The British Army traces its history back hundreds of years, but its more modern incarnation dates from the Restoration of the Monarchy after the bloody Civil War that brought Oliver Cromwell to power. Many Regiments of the British Army can trace their lineage back to the 1660’s and the long record of service to the Crown in reflected upon the Regimental Colours and Guidons in the form of Battle Honours. A battle honour recognises the accomplishments of a unit's active service and, in the British Army, is granted to a regiment or battalion who add it to their colours in a visible sign of that heritage. Many of these are well known around the world from Blenheim to Waterloo, some less known like Tangier 1680 to North America 1763-4. Unique amongst the hundreds awarded since then is one awarded to the Castlemartin Troop of the Pembroke Yeomanry. This volunteer light cavalry unit of sons of farmers and local gentry received the only battle honour awarded for their action on the mainland of Britain; Fishguard 1797.
How a force of French Revolutionaries under the command of an American Colonel William Tate with a number of Irish officers came to land on the remote West Coast of Wales in February 1797 is a mere sideshow of the struggles between Revolutionary France and Britain that raged from 1792 to the defeat of Napoleon in 1815. One of many attempts to ferment an English Revolution the landing was supposed to be part of a three-pronged attempt to raise Revolution across the British Isles. The attempt to land in Ireland was scuppered by the weather, whilst the attempt to land in the north of England never left at all.
Chef de Brigade William Tate was an odd choice to command the endeavour. He was not French nor could he speak it and had an undistinguished career in Washington’s army before falling in the favour with the French representative to America and after a number of fanciful proposals for action found himself in France at a time when the export of Revolution was seen as the best way of ensuring the survival of the Revolutionary state of France.
After a half-hearted attempt to land at Bristol Tate and the Deuxieme Legion des Francs in their four ships struggled ashore at Carregwastad Point on the evening of 22nd February 1797 near the small town of Fishguard in the very West of Wales. The plan was to split the force of around two thousand into multiple columns that would fan out across Wales fermenting revolution, executing the gentry and arming the peasantry to try and build a levee en masse that at least would distract London from pursuing aggressive policies across the channel. The Legion Noir or Black Legion, as it was nicknamed after the black colour of their uniforms, which were captured English red coats dyed black, however, were on the face of it no Eighteenth-Century Special Operations Force.
Whilst the mission is almost a textbook doctrinal attempt at Unconventional Warfare, the executive arm of that mission was, on the face of it, not promising and Wolfe Tone who saw them before they sailed described as ‘the banditti intended for England and sad blackguards they are’ . Whilst no doubt many were prisoners released from Rochefort, Nantes, and Lorient jails that did not mean they were without military potential, as it did not take much to end up in a Revolutionary Prison in 1796 and at least some were former members of the Royal Army who had served in America. Bolstering the force was a company of Regular grenadiers, well equipped with weapons as was the whole force who brought extra musket and shot for locals who were it was assumed would flood to their ranks.
More akin to the Dirty Dozen than the Green Berets, the Legion Noir’s mission was not, in fact, as far fetched as history has judged it . Wales, in particular, has a long history of grievance with London control of its destiny and it was not so far fetched that the nexus of the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, that was already changing much of the Welsh way of life, could not have been effectively exploited to cause a real headache for a government in London that was struggling to deal with the loss of America and the threat of France closer to home. Fate also placed precious few military resources near to Fishguard in February 1797 with much of the English Regular forces operating across the Channel, leaving the local defence to a mix of militias (including a local force termed Fencibles), Yeomanry and some scattered coastal forts that held a limited store of ammunition. Although he did not know it, Tate had a significant numerical advantage over anything the British could muster in a 75 miles radius of Carregwastad.
How was it then that the nearly two thousand men of the Black Legion marched to the beach of Goodwick Sands some two miles from where they landed to surrender to a ragtag force of around 600 militia, locals and a single Troop of Light Cavalry of the Pembroke Yeomanry with barely a shot fired?
Much popular history characterise it as a drunken debauchery of criminals rounded up by a few stout local women like the legendary Jemima Nicholas . As with all good myths, there are elements of truth and whilst there is no doubt looting of local wines took place, and a few drunken soldieries were rounded up outside the mass surrender that in itself does not explain why Tate entered into negotiations with Lord Cawdor to surrender and unconditionally accepted his terms of surrender.
What lies behind it is what today would be called cognitive warfare that changed Tate’s calculus from one where he believed he could succeed to one where he lost all hope. You will not find an operation order outlining a detailed psychological operation, but in reality, that is what evolved, some of it by design and some of it by pure chance.
