Napoleon’s not so elite soldiers —- The La Legion Noire (The Black Legion).
During the early 1800’s Napoleon’s Imperial Guard were the most well trained, experienced, best equipped, and toughest of all the soldiers of the world. However not all of Napoleon’s Grande Armee were composed of elite soldiers. In fact most of Napoleon’s army was composed of peasant conscripts, simple commoners with no military experience who were drafted into service. One unit, called the Black Legion, would serve as the worst of the worst of the Napoleonic Wars.
Created by orders of Gen. Lazare Hoche, the Black Legion was a convict regiment made up of thieves, vagrants, and petty criminals. Incredibly the Black Legion was also manned by a number of British soldiers, captured by the French and forced to fight for Napoleon. Comprised of 1,200 men, the unit had 800 irregulars and 600 regular French troops (tasked with keeping the irregulars in line). They were called the “Black Legion” not because they were particularly dangerous or deadly, but because the unit was created on the cheap. To save money, the irregulars of the Legion were issued captured enemy equipment and weapons. The uniforms they wore were captured red British uniforms. The red uniforms were dyed blue unsuccessfully, resulting in a brownish or black color.
The only major action the Black Legion performed during the Napoleonic Wars was the invasion of Fishguard Bay in Wales. It was hoped that a French invasion would spark a rebellion among the Welsh that would dis-unify the United Kingdom. Of course the invasion failed badly, but of course the ner-do-wells of the Black Legion were expendable and thus not a great loss.
On February 22nd, 1797 the men of the Black Legion landed near Fishguard Bay. It was then that the invasion began to fall apart. Once on shore most of the irregular forces deserted and disappeared, with the convicts leaving to loot, pillage, or escape, and the captured British soldiers escaping to alert the local militia of the invasion. Many of the irregulars immediately surrendered to the local constabulary and in a number of occasions Black Legionnaires “surrendered” to the local townsfolk. One such incident occurred when a local 47 year old woman named Jemima Nicholas was approached by a platoon of Black Legionnaire’s who informed her that they wished to surrender. Nicholas led the 12 men with her pitchfork, locking them up at a local church.
With the irregulars gone, all that was left were 600 regular French soldiers. Alerted to the invasion, the local militia were called forth to fend off the invasion. After a brief skirmish the French surrendered, knowing that their invasion was doomed to failure. The Battle of Fishguard would be the last invasion of Great Britain.