The Battle of Fishguard

Louis Lazare Hoche, a general of the French Revolutionary Army, devised a three–pronged attack on Britain in support of the Society of United Irishmen, which had begun as a liberal organisation seeking parliamentary reform but, inspired by the French and American revolutions, had evolved into a revolutionary republican organisation.

Hoche's plan was that two forces would land in Britain as a diversionary tactic, while the main force would land in Ireland. Two of the forces were halted by adverse weather and ill discipline, but the third went ahead. After landing near Fishguard, its aim was to march on Bristol. It consisted of about 1,400 men – about 600 regulars and 800 irregulars – under the command of Col. William Tate, an Irish–American who had fled to France in 1795 after a failed coup–d'etat in New Orleans. The fleet consisted of four vessels under the command of Commodore Jean–Joseph Castagnier, whose orders were to land Tate's troops and then rendezvous with Hoche's expedition returning from Ireland.

The Legion Noire (so called because the men wore captured British uniforms that had been dyed black or dark brown) landed under cover of darkness at Carregwastad Head, near Fishguard, on 22 February 1797. Many of the irregulars immediately deserted, to go and loot the local settlements, but by the morning of the 23rd the remaining troops had advanced about two miles inland, where they took up defensive positions.

Meanwhile, around 500 British reservists, militia, sailors and armed civilians had been quickly assembled under the command of John Campbell, 1st Baron Cawdor. Cawdor initially intended to attack the French forces, but as the daylight faded he decided to return to his headquarters at the Royal Oak public house in Fishguard.

On the evening of 23 February, two French officers arrived at the Royal Oak with the intention of negotiating a conditional surrender. Cawdor, bluffing, informed them that with his superior forces he would only accept an unconditional surrender. He gave Tate until 10 a.m. the following day to surrender on Goodwick Sands.

The British forces lined up at Goodwick at 8 a.m. on the 24th. After initially delaying, Tate eventually surrendered at 2 p.m. Two hours later, his troops were marched through Fishguard on their way to temporary imprisonment in Haverfordwest.

Tate was returned to France in a prisoner exchange in 1798, along with most of his invasion force.

© Haydn Thompson 2017