by Wilkie Collins
THE GREAT (FORGOTTEN) INVASION.
IT happened some sixty years ago; it was a French invasion; and it actually took place in England. Thousands of people are alive at the present moment who ought to remember it perfectly well. And yet it has been forgotten. In these times, when the French invasion that may come turns up perpetually, in public and in private, as a subject of discussion, the French invasion that did come is not honored with so much as a passing word of notice. The new generation knows nothing about it. The old generation has carelessly forgotten it. This is discreditable, and it must be set right; this is a dangerous security, and it must be disturbed; this is a gap in the Modern History of England, and it must be filled up.
Fathers and mothers, read and be reminded; British youths and maidens, read and be informed. Here follows the true history of the great forgotten Invasion of England, at the end of the last century; divided into scenes and periods, and carefully derived from proved and written facts recorded in Kelly's History of the Wars:
On the twenty-second day of February, in the year seventeen hundred and ninety-seven, the inhabitants of North Devonshire looked toward the Bristol Channel, and saw the French invasion coming on, in four ships.
The Directory of the French Republic had been threatening these islands some time previously; but much talk and little action having characterized the proceedings of that governing body in most other matters, no great apprehension was felt of their really carrying out their expressed intention in relation to this country. The war between the two nations was, at this time, confined to naval operations, in which the English invariably got the better of the French. North Devonshire (as well as the rest of England) was aware of this, and trusted implicitly in our supremacy of the seas. North Devonshire got up on the morning of the twenty-second of February, without a thought of the invasion; North Devonshire looked out toward the Bristol Channel, and there--in spite of our supremacy of the seas--there the invasion was, as large as life.
Of the four ships which the Directory had sent to conquer England, two were frigates and two were smaller vessels. This formidable fleet sailed along, in view of a whole panic-stricken, defenseless coast; and the place at which it seemed inclined to try the invading experiment first was Ilfracombe. The commander of the expedition brought his ships up before the harbor, scuttled a few coasting-vessels, prepared to destroy the rest, thought better of it, and suddenly turned his four warlike sterns on North Devonshire in the most unaccountable manner. History is silent as to the cause of this abrupt and singular change of purpose. Did the chief of the invaders act from sheer indecision? Did he distrust the hotel accommodation at Ilfracombe? Had he heard of the clotted cream of Devonshire, and did he apprehend the bilious disorganization of the whole army, if they once got within reach of that luscious delicacy? These are important questions, but no satisfactory answer can be found to them. The motives which animated the commander of the invading Frenchmen are buried in oblivion; the fact alone remains, that he spared Ilfracombe. The last that was seen of him from North Devonshire, he was sailing over ruthlessly to the devoted coast of Wales.
In one respect it may be said that Wales was favored by comparison with North Devonshire. The great fact of the French invasion had burst suddenly on Ilfracombe, but it only dawned in a gradual manner on the coast of Pembrokeshire. In the course of his cruise across the Bristol Channel, it had apparently occurred to the commander of the expedition that a little diplomatic deception at the outset might prove to be of ultimate advantage to him. He decided, therefore, on concealing his true character from the eyes of the Welshmen; and when his four ships were first made out from the heights above Saint Bride's Bay, they were all sailing under British colors.
There are men in Wales, as in the rest of the world, whom it is impossible to satisfy; and there were spectators on the heights of Saint Bride's who were not satisfied with the British colors on this occasion, because they felt doubtful about the ships that bore them. To the eyes of these skeptics all four vessels had an unpleasantly French look, and maneuvered in an unpleasantly French manner. Wise Welshmen along the coast collected together by twos and threes, and sat down on the heights, and looked out to sea, and shook their heads, and suspected. But the majority, as usual, saw nothing extraordinary where nothing extraordinary appeared to be intended, and the country was not yet alarmed; and the four ships sailed on till they doubled Saint David's Head, and sailed on again, a few miles to the northward, and then stopped, and came to single anchor in Cardigan Bay.
