It happened today - February 22, 2016

On this date in history, February 22, France invaded Britain. The expedition lasted two days, culminating in the ignominiously named, and ignominious, Battle of Fishguard. The “last invasion of Britain” it was. The Norman conquest it wasn’t.

The whole thing had a profound air of unreality about it. Including the force that actually landed, at Carregwastad Head in Pembrokeshire, Wales, being under the command of an Irish-American Col. William Tate, who had fought against the British in the American Revolutionary War but fled to France after a failed coup d’etat in New Orleans. It is a not a resume I’d suggest putting in the “hire” pile.

There were meant to be two other invasion forces, striking in Ireland and Newcastle, and marching in triumph on Bristol, Chester, Liverpool and London. Bad weather and mutiny stymied the other two and general futility the one that actually got ashore.

Also, it grew out of the French revolution, which is almost never a good thing. But there’s a more fundamental reason it failed. It was aimed at an Anglosphere country. So it annoyed the locals and they struck back.

Indeed, the whole thing has the usual comic-opera feel of failed plots. But a crucial element is that when some 1,400 troops from the melodramatically named La Legion Noire landed, most of the 800 irregulars took off to loot and pillage while the rest ran into about 500 armed citizens and sailors who walloped them.

Yes, armed citizens. Reservists and militia. Among the key characteristics of the Anglosphere until recently was that the people went armed, and the government was neither able to disarm them nor arm itself disproportionately. There is a Royal Navy and a Royal Air Force in Britain but no Royal Army, for the same reason that the British did not arm their police until the 20th century. The people distrusted the government and kept it under control, not the reverse.

That is not to say that the people were ungovernable. Quite the reverse. They governed themselves, in both senses.

While given to all the failings humans are prone to, they were loyal to the political as well as social community and resolute in its defence. But they also were the political community and they knew it and never let their “betters” supplant or marginalize them, as so disastrously even in France, let alone outside western Europe.

It was a great source of strength, not just of cultural vitality and economic dynamism but of military strength if it came to it. A nation whose inhabitants assemble and crush an invading force in ways that make the expedition seem laughable is a mighty nation.

OK, Fishguard remains a wretched name for a battle. But you’d still far rather win it with armed citizens than lose it with professionals and a rabble.

It happened todayJohn Robson