More information on Russians in the Channel Islands

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Further light on the Russians in Jersey


FrederickDeLisle.jpg

Frederick de Lisle

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Mrs de Lisle


This article by Joan Stevens was first published in the 1968 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise


In an upstairs drawing room at Le Coin, up La Haule Hill, a dramatic and romantic episode took place in 1800. This has come to light in a manuscript left by the late Miss Julia Marett, sometime president of our society, and found among the La Haule papers. It was clearly prepared as notes for an intended talk, but I have not been able to find if such a talk was ever given. The late Miss Philippa Marett, her sister, published an article on very similar lines in the Jersey Ladies College Magazine for 1892. To them I am most grateful for this valuable information and to Sir Robert Marett who has kindly allowed it to be used in compiling this paper.

The unexpected stay of a large body of Russian troops in Jersey is well known, and extracts from a diary of Marie Dumaresq, wife of General John Le Couteur, were published in our Bulletin for 1914. Hers was a glamorous account, consisting mainly of descriptions of balls and suppers, the uniforms worn, and lavish praise of the excellent manners and accomplished dancing of the officers. It is slightly surprising that Mrs Le Couteur gained such a superficial impression, for many of her letters, preserved among the Le Couteur-Sumner papers at Belle Vue, and references to her in these papers, show her to have been an intelligent, cultured and thoughtful woman, and deeply religious.

Background

But first to examine the reason for the presence of these troops. At this period Britain was allied to Russia, the common enemy being France, and a combined force landed in Holland, hoping so to cause a diversion, and draw troops away from our other ally Austria. Unfortunately the Duke of York, second son of George III, was Commander in Chief, and he proved himself to be a totally incompetent commander, marching his exhausted men hither and thither, and giving rise to the old song about "The Grand old Duke of York, He had so many men".

In spite of this known incompetence, Sir John Le Couteur, writing in his diary of 1827, records on 12 January 12th "News of the Duke of York's death. A sad blow for the army", and on the 20th "Funeral of the lamented Duke. Most of the shops half shut."

The expedition was a complete failure, and ended in capitulation in October 1799, at Alkmaar, by which a large body of French and Dutch prisoners of war had to be surrendered to the enemy. The armies were evacuated, but the harsh northern winter had blocked all the Baltic ports and the Russian troops could not return home. The Declaration of Right (1689) had stipulated that foreign troops might not land in England, and these unfortunate men were at first kept on board their ships at Spithead. Miss Marett states: "The English first wanted to send them to Ireland, but Lord Cornwallis, the Governor, objected. This was just after the rebellion of 1796, and Cornwallis, in a confidential letter to the Prime Minister, expressed the idea that the revengeful Tory magistrates might call upon the Russian troops to help in scouring the country and hunting down the rebels, and writes that "unacquainted with our language and the nature of our Government, these troops would give loose to their natural ferocity and a scene of indiscriminate plunder must ensue."

Perfect solution

It was then realised that the Channel Islands offered the perfect solution. It was not the first, nor the last, time that Jersey suffered a large and sudden influx of population. Charles II, both as Prince of Wales in 1646 and as King in 1649, brought a considerable entourage; in 1796 a regiment of French emigres, and some Dutch soldiers, under the command of Le Duc de Castrie, had been sent here, and Castrie was present when Philippe Jean's portrait of George III was unveiled.

In more recent years large numbers of foreign troops, and Russian prisoners, caused difficulties when food supplies were short. It is interesting to note that Belle Vue had troops quartered there both in 1799 and in 1940, in the first instance the house being voluntarily rented to Government for that purpose.

The Russians arrived in batches, from November 1799 until January 1800, and stayed until July when the last detachment left. An invaluable record, the Barrack Master's Returns for 1796-1802, was rescued, having been sentenced to destruction by a board of officers in the 1890s, by Captain Cyprian Bridge, South Staffordshire Regiment. At the time Captain Bridge was commanding the Army Service Corps in Jersey, and his act of salvage was described as "in a grossly irregular manner".

