The French surrender at Goodwick Sands, Fishguard, 1797. Among the watching crowds are women in traditional costume, who may have contributed to the French decision to capitulate.
During the late eighteenth century the world was once more transformed by revolution, both political and industrial. This led to prolonged warfare between France and much of the rest of Europe, during which time the British Army won its only battle honour for service on home soil, and its most bizarre: Fishguard, 1797. It belongs to the Pembroke (Castlemartin) Yeomanry and, if more boozy than bloody, it represents a minor masterpiece of bluff over brute force and remains a tribute to Welsh pluck. Theobald Wolfe Tone, founder of the Society of United Irishmen, arrived in France in early 1796 to seek aid to establish an Irish republic. In Paris he met another dashing young man of action, Lazare Hoche, commander of the Armée des Côtes de l’Océan. Hoche envisaged a coup de main against the Cornish coast by 1,600 French regulars and a second landing in Wales with the aim of establishing a peasant uprising in Britain. He was in the process of putting these modest proposals into effect when word arrived from the governing Directory that something rather more grand was being planned. These expeditions were to become subsidiary diversions to the main effort of putting 15,000 men ashore to assist in the liberation of Ireland.
The expedition fell foul of a rising gale off Bantry Bay, and for a fortnight Hoche, Tone and their army were borne about on the back of an Atlantic gale, which forced them to abandon the attempt. Immediately afterwards, the plans for raids on Cornwall and Wales were dusted off again; the Cornwall scheme was then dropped, but Tone had spent some of his time in translating orders for the American leader of the expedition aimed at Wales, William Tate. Tate’s orders were to land within five miles of Bristol at dusk. Having destroyed what was then England’s second city, he was to cross over to the right bank of the River Taff and march on Chester and Liverpool. His ragtail ‘army’ was assembled from the dregs of the prisons, pressed émigrés, and a few released prisoners of war who evidently did not know what they had volunteered for. They were issued British uniforms captured at Quiberon and dyed deep brown, which earned them the title Légion Noire.
After they had raided Ilfracombe conditions simply would not permit the passage up the Bristol Channel. Tate then declared Cardigan Bay his alternative objective, and course was duly set. The squadron was sighted on the morning of Wednesday 22 February off North Bishop Rock. Shortly afterwards, Tate’s men seized a local man, John Owen of Pencaer, from his sloop Britannia and quizzed him as to the defences of the area. Helped by some brandy, he greatly exaggerated the defenders’ numbers, but his estimate still amounted to less than half that of the invaders. Soon seventeen boatloads of uniformed cutthroats and brigands descended upon as peaceful a spot as exists in Western Europe. Forty-seven barrels of gunpowder and 2,000 stands of arms for the proposed uprising were also landed.
To defend the area, John Campbell, Lord Cawdor, proceeded to assume command of the 400 assorted men, including the Castlemartin Yeomanry, assembled at Haverfordwest. These then set off towards Fishguard, while most of the French troops were busy looting the surrounding countryside and getting into skirmishes. One local woman, Jemima Nicholas, a 47-year-old cobbler, marched resolutely out to Llanwnda armed with a pitchfork and promptly rounded up twelve Frenchmen, whom she brought into town before departing to look for more. Cawdor’s force arrived as the evening drew on, and planned an immediate attack. But the fight never developed as they could not manœuvre their improvised artillery through the narrow lines, and they decided to wait for morning.
Dismayed by what he saw, Tate decided to seek terms. At eight o’clock he sent his second-in-command, the former Baron de Rochemure, and his English-speaking ADC to deliver a missive:
The Circumstances under which the Body of French troops under my Command were landed at this place renders it unnecessary to attempt any military operations, as they would tend only to Bloodshed and Pillage. The Officers of the whole Corps have therefore intimated to me their desire of entering into a Negociation upon Principles of Humanity for a surrender. If you are influenced by similar Considerations you may signify the same by the bearer and, in the mean Time, Hostilities shall cease.
Cawdor must have greeted this development with delight and may have also been tempted when, shortly afterwards, de Rochemure announced that the only detail requiring agreement was the repatriation of the French at the British government’s expense. But Cawdor refused even to contemplate this and, cleverly disguising his weakness, offered the following grandiloquent reply:
The Superiority of the Force under my command, which is hourly increasing, must prevent my treating upon any Terms short of your surrendering your whole Force Prisoners of War. I enter fully into your Wish of preventing an unnecessary Effusion of Blood, which your speedy Surrender can alone prevent, and which will entitle you to that Consideration it is ever the Wish of British Troops to show an Enemy whose numbers are inferior.
This was an outrageous bluff but it prompted Tate to communicate the following morning that he would surrender under any terms and articles were duly prepared.
