Britain’s Last Invasion: The Battle of Fishguard 1797
The French invasion of Wales in 1797 is one of the more curious events of the Wars of French Revolution. Almost a comic-opera, Clowes’s multi-volume Royal Navy history dismisses it with a single paragraph. The British victory is sometimes attributed to the French mistaking Welsh women wearing traditional red shawls and tall black hats for British Grenadiers.
Britain’s Last Invasion: The Battle of Fishguard, 1797, by Phil Carradice offers a fascinating and detailed look at this curious invasion, the last time a hostile army landed on Britain’s home island.
The invasion, part of a larger scheme to invade Ireland, was one of two planned diversion invasions intended to distract attention from a French invasion of Ireland. Carradice discusses these, putting the Fishguard invasion in its historical context. Even before the Fishguard landing, the Irish invasion had fallen apart due to bad weather and ill planning. The other diversionary landing, planned for Newcastle on the North Sea coast never went beyond French-occupied Netherlands before its cancelation.
The Fishguard attempt should also have been cancelled, It was a no-hope affair. Carradice reveals the 1500 soldiers were largely conscripted from French prisons, dressed in captured British uniforms dyed black, and armed only upon landing. Its officers were mostly foreigners drawn to France by the Revolution, but since disillusioned by its excesses.
Carradice does a marvelous job of piecing together events following the landing. He follows the actions of the Legion Noire (named for their badly-dyed black coats) and the local Welsh militia. The forces on both sides were rag-tag. The British had a combination of fencibles, militia, and locals willing to take up arms against the invaders—all part-time soldiers. The French were more interested in stealing food and drink than fighting—much less marching to their intended final destination, Liverpool.
Due to the obscurity of the topic, Carradice occasionally speculates. Speculations are clearly labeled, and seem well grounded in what facts actually exist. It would be fairer to call them extrapolations. They are not guesses.
He also clears away myths associated with the invasion especially that of the French surrendering because they mistook Welsh women for Grenadiers. A good story, but as Carradice reveals, it was just a story. The French decided on surrender the night before they surrendered, and the women with their red shawls and black hats were first seen the following morning.
The book is meticulously researched. Carradice draws on a surprisingly large volume of primary sources, including the Cawdor Papers, and documents from the Carmarthen Record Office, Pembrokeshire Record Office and British Public Records Office at Kew. His bibliography includes a dozen previously-published books on the campaign, some dating to the early nineteenth century.
The book is primarily for those interested the history of the French Revolutionary Wars. Model-makers will find nothing useful in it. Wargamers may find it contains enough information for a miniatures campaign on the subject. Britain’s Last Invasion is a delightful read, offering a detailed and entertaining account of an obscure and curious invasion.
- Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, 2019
- 6-1/2” x 9-1/2”, hardcover, xiv + 217 pages
- Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $39.95
- ISBN: 9781526743268
Reviewed by Mark Lardas, League City, Texas