Here, again, another difficult question occurs, which recalcitrant History once more declines to solve. The Frenchmen had hardly been observed to cast their single anchors in Cardigan Bay before they were also observed to pull them up again and go on. Why? The commander of the expedition had doubted already at Ilfracombe--was he doubting again in Cardigan Bay? Or did he merely want time to mature his plans; and was it a peculiarity of his nature that he always required to come to anchor before he could think at his ease? To this mystery, as to the mystery at Ilfracombe, there is no solution; and here, as there, nothing is certainly known but that the Frenchman paused--threatened--and then sailed on.
He was the only man in Great Britain who saw the invading army land on our native shores, and his name has perished.
It is known that he was a Welshman, and that he belonged to the lower order of the population. He may be still alive--this man, who is connected with a crisis in English History, may be still alive--and nobody has found him out; nobody has taken his photograph; nobody has written a genial biographical notice of him; nobody has made him into an Entertainment; nobody has held a Commemoration of him; nobody has presented him with a testimonial, relieved him by a subscription, or addressed him with a speech. In these enlightened times, this brief record can only single him out and individually distinguish him--as the Hero of the Invasion. Such is Fame.
The Hero of the Invasion, then, was standing, or sitting--for even on this important point tradition is silent--on the cliffs of the Welsh coast, near Lanonda Church, when he saw the four ships enter the bay below him and come to anchor--this time without showing any symptoms of getting under way again. The English colors, under which the expedition had thus far attempted to deceive the population of the coast, were now hauled down, and the threatening flag of France was boldly hoisted in their stead. This done, the boats were lowered away, were filled with a ferocious soldiery, and were pointed straight for the beach.
It is on record that the Hero of the Invasion distinctly saw this; and it is not on record that he ran away. Honor to the unknown brave! Honor to the solitary Welshman who faced the French army!
The boats came on straight to the beach--the ferocious soldiery leaped out on English soil, and swarmed up the cliff, thirsting for the subjugation of the British Isles. The Hero of the Invasion, watching solitary on the cliffs, saw the Frenchmen crawling up below him--tossing their muskets on before them--climbing with the cool calculation of an army of chimney-sweeps--nimble as the monkey, supple as the tiger, stealthy as the cat--hungry for plunder, bloodshed, and Welsh mutton, void of all respect for the British Constitution--an army of Invaders on the Land of the Habeas Corpus!
The Welshman saw that, and vanished. Whether he waited with clinched fist till the head of the foremost Frenchman rose parallel with the cliff-side, or whether he achieved a long start by letting the army get half-way up the cliff, and then retreating inland to give the alarm--is, like every other circumstance in connection with the Hero of the Invasion, a matter of the profoundest doubt. It is only known that he got away at all, because it is not known that he was taken prisoner. He parts with us here, the shadow of a shade, the most impalpable of historical apparitions. Honor, nevertheless, to the crafty brave! Honor to the solitary Welshman who faced the French army without being shot, and retired from the French army without being caught.
The Art of Invasion has its routine, its laws, manners, and customs, like other arts. And the French army acted strictly in accordance with established precedents. The first thing the first men did, when they got to the top of the cliff, was to strike a light and set fire to the furze-bushes. While national feeling deplores this destruction of property, unprejudiced History looks on at her ease. Given Invasion as a cause, fire follows, according to all known rules, as an effect. If an army of Englishmen had been invading France under similar circumstances, they, on either side, would necessarily have begun by setting fire to something; and unprejudiced History would, in that case also, have looked on at her ease.
While the furze-bushes were blazing, the remainder of the invaders--assured by the sight of the flames of their companions' success so far--was disembarking and swarming up the rocks. When it was finally mustered on the top of the cliff, the army amounted to fourteen hundred men. This was the whole force which the Directory of the French Republic had thought it desirable to dispatch for the subjugation of Great Britain. History, until she is certain of results, will pronounce no opinion on the wisdom of this proceeding. She knows that nothing in politics is abstractedly rash, cruel, treacherous, or disgraceful--she knows that Success is the sole touch-stone of merit--she knows that the man who fails is contemptible, and the man who succeeds is illustrious, without any reference to the means used in either case--to the character of the men, or to the nature of the motives under which they may have proceeded to action. If the Invasion succeeds, History will applaud it as an act of heroism; if it fails, History will condemn it as an act of folly.