Three main factors influenced Tate’s decision; Firstly, the departure of the ships that had landed them under Commodore Castagnier. The frigates La Vengeance and La Resistance, the corvette La Constance and a lugger called Le Vatour departed under Tate’s gaze on the 23rd February. Whilst Tate knew of this, it is unclear how many of his troops did and the departure of what at the time was a significant military capability would have done little to bolster his men’s morale. Secondly, it was immediately clear there was little prospect of the locals rallying to his cause as he had hoped. Quite what his expectations were is unclear, but the hostility of locals to the presence of his troops built up a picture in his own mind that any form of general uprising would be a distant prospect. The third factor that influenced him was the belief he was significantly outnumbered and fixed around Carregwastad by superior forces.
Whilst the first two influences were significant, it was the third that convinced him his mission was doomed and led him to order his troops to surrender.
How did this factor become decisive when, in fact, there were less than 700 troops of any description in nearly two thousand square miles? The answer lies in the combination of a clever ruse, unfortunate acoustics, a distinctive local dress and the elaborate uniforms of the Pembroke Yeomanry.
Whilst messengers galloped off in every direction on discovering the landing, there was little prospect of effective forces arriving for a number of days to defeat the French. After a frantic discussion with the Lord Lieutenant Lord Milford, responsible for the defence of the area the local forces were placed under the command of Lord Cawdor, Captain of the Castlemartin Troop of the Pembroke Yeomanry despite the hostility of a number of other officers who held higher rank in the various Militias and Fencibles. The force of around 600 were drawn from a dozen different sources as diverse as Fishguard Volunteer Light Infantry to Royal Navy press gangs and included Thomas Nesbitt, who, whilst sketchy in detail, seems to have served in scouting company of a British Regiment in America.
Cawdor’s first instinct was to march en mass towards the French up a single narrow lane leading up to the rock outcrop of Garnwnda. This lane of a type familiar to the bocage of Normandy had steep high banks allowed little or no manoeuvre, and as he marched up, he had no knowledge of the danger he faced. A half-mile ahead, Lieutenant St Leger and nearly two hundred Regular Grenadiers lay in ambush carefully nurturing the fuses of their grenades in the dusk whilst keeping their muskets to hand. Around 400 yards short of the Grenadiers as they heard the beating of drums, the column stopped and abruptly turned about and marched back. What made Cawdor stop and turn about is never really explained, although it is possible Thomas Nesbitt may have put his old scouting skills to good use and spotted the ambush. Had the ambush been sprung, losses in the enclosed lane would have been devastating and would have destroyed any possibility of an immediate counter to the Legion Noir. This was a lost opportunity for Tate, and now the belief of the military superiority of his opponents loomed large in his mind.
Throughout the night, the sound of horses and wheels on cobblestones rose up from the valley below his position feeding the idea of vast cavalry units and cannons moving back and forth. Whilst it was true, there was frantic activity below some of it was civilian carts and horses augmented by the difficulties of turning troops around in a narrow space. The acoustics of Fishguard that are apparent even today in still weather mean that sound is magnified and echoed around the rocky outcrops whereby if you expect to hear something, a sound magnified from elsewhere will sound like what you expect to hear.
Cawdor and his commanders were no doubt unaware of the psychological effect they were already having but added to it anyway, sometimes on purpose and sometimes inadvertently. A feature of the Yeomanry Cavalry Units were that they represented the richest slice of local society, and their uniforms tended to reflect that. Not looking out of place in a light opera, the exquisitely furnished uniforms of even the troopers of the Pembroke Yeomanry were in particularly resplendent form as the troop had been gathered for a funeral service when the call to arms arrived. When individual troopers were spotted by the French pickets or when delivering messages to Tate, the assumption was they were aides to a very senior General rather than mere troopers reinforcing the belief of local enemy superiority. The final psychological nail in Tate’s coffin was the apparent appearance of British Regulars in scarlet tunics and tall black hats whilst a never-ending column of militia appeared around a hill opposite Carregwastad.
What was seen however, was not a Brigade of Guardsmen and the huge mobilisation of militia but a mere ruse and illusion. The red-coated regulars were a thin line of local women in traditional dress of red cloaks and tall black hats. Some had been persuaded to appear by one of Cawdor’s lieutenants whilst others had joined to see what was going on. If you expect to see British regulars and you see a line of people in red at a distance, then that is what you believe you are seeing. Combined with a single column of Fencibles matching repeatedly around the same hill, then Tate would see what he feared the most. Convinced he was outnumbered even as he marched down to Goodwick Sands Tate was as surprised as anyone once his men had laid down their arms how few actual enemy soldiers there actually were.
Convincing your adversary they are beaten without fighting is the height of military skill, and Cawdor managed to do this, helped by a lot of luck, but by also recognising the opportunity to exploit. A battle honour without a battle is very rare but not unique, but in this case, an unusual psychological operation waged against a daring attempt to wage revolutionary warfare across Britain.