The Battle of Jersey

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The famous painting of the Battle of Jersey by John Singleton Copley


The Battle of Jersey was fought on 6 January 1781, after a successful landing of a French force attempting to remove the threat the island posed to shipping during the American Revolutionary War. France had sided with America and Jersey was used as a base for privateering by the British. The French invasion ultimately failed, and its commander, Baron Phillipe de Rullecourt, died of wounds sustained in the fighting.

This was the last time the French invaded Jersey after numerous attacks over the centuries after the island ceased to be part of the Duchy of Normandy in 1204. Perhaps because it was the last, and also because the battle in which the French were defeated was named Battle of Jersey, this invasion has been given undue historical importance, because it was actually one of the least severe ever suffered by islanders.

And although some apparently very detailed reports of the events of 6 January 1781 have been written, what actually happened on the day, and when, and how many people took part, is clouded in mystery. This article is based on a variety of sources (see below) and attempts to unravel some of the mystery.

A sketch for the painting by Copley of the battle

Prelude

Only 25 km off the coast of France, and placed on the principal supply route to the French naval base at Brest, Jersey was a location of strategic importance during any war between Britain and France. Large numbers of privateers operated out of the island, causing chaos amongst French mercantile shipping. Jersey privateers were even operating in support of the Royal Navy off the coast of America. The French government were determined to neutralise this threat. Furthermore, at the time of the Great Siege of Gibraltar, contemporary British newspapers reported that the attack on Jersey was an attempt to distract British attention from Gibraltar and divert military resources away from the siege.

Over 50 plans of invasion were drawn up over a short period, only to be shelved. England had command of the seas in the area and France was weak internally during the earlier part of the 18th century. In 1779 Louis XVI sided with the American colonies in the War of Independence and in April of that year a semi-official expedition, commanded by the Prince of Nassau, made an entirely unsuccessful attempt to land in St Ouen's Bay. Not a single man was embarked in adverse weather conditions, as defence forces guarded the shoreline in case any of the French should land.

Baron de Rullecourt

The French plan

Despite the misgivings of the French military, who believed that an attack on Jersey would be a futile waste of resources, with any success being short-lived, the government approved a plan put forward by Baron de Rullecourt. He was a 36-year-old adventurer and a colonel in the French Army. King Louis XVI had promised de Rullecourt the rank of General and the Cordon rouge as soon as he had control of Saint Helier, the island's capital. The second Commander was an Indian, named Prince Emire, who had been taken by England in wars in India, had been sent to France with other French prisoners and whom the French had since retained in their service. A member of the British force wrote of him: "He looked quite barbarian, as much as his discourse; if our fate has depended on him, it would not have been of the most pleasant; he advised the French General to ransack everything and to put the town to fire and to blood."

Defences in Jersey

But, aware of the military importance of Jersey, the British government had ordered the island to be heavily fortified. Gun batteries, forts and redoubts had been constructed around the coast. The Militia had some 3,000 men in five regiments, including artillery and dragoons. They were supplemented by regular army units: the 95th (Yorkshire) Regiment of Foot, five companies each of the 83rd Regiment of Foot (Royal Glasgow Volunteers) and 78th Highlanders, and around 700 'Invalids' (semi-retired reservists) — the total amounting to about 9,250 troops of all types. A naval force, the 'Jersey Squadron' was also based in the Island but was on a cruise against the Dutch at the time of the invasion.

Although the chain of defensive towers, the building of which had already been commissioned, had only just begun, there were many other fortifications. After 1779 guard houses had been built at various strategic points.

March to Granville

De Rullecourt probably knew the strength of the opposition he would face. There was good intelligence in France of Jersey's defences and it is believed that de Rullecourt had himself visited Jersey the previous summer, disguised as a contraband dealer. But his force was to prove far from adequate for the job.

Officially the expedition was a private affair; however, funding, equipment, transport and troops were provided by the government. In order to conceal their involvement, the government went so far as to order the 'desertion' of several hundred regular troops to De Rullecourt's forces. They assembled in Le Havre towards the end of 1780 and began their march to Granville on 19 December, stealing livestock en route and arriving on the 27th.

Moyse Corbet

Fleet

A fleet of about 30 small boats, ranging from three to 70 tons, had been assembled in Granville by Regnier. De Rullecourt embarked his troops immediately but the fleet was becalmed for two days and then had to take shelter off Chausey as a storm hit the area. It sailed again on 1 January and got within 12 miles of Jersey before being forced back to Chausey by another gale. The troops disembarked and took two days to recover before setting off for Jersey again on the 5th.

