The Last Invasion of Britain

During the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era the very real prospect of invasion from France caused paranoia across Britain. In response, the Army of Reserve was created, extensive fortifications were built across the country, and the south of England was mapped by the Ordnance Survey in preparation for a French attack.

The accepted historical narrative states that the French were never able to invade Britain thanks to the domination of the Royal Navy, effective blockading of French ports and distractions elsewhere on the European continent. Throughout my history degrees I always took it at face value that the French never managed to invade the British Isles during that period of Anglo-French strife in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

However, as is often the case, a Wikipedia binge has proved me wrong.

The Battle of Fishguard was an invasion of Britain by Revolutionary French forces in 1797. The main aim of the campaign was a French invasion of Ireland in support of the Society of United Irishmen. While the main force would invade Ireland, British forces would be distracted by two diversionary attacks on mainland UK, one in Wales and one near Newcastle.

The invasion forces destined for Ireland and Newcastle were scuppered by bad weather, but the third, composed of four French warships flying Russian colours, made it ashore at Fishguard, Pembrokeshire on February 22nd, 1797. The force, 1400 troops of La Legion Noire (The Black Legion) under the command of an Irish-American, Colonel William Tate, was comprised of some Irish officers, 600 French regular soldiers and 800 irregular forces, (mostly republicans, convicts, Royalist prisoners or deserters).

Discipline among irregular troops broke down immediately upon arrival. Some deserted, while most scattered to loot nearby settlements in search of food and drink. The remainder of the French force encountered an organised resistance by 500 British reservists, militia, sailors and local civilians under the command of John Campbell, 1st Baron Cawdor.

The morning of February 23rd saw the French positioned on a rocky hill with a good 360 degree view of the surrounding countryside. However their manpower was dwindling as drunkenness, poor discipline and outright desertion had significantly thinned the ranks of the irregular troops. The British forces did not fare much better. Cawdor, after scouting French positions and discovering their numerical superiority, decided to postpone his attack until further reinforcements arrived. However, by dusk the attack was called off due to poor light.

That evening two French officers arrived at Cawdor’s headquarters where they attempted to negotiate a surrender. Cawdor bluffed, saying that his superior forces would only accept an unconditional surrender. By 4pm the next day the French forces did just that, surrendering their weapons and marching off to temporary prisons nearby. Most of these forces, including Colonel Tate, were returned to France in a prisoner exchange in 1798.

Ultimately, the invasion was doomed from the start. The French forces were distracting British attention from an attack that hasn’t actually occurred, and the lack of a secondary objective condemned the operation to failure. No pitched battles were fought, and the local British forces managed to secure an unconditional surrender on February 24th after successfully bluffing that they had numerical superiority, thereby enshrining the Battle of Fishguard into the annals of obscure, inconclusive skirmishes.