The Last French Invasion

By Terry John Calendar

At about midday on Wednesday 22 February 1797, Thomas Williams Esquire, a retired sailor and owner of Trelethin estate near St Davids was taking his usual stroll along the coast when he saw a squadron of four ships of war off the North Bishop Rock. Peering at them through his telescope, he was surprised to see that their decks were crammed with troops. Each of the ships was flying the British flag, but Mr Williams were certain that they were French. 

A message was sent into St Davids, warning of the enemy vessels, but Mr Williams decided to keep an eye on them. He followed their progress for the rest of the afternoon and at about four o’clock saw them rounding Strumble Head and moving on towards Fishguard.

What Mr Williams had witnessed was the beginning of the Last Invasion of Britain. It was something that the Government had feared  since the outbreak of war between Britain and Revolutionary France in 1793. The fleet heading for Fishguard was part of a much bigger plan which, had it succeeded, might have brought Britain to its knees.

Invasion Plans

For several years prior to 1797, France had been developing a scheme for a full scale invasion of Ireland. A force of 15,000 men would land near Bantry Bay and would receive the backing of Irish revolutionaries. In order to create panic in Britain itself and to tie up British forces on their own soil, two smaller expeditions were to take place. One would land in north-east England, whilst the second would attack Bristol or land somewhere in Cardigan Bay and head for Liverpool. It was confidently expected that the working classes of England and Wales would flock to help their liberators.

In the event, the main invasion force reached Bantry Bay in December 1796, but experienced severe storms, which damaged and scattered the ships. The demoralised fleet headed back towards France. Plans still went ahead for the attack on Bristol and Wales.

Four ships were prepared under Commodore Castagnier. Two, Le Vengeance and La Resistance were two of the newest and largest warship in the French navy. The others two, La Constance and  Le Vautour were also new but smaller. The invading army that was to be shipped across the Channel in these vessels consisted of 1,200 men, some of whom were regular soldiers, whilst others were deserters and royalist prisoners. Some of the officers were Irish and it has been alleged but never proved that one of the soldiers was a man named James Bowen. He was originally a farm servant at Trehowel Farm near Fishguard, who had been transported for stealing a horse. The ship carrying him had been captured by a French warship and he ended up in France.

Even more amazingly, the invaders were kitted out in British uniforms captured earlier in the war. A dark brown dye was used to change the uniform colour and the men wearing them became known as the Legion Noir, or Black Legion.

And just to add a further unlikely element to the whole affair, the leader of the expedition was an American of Irish descent named William Tate. He came from South Carolina and had fought against the British in the American War of Independence. He had fled to France in 1795 after becoming involved in a French plot to capture New Orleans and was thought by the French authorities to be the right man to lead the attack on Bristol.

The squadron left Brest on 16th February 1797 and headed for the Bristol Channel. Adverse winds prevented a landing in the vicinity of Bristol, so Tate decided upon an assault on Wales. The element of surprise was gone, however; the fleet had been sighted passing Ilfracombe and the authorities had been alerted.

The Landing

At 4pm on the afternoon of Wednesday 22nd February, the four ship dropped anchor off the rocky headland of Carreg Wasted, three miles west of Fishguard. In calm seas, troops and supplies were put ashore in Aber Felin, a little cove in the shelter of Carreg Wasted. By 2a.m. on the following morning, some 50 barrels of gunpowder, 50 tons of cartridges and grenades and 2,000 stands of arms were being manhandled by the 1,200 troops up the steep slopes of Aber Felin to the high ground.

One of the Irish officers, Barry St Leger, now led a group of grenadiers to Trehowel Farm, a mile away and occupied it. It was to become Tate’s headquarters. It may be that James Bowen, formerly a farm hand at Trehowel, had recommended the house as a suitable base.

Misfortune

So far, then, so good. The Legion Noir had successfully set foot on enemy soil and seemed to pose a threat to the peace and security of the realm. In reality, fortune now turned against the French. In the late afternoon of Thursday 23rd, the four French warships set sail towards Ireland to attack shipping, leaving Tate and his men with no means of escape. 

A possible chance to seize the town of Fishguard had already been lost. On the afternoon of the landings, one of the French ships had sailed into Fishguard Bay, to be greeted by a blank shot fired from Fishguard Fort. This might have been a customary welcoming signal to a British vessel, or it might have been meant to alert the Fishguard Volunteers. Whatever the truth, the French hurriedly retreated. Although there were eight cannon within the fort, very little ammunition was held in storage and the town could easily have fallen.

