahead.
The invasion force consisted of 1,400 troops from the La Legion Noire under the command of Irish American Colonel William Tate, 800 of whom were irregulars.
Colonel William Tate, an Irish-American from South Carolina, was the Commander-in-Chief of the Expeditionary Force. He had fought against the British during the American War of Independence, but after a failed coup d’etat in New Orleans, he fled to Paris in 1795. Under his command was La Seconde Legion des Francs, more commonly known as La Legion Noire due to their use of captured British uniforms dyed very dark brown/black. The force consisted of 600 regular troops that Napoleon Bonaparte had not required in his conquest of Italy, and another 800 irregular troops which consisted of republicans, deserters, convicts and Royalist prisoners. They were all well-armed, and some of their officers were Irish.
Transported on four French warships Tate’s forces landed at Carregwastad Head near Fishguard on the 22nd of February, after a failed attempt to enter Fishguard harbour itself. However, upon landing, discipline broke down amongst the irregulars, many of whom deserted to loot nearby settlements.
The remaining troops were met by a quickly assembled group of around 500 British reservists, militia and sailors under the command of John Campbell, 1st Baron Cawdor. After brief clashes with the local civilian population and Lord Cawdor’s forces on the 23rd of February Tate was finally forced into an unconditional surrender after a day of fighting. Later, the British captured two of the expedition’s vessels, a frigate and a corvette.
Almost a century later in 1853, amidst fears of another invasion by the French, Lord Palmerston conferred upon the Pembroke Yeomanry the battle honour Fishguard. This regiment has the unique honour of being the only regiment in the British Army, regular or territorial, that bears a battle honour for an engagement on the British mainland. It was also the first battle honour awarded to a volunteer unit.
The wreck of a rowing boat believed to belong to the invasion fleet was found in 2003 and lies off Strumble Head. England has seen more invasions than we remember.