It has been said that the Invasion began creditably, according to the rules established in all cases of conquering. It continued to follow those rules with the most praiseworthy regularity. Having started with setting something on fire, it went on, in due course, to accomplish the other first objects of all Invasions, thieving and killing--performing much of the former, and little of the latter. Two rash Welshmen, who persisted in defending their native leeks, suffered accordingly; the rest lost nothing but their national victuals and their national flannel. On this first day of the Invasion, when the army had done marauding, the results on both sides may be thus-summed up. Gains to the French; good dinners, and protection next the skin. Loss to the English: mutton, stout Welsh flannel, and two rash countrymen.
The appearance of the Frenchmen on the coast, and the loss to the English, mentioned above, produced the results naturally to be expected. The country was alarmed, and started up to defend itself.
On the numbers of the invaders being known, and on its being discovered that, though they were without field-pieces, they had with them seventy cart-loads of powder and ball and a quantity of grenades, the principal men in the country bestirred themselves in setting up the defense. Before nightfall, all the available men who knew anything of the art of fighting were collected. When the ranks were drawn out, the English defense was even more ridiculous in point of numbers than the French attack. It amounted, at a time when we were at war with France, and were supposed to be prepared for any dangers that might threaten--it amounted, including militia, fencibles, and yeomanry cavalry, to just six hundred and sixty men, or, in other words, to less than half the number of the invading Frenchmen.
Fortunately for the credit of the nation, the command of this exceedingly compact force was taken by the principal grandee in the neighborhood. He turned out to be a man of considerable cunning, as well as a man of high rank, and he was known by the style and title of the Earl of Cawdor.
The one cheering circumstance in connection with the heavy responsibility which now rested on the shoulders of the Earl, consisted in this-- that he had apparently no cause to dread internal treason as well as foreign invasion. The remarkably inconvenient spot which the French had selected for their landing showed, not only that they themselves knew nothing of the coast, but that none of the inhabitants, who might have led them to an easier place of disembarkation, were privy to their purpose. So far so good. But still, the great difficulty remained of facing the French with an equality of numbers, and with the appearance, at least, of an equality of discipline. The first of these requisites it was easy to fulfill. There were hosts of colliers and other laborers in the neighborhood--big, bold, lusty fellows enough; but, so far as the art of marching and using weapons was concerned, as helpless as a pack of children. The question was, how to make good use of these men for show purposes, without allowing them fatally to embarrass the proceedings of their trained and disciplined companions. In this emergency, Lord Cawdor hit on a grand idea. He boldly mixed the women up in the business--and it is unnecessary to add that the business began to prosper from that lucky moment.
In those days the wives of the Welsh laborers wore, what the wives of all classes of the community have been wearing since, red petticoats. It was Lord Cawdor's happy idea to call on these patriot matrons to sink the question of skirts, to forego the luxurious consideration of warmth, and to turn the colliers into military men (so far as external appearances, viewed at a distance, were concerned) by taking off the wives' red petticoats and putting them over the husbands' shoulders. Where patriot matrons are concerned, no national appeal is made in vain, and no personal sacrifice is refused. All the women seized their strings, and stepped out of their petticoats on the spot. What man in that make-shift military but must think of "home and beauty," now that he had the tenderest memento of both to grace his shoulders and jog his memory? In an inconceivably short space of time every woman was shivering, and every collier was turned into a soldier.
Thus recruited, Lord Cawdor marched off to the scene of action; and the patriot women, deprived of their husbands and their petticoats, retired, it is to be hoped and presumed, to the friendly shelter of bed. It was then close on nightfall, if not actually night; and the disorderly marching of the transformed colliers could not be perceived. But when the British army took up its position, then was the time when the excellent stratagem of Lord Cawdor told at its true worth. By the uncertain light of fires and torches, the French scouts, let them venture as near as they might, could see nothing in detail. A man in a scarlet petticoat looked as soldier-like us a man in a scarlet coat, under those dusky circumstances. All that the enemy could now see were lines on lines of men in red, the famous uniform of the English army.