Reports vary, but the total force may have consisted of some 2,000 soldiers in four divisions. But it seems that fewer than half of these landed. Even had all of them landed, they were poorly equipped, hungry, short of ammunition and ill-equipped to fight in an island with a much larger garrison and militia force.

Favourable time

However, timing was in de Rullecourt's favour: All the commanding officers of the garrison regiments were in England on extended Christmas leave and the senior regular officer was the young Major Francis Peirson, only 24. In addition, 6 January was still celebrated as 'Old Christmas Night' in Jersey. Few would have expected an invasion either at this time or in the place chosen, but de Rullecourt has a further ace up his sleeve, having recruited a fugitive Jerseyman, Pierre Journeaux, as his pilot. Journeaux had fled to France some years earlier after being involved in a murder.

He brought the invasion fleet through a narrow, winding channel close to the shore and the French were able to land undetected. The first 800 men landed at La Rocque, and passed a guardhouse without being noticed. The guards were subsequently put on trial, and it was found they had abandoned their post to go drinking. The first division of the French stayed there most of the night. The second division of 400 men, was entirely lost in the rocks. The boats that contained the third division, consisting of 600 men, were separated from the rest of the fleet and were unable to join it. They may never have joined up with the main fleet because after the earlier abortive attempt to reach Jersey, some vessels appear to have returned to Granville while others sheltered at Chausey. The fourth division, consisting of 200 men, landed early the next morning at La Rocque. The total of the French troops unloaded was, therefore, possibly 1,000, half the number of soldiers that France had expected to take into battle. Other reports suggest that only 800 actually made it ashore.

By 5 o'clock in the morning de Rullecourt was ready to move off. He expected the disembarkation of troops to continue, but some of his men and artillery never made it before the tide fell. He marched to St Helier leaving sufficient troops to guard the boats and passed through St Clement without raising an alarm.

This illustration shows Moyse Corbet surprised in his bed by French troops, an unlikely scenario given that he had already received at least two visitors advising him of the French invasion

Saint Helier

Between six and seven in the morning, about 500 men set up camp in the market while most of the town was asleep. About seven o'clock a French patrol detained the island's Governor, Moyse Corbet, in Government House (then situated at Le Manoir de La Motte). De Rullecourt convinced Corbet that thousands of French troops had already overwhelmed Jersey and threatened to burn the town and slaughter the inhabitants if the garrison did not capitulate. Corbet, unable to ascertain the true situation, surrendered. He was taken to the Royal Court building in the Royal Square and was persuaded to order Elizabeth Castle and 24-year-old Major Francis Peirson's troops at Saint Peter's Barracks to surrender as well.

Elizabeth Castle

Major Corbet sent orders to all the troops in the island to bring in their arms and "lay them down" at the Court House, and at the same time sent word of the capitulation to Captain Alyward, who commanded the forces at Elizabeth Castle. The French left the town intending to take possession of that stronghold, Baron de Rullecourt, advancing at the head of the column, holding Major Corbet by the arm.

But they were no sooner on the beach, than the castle troops fired at them. Captain Alyward refused to listen to any suggestion of surrender and sent word to Rullecourt that if the French advanced they must take the consequences. The Baron continued to advance, and immediately met with a well-directed shot that wounded one of his officers and killed a good many privates.

After this Rullecourt sounded a halt and sent his aide-de-camp with another message, which was received by Captain Mulcaster, chief engineer, who blindfolded the aide-de-camp, took him to the top of the castle, and showed him the strength of the fortress, then dismissed him with words to the effect that the greater the force brought in opposition the greater would be the slaughter of the French.

De Rullecourt, in a rage, returned to the town. Meanwhile events were unfolding elsewhere. Major Peirson of the 95th, who, young though he was, took charge of affairs. He refused entirely to acknowledge the surrender, remarking, so it is said, that if he lost his commission for seeming disobedience ha would soon gain for himself another.

Major Peirson

Troops assemble

The British troops and Militia assembled on Mont ès Pendus (now called Westmount) and Major Peirson soon had 2,000 men at his disposal, with which he resolved to descend the hill and attack. The French, who were camping in the market, had seized the town's cannons and had placed them at the different openings of the market, to stop the British troops from forcing them. However, the French did not find the howitzers. The British learned through different people who had been to observe the French troops that their number did not exceed 800 or 900 men.

