The Channel Islands

The Death of Major Peirson by John Singleton Copley

The Battle of Jersey (6 January 1781) was an attempt by French forces to invade Jersey and remove the threat the island posed to French and American shipping in the Anglo-French War. Jersey provided a base for British privateers, and France, engaged in the war as an ally of the United States, sent an expedition to gain control of the island.

The Channel Islands – in Norman Îles d’la Manche, in French Îles Anglo-Normandes or Îles de la Manche – are an archipelago of British Crown Dependencies in the English Channel, off the French coast of Normandy. They include two separate bailiwicks, that of Guernsey and Jersey, with their respective capitals of St Peter Port and St Helier.

The main islands of the Channel Islands are Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, Sark and Herm, the smaller inhabited islands being Jethou, Brecqhou (Brechou) and Lihou; all except Jersey are in the Bailiwick of Guernsey. There are also uninhabited islets: the Minquiers, Ecréhous, Les Dirouilles and Les Pierres de Lecq, also known as the Paternosters, part of the Bailiwick of Jersey; and Burhou and the Casquets, which lie off Alderney. These uninhabited islands can be visited but are a valued nature reserve and secure stopover point for migrating birds.

The Channel Islands were originally part of the Dukedom of Normandy; after 1066, when the Norman prince William conquered Anglo-Saxon Britain, the islands became part of this larger domain. With the passage of time, England won and lost portions of France but the islands remained secure, protected by the fast currents, rocky coastlines and difficult seas that surround them. The advent of steam power in the nineteenth century saw this protection diminished and, with France still the main enemy, forts, barracks and batteries were built to cover the harbours and protect the coastline.

War first came to the Channel Islands on 1 May 1779 when, in support of the American colonists then in rebellion against the British, the French attempted a landing on Jersey at St Ouen’s Bay. Early that morning, British lookouts sighted five large vessels and a large number of smaller craft 9 nautical miles off the coast, on a course that made it obvious that they were intent on making a landing. Cutters and small craft supporting the landing fired grapeshot at soldiers of the 78th Regiment Highlanders and Jersey Militia who, together with some field artillery that they had dragged through the sand, had arrived in time to oppose the landing. The defenders suffered a few men wounded when a cannon burst but prevented the landing. The French vessels withdrew, first holding off 3 nautical miles from the coast before leaving the area entirely.

They would be back.

Two years later, on 5 January 1781, a new, more powerful force set out for Jersey. It consisted of 2,000 soldiers in four formations loosely called ‘divisions’. Like later commando operations against the islands, the force commander, Baron Phillipe de Rullecourt, was relying on surprise. He held the rank of colonel in the French Army, but was seen in France as an adventurer and the sort of renegade that professional soldiers despise. However, the Baron knew that citizens and soldiers on Jersey would be off their guard celebrating ‘Old Christmas Night’ on 6 January.

French officers with a more rational approach saw an attack on Jersey as a waste of resources and believed that any lodgement on the island would be short-lived – there would be echoes of this in the assessment by the Chiefs of Staff of Admiral Mountbatten’s plans for landings by the British in the Second World War.

Despite this, King Louis XVI was keen to embarrass the British in any way possible and promised de Rullecourt that if he succeeded and captured St Helier he would be promoted to general and awarded the Order of St Louis – better known as the Cordon Rouge because of its distinctive red sash. His second in command was an Indian prince known as Prince Emir, who had been captured by the British during the Anglo-French wars in India. He had been sent to France as a repatriated prisoner of war and remained in French service. Reflecting the attitudes of the times, a British veteran recalled that: ‘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.’

What makes the expedition sound very modern was that it was not officially sanctioned by the French government, and so if it failed it was ‘deniable’. Though it had no official backing, funding, equipment, transport and troops were provided by the government. In order to conceal its involvement, the government went so far as to order the ‘desertion’ of several hundred regular troops to de Rullecourt’s forces.

It looked as if the plan might work when 800 men of the First Division landed undetected by the local guard post on the night of 6 January at La Rocque, Grouville. A subsequent trial by the British authorities found that the guards had deserted their post to go drinking. The First Division remained in place during the night awaiting reinforcements. Now the plan began to unravel; 400 men of the Second Division did not make landfall when their ships were lost among the rocks – in British accounts the ships were listed as four transports escorted by a privateer. The winter weather also played a part when the shipping for the Third Division – some 600 men – became separated from the main body and so was unable to land. However, the Fourth Division of 200 men landed early the next morning at La Rocque, bringing the total strength of the French force to only 1,000 – but they still had surprise on their side.

On the morning of 6 January the First Division moved stealthily into St Helier and established defensive positions while the population were still asleep. At 8 a.m. a French patrol entered Le Manoir de la Motte and captured the governor, Major (Maj) Moses Corbet, in bed. De Rullecourt tried to bluff the governor that the French were on the island in overwhelming strength, and threatened to sack the town if the governor did not sign a capitulation. Under the circumstances, Corbet showed considerable moral courage when he said that, as a prisoner, he had no authority and that any signature would be ‘of no avail’. However, under pressure from de Rullecourt he eventually signed.

