Popular History of Jersey Chapter 26

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Battle of Jersey 5 - Platte Rocque

Platte Rocque

Inseparably connected with the battle that was fought in the Market Square on that celebrated 6 January 1781, comes the equally brave engagement that took place at La Platte Rocque Battery the same morning. It will be remembered that Captain Clement Hemery, who escaped through the back door of his house for the purpose, was the first to inform Major Corbet of the appearance of Rullecourt and his troops in St Helier. Major Corbet's immediate request to him was that he should take one of his own horses and with all speed communicate the alarming news to Captain Campbell, commanding five companies of the 83rd Regiment, then stationed at Fort Conway, Gorey, this being but a few moments prior to his own arrest.

Captain Hemery appears to have carried out the Major's orders with the same alacrity and energy that he displayed when carrying the first news of the invasion, though his return to town was unfortunately delayed through his capture by the French, and his being for a time kept prisoner in a boat lying offshore; but he managed eventually to escape, and by good fortune was back at Gallows Hill in time to take part in the action that followed. Captain Campbell’s troops were under arms with all despatch and were marching towards town, when, through the hands of Lieutenant Snow, of the St Helier's Militia, Campbell received that copy of the capitulation of Jersey which appears to have caused him not only delay, but a great amount of perplexity.

Rector's pressure

At this time, about 7.30 am the Rev Francis Le Couteur, then rector of St Martin's, appeared upon the scene. News concerning the invasion had been imparted to him by his son, and the reverend gentleman seems to have thereupon shown a bold front and to have had his martial spirit stirred within him for the cause of his native isle; for having in his possession two field-pieces (his own private property), he immediately took steps for their removal to Fort Conway; and directly afterwards, seeking out Captain Campbell, besought him to undertake command of the expedition against the French, forcibly pleading that even though Major Corbet was a prisoner, be must have been made such by force and against his will, and suggesting that an engagement with the enemy could not admit of a doubt of success, whilst if the opportunity was lost, no doubt some other corps would eventually snatch the palm of victory.

Captain Campbell, however, hesitated to undertake the work in the face of the orders he had received, and seeing his reluctance, Mr Le Couteur appealed to Lieutenant Robertson, who also seems to have replied in similar terms, to the effect that if he should attack the enemy contrary to orders he would lose his commission and be ruined for life, when, not to be baffled again, the Rev Francis, being "a man of some property", expressed his determination to see him fully indemnified should such prove the case.

Orders in letter

How matters would have turned on this point it is impossible to say, since during this state of indecision and expostulation Captain Campbell fortunately received a letter from Major Peirson, informing him that he had taken command, and was going to attack the French. After this Campbell acted with that promptness and energy for which he was noted, and which he afterwards displayed. To deal with the enemy left by Rullecourt at La Platte Rocque he immediately divided his company of grenadiers, placing the one part under Lieutenant Robertson, and taking command himself of the other division, and in this order set forth to the recovery of the battery in the enemy's possession.

For some reason Lieutenant Robertson was first to arrive at La Rocque and up at the battery, which was occupied by some 100 of the French, drawn up four deep, and with the battery guns directed on the rescuers. Perceiving this, Lieutenant Robertson drew up his party (now increased by 10 men, under the command of Lieutenant Helier Godfray) within about twelve paces of the enemy, whom he called upon to surrender. Then, seeing that a discharge of the guns of the battery was imminent, he immediately, without waiting for a reply, took the lead by firing a volley into their midst, and waiting only for their return fire, made a brilliant dash for victory, charging the enemy with the bayonet, and carrying the post by storm. The whole affair was so efficiently and splendidly carried out, that it was over and the battery regained even before the arrival of Captain Campbell on the scene.

Casualties

The loss in this short but decisive and brilliant action amounted to, on the enemy's side, one officer killed and one wounded and 20 privates killed — Robertson losing seven of his grenadiers, whilst eight were wounded, Lieutenant Helier Godfray meeting with a dangerous wound. Thus ended the Battle of Jersey, and the minor but no less brave retaking of La Platte Rocque Battery.

To the brave men who fell at the latter engagement a monument was erected in Grouville churchyard, where they were buried. To the gallant Major Peirson, as we have already said, a suitable tablet was erected in St Helier's Parish Church. A letter of condolence also was sent by the States to Major Peirson's father on 22 February 1781, an Act of the States being recorded to the effect that "being exquisitely sensible to the loss of the brave Major Peirson", the States had "determined to address to Francis Peirson, father of the deceased, a letter of condolence upon so trying a loss for his family and the public generally. To which end a letter "having been prepared and approved", was ordered to be transmitted with the Act authorising the same, a suitable reply to which was received from Mr Peirson on 21 April following, and read to the Assembly by the Attorney-General.

The unfortunate and over-ambitious Rullecourt found a quiet resting-place in St Helier's Churchyard, some four or five yards distant from and opposite to the western door, in a grave at the foot of where, strange to say, Major Hogge, who with Corbet signed the capitulation, was laid only two years subsequently.

A list of killed and wounded on the side of the defenders on this memorable occasion shows how sharp must have been the engagement ere the victory was won. Of the troops there was one officer and 45 soldiers killed, one sergeant and 70 soldiers wounded. Of the Militia, the South West Regiment had six wounded; the St Helier's Battalion four killed and 40 wounded; St Lawrence Battalion the same number killed and 12 wounded; the North West Regiment two wounded; the East Regiment, two lieutenants, one ensign, and twelve men wounded. The officer killed was the gallant Peirson; wounded, Lieutenants H Godfray and Aubin, and Ensign Poignand. Thomas Lempriere, aide-de-camp, and James Lempriere, merchant, also received wounds on the occasion.

Opportunity missed

In conclusion, a word must be added concerning Colonel Benest of the St Lawrence Militia, whose forethought, had it been carried into effect, might, and in all probability would, have gained the day without the loss of so much valuable life. His advice, which he pressed hard upon Captain Lumsden, when on Gallows Hill, was that the French should he attacked whilst on the sands negotiating concerning Elizabeth Castle, and it was through the neglect of this that the subsequent march into town, with the consequent death of Major Peirson, was allowed to take place. Lumsden, however, for some reason, does not seem to have seen his way to carry Colonel Benest's suggestion into practice — hence the battle in the Market Square that followed — but hence also, it may be added, the victory.

Since 6 January 1781, Jersey, though more than once threatened and alarmed, but always in readiness, has never been the actual seat of assault; for though Napoleon in his day did look upon her as "a stepping stone to England", he seems to have been wise enough to leave her alone, and neither trust himself nor his armies "to the shelter of her formidable shores".

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