On this day in history : 22nd February 1797 – The last invasion of Britain unfolds at Fishguard, southwest Wales and lasts for just 2 days – as the invaders get too drunk to continue fighting….

Ask most people when they think the last invasion of Britain was and they will answer 1066….but actually the French had one last pop at us 700 years later….

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Napoleon was doing his best to conquer Europe…. Whilst he was busy doing his ‘thing’ the newly formed French revolutionary government – the ‘Directory’ – thought they would have a little foray over to these shores….

Of course there was a little more to it than just a mere ‘whim’ – the idea was to create a diversion and attract the British Navy’s attention whilst a simultaneous attack took place on the southern parts of Ireland…. Only the Irish plans never came to fruition….but since the Directory already had in place an army (of sorts) – the ‘Legion Noire’ – they thought they may as well go ahead and invade anyway….

The Legion Noire – and here is where the problems begin….Napoleon had commandeered all of the best men…. Colonel William Tate, a 70-year-old American-Irish mercenary soldier, had been installed as commander of the invasion of Britain…. The trouble was he had been left with all the riff-raff with which to form an army…. Many of his 1400 strong rag-bag force were ex-cons and those rejected by Napoleon….

The plan was to land at Britain’s second largest city (of the time) – Bristol – and annihilate it….then head over to Wales and do a bit of damage there…. Next would be a march up to Chester and Liverpool, causing mayhem and carnage on the way…. Only things didn’t quite work out that way….

Stormy weather meant the French warships were unable to get anywhere near to Bristol – but ‘ho-hum’, never mind – their thoughts being ‘we’ll skip that part of the plan and carry on around the coast to Wales’…. On Wednesday the 22nd of February they sailed into Fishguard Bay….

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Fishguard. Photo credit Nick via Flickr (nicksarebi)

Of course their arrival was not to go unnoticed….they were met with a single cannon shot…. The French panicked and beat a hasty retreat – little did they know the shot was intended to simply alert the townsfolk of an impending attack….

The fleet sailed on and came across a small sandy beach, close to the village of Llanwnda…. Thinking they had found the perfect spot (its beginning to sound like a picnic isn’t it….but bear with – for them it gets much better than that) they started to off-load – men, arms and gun powder….and then the warships pottered off and left them to it…. By 2am on Thursday the 23rd of February the French invasion of Britain was done….but not entirely dusted….

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French troops landing at Carregwastad on 22 February 1797. From a lithograph first published in May 1797 and later coloured. Baker, James 18th Century – Public domain

The villagers had recently helped themselves to the cargo of a Portuguese ship that had run aground – and had stashed away a considerable quantity of gourmet food and fine wine…. The invading Frenchmen – many of whom were half-starved after having survived on prison rations for so long – soon sniffed this out…. The temptation was just too much – so off they went on a looting frenzy….and by the time they’d had their fill they were too intoxicated to continue the task at hand…. So pie-eyed were they – they were even incapable of standing up to the wrath of the Welsh womenfolk….

One of these women was Jemima Nicholas – the 47-year-old wife of a Fishguard cobbler…. So cross was she on hearing of the French invasion that she grabbed a pitchfork and marched off to Llanwnda to find herself some Frenchmen…. And find some she did….Jemima rounded up 12 drunken soldiers and herded them back to town – and locked them in the church…. She then headed back to catch some more…. Her bravery earned her the name Jemima Fawr – ‘Jemima the Great’….

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Gravestone of Jemima Nicholas outside St. Mary’s Church, Fishguard. Flapdragon – Public domain

William Tate was faced with a mutinous drunken rabble of an army…. At midday on the 24th of February the Legion Noire surrendered to the local militia….

However, the French version of events differs slightly…. British troops had come at them in their thousands – they were completely outnumbered – and they didn’t stand a chance…. That’ll be because they were seeing double then – on account of all the alcohol they’d consumed…. What they had actually seen – with their blurred vision – was a rather large number of womenfolk in their traditional regional dress – of crimson tunic and tall black hat – who had gathered to watch the spectacle…. Let’s be charitable here – anyone in such an inebriated state could easily mistake such a vision for British soldiers….couldn’t they? Ah, those French, they just couldn’t hold their vino….

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Carregwastad Head, the landing site for Tate’s forces. RATAEDL CC BY-SA 2.0

 

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