Russians in the Channel Islands

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Russians in the Channel Islands



This article by Clara Tucker was first published in the 1974 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise


Today a few scattered graves are the only visible reminder of the Russian troops that were quartered in Jersey and Guernsey during the winter of 1799 and 1800. Despite this, local historians have long shown interest in their brief but intriguing stay in the Islands. Years ago Philippa Marett collected local information and stories concerning the troops and published her findings in the Jersey Ladies College Magazine.

Later La Société Jersiaise published Mary Dumaresq's diary of the Russian visit, the official thank you extended to the Russians by the States at the time the troops departed, and, most recently, Mrs Stevens' article on the very valuable material in the "Barrack Master's Returns" for the years 1796-1802.

That more has not been written is mainly due to the fact that records dealing with the troops were kept by the War Office and the Russians themselves, not in the Channel Islands. As a result many of the most interesting documents are in the Public Record Office in London. It is those papers which form the basis of the following account.

Anglo-Russian alliance

To the residents of Jersey and Guernsey the sojourn of the Russians must have seemed an isolated and exotic incident in the long war against France. In reality it was part of a major phase of British affairs, an Anglo-Russian alliance formed in 1798 in the hope of curbing the aggression of revolutionary France. The stay of the Russians in the Channel Islands is a part of the larger story of the failure of that alliance.

The first coalition against France had been both unsuccessful and unharmonious. Torn by conflicts among the allies, it had failed to curb France or even to free the Netherlands from her control. Its breakup led Britain to seek the formation of a new coalition in which Russia replaced an all too reluctant Prussia as one of England's major allies. Paul I of Russia was willing to serve as a mediator between Britain and Austria and to help solve the quarrel over debts and subsidies which had divided the two countries. Soon after, he threw his support behind the allied cause, signed a subsidy treaty with Britain under the terms of which he contributed a substantial Russian force to the allied army, and dispatched a squadron to the Mediterranean Sea. The Russian ships which Catherine the Great had sent to aid in the defence of the Channel remained to help the British. The Tsar was, therefore, a valuable ally whose participation in the war against France was deemed crucial.

The opening campaign of the war of the second coalition took place in the spring of 1799. The brilliant performance of the Russian General Suvorov in Italy seemed to fully justify Britain's confidence in the Russians. The initial successes of the allies led to the development of a sweeping plan to attack France through Switzerland and the Jura and to liberate the Netherlands. Lord Grenville was particularly anxious to drive the French out of Holland, and it was for this purpose that the Russian troops, that were later quartered in the Channel Islands, came west to fight alongside the British army.

Unfortunately the expedition to Holland was doomed from the start by the growing discord over the campaign on the Continent. Instead of being part of a major thrust against France, it was reduced to an isolated attack lacking any real connection with the activities of the other allied forces. But so much else went wrong. The action was begun too late in the summer; the weather was bad, and the generals, apparently, worse. In the end the troops accomplished little.

After the evacuation from the Netherlands both Russian and British officers attempted to analyse the failure of the campaign and assign the blame, and each blamed the other. British accounts of the military action are highly critical of the performance of the Russian officers. In return the Russian General Essen tried to justify himself to the Tsar by accusing the British of needlessly sacrificing his men. Only the intervention of Simon Vorontsov, the Russian ambassador to England, kept Paul I from believing the story.

Expecting the worst

So a consequence of the expedition to Holland was ill will and suspicion against the British on the part of the officers of General Essen's corps. Vorontsov was well aware of this. As Essen had been wounded during the campaign and General Hermann had been taken captive, the burden of the responsibility for the troops fell upon Vorontsov. In a letter to his brother he called them "an affliction sent from heaven" and said that he expected the worst during their stay in the Channel Islands. Fortunately he was wrong. Considering the number of men involved and the haste with which their needs had to be met, the sojourn of the Russians went remarkably well.

At a later date some Russians were to claim that the British mistreated the troops. For the most part the charge is unfounded and may stem from the anti-British sentiments Vorontsov remarked in some of the officers, most notably young General Kapzewitch, who commanded the troops during most of their stay in the Islands. The worst hardships the troops suffered occurred during their long stay on shipboard between evacuation from Holland and their arrival in Jersey and Guernsey, not while they were actually in the Islands.

Naturally the expedition to Holland had been conceived of as a success. Though thought had been given to the problem of winter quarters for the Russian troops, no real plans or preparations had been made for the evacuation that took place in October. The result was a hasty, somewhat disorganized return to British ports. The wounding of General Essen and the loss of General Hermann deprived the Russians of their two main commanders. The fact that they were dependent on both British and Russian transports further disorganized and scattered them. Russian sick and wounded ended up at Yarmouth, Portsmouth, Sheerness, Gosport, and even Edinburgh. Able bodied troops were not put ashore in England; some of the sick and wounded were. Others were sent to special hospital ships.

Since few men, including the officers, could speak English, the confusion must have been considerable. Many of the troops arrived from Holland in ships too large for the harbours of Jersey and Guernsey and had to await special transports to take them to winter quarters. There was still some question as to whether all the Russian men had been located and accounted for when the troops were finally assembled for the return home.