This officer, to whom we owe a debt of gratitude, presented the manuscript to La Société Jersiaise in 1911, and deserves a note on his own career. He was a Staff College graduate, qualified at the London School of Economics as an interpreter of modern languages, specialising in German and Russian. He was born in 1860, commissioned in 1881, and retired as a Major in 1908.

Names

The book gives the name of the corps, the officers, the date of arrival in the Island, numbers of officers, men and horses, and to which barracks they were consigned, among other military information covering the period 1796-1802. The number of Russians recorded in March 1800 is 6,505 men and 239 officers and 136 horses. One can hardly imagine how such a small community managed to absorb such a number, from the point of view of both housing and food. The spelling of the names varies between Mrs Le Couteur's contemporary account, that of the Barrack Master, and Miss Marett's notes, the names of course being unfamiliar to those who wrote them down at the time. The Generals were Kapzewidch as Commander in Chief, with Manouf, Zavalichen, Soudoff and Emrne under him.

The barracks where they were quartered were in some cases requisitioned houses, and in others hastily constructed hutments, probably of wood. The following are mentioned:

  • Laurences. (A de Veulle)
  • General Infirmary. St Helier
  • Le Couteur. (Gen J Le Couteur.) (Belle Vue)
  • Pipons (J. Pipon.)
  • St Ouen's Bay
  • Grouville (on Grouville Common)
  • St Helier's Bay (the so called Blue Barracks between First Tower and West Park.)
  • Town Hill. Maxwells
  • Gossets (probably in town)

Some valuable research could be done in identifying all these barracks. In Mrs Le Couteur's diary she mentions that they have rented a town house lately occupied by Sir Thomas Wallace, and his regiment is shown as being in Gosset's barracks just prior to the arrival of the Russians. Miss Marett thought some of them had been quartered at St Ouen's Manor, but it appears as a barracks in this record from April 1796-February 1797, but not thereafter.

First arrival

The first arrival was General Emme, on 24 November 1799, with Major Biliashowe in command, going to Lawrence's Barracks and the General Infirmary. On the 20th, Sir Vere Hunt, in command of the Limerick Fencibles, is still at Belle Vue, called Le Couteur barracks, and at Pipon's Barracks; but by 4 December, Colonel Kerbetz is in command of the Russian there. By 13 December various corps of Russians are stationed at Belle Vue, and again on 5 January 1800, and on 21 January General Kapzewidch is there. At this period Belle Vue was accommodating 30 officers and 937 men.

There were then 267 men sick in hospitals at Grouville, St Aubin and the General Hospital.

In June 1800 some of General Zavalichcn’s men are at Belle Vue and General Soudoffis at Grouville; 10 July is the last entry to mention the Russians when Kapzevitch is at Grouville, but by then the 49th, Princess Charlotte of Wales’ Royal Berkshires, are at Belle Vue.

During this period a railing was put on the top of the roof at Belle Vue, mounting telescopes which could watch the valley towards St Aubin, with another post further down the Cotils which could be alerted by flag signal from Belle Vue.

This was probably useful irrespective of what troops were stationed there. Accounts of the behaviour of our visitors, and of their impression of us, vary inevitably, and one wonders where the truth lay. As already mentioned we have Mrs Le Coutcur’s stories of gaiety and plenty, but some people questioned by the Misses Marett, who had had stories passed down to them by their grandparents, tell of great hardship and privation.

Hungry men stole food

We are told that these hungry men had a passion for tallow and oil, and would beg or steal candles from anywhere, and drank oil from the parish lamps in St Aubin, plunging the village in darkness; that at Grouville they collected and ate fish refuse thrown on the sands to be washed away by the tide; that they attacked people returning home from market and stole their provisions. It was also reported that the officers were very harsh in their treatment of the men.

Apart from stealing food, which may have been forced on them by real hunger, the men were said to be kindly disposed. Mrs Leigh, from La Ferme du Roi at St Brelade, recalled being told that they would stop and help a woman collecting or driving her cows, whereas the English soldiers would tease her by scaring and scattering her animals. In about 1890, Major Bridge, to whom reference has already been made, attended some celebrations of the Paul Regiment in St Peters­burg, and a Russian newspaper reported that an English officer was there who came from Jersey, an island in which the regiment had previously suffered so much discomfort and scant courtesy.