The 78th Regiment of Foot was detached and sent to take possession of Mont de la Ville (now the site of Fort Regent), from where the British could stop a retreat of the French. Once Major Peirson believed that the 78th had reached their destination, he gave the orders to his troops to descend to the plain and attack the French. However, the British were stopped at the plain, where de Rullecourt sent Corbet to offer capitulation terms and to tell the British that if they did not sign, the French would ransack the town within half an hour. Given their superiority in numbers, the British there refused, as did the 83rd Regiment of Foot, and the part of the East Regiment in Grouville. When de Rullecourt received their answer he was heard to remark: "Since they do not want to surrender, I have come to die."

Battle

The attack began. The British forces in the Grande Rue included the 78th Regiment, the Battalion of Saint Lawrence, the South-East Regiment and the Compagnies de Saint-Jean. The 95th Regiment of Foot with the rest of the militia advanced down the other avenues. The British had too many troops for the battle, a British soldier later saying that a third of the number would have been more than enough to destroy the French army. Many British soldiers, confused and having nothing to shoot at, unloaded most of their shots in the air.

The French resistance was of short duration, most of the action lasting a quarter of an hour. The French only fired once or twice with the cannons that they had at their disposal. The British had a howitzer placed directly opposite the market in the Grande Rue, which at each shot "cleaned all the surroundings of French" according to a member of the British service. Major Peirson and the 95th Regiment advanced towards the Avenue du Marché; just as the British were about to win Major Pierson was killed by a musket ball in the heart, but his saddened troops continued to fight. When de Rullecourt fell wounded, many French soldiers gave up the fight, throwing their weapons and fleeing; however, others reached the market houses, from where they continued to fire.

De Rullecourt, through Corbet, told the British that the French had two battalions and an artillery company at La Rocque, which could be at the town within a quarter of an hour. The British were not intimidated, knowing that the number of French troops there was less than 200. The remaining French soldiers dispersed themselves throughout the countryside to reach their boats, though several were caught doing so. The British took 600 prisoners on that day, who were subsequently sent to England. The British losses were around 30 dead. De Rullecourt was wounded and died the next day.

It became notorious that there were traitors among the British. De Rullecourt possessed a plan of the fortifications, the towers, the cannons and so on, saying that without good friends in Jersey, he would not have come. The French knew the exact number of British troops and militia, the names of the officers commanding them, and more. In the papers found in the General's trunk was the name of one Mr Le Geyt, a Jerseyman who was later seized, as was another suspect.

The French surrender their colours after their defeat

Platte Rocque

There was a second battle at Platte Rocque where de Rullecourt had left the rearguard to protect his landing place and allow for a retreat if things went badly. This rearguard was attacked and routed by local troops.

After the Battle

Lieut-Governor criticised

Lieut-Governor Moyse Corbet immediately came under sustained criticism for his actions during the French invasion. The island's Attorney-General Thomas Pipon wrote to the Governor two days after the Battle complaining about the behaviour of the Major Corbet and advising him that the island had lost confidence in its Commander.

Corbet himself wrote to his counterpart in Guernsey with an immediate report for onward transmission to London giving his version of events. He then exacerbated the situation still further by ordering that the island's Militia should be placed under the control of the officers of the Regular Garrison. This caused all the Militia colonels to resign, threatening the collapse of the Militia itself, and Moyse was forced to reverse his decision.

A photograph by Edwin Dale of the centenary celebrations of the Battle
A photograph of the centenary by Ernest Baudoux

Court martial

Corbet was arrested and sent to London, where he faced a court martial, was convicted and sacked. He retired on pension and probably never returned to Jersey, the island of his birth.


Participants' letters

Some of the earliest, and probably most reliable, accounts of the Battle are contained in letters written immediately after by members of the English garrison and the Militia, who fought in it. Two members of the garrison forces who participated in the Battle wrote detailed accounts, as did the sons of Lieut-Bailiff Charles Lempriere, one of whom was wounded in the Battle.

A detailed account was written by Charles Poingdestre, an Advocate of the Royal Court and attorney of Charles de Carteret, Seigneur of Trinity, who was living in Southampton at the time.

States letter

In February 1781 the States wrote a letter of appreciation of the father of Major Francis Peirson.

Defences

After the battle, thirty coastal round towers were built to improve the defence system of the island.

Royal Militia

On 6 January 1831 on the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of Jersey the island Militia was granted the 'Royal' prefix by King William IV, becoming the Royal Militia, Island of Jersey.

A painting of the battle owned by the British Museum

Paintings

John Singleton Copley painted a famous painting of the death of Major Peirson. The painting was eventually bought by the National Gallery and is now in the Tate Collection. A copy was commissioned to hang in Jersey's Royal Court when the island failed in its bid to secure the original.

A 2012 Jersey Heritage 'newspaper' reporting the battle

References

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

Further reading



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