Delays and discomforts

An idea of the delays and discomforts experienced by the Russians can be obtained from the scattered records on the squadron of the Russian Counter-Admiral Breyer. On 9 October General Essen's troops were reported aboard Breyer's ships off the Netherlands. They arrived at Spithead on 20 November. Early in December a tally of Russian sick and wounded was made by Dr Johnson, who had been chosen by the Sick and Hurt Board to supervise their care. His records show that Breyer had 2,860 troops and 1,809 seamen crowded into his seven ships. Some 260 were medical cases, and Johnson feared that the filthy conditions and overcrowding on the ships would lead to more illness. In January Vorontsov complained to the British government that these same troops were still awaiting transport to the Islands and urged that they be taken there promptly. Bad weather delayed their transfer even longer. There is a report dated 7 March 1800 which simply states that the transport Neptune went aground while disembarking troops at Guernsey. Since the Neptune is listed as one of Breyer's ships, it is possible that some Russians had remained on shipboard almost six months.

There is no evidence that the inconveniences the Russians suffered resulted from any deliberate neglect on the part of British authorities. Quite the opposite seems to be true. At the time of the evacuation from the Netherlands, Paul I was still a very important ally, and special care was taken to ensure against any complaint arising over the treatment of his men. All matters concerning their care and comfort were handled by the War Office with the co-operation of the local governors.

In order to forestall misunderstanding or mismanagement, a special civil commissary was appointed to the troops in the Channel Islands. William Eton, who was chosen for the post, was especially recommended by the Russian ambassador and had a speaking knowledge of Russian. His orders were to acquaint local authorities with the needs and habits of the Russians and to instruct the Russian officers with the civil and military powers and the customs and arrangements with which they were to conform. As mediator between the local authorities and the Russians, Eton was to impress upon the latter the inviolability of private property and the consequences of disorderly conduct. He was to be the conciliator and to keep all troubles from coming to "open complaint or discussion".

Eton had also to see to it that the troops received their subsistence and allowance which was to be issued in amounts equal to those given British troops. Regular reports were to be sent to London. A second commissary, Lt-Col Walker, was given the duty of reporting to London on the state of the Russians' clothing, arms, interior management, discipline, improvement, camp equipment and all that concerned military conduct and appearance. If the Russians suffered shortages of food or supplies it was not for lack of directives from the War Office. Some problems did arise from the fact that Russians were accustomed to a different diet from the British soldier, but British records contain no complaints of food shortages from either Vorontsov or the Russian officers.

Shortage of money

What the Russians did lack was money. The Russian wounded in British ports and the officers in the Channel Islands found the cost of living much too high for their salaries. Some found their pay allotments barely covered the cost of quarters; others may simply have resented the fact that they received less pay than British officers with whom they were serving. The problem was not easy to solve, for the men were paid by their own government out of the subsidy Russia received from Britain. Technically the British government had no control over the pay scale of the Russian officers.

Emergency funds were issued to help the wounded in British ports, but this was done largely because they could not be provided with quarters under the terms of the mutiny act. After repeated requests from Vorontsov, the British government finally agreed to supplement the pay of all Russian officers, and they were put on an equal footing with their British counterparts. Those who have read the description of the Russians' social life in Jersey in Mary Dumaresq's diary may question just how desperate the Russians were for funds. Surely the officers enjoyed a lavish life style by local standards. Nevertheless, the added pay was no doubt welcome and may have enabled some of the men to pay debts to local merchants that might otherwise have gone unsatisfied.

Unfortunately we know very little about the daily life and problems of the mass of troops that were quartered in the Islands. In all there were over 13,000 men aside from the officers. These remain nameless and faceless, for it was the officers who joined in the local social life.

Considering the large number of men quartered in Jersey and Guernsey there are very few records of any difficulty traceable to their presence. This probably reflects the almost brutal discipline to which the Russians were subject and the determination of Eton and the local governors to maintain peace.

There are stories of pillaging and robbery by the Russian troops in the account left by Philippa Marett, but nothing to compare with description of the Cossacks under General Suvorov in Germany. Some difficulties that arose simply reflect cultural differences. Eton reported complaints that the Russians bathed in brooks, got into wells, rolled on the grass and ran around naked, so that women were hesitant to leave their houses. He solved the problem by posting sentries and having the men bathe in the sea.

Legal actions

Only two incidents involving Russians were serious enough to lead to legal action. In one the culprit was a Russian, in the other a native. Both cases occurred in Guernsey, and in the first the major problem was the question of jurisdiction over the case. Accustomed to the autocratic rule of the Tsars, the Russian officers had difficulty accepting the necessity of observing local law when their men were involved.

The first incident occurred in December. A Russian soldier attacked a woman described as of good character. General Kapzcwitch claimed the man was subject to none but Russian martial law and declined to surrender him to local authorities. Fear of an outcry from the populace forced Eton to ask both Vorontsov and the War Office to intervene in the case. The Russian Ambassador was co-operative in getting the General to turn the man over to the proper local tribunal.

