On Wednesday 22nd of February 1797 a French army of around 1400 Officers and Soldiers landed near Fishguard with the aim to raise an insurrection, disrupt local commerce and embarrass the British Government. For their action over the next couple of days the Pembroke (Castlemartin) Yeomanry were awarded the Battle Honour of ‘Fishguard’. They remain the only unit to have a Battle Honour for an action on mainland Britain.
“Col Tate is to have the chief command of the legion; the Admiral will give the necessary orders to the officer commanding the naval force, which will proceed up St George’s Channel, and the landing is to be effected, if possible, in or near Cardigan Bay… The expedition under the command of Col Tate has in view three principal objects: the first is, if possible, to raise an insurrection in the country; the second is to interrupt and embarrass the commerce of the enemy: and the third is to prepare and facilitate the way for a descent by distracting the attention of the English government.
In all countries the poor are the class most prone to Insurrection, and this disposition Is to be forwarded by disturbing money and drink; by inveighing against the government as the cause of the public distress; by recommending and facilitating a rising to plunder the public stores and magazines, and the property of the rich, whose affluence Is the natural subject envy to the poor.” (Orders by General Hoche)
On the evening of Wednesday 22nd February 1797 most of the Castlemartin Troop had assembled for the funeral of a colleague the next morning, when, at midnight, Lord Cawdor received the following summons from Lord Milford:
“To the Commanding Officer of the Loyal Pembroke Yeomanry Cavalry – These are to direct you on Receipt hereof or as soon as may be to march the men under your command to Haverfordwest.”
Earlier that day, 1400 French Soldiers, under the command of an Irish American, Colonel William Tate, had landed at Carreg Wasted on Pencaer. It is most likely that they initially landed on the North East tip of the peninsular, as they knew that their identity had been compromised and would have needed to get an advance party ashore to secure the area. The 12 men of the first boat would easily have been able to secure the North part of Carreg Wasted in order to enable the other troops land. Rowing into the bay would have been fatal if there had been defenders on top of the cliffs to the North West of Llanwnda. The rising ground here is also more gradual then that in the bay, and having scrambled the ground from Aber Felin to the top, without any kit or equipment I would have to discount it as an option. That is not to say that later boats didn’t brought some stores into this location once the French had established a bigger beachhead in the area and were able to secure the area around the Cym.
The French Invasion of 1797 is a story in itself and many detailed books are available on the subject, however it was Lord Cawdor, with Lord Milford’s initial permission, who took charge of the defenders, ably assisted by Lt Col John Colby, the Commanding Officer of the Pembrokeshire Militia, who happened to be home in the county at the time. Moving from Pembroke the Castlemartin Troop, now reinforced by the Cardigan Militia, who were stationed at the jail in Pembroke, and the Pembroke Volunteers they crossed the CleddauRiverby the old ferry and marched to the Castle Inn at Haverfordwest. By 11am on Thursday 23rd February the force, now with more attachments, had gathered inCastle Square in Haverfordwest, before departing for Fishguard at midday.
The French, meanwhile had moved inland from Carreg Wasted and had occupied the heights of Carnwnda and Carn Gelli, while Tate occupied Trehowell farm, near the landing site, and turned it into his HQ for the operation. The actual events of Thursday 23rd February have been lost in legend and are sadly more remembered as a drunken farce then anything else, but the reality is that the majority of the French force remained a professional and viable threat. In terms of leadership, certainly the regular Grenadiers were well led, notable by Lt Barry St Leger, a young Irishman from Limerick who had grown up inAmerica and had joined the French Army after being captured by a French privateer. The overall leadership of Col Tate is debatable, but it should be remembered that he was an experienced veteran of the American War of Independence, a war that had introduced ground breaking new tactics to the evolution of warfare, and clearly this experience influenced some of his decisions.
By early Thursday evening Lord Cawdor had arrived on the turnpike road to the south of Fishguard with the Pembroke Yeomanry and over 500 attached arms. As the winter evening drew in they proceeded up to the direction of Carn Gelli before halting at Trefwrgy, and finally withdrawing back to the turnpike road. There are many explanations for this withdrawal, but it is likely that scouts, probably the elusive Mr Nesbitt – an Officer on half pay residing in Fishguard at the time, moving ahead of Lord Cawdor’s force, had left the road at the bend before Trefwrgy and had discovered that an ambush had been set a further 200m up the road. This information, combined with St Leger’s own account of conducting a firing withdrawal from the ambush site upon hearing the drums of the advancing troops, would have been enough for Lord Cawdor to justifiably withdraw to theTurnpike Roadand wait for sunrise. Lord Cawdor then rode to Fishguard to set up his HQ in ‘Meylers House’ (now the Royal Oakpub).
That night the French decided to offer terms for surrender. Tate, in his later justification of the event, states that the British forces had grown ‘to the number of several thousand’, a statement which leads, in part, to legend of the part the local women played in the surrender. Clearly the French soldiers would have witnessed the local women in their traditional dress of red cloaks and tall black hats watching the events unfold from the high ground that surrounds the area, and there are many accounts of this, but I believe there may be more to this legend. Historians have long argued about Lord Cawdor’s role in encouraging the local women to dress in their traditional garb and line the hills to give the impression of British Redcoats, particularly on Bigney Hill, which overlooks the final surrender location of Goodwick Sands. Most are right in that the timeline suggests he couldn’t have made such a request, as the French had decided to surrender during the night before he would have had the chance to influence their surrender by this means. This assumption misses a key point though; in securing the French surrender on his terms Lord Cawdor deceives Tate about the ‘superior’ size of his force, which he states ‘is growing every hour’. This is a deception he now needs to maintain, and arguably, he realises that negotiating the surrender terms could be long drawn out process, lasting well into the next day, during which the true size of the force under his command could be discovered. He would also be aware of the reality that the 1400 French Soldiers would have to be controlled and disarmed in full daylight and, therefore, needed to create the illusion of a visibly superior force in order to ensure he could achieve this without the French realising Cawdor’s actual weak position, which could lead to possible disastrous turn of events. It could be argued then, that Lord Cawdor did indeed encourage the presence of the local women in traditional address, to be present on the high ground on Friday 24th February, in order to maintain his deception and fully secure the surrender and disarmament of Tate’s troops.
In the event the French surrendered later that day and finally laid down their weapons on Goodwick Sands before being marched to captivity in Haverfordwest. It was to be some time later, in 1853, that the surviving Castlemartin Yeomanry Cavalry were awarded the Battle Honour of ‘Fishguard’ by QueenVictoria, and this battle honour was incorporated into the Cap Badge of the Pembroke Yeomanry. This badge is still proudly worn as collar embellishments by the current members of 224 (Pembroke Yeomanry) Squadron of the Welsh Transport Regiment when in Service Dress. The Battle Honour and Regimental Guidon can be seen today in the Fishguard Town Library, as well as the beautiful invasion tapestry.
I hasten to add I have not mentioned the part played by the Fishguard Volunteers, nor their Commanding Officer Lt Col Knox. Some Volunteers did march against the invasion force within a few hours of landing on the first day, they were led in part by the afore mentioned Mr Nesbitt, but were turned back at Goodwick bridge by Knox who was heading into Fishguard from Llanwnda, and indeed his presence at Llanwnda is confirmed in his own account published in 1800. History, and some other authors have been unkind to Knox, I am undecided. But I will say he clearly knows his limitations as a Commanding Officer (bought commission) and willing seeks expertise from those beneath him in rank who he knows have more knowledge and experience in these matters, which in itself, could be argued is a good leadership trait.
J Ingledew 2012