Tate must have seen that he outnumbered Cawdor’s rag-tag army (many were sailors and at least a fifth were volunteer civilians). Yet a procès-verbal drawn up by his officers on 25 February and signed by him spoke of the British coming at them ‘with troops of the line to the number of several thousand’. Thousands of people gathered to witness the Légion Noire lay down its arms on Goodwick Sands, including women clad in the then fashionable scarlet mantles and low-crowned round felt hats. These may have appeared to the French like British Army redcoats at a distance. The official French historian Captain Desbrière refers to ‘un rassemblement de femmes galloises’, and a letter from John and Mary Mathias to their sister in service in Swansea describes ‘near four hundard Women in Red Flanes and Squier Cambel went to ask them were they to fight and they said they were’. It is easy to picture a crowd of women coming to watch the proceedings being asked by ‘Squier Cambel’ if they had come to fight, and being eager to take a hand. The deception may not have been intentional, but its effect was the same.
In invading Britain, Tate achieved one thing that always eluded Napoleon Bonaparte, one of the world’s greatest generals and a master of deception. Napoleon was a voracious reader, but he left no body of writing to students of his military art. Instead, his art was handed down by his actions and the reports of others. Like Marlborough and Frederick, Napoleon was not so much a military innovator as a skilled manipulator of the tools available. Although he disliked categorizing his methods, he operated three broad types of manœuvre. The manœuvre sur les derrières (or strategical envelopment) was demonstrated early in Napoleon’s career by the Manœuvre of Lodi in 1796. Here he was faced with a crossing of the River Po, which was contested by the Austrian general Johann Beaulieu. Napoleon’s plan was to distract Beaulieu while he himself moved eastwards to Piacenza; there he would establish a bridgehead from which, if he could capture the crossings over the River Adda which flows south into the Po, he would threaten the Austrian rear. This was achieved by mounting demonstrations that appeared to presage a crossing in the area of Valenza while a chosen force marched hard for the real objective, thus succeeding in getting behind the enemy and threatening to cut it off.
When Napoleon came to prominence, the French Army had been as imbued with revolutionary fervour as the rest of the country. It burnt with a patriotic zeal previously unseen, and the levée en masse created the first mass conscript armies. Marlborough and Frederick had been forced to keep their much smaller armies together, largely for logistic reasons (troops were not allowed to go foraging for supplies for fear of desertion, so all supplies had to be carried in large wagon trains), but the French revolutionary army was capable of operating with greater freedom of action and less reliance on depots than previously. The patriotism of its soldiers meant they could be trusted to forage for themselves, and since they were fighting largely on foreign soil, the burden did not fall on France. Napoleon realized that the eighteenth-century pattern of siege warfare had led to endless logistical problems, and since the large armies available to him meant he could screen off fortresses and not worry about sieges, the logistic apparatus that previously limited an army’s freedom of manœuvre could be dispensed with.
Given these factors, Napoleon created his greatest innovation – the army corps. By organizing the Grande Armée into all-arms groupings, each capable of independent action and of looking after itself until support arrived, he was able to advance on a wide frontage in a manner not seen since the Mongols, thus enabling him to cloak his intentions and main effort. As a result, his march to the Danube in 1805 marked the transition between eighteenth- and nineteenth-century warfare. He was able to advance with 200,000 men on a frontage of nearly 200 miles, reducing to 70 miles when he reached the river, and to trap an Austrian force of 27,000 men at Ulm under the totally bemused Karl Freiherr von Mack, as well as taking a further 30,000 prisoners in the days that followed. Unable to pull a similar trick on the Russians who were coming up to support the Austrians, Napoleon skilfully feigned weakness, and the combined Austro-Russian army advanced to attack him at Austerlitz. From the commanding Pratzen heights the Austro-Russian force looked down on Napoleon’s apparently weak right wing, and moved to encircle it in four great columns totalling 40,000 men. Having thus lured the allies out of position, Napoleon with perfect timing unleashed previously concealed troops into the gap created in the centre of the Austro-Russian line, and achieved his greatest tactical victory. Thereafter, his decision to invade Russia notwithstanding, he proved perhaps more skilled as a strategist than as a tactician.
Warfare and revolution continued throughout Europe for the remainder of the nineteenth century, but while Britain and France in particular also took the opportunity that industrialization presented to extend their empires, another truly great commander welded a tribe of perhaps 1,500 into a mighty nation that in due course would humble the greatest empire of all. King Shaka of the Zulus developed a revolutionary war machine based on the stabbing assegai and a regimental system that swept all before him. He was also a great deceiver and delighted in luring the enemy into positions favourable to himself.40 In his first full battle against the Butelezi in 1816 he bunched his regiments at the outset and had his men carry their shields on edge to make his force appear small. When the horns of his famous bull’s head formation raced out, the warriors turned their shields outwards making the army instantly appear double its original size. At the Battle of Gqokli Hill in 1823 Shaka faced a far greater force of the Ndwandwe. He sent the Zulu cattle off with a small escort, but deliberately left the herd visible in order to draw off a portion of the enemy in pursuit; then, abandoning his usual tactics, he occupied a position on top of the hill, where he concealed his reserve in a deep depression. After their initial assaults had been resisted, the Ndwandwe formed a column, intending to drive Shaka off the hill onto a cordon at the bottom. Instead, they were in turn surrounded by the hidden reserve, a combination of skill and cunning that brought off Shaka’s greatest victory.