And this ninety years later. It accords ill with the accounts referred to above, and in any case the Island could have been forgiven if it had found the sudden influx of 6,000 men an impossible situation. We were not geared to tourism in 1799. The official record suggests the greatest amity and satisfaction on both sides. On 7 June 1800, in the States Assembly, the Governor announced that the troops of His Majesty the Emperor of all the Russias were about to depart; the States took this occasion to record the exemplary discipline of the officers and the good conduct of all ranks of these Russian troops.

Realising the trouble the officers had taken to preserve amity between the troops and the inhabitants, to avoid all possible cause of dispute, to obey the laws, and convinced of the success of their efforts, the States entertain the feelings of the deepest gratitude, and they ask His Excellency General the Count of Viomenil, their commandant, to accept their sincere thanks, and to convey these thanks to the Commanding officers, other officers, and the men. The States order that this Act should be entered in the Public Register of the Island, so that it shall never be forgotten, and they ask the Governor to convey to the Count of Viomenil an authenticated sealed copy of the said act.

Report to States

On 28 June the Governor reports to the States that he forwarded their act referred to above, and that he had received a reply from the Count of Viomenil, saying that he had informed the various corps of Russian soldiers of the contents of this act, and that they had been gratefully received, being aussi flatteurs qu'honorables.

In his capacity of Commander he is charged to express to His Excellency the sincere thanks of all members of the corps who had been in the Island. He finds it difficult to choose words to express how grateful they are for all the help they have received and continues (translation from French):

"Allow me, General, to take this opportunity to offer you my personal and great gratitude for all the proofs of kindness and consideration with which you have overwhelmed my compatriots living in the Island, under your authority. The protective guardianship which you have afforded them has greatly lessened their hardships".

General the Count of Viomenil, or Viomesnil, was a Frenchman in the Russian service, who had been sent here as Commander in Chief over the troops in both Jersey and Guernsey, after the Governor, General Gordon, had some slight misunderstanding with General Kapsovitch.

Russian horses

Probably many anecdotes of this episode were preserved in local families, and Miss Marett recounts a few of them. One is that Mr Simonet of Radier used to see them performing the feat of throwing up a ring, which a horseman, galloping, would catch on a spear. They were good riders, and brought many horses over with them. They are supposed to have left behind traces of their small cross-bred horses, with long tails and small heads of which signs could still be seen in some local horses in about 1890.

Mr Le Couteur, of Les Pres, Grouville, used to entertain some of the Russian officers; he once persuaded some of them to take hold of a galvanic (electric) battery; they were terrified and thought it magic and would only touch it thereafter if his daughter took part. As this sort of battery was invented by Galvani in 1792, it must have been a very modern invention to find in the island. This was probably the Rev Francois Le Couteur, hero of the Battle of Jersey, famous agriculturist, and Rector of St Martin and then Grouville, who died in 1808; if so, his daughter was Elizabeth, who later married Charles Le Hardy.

Daughter's suitor

Not far from Belle Vue lies Le Coin, built by Brelade Janvrin, a rich shipowner, whose initials BIV, and those of his wife Elizabeth de Lecq, and the date 1762, appear over the door lintel. At the period we are considering his son, Francois Janvrin, lived there.

It appears that Francois' daughter Elizabeth was courted by a Russian General from Belle Vue, who wished to marry her, but that he did not approve of the attachment. The story is told that one day when her admirer was visiting her, and her father returned home unexpectedly, she hid the general in a cupboard, which can still be seen in the north west corner of the room, now a bedroom.

The present owners of Le Coin, Sir Francis and Lady Cook, have been told a similar story, but that it concerned a German, and that the father shot dead the suitor as he tried to climb out of the window. There could not be two stories so alike concerned with one house, and in any case, what German? If it were an incident from the last war it would be known about.

