On the morning of Wednesday 22nd February 1797, two frigates, a corvette and a lugger were spotted off the Pembrokeshire coast sailing towards the port of Fishguard. Despite flying British colours, the squadron was in fact French and carrying 1500 men of La Légion Noire, a rough body of troops comprised of deserters and convicts and scraped from the gaols. In the small hours of the following morning the ships put into Carreg Wasted, a rocky cleft in Fishguard bay where the troops disembarked under the command of the Irish American Colonel William Tate.
The Légion rapidly ran out of control, raiding local farms and houses, stealing food, drink and clothing, setting a fire in a church and generally causing mayhem, However over the course of the next three days they were rapidly rounded up by the local militia under the command of Lord Cawdor and imprisoned in the church at Llanwnda. One of the French officers stole the silver chalice from the church and was later discovered trying to pawn it; at which point the officers’ parole was swiftly withdrawn! Such was the ignominious end of the Battle of Fishguard.
The improbable story of the “last invasion of Britain” has been told many times over but it is an incident that occurred immediately after the failed invasion that is of interest to this blog.
A few days later, while many local people were gathered in the church to give thanks for the failure of the invasion, word came that three more frigates, again flying British colours, had been sighted. An eye witness account of events was recalled by the Reverend Daniel Rowlands
In an instant the cry rang through the church—“To arms! to arms!”
Then what a scene of confusion arose, fury, dismay, oaths and shrieks all mingled together, some women fainting, some in tears, the men roused and excited to the uttermost.
“Don’t go, don’t go, my son,” sobbed my mother; but curiosity overcame prudence.
“I’m not going to fight, mother, never fear, but I must go and look on,” was my answer.
“Oh Dio, not again, not again!” urged Nancy, thinking of the single combats.
“I’m not going to walk across the sea to tackle a frigate, I promise you,” said Davy, with a laugh. But Nancy was not to be put off so.
“All right, come. I’m coming too,” she said, and in another instant they were without the church door, where, indeed, we all found ourselves shortly. We tore down to the cliffs as the possessed swine might have raced; many of us ran to man the fort, but I remained on the higher ground where I could have a better view and see further out to sea.
And soon there was indeed a fair sight to see. Coming round the headland to the west of us, their sails filled with the brisk March breeze, appeared a stately squadron moving proudly under British colours; but having seen something like this before, some of us still doubted. The fort saluted, and this compliment was returned by the men-of-war without any changing of colours. We began to feel reassured, and soon our hopes were verified. A boat put off from the nearest ship and was rowed to shore in a style that swore to “British tar.” The officer landed and explained that the squadron was part of the Channel Fleet, sent to our assistance, and that it was under the command of the brave Sir Edward Pellew. We were very proud of the help rendered us by England, even though it had come a little late, but that was the fault of our roads not their goodwill; and though it had occasioned a worse scare than the real thing, but that was only our disordered nerves which acted up to the old proverb—“A burnt child dreads fire.”
The officer inquired very particularly as to the probable whereabouts of the French ships—the three frigates and the lugger. About this we could give him no information whatever.
The sudden appearance of the Indefatigable, the stylish cut of the boat crew’s jib and the reassuring presence of Sir Edward Pellew is an anecdote worthy of Forester.
The Indefatigable had recently put into Plymouth for repairs, following the famous Droits de l’Homme engagement, when word of the invasion arrived from the Admiralty. Several ships of the Western Squadron put to sea immediately to intercept the French ships, reassure the people and show the flag.
Although the frigate’s log does not record the name of the officer rowed ashore from the Indefatigable, we have a small glimpse of the order to sail from midshipman Nicholas Pateshall. Pateshall had arrived in Plymouth following a few days leave in Hereford and it is clear from his smudged signature that he was in a tearing hurry. At the end of the letter is a postscript tucked in the corner.
Plymouth Tuesday 28th 1797
I am but just this moment arrived and write to inform you that we shall sail for the Irish chanel to interrupt those ships which have landed men in Wales tomorrow morning at 6 o clock. I must go now and report myself to Sir Edward Pellew who I learn is in Plymouth and then I shall proceed on board – excuse me for I am at dinner – I will go presently to Captain Lanes – you shall hear from me again in a short time if I have the opportunity.
I remain your dutiful son
N L Pateshall.
The French which landed in Wales have laid down their arms.