In January the Attorney-General and Solicitor-General informed the War Office that the Russians were indeed subject to the local laws of the Channel Islands and the case proceeded. It dragged on for months. Eventually the Russian was brought before the Royal Court which, in Eton's words, "tenacious of forms, obstructive to justice, though possessing a legislative as well as an executive power wholly without control, [conducted] the case in so extraordinary a manner, that they failed of convicting the criminal, whom all knew to be culpable, and whose guilt was confessed by the Russians themselves. The Royal Court even omitted to demand the co-delinquent." Since neither an acquittal nor a hanging seemed a satisfactory solution, Eton took the most practical course left open; he stalled the case until the time of the Russians' departure. The man was then shipped out without the matter being concluded. Thus peace was preserved with Paul I even if the Islanders were not completely satisfied.

Eton's correspondence concerning the case does mention that the Russian troops were generally docile and easy to manage. As for the officers, his most telling comment was, "would to God I could say so much of [them]." Eton felt the officers tried to capitalize on the few incidents that did arise and use them to increase friction between the Russians and the locals. Lieut-Governor Dalrymple shared his opinion, though not out of sympathy for the people of Guernsey.

Attack on Russians

The second serious incident involved an attack upon some Russians. The defendant in the case, one J Le Poidevin, was accused of firing upon some Russians in his garden and of wounding one of them. Apparently both the Russians and the locals were highly indignant over the affair. Looking back on the incident, one cannot help but feel sympathy for the accused man. In his testimony, dated after the Russians' departure, Le Poidevin states that he fired on some men who were robbing his vegetables and ruining his corn. He claimed that he had warned them to leave, but they had broken into his home, pushed his pregnant wife and his children downstairs, struck him, broken his dishes and furniture and stolen his silver spoons, sheets, shirts, shifts and clothes.

Governor Dalrymple's assessment of the case was harsh. He defended the Russians in his correspondence with the War Office and accused Le Poidevin of being" traiterous to turn arms confided to him by his sovereign for the defence of the Island against his allies". But then, he thought the local constable who handled the case was a wrongheaded, ignorant blockhead, so the Governor may have been guilty of prejudice against the local population. His opinions could also have been prompted by the fear that the Russian officers would make a major issue of the shooting.

General Sedmoratsky, who was in charge of the troops on Guernsey, did demand action in the case, but he did nothing to expedite it. His men gave no evidence or statements, and he left no witnesses behind when his troops embarked for home. Sedmoratsky did not report the incident to the Tsar, which may indicate he feared being censured for his own conduct in the matter. When it became evident to the British government that Paul I would not demand retribution for the attack upon his men, there ceased to be any reason to prosecute Le Poidevin, and he seems to have gone free. By the time the Russian troops left the Channel Islands, Britain and Russia were drifting apart and keeping the Tsar's good will had lost importance.

Alliance

The British government was reluctant to abandon its alliance with Paul I of Russia. Throughout the winter and spring months of 1799-1800 Lord Grenville continued to hope the troops in the Channel Islands could be used again against France. As the failure of the campaign on the Continent had dashed allied hopes of a sweeping military victory, what the British and Russians now planned was a landing on the coast of France not unlike the earlier failure at Quiberon. With this project in mind, Paul I sent General Viomenil, an emigre in Russian service, to command the troops. Nothing came of the plan, however. A review of the expedition to Holland and of the allied defeat in Switzerland convinced the British government that a combined English-Russian force was not workable; therefore, Grenville proposed using only Russian troops in the campaign.

Paul I had already broken his alliance with Austria following disagreements over the fate of Italy and what he considered the betrayal of his troops in Switzerland. Grenville's hesitancy over the planned landing in France now roused the Tsar's suspicions against Britain as well. In late spring he ordered his ships and men to return home, and for all practical purposes Anglo-Russian co-operation came to an end.

General Viomenil's brief command over the troops did alter the situation in Jersey and Guernsey somewhat. He exercised stricter control over the officers and men, curtailed some of the more lavish entertainment and proved a better administrator. Vorontsov was particularly happy with his arrival as it relieved him of most of the responsibility for the troops. Viomenil remained in command until the Russians departed; he then left the Tsar's service and remained in the West.

The departure of the Russians was much better organized than their arrival had been. The British government seemed anxious to speed them on their way. Admiralty records show that 5,550 men returned home on the ships of Admiral Breyer. Admiral Makarov took 2,765, leaving 5,474 to be transported in British ships. About 400 sick and wounded were left behind in Britain. The ships were well supplied by the British and arrived in Russia without mishap.

Records in Jersey show that the troops received a warm farewell. In Guernsey their departure was clouded by the unresolved court cases and the atmosphere was tense. Nonetheless, their embarkation took place without serious incident. In the end neither the Russians nor the people of Jersey and Guernsey seem to have had any real complaint about their brief experience with one another.

Only one living evidence of the Russians remained in the Islands after their departure, their horses. Anxious to avoid the costs of transport, the War Office offered each Cossack who would dispose of his horse a bounty of £5 to compensate for his selling at a disadvantage. Years later people still remarked the descendants of these rugged animals, reminders of their masters' sojourn in the islands.

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