The council of the French braves must have been a perturbed assembly on that memorable night. Behind them was the empty bay; for the four ships, after landing the invaders, had set sail again for France, sublimely indifferent to the fate of the fourteen hundred. Before them there waited in battle array an apparently formidable force of British soldiers. Under them was the hostile English ground, on which they were trespassers caught in the fact. Girt about by these serious perils, the discreet commander of the Invasion fell back on those safeguards of caution and deliberation of which he had already given proofs on approaching the English shore. He had doubted at Ilfracombe; he had doubted again in Cardigan Bay; and now, on the eve of the first battle, he doubted for the third time--doubted, and gave in. If History declines to receive the French commander as a hero, Philosophy opens her peaceful doors to him, and welcomes him in the character of a wise man.
At ten o'clock that night a flag of truce appeared in the English camp, and a letter was delivered to Lord Cawdor from the prudent chief of the invaders. The letter set forth, with amazing gravity and dignity, that the circumstances under which the French troops had landed, having rendered it "unnecessary" to attempt any military operations, the commanding officer did not object to come forward generously and propose terms of capitulation. Such a message as this was little calculated to impose on any man, far less on the artful nobleman who had invented the stratagem of the red petticoats. Taking a slightly different view of the circumstances, and declining altogether to believe that the French Directory had sent fourteen hundred men over to England to divert the inhabitants by the spectacle of a capitulation, Lord Cawdor returned for answer that he did not feel himself at liberty to treat with the French commander, except on the condition of his men surrendering as prisoners of war. On receiving this reply, the Frenchman gave an additional proof of that philosophical turn of mind which has been already claimed for him as one of his merits, by politely adopting the course which Lord Cawdor suggested. By noon the next day, the French troops were all marched off prisoners of war, the patriot matrons had resumed their petticoats, and the short terror of the invasion had happily passed away.
The first question that occurred to everybody as soon as the alarm had been dissipated was, what this extraordinary burlesque of an invasion could possibly mean. It was asserted in some quarters that the fourteen hundred Frenchmen had been recruited from those insurgents of La Vendee who had enlisted in the service of the Republic, who could not be trusted at home, and who were therefore dispatched on the first desperate service that might offer itself abroad. Others represented the invading army as a mere gang of galley-slaves and criminals in general, who had been landed on our shores with the double purpose of annoying England and ridding France of a pack of rascals. The commander of the expedition, however, disposed of this latter theory by declaring that six hundred of his men were picked veterans from the French army, and by referring, for corroboration of this statement, to his large supplies of powder, ball, and hand-grenades, which would certainly not have been wasted, at a time when military stores were especially precious, on a gang of galley-slaves.
The truth seems to be that the French (who were even more densely ignorant of England and English institutions at that time than they are at this) had been so entirely deceived by false reports of the temper and sentiments of our people, as to believe that the mere appearance of the troops of the Republic on these Monarchical shores would be the signal for a revolutionary rising of all the disaffected classes from one end of Great Britain to the other. Viewed merely as materials for kindling the insurrectionary spark, the fourteen hundred Frenchmen might certainly be considered sufficient for the purpose, providing the Directory of the Republic could only have made sure beforehand that the English tinder might be depended on to catch light!
One last event must be recorded before this History can be considered complete. The disasters of the invading army on shore were matched at sea by the disasters of the vessels that had carried them. Of the four ships which had alarmed the English coast, the two largest (the frigates) were both captured, as they were standing in for Brest harbor, by Sir Harry Neale. This smart and final correction of the fractious little French invasion was administered on the ninth of March, seventeen hundred and ninety-seven.
This is the history of the Great (Forgotten) Invasion. It is short, it is not impressive, it is unquestionably deficient in serious interest. But there is a Moral to be drawn from it, nevertheless. If we are invaded again, and on a rather larger scale, let us not be so ill-prepared this next time as to be obliged to take refuge in our wives' red petticoats.