It does, however, suggest a custom of having a first floor drawing room, which is also the case at Belle Vue and La Haule, the owners of all three houses at this period being related. Some years afterwards a cousin of Bessie Janvrin's went to Riga in his ship.

Miss Marett relates:

"The Governor, coming to call on the ship's officers, was very much interested to hear that one of them was a native of Jersey. He said: 'I was there once; do you know Miss Bessie Janvrin ?' 'She is my cousin' replied the officer; 'And is she married ?' 'Yes,' , Ah, and so am I' said the Governor as he gave a little sigh over the days oflong ago. That same day he sent the Captain a case of champagne with which to drink the health of Miss Bessie Janvrin."

By a curious chance an entry in the diary of Philippe Marett of La Haule, in 1818, says:

"Wrote John Janvrin a letter to St Petersburg by the Rowcliff."

Bessie had two first cousins named John, sons of her uncles John and Philippe.

Miniatures

Miss Marett says that miniatures of Bessie Janvrin and the Russian General survived "in the family". Intensive research, involving telephoning de Lisles in the London directory, and asking them if they were descended from the Channel Island family, which unexpected enquiry met with great courtesy and help, has discovered photographs of two miniatures in the de Lisle family. One, of Elizabeth Janvrin, who married Frederick de Lisle, accords with the description of a "brown ringletted merry looking girl"; the other is of her husband.

The miniature of the General has, alas, not been found. Miss Marett describes it thus:

"Dressed in a blue coat with powdered hair, a fine well set up good looking man with the long narrow eyes of the Slav; at the back of the portrait are his initials A S in gold wire."

The only General in the names recorded beginning with S is Soudkoff, or Sutoff, whom Mrs Le Couteur says was "aimiable". The General recorded as being billetted at Belle Vue was Zavalichin, but he, she says, was a "very fine old soldier" and so seems less likely.

Bessie Janvrin and her husband had many grandchildren, two of the sons being close friends of Dr R R Marett, who refers to them in his book A Jerseyman at Oxford. Two, G de Saumarez and H de Beauvoir, both became Generals, the latter gaining the KCB, KCMG, DSO, and serving in Egypt, South Africa and the Great War, then becoming GOC Western Command 1919-25, and also being an acknowledged expert on polo.

It is Mrs F Delisle (or de Lisle) daughter of General G de S de Lisle, who has permitted us to reproduce the two miniatures. She also owned, and recently sold, a large oil painting of Le Coin, dated 1814, by Tobias Young. It is interesting to note that he also painted a scene of La Collette at that period, and that a very similar drawing, dated somewhat later, exists among the Le Couteur-Sumner papers, by Harriet Le Couteur, nee Janvrin, grand daughter of Francois Janvrin of Le Coin.

Many of these Russians died here and were buried unceremoniously in a plot of land at Grouville, south west of Fort Henry. In 1808 Mr Pepin, who lived nearby, sold this land to the military authorities, and in 1809 it was consecrated, that is nine years after the last body had been buried there. In 1849 the military authorities transferred it to the parish, subject to the condition that members of HM forces should be interred free of charge. It is thought that some of the Russians were buried at St Brelade, and one or more in the moat at St Ouen's Manor, though this last may refer to some other troops quartered at the manor. One is believed to have been buried at La Haule Manor, having died accidentally while working on the erection of the present manor house, built by Philippe Marett who had married Anne, daughter of Brelade Janvrin.

Mont Cochon

The story is sometimes told that the name of Mont Cochon arises from the Russian sejour, and that on being asked where they were billetted they would reply "Sur le mont ou nous couchons". This is profoundly unlikely, especially as la contree du Mont Cochon appears in a manuscript of 1607 in a book of contracts of Aaron Messervy. It is almost certainly derived from a family name, one which appeared in the parish of Grouville as early as 1331.

Nearly 150 years later many Jersey people were again to show kindness to unfortunate Russians, who pleaded for a bite from the meagre ration of bread, or for a cigarette, and many inhabitants suffered hardship, and some even death, for their humanity. Short as was the first stay of the Russians in Jersey, their visit seems to have made considerable impact, and one hopes that the exchanges of official courtesy reflected the truth.

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