How much can we believe of Battle of Jersey reports?

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Musket-BofJ.jpg
Although this drawing supposedly depicts the Battle of Jersey, the buildings bear little or no similarity to those present around the Royal Square at the time

There are some very detailed reports of the events of 6 January 1781 in print and on-line, but what actually happened on the day, and when, and how many people took part, is still clouded in mystery. How much of some of these reports can actually be believed? Can everything which is recorded actually have happened in one day? It is worth noting that the accounts written in the immediate aftermath of the battle, by those who participated in it, are likely to be the most accurate, if exaggerating slightly the actions of some of the writers. It is the later accounts, most published a century or more after the event, which should be treated with the greatest caution

La Rocque to St Helier

To start the day, we are told in many accounts (though as with reports of many historical events, they could all be based on one erroneous source) that the French arrived at La Rocque at 5 o'clock in the morning and reached St Helier at 6 o'clock. But such a claim hardly stands up to detailed scrutiny.

The distance from La Rocque to what was then the Market Square in St Helier (now renamed the Royal Square) is 3 kilometres as the crow flies - easily accomplished in an hour on level ground, even by troops carrying weapons. But there were no roads as we know them in Jersey at this time, just narrow, uneven tracks. And this was the middle of winter, when these tracks could be expected to be waterlogged and muddy. Add to this the fact that the march was supposedly undertaken by between 700 and 900 fully-armed men, in pitch dark after a landing from small boats on Jersey's rocky south-east coastline and the achievement begins to sound highly unlikely. Perhaps an advance guard did make St Helier by 6 o'clock, but all the reports suggest that French commander Baron de Rullecourt took all the men who had landed, less a rearguard of 100 left to protect their landing place, straight to St Helier. He had no means of knowing that his force would arrive in the town centre undetected and that the Lieut-Governor Moyse Corbet would immediately surrender when surprised in his home.

Other reports suggest that the first troops must have landed in the middle of the night and that some slept next to the unmanned La Rocque guardhouse. However, the window for landing troops close to shore must have been very short given the six-hour gap between high and low tides and the considerable difference between the distance from the sea to shore at these extreme states of the tide. It is highly unlikely that armed troops, even if guided by experienced local men, could have struggled over any significant distance through the gulleys between the rocks in pitch darkness.

20th century historian George Balleine suggests that the landing took place on high tide at midnight, leaving plenty of time for the troops to regroup and march on St Helier shortly before daylight.

How many French landed

Estimates of the number of French troops which sailed overnight for Jersey on 5 January vary from 800 to 2,000. Those who favour the lower end of the scale suggest that all 800 landed, 700 marched on St Helier and 100 remained at La Rocque. Those who favour a larger force suggest that some 700 to 900 landed, with the majority heading for St Helier while 100 remained at La Rocque.

What happened to the other 1,000? The reports variously suggest that one division of 300 men drowned, or that all the remaining men were caught by the falling tide and failed to land. There are no official contemporaneous reports of the Battle. A French document on the 1779 and 1781 raids appeared later in the year, but has not survived. One of the first published accounts of the day was in Robert Beatson's book Naval and military memoirs of Great Britain: from the year 1727-1783, published 23 years after the Battle of Jersey in 1804. The author puts the number of troops which landed at 700-800, the majority marching on St Helier and 100 remaining at La Rocque, with a further 200 drowned when their boat hit rocks off the coast. Earlier in his narrative he refers to a total force of 2,000, but suggests that because the fleet was dispersed by storms on the first attempt to reach Jersey, the actual number who were with de Rullecourt on 5 January was substantially reduced.

George Balleine suggests in his History of Jersey that the initial force was only 950 and that 700 landed, 250 returning to sea after failing to land.

Another good guide to the numbers involved is given in a letter written by Thomas Lempriere, who took part in the Battle and was wounded, and, being the son of the Lieut-Bailiff, Charles Lempriere, was sufficiently well connected to learn what the French officers were recounting in the days following the Battle. He refers to four divisions, suggesting that divisions of 800 and 200 men were landed, 400 drowned on the rocks off La Rocque and 600 became separated from the main fleet and never reached Jersey.

The gold coin minted to commemorate the bicentenary of the battle about which so little detail is actually known

Other reports contradict this estimate to the extent that they say that, although Baron de Rullecourt, having a clear idea of how many troops were stationed in Jersey, set out with a force of over 2,000, some of these were left stranded after the fleet became divided between Chausey and Granville after the first abortive attempt to reach Jersey was thwarted by stormy weather.

Even if nobody could have actually counted the number of troops landing at La Rocque, another means of calculating the number of French troops involved would be to add up casualties and prisoners. Unfortunately there is no report of the number of French killed in the Royal Square and earlier at Elizabeth Castle. British losses in the town are known to have been around 20, so it can be assumed that more Frenchmen would have lost their lives. To these must be added the 20 French soldiers and one officer known to have perished in the engagement at Platte Rocque. Around 600 prisoners are known to have been taken and eventually taken to England, so it can be surmised that the total number of French soldiers and officers who landed that morning was in the region of 700-800.

And if around 700 of them made it to the Royal Square to participate in the actual battle, it is no wonder they were defeated, because they would hardly have had room to move.

This number contrasts dramatically with the 4,000 invaders mentioned in a report by a boatman who, it is claimed, left Gorey at dawn and arrived in Portsmouth that evening, a journey whose timings seem highly fanciful.

Part of a 21st century re-enactment of the battle in the Royal Square

What happened when?

The generally accepted sequence of events has the French landing early in the morning, marching to St Helier, being spotted in the Royal Square by Captain Clement Hemery, who left his house through a drain and walked a few blocks to alert the Lieut-Governor, Moyse Corbet. But many reports claim romantically that Corbet was surprised in bed by the French troops when they reached his house, which seems highly unlikely if he had already been notified that they were in the vicinity.

Hemery is said to have ridden to Gorey to warn the various groups of garrison troops in the area, set off back to town, been captured by the French rearguard at La Rocque, escaped when his captors came under fire from militiamen, ridden back to town, found Corbet's house surrounded by French, ridden to Gallows Hill on the other side of town to join the troops there and then participated in the Battle in the Royal Square. He can hardly have found time to draw breath.

Other reports have town blacksmith John Laugée alerting Corbet to the arrival of the French, being sent to warn Militia Colonel Messervy and then riding to Grouville to alert Captain William Campbell of the 83rd Regiment, followed by the Rev Francis Le Couteur, Rector of St Martin and a member of the island's Defence Committee.

The troops in Grouville

Captain Campbell has gone down as one of the heroes of the day for leading the assault against the French rearguard at La Rocque. The popular version of this part of the day is that Campbell hesitated to attack because he had received orders from Corbet to surrender. This seems highly unlikely because Corbet had apparently already sent two messengers to the east, before he was forced to surrender to the French, who captured him in his home, and Lieutenant William Nivon, whom Campbell sent to St Helier to obtain orders, was apparently captured by the French, released or escaped, and took six hours to return.

It is said that the arrival of the Rev Le Couteur, with his servants and two private field guns was to perusade Captain Campbell that he had sufficient authority to attack at La Rocque.

Confusion

The truth is that little is known about many aspects of what happened on 6 January 1781. Sketchy information has been embellished over 200-plus years with romantic notions of the behaviour of individuals and the story of the Battle of Jersey has been built up around fiction as much as fact. The Jerripedia articles on the Battle have attempted to unravel some of the confusion, and by publishing eye-witness accounts written in letters within days of the battle, to go back to the earliest available sources.

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