On this day in history….14th March 1757

On this day in history : 14th March 1757 – The execution by firing squad of Admiral John Byng on HMS Monarch at Portsmouth – for ‘failing to do his utmost’….

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john Byng – oil on canvas, Thomas Hudson 1749

“In this country it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, in order to encourage the others”…. as written by the philosopher Voltaire in his controversial novella of the time ‘Candide’…. He was referring to a revision of a British law to make ‘failing to do his utmost against the enemy, either in battle of pursuit’ an offence punishable by death – among the officers of the British Navy….

John Byng was born in 1704 in Bedfordshire and joined the Navy at the age of 13…. By the time he was 23 he was a captain and a rear-admiral at 40…. By 1756, at the start of the Seven Years’ War, he was a well-respected Admiral….

Byng was given orders to prevent the French from capturing the garrison at Fort St. Philip on the island of Menorca – a British stronghold…. He set sail with a fleet of 10 ships to Gibraltar to collect a detachment of 700 soldiers…. From the onset Byng made it clear his resources were inadequate; he had 10 leaking ships and not enough men to sail them….

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Admiral Byng’s fleet getting underway from Spithead – John Cleveley the Elder – oil on canvas 1755

Having collected the Gibraltar garrison the fleet continued on its way….and on the 20th of May a battle with the French left some damage to the British ships whilst the French retreated unscathed…. Having learned the French already had a strong foothold on Menorca Byng decided to return to Gibraltar…. He sent a letter to the Admiralty explaining his reasons; the fort was already as good as lost – it would be a pointless exercise and an unnecessary risk to life….

When the letter arrived in London the government and King George II were furious…. The King’s words being…. “This man will not fight”….

In late June Fort St. Philip surrendered to the French and Byng was summoned home…. On his arrival he was arrested on breach of the 12th Article of War…. The court martial was held at the end of December with Byng being charged with ‘failing to do his utmost’…. Crowds chanted ‘swing, swing Admiral Byng’….

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The siege of Fort St. Philip – Jean-Baptiste Martin le jeune (1700-1778) Public domain

Although he defended himself the Admiral was found guilty – but was cleared of cowardice and disaffection…. It was with extreme reluctance that the death sentence was passed….Prime Minister William Pitt the elder appealed to King George for clemency for Byng – but this was refused – the King’s response being “You have taught me to look for the sense of my people elsewhere than in the House of Commons”….

At 7am on the day of the execution, during a howling gale, a coffin was brought onboard the Monarch, Admiral Byng’s flagship…. The inscription upon it read…. ‘The Hon. John Byng Esqr. Died March 14th 1757’….

Next the Admiral was brought on board…. The ship was soon full with officers from all of the other warships at anchor in the harbour at the time…. Other vessels crammed with spectators filled the waters….

At noon Admiral Byng, wearing a light grey coat, white breeches and a large white wig, was taken to the quarter-deck…. Waiting for him on a pile of sodden sawdust was a cushion, on which he knelt…. He tied the blindfold which he had reluctantly agreed to wear on account of the firing squad – six marines in their scarlet tunics – not to see his face…. The Admiral raised a neatly folded handkerchief in his right hand and after a pause of a few moments it dropped…. The six marines fired and he fell to the side – Admiral Byng was dead….

The King and his government had underestimated the French….rather than lose face they found a scapegoat….

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The Shooting of Admiral Byng – artist unknown – Engraving 1757

On this day in history….22nd February 1797

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