Many people probably don't realize that the last invasion of Britain by a hostile foreign force was at Fishguard in 1797, by French Revolutionary troops of the Second Legion (also referred to as the Black Legion) under an Irish-American William Tate. It was supposed to be part of a larger three-pronged operation involving 15,000 men that had been scuppered due to bad weather. There were supposed to be two diversionary forces: the one headed for Newcastle couldn't land owing to storms, the one for Wales went ahead and actually landed successfully. However, after two days of ill discipline by the convict soldiers, they surrendered to a combined British force of Pembrokeshire Yeomanry, militia, and sailors under Lord Cawdor. It makes for an interesting 'what if': what if the seas had been much calmer and the entire invasion force landed as planned? After Fishguard, it's no wonder fear of an invasion was rife during the early part of Napoleonic Wars. It's for this reason that the Battle of Fishguard was doubtless more of an invaluable lesson than a victory. But I wonder if Napoleon also remembered what occurred there? Did the French also learn some harsh lesson at Fishguard? However, by the time they had prepared a fearsome invasion force during the early 1800's, as we know the Royal Navy was now on full alert for any such plans.
I’m always suspicious of ‘what if’ stories – and I doubt William Tate’s men (or what was left of them) could have achieved much more than loot a wider swathe of Welsh countryside before their inevitable defeat. As I understand it Tate’s landing near Fishguard was only intended as a feint to prevent the British reinforcing their troops in Ireland who would be attempting to contain the French landing in Bantry Bay. My suspicion is that the French forces were too small to achieve their objectives, even given good weather, and that the quality of their troops was poor – though the regular soldiers under Tate’s command performed well. The legend I like is that Tate’s men mistook the Welsh spectators – many of them women dressed in traditional costume (tall black hats and red capes) for British troops and thought themselves outnumbered. I’d hate for that legend to be disproved.