The Last Invasion of Britain and the Battle of Fishguard in 1797


22 February 1797, the Last Invasion of Britain, known as the Battle of Fishguard, began with the landing of French troops on the coast of south-western Wales.
“SIR,—I have had the honour to lay before the Queen the memorial of the officers, non-commissioned officers, and privates of the Castle Martin Yeomanry Cavalry (which you transmitted to me), and I have the satisfaction to inform you that Her Majesty is graciously pleased to approve of the corps bearing the word ‘Fishguard’ on their standard and appointments. “I have the honour to be, sir, “Your obedient servant, “PALMERSTON.“


From " Baker's Picturesque Guide to the Local Beauties in Wales" - Militia being rowed ashore during the Last Invasion of Britain (1797)


As hare-brained as Le Directoire’s scheme to raid on British soil with 1.500 men seems in hindsight, especially after the complete disaster of the failed invasion of Ireland’s Bantry Bay in December 1796, it wasn’t quite that quixotic back in the day. The cunning plan of General Lazare Roche was to fall upon three spots, two in Britain and one, once again, in Ireland to support the Republicans under Wolf Tone while the two others would create a considerable diversion, free French prisoners and stir the local populace under the yoke of the local squirearchy up to rebellion. Not too far fetched if the great mutinies are taken into consideration that began in March when the Royal Navy’s whole Channel and North Sea squadrons rebelled. If the advance planning of Roche’s invasion plans was that advanced is a wholly different matter. However, two brand new French frigates and two smaller vessels, laden with 1,500 men, some line infantry but mainly newly released jailbirds, British deserters and adventurers of all types under the command of the Irish-American chef de brigade William Tate, left Brest for Bristol on 16th February 1797.




Jemima Fawr's finest hour (from a mid-19th century cartoon)


Bad weather kept the other French invasion fleet in port and the squadron under Commodore Jean-Joseph Castagnier out of the Bristol Channel, they were sighted nevertheless, and neither did their landing at Carreg Wastad, a couple of miles from Fishguard in Pembrokeshire, go completely unnoticed, even at the back of beyond. However, Tate’s “Legion Noir” were the last enemy soldiers setting foot on the British mainland. A few weeks before though, a Portuguese merchantman had run aground there at Cardigan Bay, laden with port and other spirituous beverages and the locals, not idle, had salvaged the cargo that now became a prize of the invading French and pop went the “Legion Noir’s” discipline. On the morning of February 23rd, Colonel Tate was left with a brigade that was passed out drunk, by and large, some had vanished into the Welsh hills and only his 600 regulars were fit for service while the hastily concentrated militia under John Campbell, Lord Cawdor, the local bigwig, came around to challenge them. Cawdor’s meagre militia was, as legend has it, bolstered by the local womenfolk wearing their traditional red and white costumes with their tall black shako-like stovepipe hats that must have looked like army redcoats from afar. Believing to be vastly outnumbered, Tate surrendered unconditionally on February 24th to Cawdor and the farce of the last invasion of Britain was finished.


HMS "Fisgard", ex "Résistance" in action: capturing "Immortalité" in 1798


And while the navy rounded up half of the French squadron and the former “Résistance” became HM frigate “Fisgard”, another venerable heroine sprung forth from the local population, the Fishguard cobbler’s wife Jemima Nicholas who took a pitchfork and captured 12 French soldiers all on her own and marched them into town to be locked up in St Mary’s Church, earning her the nom de guerre Jemima Fawr (Welsh for “the Great”). In 1853, the British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston conferred the battle honour “Fishguard” upon the Pembroke Yeomanry, a singular distinction since it is the only one awarded for an engagement more or less fought on British soil and the events were remembered on their 200th anniversary in 1997 with the “Invasion Tapestry” á la Hastings and Bayeux, created by the local artist Elizabeth Cramp and  a “Fishguard Arts Society community project. Over 70 women stitched for two years to make the finished work using 97 different colours of embroidery thread.”