By the second day of the invasion, the discipline of the Black Legion was breaking down. Foraging parties were pillaging local farms and amongst the goods they stole was an unexpected bonus. A few weeks earlier a ship carrying a cargo of alcohol had been wrecked on the coast and much of  it had found its way into nearby homes. Many of the soldiers were now drunk and incapable of obeying orders. When some of their officers attempted to intimidate the men, they were threatened with violence.

It was also becoming obvious that the local population was hostile to the French and would offer no help. Clashes had already occurred and there were at least six deaths. There is also evidence that the French had spotted in the distance what appeared to be British troops dressed in their usual uniform of red jackets and black headgear. In fact they were deceived. Groups of local women wearing the traditional dress of red shawls and black hats had gathered on a number of vantage points to watch the movements of the enemy. One formidable lady, the famous Jemima Nicholas, armed with a pitchfork, had captured six terrified Frenchmen and had locked them up in St Mary’s Church.

An Army Assembles

And, as Tate must have suspected, armed troops were assembling to oppose him. At Fishguard, the men of the Fishguard Volunteers, led by Lieutenant Colonel Knox had decided not to meet the invaders in battle, outnumbered as they were, and were retreating towards Haverfordwest in the hope of reinforcements. He may also have known that Tate had managed to set up two strong defensive positions at Garnwnda and Garngelli, high rocky outcrops with a clear view of the surrounding countryside.

At Haverfordwest itself a force of 400 soldiers and sailors had gathered under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Colby. At Stackpole Court, south of Pembroke, Lord Cawdor had called up the Pembroke Volunteers and the Cardiganshire Militia and headed to a rendezvous with Colby. Reinforced by 8 cannon, the little army set off from Haverfordwest at noon on 23rd February. About eight miles from Fishguard they met up with Knox’s retreating force, which joined them on the march to Fishguard.

As dusk began to fall, Cawdor and his men were within a mile of Fishguard. It was decided to attack and orders were given for an advance towards Garngelli. As they struggled to drag their cannon up the narrow Trefwrgi Lane, they didn’t realise that they were walking into an ambush. A French advance party waited to open fire upon them. In the confines of the narrow lane, with its high hedges, the death roll would have been considerable. However, at the last minute, Cawdor decided to withdraw to Fishguard and so avoided what might have been a massacre.

Surrender

By the evening of 23rd February, as Cawdor entered Fishguard, many of Tate’s officers had become worried about what the future held. Faced with an unknown number of British troops, with no hope of escape and with indiscipline rife, they counselled surrender. Tate, knowing he had no real options, agreed.

Later that evening two French officers arrived at the Royal Oak Inn, where Cawdor was based. They requested terms for a conditional surrender, but Cawdor replied that, with the  superior numbers at his command, he would only accept unconditional surrender. Moreover, if Tate did not comply by ten o’clock the next morning, the British would attack.

On the morning of Friday, 24th February, Cawdor’s force was lined up in battle order on the slopes overlooking Goodwick. Cawdor himself had ridden out to Trehowel Farm to receive Tate’s surrender. The document, if one was formally signed, has since been lost. At about 2pm, the French marched down to Goodwick beach with drums beating, though without banners flying. Their weapons were stacked upon the sands and they were then marched off to Haverfordwest, where they were temporarily housed in the town’s churches. The French invasion of Pembrokeshire was over.

In the aftermath of the event, Tate was imprisoned at Portsmouth, though he was returned to France in 1798 in a prisoner exchange. Many of the ordinary French soldiers eventually reached their homeland, though one group, locked up in the Golden Prison in Pembroke, broke out and stole Lord Cawdor’s yacht, escaping to France.

The last Invasion Remembered

The Lat Invasion is still well remembered in Pembrokeshire. At the Royal Oak pub visitors may still see the table around which Cawdor and the two French delegates sat to discuss the terms of surrender. Some weapons used in the invasion are also on display. In the grounds of the nearby St Mary’s Church is a memorial to the redoubtable Jemima Nicholas. Another memorial stone on the headland at Carreg Wasted records the spot where the French came ashore. Trehowel Farm still exists, largely unaltered, though as a working farm it is not open to the public. Brestgarn Farm houses an unusual reminder of the Invasion, a grandfather clock with a bullet hole. Apparently one of the marauding Frenchmen, alarmed by the ticking of the clock, fired his musket into it. Like Trehowel, Brestgarn is a private residence and is not open to visitors.

The most spectacular reminder of the event is the 100 foot long Last Invasion Tapestry. This stunning work of art was embroidered by over 70 local people and took two years to complete. It is now housed in a special gallery in the public library within the precincts of Fishguard Town Hall. Don’t miss it!

Categories:History, Pembrokeshire

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