The Last Invasion of Britain

While the Napoleonic Wars were the main event in continental Europe, a smaller war was taking place in the British Isles.  This was the United Irishmen’s Revolt (1796-98), an unsuccessful rebellion in Ireland against British rule.  I had written about the revolt for Chapter 12 of my European history, but I did not know the full extant of how France gave aid to the Irish, so here are two new paragraphs to fill in that gap:

Meanwhile, the French launched two diversionary attacks on Great Britain itself, to keep the British from sending reinforcements to Ireland.  One squadron went to the important port of Newcastle, but poor weather and mutinies forced it to return to France without making landfall.  The other squadron originally headed for Bristol, and the same adverse winds drove it to south Wales.  There it managed to land 1,400 men, who called themselves "the Black Legion," at the town of Fishguard (February 22, 1797).  These were not France’s finest; only 600 of them were regular French soldiers, while the rest were prisoners sent on a punishment assignment–deserters, common criminals and royalists of dubious loyalty.  This motley crew was led by an Irish-American, Colonel William Tate, whose qualifications were that he was a veteran of the American Revolution and had taken part in an unsuccessful plot to capture New Orleans for the French.

Anyway, the plan was to march across Wales to Bristol, but discipline broke down immediately.  The convicts deserted, got drunk when they found wine, and looted a local church.  Consequently the Welsh cooperated with England, instead of joining the French in an anti-English uprising.  There was also a report of French soldiers seeing Welsh women at a distance wearing red shawls and black hats, and mistaking the traditional costume for the uniforms of British soldiers.  Morale was so bad among those French who were not sick and drunk that a cobbler, Jemima Nicholas, singlehandedly captured twelve French soldiers, though she was only armed with a pitchfork.  There was a skirmish when the local British militia arrived at Fishguard, and realizing that they could not succeed with both the Welsh population and the British army opposing them, Tate and the French officers surrendered.  That ended the expedition, only two days after it landed in Wales; today it is sometimes called "the last invasion of Britain."

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