The bluff looked as if it might work when, under escort, Corbet was then pressurised to order Captains Aylward and Mulcaster, the young officers in command at Elizabeth Castle, to surrender. If the castle was secured, St Helier would be under French control. However, not only would Aylward and Mulcaster not surrender, but they opened fire, causing two or three French casualties. The French withdrew.

Though the governor was a prisoner, 24-year-old Maj. Francis Peirson, in command of the garrison at St Peter’s Barracks, was beginning to build up a picture of the strength of the invading forces – in modern terminology the information was coming in from ‘Humint’, or human intelligence: what the locals had seen and heard. Peirson had joined the army in 1772 and was a veteran of the American War of Independence. As he assembled his force at Mont es Pendus (now known more prosaically as Westmount), he knew that his mixed force of regular soldiers and militia had grown to 2,000 men and outnumbered the French two-to-one. He would counter-attack.

In St Helier, the French had camped in the market and positioned captured British guns to cover the likely approaches. Though these guns were a valuable enhancement to their firepower, they had not located the British howitzers that were later to play a significant part in the Battle of Jersey.

Peirson worked fast. He sent the 78th Highland Regiment of Foot, who were part of the Regular Army garrison, to secure Mont de la Ville (now Fort Regent) to block any French withdrawal. When he reckoned they were in position, he ordered the main body to attack. Bluffing, and trying to play for time, de Rullecourt sent the governor to offer capitulation terms, with the threat that if the British did not sign in sixty minutes St Helier would be put to fire and the sword.

He had not reckoned with Peirson and Captain Campbell, commanding the Grenadier Company of the 83rd Regiment of Foot, who simply gave the French commander twenty minutes to surrender.

In Grouville, the 83rd Regiment of Foot had also refused to surrender, and in a somewhat overdramatic but prescient outburst, de Rullecourt is reported to have said: ‘Since they do not want to surrender, I have come here to die.’

The French were outnumbered, but would also be outfought. Though they were able to fire the captured cannon once or twice, the British howitzer crew in the Grande Rue directly opposite the market, in the words of an eyewitness, ‘cleaned all the surroundings of French’.

If men had not died in the action that followed, the Battle of Jersey would be remembered as a slightly farcical episode. It lasted about fifteen minutes. Many of the British soldiers were so confined in the streets of St Helier that, with no clear view of their enemies, they fired their muskets into the air. Finally, while some of the British regiments, such as the 78th Regiment, 95th Regiment of Foot and South-East, had obviously ‘British’ titles, the Battalion of St Lawrence and the Compagnies de Saint-Jean sound as if they should have been in the French order of battle.

Using Corbet as an intermediary, de Rullecourt tried bluffing the British commander, saying that the French had two battalions of infantry supported by a company of artillery at La Rocque, only fifteen minutes’ march away. Through local intelligence, the British knew the true strength of the French forces. Forty-five elite grenadiers from the 83rd Regiment of Foot held off 140 French soldiers until reinforcements from the South-East Regiment arrived, and this proved to be the tipping point. The French broke, suffering thirty dead and wounded and seventy prisoners. Survivors fled through the countryside, trying to reach their boats, but many were caught.

The fight went out of the French when, through the clouds of gun smoke, they saw de Rullecourt tumble to the ground, hit by a musket ball. Some of the invaders threw down their weapons and ran, but others took up positions in the houses around the market and continued to trade shots.

For de Rullecourt, it was perhaps for the best that his fatal wish was granted and he died from his wounds on 7 January. Earlier, Maj. Peirson, leading from the front, had also been fatally wounded by a sniper in the battle in the square, but his troops, led by Lieutenant Dumaresq, had held their nerve and fought on. Peirson’s servant, Pompey, located the sniper and shot him dead. The British took 600 prisoners, who were shipped to England. British Regular Army losses were eleven dead and thirty-six wounded, among them Captain Charlton of the Royal Artillery, wounded while he was a prisoner of the French. The Jersey Militia suffered four dead and twenty-nine wounded.

To forestall similar attacks during the Napoleonic Wars, Martello Towers were constructed along the coast. Twenty were built on Jersey and fifteen on Guernsey. They were intended both as lookouts and gun platforms to prevent landings, and can be found at St Ouen’s Bay, St Aubin’s Bay and Grouville Bay on Jersey and the northern part of Guernsey. One tower, at L’Etacq on Jersey, was demolished by the German occupation force to give a better field of fire for more modern weapons.

Older fortifications were improved, among the most imposing of which is Castle Cornet on Guernsey, which covers the approaches to St Peter Port. The castle used to be the residence of the governor, and indeed during the last throws of the English Civil War, it was the final remaining Royalist stronghold, having in the process lobbed cannonballs into the town. Partly for that reason, apart from the town church, many of today’s buildings are of eighteenth-century origin. It was superseded by Fort George, which was completed in 1812, during the Napoleonic Wars.

The castle occupies such a tactically significant location that the Georgians built a barracks and battery close by and incorporated the castle into these defences. In surveying many of the existing fortifications in 1940, the Germans pronounced them tactically soundly positioned and went on to improve them further.

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