Happy St. George's Day: If It Wasn't For The Welsh, We'd All Be French
There's a saying in Wales: “the hardest man in the world is a Welsh woman.”
Hard as a goat’s knees, your average Taff lass. There’s no two ways about it. Should you require any confirmation, just ask any Frenchman, who will quake with terror and wince with humiliation as he recalls the day his fellow countrymen were brought to their knees by a fat Welsh wench armed with nothing but a blunt pitchfork.
It all went off back in 1797. The French, as per usual, fancied their chances of squaring up to the British and slyly planned what would become the last ever armed invasion of the mainland. As invasions go, it always looked like something of a non-starter. On the day in question, they all gathered together on the shore of Brest and prepared to set sail.
There were 1400 of the buggers all in all, a ragbag army made up of convicts, deserters, congenital half-wits, a mime artist and a lone donkey, along with an assortment of the most inept recruits from every regiment in France. The majority of this sorry bunch had already flogged their uniforms and most of their weapons to raise money for liquor and consequently turned up very much the worse for wear.
They were led by William Tate, a mad American colonel who had fled to France after unsuccessfully trying to sell Florida to the Americans who realised at the last minute that they happened to own it already. He was an odd cove, Tate, one who believed that man could live on a strict diet of coconut shells and that spiders’ webs were the work of evil fairies in the employ of Beelzebub. A short-sighted fellow, he would often set light to his moustache in the mistaken belief it was a cigar. He also had a fondness for wearing women’s underwear. A common fetish these days, particularly among Frenchmen, but something that would have been sternly frowned upon back in 1797.
He was many things, Tate - all of them nutty - but he was no leader of men. His French outfit were six hours into their journey before it dawned on them that their food supplies extended to half a dozen scrawny uncooked rabbits – the bloke who’d been given the loot to stock up the larder having done a runner and spent the lot on hookers. On a positive note, the ship was well stocked with brandy - and they wasted no time getting stuck into the supplies.
Pissed up to the eyebrows and with nothing better to do to pass the time they started fighting amongst themselves – resulting in 24 deaths before they were even halfway across the Channel. However, this was the least of their problems.
So pickled were they that all sense of direction was lost. When they finally approached the Welsh coast they hadn’t a clue where they were. Some of the French sailors seemed convinced they were nearing Jamaica. Others were convinced they were about to land in Scotland. Even Colonel Tate himself, the man in charge of the compass, seemed to be under the impression they were about to pull into the port of Liverpool. So cock-eyed were this bunch of ne’er-do-wells that they might as well have been about to land on the moon for all the difference it made.
Drunk as boiled owls and completely bamboozled, they eventually moored themselves off Careg Wastad Point on the Pencaer Peninsula, just north of Fishguard in South Wales.
Word of their arrival soon got around town and the local defence force, The Fishguard Fencibles, got themselves ready for a rumble. Or rather they didn’t. Because, being Welsh, and realising that they had only three rounds of ammunition between them, they took the line of least resistance and highlighted it out there as fast as their short, hairy Welsh legs would carry them.
Meanwhile, the French mob were preparing to get a bit handy. Realising that his forces had the upper hand, Colonel Tate sent in 800 of his troops, ordering them to “storm the homes of these dastardly natives and frighten them into immediate and total surrender.” A fatal mistake, this. Just a month previously, a Portuguese ship carrying a huge cargo of wine had been wrecked off the North Pembrokeshire coast, with the result that every home in the region was well stocked up with freshly-looted plonk. The French lads, having polished off an entire shipload of rotgut on the way over were more than ready to refill their tumblers. In the words of one account, “Foul intoxication and wild disorder were the natural consequences.”
In short, the French lot went fucking bonkers. Mutinous in-fighting and general mayhem became the order of the day. At the farm of Brestgarn, high on the Peninsula, one drunken Frenchman stumbled into a house looking for fresh supplies of laughing juice. Finding himself face to face with a grandfather clock, and assuming quite naturally that he was being attacked by a visitor from outer space, he fired three shots into it before fainting. He awoke to be confronted by a family tucking into the local delicacy of boiled crow and dumplings, and suffered a fatal cadiac arrest.
While the French were falling apart at the seams, the locals decided to seize the initiative. But it wasn’t the men of the town who elected to grasp the nettle. It was the women who stepped up to the plate that day and decided to teach these filthy French bastards just who was boss. They were led by the imposing six foot, thirty stone figure of Jemima Nichols, a cobbler by trade, who was widely reputed to be the hardest woman in all of Europe. She’d earned her reputation a few years earlier by single-handedly taking on fifteen men in a local bar brawl, leaving a devastating trail of blood, brains, balls and teeth. It was said about her that she regularly killed full-sized cows stone dead with a single blow to their heads – just because she felt like it. Clearly, Jemima Nichols was not a lady to be trifled with. To be fair, Jemima Nichols was no lady.
But this was her supreme hour of glory. Marching out to the peninsula, armed with only a pitchfork, sucking on a lump of coal for courage, she proceeded to knock seven bells out of every Frenchman in sight, killing three outright and taking a further 34 prisoner. Then, without further ado, she gathered together all the women in the town and led them on a march to the top of Goodwick Hill. There they stood: 201 tubby Welsh lasses in red shawls and tall black chimney hats, shaking their pokers and broomsticks at the remaining French sailors who cowered beneath them at the foot of the hill, shaking like row upon row of birthday jellies. And right at the front there was Jemima herself, pitchfork in hand, fully prepared to shove it up the jacksie of any garlic-sniffer that dared advance her way. The sizzled French lads, fooled into thinking they were facing a bloodthirsty horde of trained British Redcoats, had only one option, which was to toss in the sponge and leg it back home as fast as their ship would carry them.
So it was that the French navy were giving a consummate larruping by a lard-arsed Welsh bint carrying a big stick – saving us all from the metric system, frogs legs, snails, cheese that smells of old socks and sloppy personal hygiene for many years to come.
A great moment by any reckoning. And a moment that is celebrated to this day in the town of Fishguard where, each and every year on 24th February, a fat hen in a woolly shawl re-enacts the famous scene by standing on a hill and waving a pitchfork around in threatening fashion, while small children run about with strings of onions around their necks, pretending to be cowardly Frenchmen. It’s a carnival not to be missed. Unless you happen to French. In which case you’ll probably be torn from limb to limb, your entrails fed to pigs, your bones added to a most delicious Welsh stew. So think on, Pascal, before you try anything like invading Britain again.