PSYOPS 1797 Style: How French Revolutionaries Were Foiled From Raising An Insurrection in Britain


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’ [1]. 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 [2]. 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 [3]. 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 operat