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Introduction ~ Aberffraw ~ Brecon ~ Fishguard
Fishguard: The Last Invasion - page 1
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The last invasion of my Nation occurred in 1797, not from Anglo/Norman forces pouring over the border in the east however, but by Frenchmen landing from the sea in the west. The “cream” of the French Republican army! no indeed they were not. With many of them still wearing wrist and ankle irons, they were a ragtag force of some 1400 soldiers assembled from the dregs of French prisons. Included in the force however, were a few released prisoners of war who evidently did not know what they had volunteered for. The whole command was not under a dashing French Colonel, but under a 70 year old American adventurer from South Carolina called William Tate.

Whilst the men of the French army may have been well below standard, the ships of the French squadron were certainly not. Among the squadron was two of the French navy's most modern frigates, Vengeance and Resistance, with each mounting some 40 guns. Also in attendance to the frigates were the 24 gun corvette Constance and the 14 gun Vautour. Certainly the fleet had the firepower to mount and invasion, all were under the able command of Commodore Jean Joseph Castagnier.

The Invasion force left Camaret on on the 18th February, but gave itself away when its fighting ships attacked merchant shipping in Ilfracombe bay. The French squadron was next sited by men on a Lugger in Swansea Bay, who quickly put ashore and reported the fact. The whole of the population of West Wales were soon alive to the fact that an invasion force was abroad, and lookouts were positioned in an attempt to record the French Squadron's passage.

It was one such lookout, a Thomas Williams an old seafarer, who on Wednesday 22 February 1797 spotted the French
squadron approaching Strumble Head. Despite the fact that the ships were flying British colours and the troops were wearing British uniforms, Williams was not convinced they were who the were purporting to be; so after sending a runner to the fort at Fishguard, he began to follow the fleet from the shoreline.

Fishguard 1797

At 4 PM on what was a mild day for February the fleet sailed past Strumble Head itself and all except one frigate began to anchor off Carregwastad Point. The frigate Resistance continued to sail on however, but as she rounded Penaglas Point into Fishguard harbour she was fired upon by a gun from Fishguard fort. Thinking that he could expect salvo after salvo the Frigate's captain ordered his ship out to sea; unknowing that the eight 9 pound guns in the fort had only 3 rounds and 16 cartridges between them.

In the mean time back at their anchorage the captains of the remaining ships of the French flotilla had began to disembark their troops at 5 PM. Despite some boats capsizing with the loss of all the expedition's 4 pounder guns and some of the crew the "Black Legionnaires", so called because they wore British uniforms captured at Quiberon that had been dyed deep brown, were ashore by 2 am Thursday 23rd of February.Also successfully landed were 40 plus barrels of gunpowder and a few thousand rifles and small arms . Now it was hoped by the French on the shoreline, as the French government had informed them, that the locals would rise in insurrection against the English government.

Castagnier the French Squadron's senior captain, with his charges ashore was now eager to be gone from enemy shores. Once he had held a conference with Tate and got him to sign an agreement that he had successfully completed his part in the landing he ordered his ships to sail for home just after 5.30 am. Tate now, with no means of escape, was alone on an enemy shore with his rag tag army, however, he ordered the lugger Vautour to make haste for Brest with a more than favourable report, forwarded to Paris, of how despite heavy opposition the landing had been a total success. He was to regret that report.

The news of the landing spread quickly and there were two regiments of infantry in the immediate vicinity, the Pembroke Fencibles and the Fishguard Fencibles; however, these were more home guard units than front line troops. As to the local Infantry Regiment, the Royal Pembrokeshire Militia, it was on military exercise in Norfolk in the east of England. However, a detachment of the Carmarthenshire Militia was nearby guarding prisoners of war; but no more than 500 troops were available in the area.

In command of the 270 strong Fishguard Fencibles was Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knox, who at the time of the landing was attending a social function. Made aware of the situation, Knox hurried to join his command at Fishguard fort. However, crossing the sand bar at Goodwick he met part of his command under the command of a Lieutenant marching to meet the enemy. Knox deciding that with no estimates to hand of the strength of the invasion force he ordered them back to the fort. His action undoubtedly saved the lives of the young subaltern and his men, for when a runner slipped into the fort an hour later he informed Knox that the enemy's strength appeared to be at least 1500 strong. In view of this news Knox decided to abandon the fort and march for the Headquarters of the Pembrokeshire Militia situated in Haverfordwest twenty miles to the south.

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