The Battle of Fishguard: overview of the last invasion of Britain in 1797

The Battle of Fishguard

On 22nd February 1797  the last invasion of Britain by a hostile foreign force began when French troops under the command of the Irish-American Colonel William Tate landed near the Welsh town of Fishguard.

Britain joined the War of the First Coalition against Revolutionary France in 1793. Three years later the French General Lazare Hoche devised a plan to invade Britain in support of the Republican Society of United Irishmen under Wolfe Tone.

Two of the three intended invasion forces were stopped by poor weather, leaving only the 1,400 troops of La Legion Noire (The Black Legion) to launch their attack on Bristol. Since the professional French army was serving under Napoleon in Europe, La Legion Noire included 800 irregular soldiers ranging from republicans to recently-released Royalist prisoners. Well equipped, and dressed in dyed captured British uniforms that gave them their name, they arrived off the English coast in four warships. Unable to land in Bristol due to adverse weather, Colonel Tate instead anchored at Carregwastad Head near the Welsh town of Fishguard late on 22 February.

Soldiers and equipment were put ashore as darkness fell, faced only by a small force of volunteers under Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Knox. When dawn came Knox realised that he was heavily outnumbered and retreated to meet up with reinforcements led by Lord Cawdor. By this time the undisciplined French troops had begun looting local settlements where they became increasingly drunk after finding wine from a recently-wrecked Portuguese vessel.

A number of locals soon joined the defence, including cobbler’s wife Jemima Nicholas who single-handedly rounded up 12 Frenchmen and locked them in a church. With his troops in disarray, Tate submitted to an unconditional surrender on 24 February.

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